Saturday, April 30, 2016

Lauren Humphries-Brooks ponder's Tribeca's Closing Night film The bomb (2016)

This year, the Tribeca Film Festival’s major theme was militarization and nuclear weapons. Documentaries about drone warfare (National Bird), nuclear accidents (Command and Control), and police militarization (Do Not Resist) featured heavily, prompting at least this writer to assume that we’re all going to die in an accidental nuclear holocaust, probably superintended by Scientologists (My Scientology Movie). The entire festival closed out with the centerpiece film the bomb, a multimedia art installation in the form of a 55-minute film about nuclear warfare and proliferation.

Projected in the round at Gotham Hall, the bomb places the audience in the center of 360 degrees of massive movie screens, while the band The Acid provides the soundtrack. The film takes the form of a loose and surreal examination of the world history of the Atomic Bomb, its construction, its beauty, and its awful destructive power. Beginning with terrifyingly rousing images of world militaries, the film plunges into the construction of weapons, using test footage from the first nuclear tests to news broadcasts from the contemporary period. There are clips from public service films from the 1950s and 60s, highlighting Cold War paranoia and reminding us that the public was convinced we could survive a nuclear explosion by ducking under school desks. While America’s nuclear arsenal is in the forefront (we did create the first Atomic Bomb, after all), the bomb casts some attention on Russia and China, as well as less armed nations. We’re reminded that there are enough nuclear weapons still existent (15,000 across the globe) to destroy the world nine times over.

The most powerful sections of the film involve the terrible beauty of nuclear explosions –it’s quite an experience to stand surrounded by mushroom clouds capable of annihilating whole sections of the planet. the bomb further highlights the beauty of atomic weaponry, its clean lines and complex mechanisms cast in loving, almost sexual detail, even as the audience is made aware of their destructive power. There is something seductive in such weapons, something in the sheer power, concentrated and controlled, ready to detonate at the press of a button. Such proximity to death writ large possesses an element of suspense, of tension – and the bomb reminds us that we’re sitting right on top of it.

the bomb might have reasonably given a bit more time to the effects of a nuclear attack – there’s certainly more footage and still images from the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that, while horrifying, might have driven home the film’s point with greater power. It is one thing to be faced with the explosive power of a weapon, which has in itself a certain beauty (and is something that we’ve all seen reproduced so much in Hollywood the real thing loses some weight), and quite another to see the human toll that nuclear attacks take. Any argument for the elimination of nuclear weapons cannot be merely content in sleek terror – we have to see the ugly reality as well.

And this is the problem with the bomb – it is an art installation, aesthetic and aesthetically pleasing, too absorbed in its own structure. It is too pretty, too artistic, to be truly powerful. There needed to be an element of the mess, of the violence, of palpable terror unmitigated by beauty. The film grows absorbed in its own seductive nature, fascinated by the weapons it abhors.

And it does abhor them. The premiere screening of the bomb was preceded by a panel discussion “What do we talk about when we talk about the bomb,” attended by Eric Schlosser, Michael Douglas, co-director/creator of the bomb Smitri Keshari, and Emma Belcher, Director of the International Peace and Security Program at the MacArthur Foundation. The panel discussed the contemporary rise of the no-nukes movement and the power that cinema has to affect change. They made it clear that the bomb was an attempt to draw younger participants to the no-nukes movement by highlighting the visceral dangers of nuclear weapons. It’s a reminder that nuclear weapons still exist, and are still the most profound threat the world faces.

But the bomb, for all its laudable intentions, is a drop in the cinematic ocean, one that does not really have the capacity to enact the real change that is needed. While it makes a passionate argument for the immersive power of cinema, the bomb is inaccessible to the people it needs most to convince. It is accessible only to the select few able to obtain tickets and stand, holding glasses of Hendricks, with their eyes cast skyward for the better part of an hour. We are standing on the precipice, and the bomb still keeps us looking skywards.

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