Film is the Art of Electric Energy and the Sexiest Current Comes from Split Atoms

Justine sees pictures, Justine knows stuff. One of the pictures with which she sees the truth shows her elegant, a little bemused, on an empty golf course, and from her fingers stretched up to the sky little tongues of electricity flicker. Melancholia, the new film from Lars von Trier, brand-new Nazi and known provocateur, does not deal with energy any more or less than most world films. The visual opulence is the best part of the film, and the picture in which the skies and the human being are combined into a temporary unity via a discharge of electrical energy is the most recent depiction in a numerous sequence of films (Frankenstein, Weird Science and other films in which electricity is a source of life) in which human beings and energy are equated. Not a word of this present article or a hundredth part of any film at all can exist without energy.
In fact, energy is everything uttered and, for a surety, much more too. All the same, the relation between film and energy although inseparable and intense is seldom directly made clear. How much energy is used for just a single film is almost impossible to calculate mathematically. It turns out that economics is more precise in this case, because how much a film costs and what the precise prices of a given item are comprise a banally common computation in the movie industry.
No films without energy; but feature films about energy are fewer still. Promotional works about electrical or thermal energy and how to save, how to buy or simply how to use are not so uncommon, but how many dramas, comedies or thrillers do we really have about electricity? Film is the art of electricity, but electricity is not a common theme of films. How can it be given cinematic shape, and who would watch it if it could? The movement of ions from positive to negative does not have the charge of an Odyssey, but good
film potentials are created on ideas about energy outs, untameable energy, abused energy. Energy is perhaps not the best possible film character, but a perfect generator of action. Here one has to halt because of the facts. In alphabetical order we have various forms of energy: chemical, elastic, electromagnetic, luminous, magnetic, mechanical, nuclear, sound, thermal. Film has made use content-wise, in a myriad of ways, of each one of them (The Incredibles, Matrix, War of the Worlds, Wages of Fear, X-Men, Modern Times, La Jetée, Sunshine, Fahrenheit 451, Dune), but one form of energy has had a
very powerful influence on both world and film. Nuclear is its name, power its surname.
In lay terms, everything to do with the nuclear energy it seems we cannot do without if we are hip and modern, is fairly old-fashioned, tediously out-of-date. Nuclear energy into thermal, thermal into mechanical, mechanical into electrical. The principle is just like the steam locomotive, the difference being that the steam engine doesn’t have instinct in it the ability to blow up cities or whole regions. And we can’t find atomic fission in nature. Electronic surfing on nuclear waves is a seductive technological art of survival with only very relatively green energy available as a reward. Balancing on the edges of everything that we have so as to be able to spend more than we need is of itself so fascinating that there are oodles of places for cinematic recording, agitation, consideration, terrifying, explaining, teasing, calming and exploiting. Purpose-made, educational, documentary and only partially feature films will take us through the filmic sensual curve of the split atom, for film is the art of electricity, and it is most exciting when it comes from a hardly controlled lurking catastrophe.

Nuclear saviours
Not long after Hiroshima and Nagasaki were turned into a field of radioactive gravel, films commissioned, devised and shot by the USA started arriving. One of the most interesting is A Tale of Two Cities. Militarism enhanced with the arrogance of the victor exudes from every pore of it. The tough icy voice of the narrator shoots out facts and explanations as if it were just one of a series of office working days. The atom bombs were dropped on the cities to bring the war to a close; the explosions were adjusted so that the cloud of radiation and the blast of the explosion should have the most powerful effect. The message is unblinking: the new master of the world was really and symbolically born on the blessing of the new deity, Her Divine Holiness Science.
Intoxication with the new source of energy didn’t wane long after the end of WWII. The film A is for Atom of 1952 was made at a time of powerful postwar industrial and social élan. This fifteen-minute-long work was shot at once to explain how nuclear energy worked and to push its use for various economically very profitable activities. It was again shown as a triumph of science, though the scientific explanations were at the level of grade-school education. Full of unclarities and open admissions of ignorance, these explanations did not stop the authors of the film from presenting nuclear energy as a new saviour of the world, in the manner of super-hero pulp strips and films. Nuclear energy became a fighter for mankind in five avatars: warrior, engineer, healer, farmer and researcher − all in one packet. Getting into the nuclear age meant an ardour that projected its own advance so far that from today’s distance in time it seems as if these atomic people from the atomic age were living the most wonderful days of the childhood of mankind. All of it looked possible, just within arm’s reach. The goodnight story for childlike minds was read in an appropriate way. Not surprising that A is for Atom was created on the animation table.
Animated propaganda films from the very beginnings of the nuclear age were just as frequent as raw talks of terrifying explosions. Looking at the films of the forties and fifties, the viewer has to wonder what kind of people lived then, what they thought, were they there at all. Their naivety can be explained, really, only by the infantility of the time, but the fact is that although they had seen the remains of the remains of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, they all the same served up and quaffed films like Duck and Cover of 1951. A tortoise named Bert was a hero at school because he knew how to hide from the Bomb − just as the title of his film had it, i.e. bend down and hide. Cover in this film consisted of kerbs, table cloths, coats and even newspapers. Fear of nuclear energy was real, but all the same the government acted completely surreally. State films of a promotional or educational character, although they nominally had a teaching function, leave the impression that they were shot primarily to disseminate fear. Market circumstances of the time were nothing better. TV commercials like that for Dorothy Gray Salon Cold Cream clearly worked on the fears of potential buyers. A Geiger counter in an ad that offered a face cream is today completely unimaginable. Radiation became an omnipresent ravening beast that lurked from make-up, the commie missiles, the past... Only a few years earlier one could buy watches painted with radium to shine in the dark, and there were X-ray machines in shops for you to help you try on your shoes − were the toes inside cramped up or nicely splayed? A Pandora’s box was unlocked in Hiroshima and opened in Nagasaki, and although, alongside all these fears, there was in it a gage for the energy of the future, the films of the fifties and sixties reveal to us that this was a time of utter chaos. Dangers as well as blessings welled up from all sides and, which is worse, from the same springs.

Good Intentions
Mixed messages that came from educational and promotional films of the fifties were fairly ambitiously put together in a TV documentary by Adam Curtis. This is a six-part documentary serial, Pandora’s Box, a BBC production, while the last episode is named after the already mentioned A is for Atom, by GE. In his version of the film Curtis offered the wider social and economic context of the time when the atom had started to be split in earnest. Compiling promotional films together with interviews with relevant figures of that scientific revolution of the mid-20th century, Curtis offered a picture of an age that as a rule cannot be found without putting in some effort. The atom bomb on the one hand and the nuclear power station on the other make up an inseparable combination that leads ultimately to today’s position in which we believe in the achievements of modern science just as much as we disbelieve.
The verb “believe” is not misused here, for although we talk about the achievements of science and engineering, it is actually belief that has created a whole string of already insoluble problems. The recent events in Fukushima (still not at an end, although they have slipped of the list of media-coverable news) are a literally painful confirmation of this. Nuclear explosions are not the same as continuously controlled nuclear energy. This latter, as Curtis suggests, was created by scientists’ need to salve their trouble consciences. Without the civil use of nuclear energy, there would be only a purely destructive means. As Robert Oppenheimer leading scientist of the Manhattan Project himself said after a quote from the Bhagavad Gita (“Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds”): “I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.” His fellow worker from the project Kennet Bainbridge, a physicist, expressed the same idea more pithily − “Now we are all sons of bitches.” Not to go down in the history books as the arseholes of mankind, the same people who made the A-bomb possible wanted to
use the same energy for the benefit of all. The time in which they lived gave
them total right of belief in their own capacities and knowledge. They were physicists, masters of matter, something like today’s architects and designers, were the best that society had. They really did know things, but however much trust they had in their own capacities, it was not enough for the task they had addressed. Not then, anyway. Just the same, not in the US, not in the USSR, not in the UK.
The new and rich source of energy that cannot be found without human mediation in its transformation from bomb to power station got enmired in typically human problems, very fast at that, in the early sixties. The BBC documentary A is for Atom reveals that the physicists understood relatively quickly that they could not express theoretically all the problems concerning the practice of the everyday chaos in which a nuclear power station would have to work when it was once commissioned. After unsuccessful calculations of scientists came the very successful but disastrous economic computations. The first nuclear plants were not commercial. They did pay off later, but at the expense of safety measures and fuzzy pictures set up for the public. The problem
of public perception mixed with the scientific limitation and economic cost effectiveness in the context of nuclear energy was summed up by one more physicist from the Manhattan Project, Alvin M. Weinberg: “I think the basic question is: can modern intrusive technology and liberal democracy coexist?” The big risk that nuclear power plants entailed underlined good market, huge dollar in the corporate plan would, if it had been put before the public in all its details, hardly have passed any referendum (except for our typically Croatian advisory kind). If nuclear power plants were phased out, the development of a whole branch of science would also be extinguished, and that cannot be good. Not for the society and the mind set in which we live. The answer to the Weinberg question can only be another question: Are we living in a liberal democracy, or has the corporate technocracy just skillfully mimicked it? Considerations of nuclear energy sparked by the art of film cannot continue without the film Pripyat. And this is a ∫lm that rubs our nose in a number of questions, one of them being...

How dirty can energy be?
Energy is not and cannot be dirty, yet the journey round Pripyat on which we were taken by Nikolaus Geyrhalter, Austrian documentary maker, just 12 years after Chernobyl, whispers other thoughts terrifyingly into our ears. Pripyat is a town with a population of 40,000, located on the river of the same name, hard by Chernobyl, i.e. the nuclear power plant. During the making of the film, Pripyat was an area called Forbidden Zone, with just a few perversely nostalgic (or terribly ignorant and poor) oldsters, no birds and no mice, with highly radioactive fish in the river. A dead city, the population of which − scientists, physicians and soldiers − were trucked in each day to work. It is amazing, the level of ignorance and lack of information among these people, whose jobs and lives were completely focussed on security, supervision and monitoring conditions in the Zone, a thirty km radius around the power plant in which on April 26, 1986 a nuclear catastrophe occurred, one the scale of which cannot be compared with the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki put together. The answers given are melancholic blank stares and shrugged shoulders. One cannot penetrate their motives, cannot understand them. Was it just a sheer struggle for existence in a state that was bursting at the seams, or were their lives indeed dedicated to the higher objective of collecting as much information as possible in order to avoid any new accident? Everyone has his own job, but they can’t show us the broader picture of their life and work? Director and scriptwriter Geyrhalter doesn’t even try to find an answer for us. He shoots, listens and moves through the Contaminated Zone, dead Pripyat.
Nuclear energy on the block of a film like Pripyat or the last shots of Ukraine cameraman Vladimir Shevchenko when he came with his camera to the very centre of the disaster in Chernobyl while it was still going on does not leave a lot of manoeuvring space in which to find answers to the question from the subtitle. Vladimir Shevchenko died soon after he had walked while filming around the destroyed nuclear power plant, regretful that he had not shot more. His camera is buried with him. Not because he couldn’t bear to be apart from it, but because it was radioactive. The firemen, soldiers and miners sent to help Chernobyl might as well have been thrown off a cliff. They didn’t have appropriate equipment, had no instructions as to how to behave, in places with the starkest radiation they were not supposed to be more than 40 minutes lest they started disintegrating. These documentary films and the highly educated experts who spoke in them tell us one after another the selfsame thing: nuclear energy is the future, a warrant for progress and perhaps a better life, but what is the price? In schools we were taught to believe that scientists know, that doctors don’t make mistakes, and judges have only justice in mind; the reality, though, is different. They all make mistakes, learn on the job. Nuclear energy looks like too big a mouthful for the scientific knowledge and engineering solutions we have at the present time to have bitten off. It looks like too good a source of profit for economic sharks. It looks like atomic physics too. We have an idea, we haven’t got a clue. Geyrhalter’s Pripyat is a fantastic portrait of the levels of ignorance. None of them knows, the only question is how deep the lack of knowledge penetrates.

Fictional optimism?
Toasted Pripyat existed even before Chernobyl. In 1979 the cinematic master Andrei Tarkovski shot, after numerous problems, the film classic Stalker. The location was down stream from the chemical factory on the remains of a hydroelectric plant on the Estonian Jägala River. Just as in the Zone in Pripayt, the filming of the Stalker Zone took a lot of lives as a consequence. A large number of film industry people engaged on Stalker, including Tarkovski, got cancer, or in a milder version fell sick of skin and lung diseases. Tarkovski’s Zone is a surreal wasteland of life like Pripyat. Lush vegetation,
and yet invisible danger at every step. As sometimes happens with works of art, Stalker anticipates events, circumstances and consequences a presentiment of which we ordinary observers can only have as if sleepwalking or inarticulately. Tarkovski shot surreal post-industrial disintegration, which although it did not speak explicitly of the consequences of a nuclear catastrophe, did present them faithfully. Nuclear energy in dystopian films does not have to be stated to exist. It is the same with The Red Desert of Antonioni. It is the ultimate symbol of a highly industrialised society that carries with it images of neurotic, wanting people, of a scorched or vengeful nature, run mystically wild. Inherent in the age in which we live is the most recent invention of industrialisation, atomic energy.
There are plenty of films about the consequences of nuclear energy, but it is Stalker and Red Desert, films in which there is no word of it, that best sum up the filmic considerations of an energy that gives so much and can yet take even more. To consider nuclear energy in the context of films like the Mad Max trilogy or Slikwood is to a good extent beside the point, however much these films are valued and loved. The horror of Meryl Street in Silkwood is nothing compared to the strength in the documentary footage of Vladimir Shevchenko, and the collapse of society of Mad Max is only a watered-down reflection of the despair of the people of Pripyat. Let’s leave at the end all those well-masticated Chernobyl and Hirosaki themes and turn to Fukushima and the catastrophe that, had it happened in a Hollywood blockbuster, would have been cast aside by the reviewers as some new squeezing of the long since withered orange of the catastrophe film. But, the earthquake and the tsunami and the nuclear disaster all did happen in Japan, to the horror of the whole world and the malicious workaholic selfabuse of all possible media (at least up to the Libya intervention, when the bloodsuckers shifted from the Far East to the semi-domesticated North American flesh). The relationship between Japan and the nuclear started at the end of World War II, and after a few tectonic conclusions died down in a regular hot-cold rhythm with annual commemorations and energy squeezing (Japan has fifty five active nuclear power plants, all built after 1970). This dangerous waltz was accompanied by the first authentic J-Pop phenomenon. The monster with the radioactive breath, Godzilla. In her book Introduction to Japanese Horror Film Colette Balmain defines Godzilla as a filmic but also symbolic phenomenon that had a dual function. Through the horror genre it was to give the Japanese a breather from their accumulated angsts about the collapse and then redefinition of society in despite of traditional values and also to underline the dangers of nuclear armaments that had done so much harm to Japan. The first Godzilla appeared on the silver screen in 1954, but in time his nature changed. From a beast that ravaged Tokyo, it became a protector of Japan, a symbol of it even. Over the years, as many as thirty Godzilla films have been made, the last seeing the cinemas in 2004 (Godzilla: Final Wars). It was beaten hollow at the box offices by Howl’s Moving Castle and The Incredibles, and it seemed that the most famous cinematic monster would go off into oblivion with a final defeat on its half-centennial. In March, the Japanese producer Toho sold the rights to Godzilla to American Legendary Pictures, and in January this year, director Gareth Edwards started to be linked with a new American Godzilla that is supposed to come into the movie houses next year. Has Godzilla finally breathed his last for the Japanese, or will the Fukushima catastrophe bring him out of the ashes? Can the power of symbolism win out over the power of capital? The answers are just as little known as all questions related to nuclear energy posed so far.
If the only tool at hand is a hammer, all solutions are reached by it being brandished and smashed around. The relationship between man and nuclear energy seems to be like the relation between Godzilla and Tokyo in 1954. And yet, in spite of all ∫lm warnings and fears, nuclear energy remains the only genuinely modern and entirely humanly made energy. Fifty years of perfecting its exploitation seems perhaps to be too long a period without any real advance, but perhaps we should understand that some things are not done in a single generation. And when at the very end there are so many maybes, perhaps we should recall the doubt about the possibility of the coexistence of
high technology and liberal democracy. Maybe nuclear energy during the decades has become too expensive to be dumped, perhaps the lobbies are deliberately keeping geothermal and solar potentials in the vaults. Perhaps... Let’s wait for a new Godzilla, it was created by nuclear energy, and perhaps it’s going to reap success when we don’t expect it. We can anyway do nothing but watch.

Translated from Croatian by Graham McMaster

  • Hrvoje Pukšec