There is something about its translation to cinematic spectacle that inspires nausea for reasons other than the gore and pancake-flat lines. It is incredible that in 2009, Hollywood still fails to treat the nuclear annihilation theme with any real thoughtfulness. It may be a lost cause here to condemn Hollywood's pornographic portrayals of nuclear explosion (even in the heavy, pseudo-insightful haze of Watchmen), but that isn't the point. Cinema, of course, is the realm of spectacle. But it is also the realm of imagination, the lock key to human potential. Nearly 65 years have passed since the US government dropped two bombs, obliterating bodies and devastating forever the lives of others, and yet--still the global arsenal remains a politically accepted pragmatism.
Anthony Lane wrote many dry things about the Watchmen film adaptation in his recent New Yorker review. His smartest commentary went beyond the multitude of idiocies and bludgeonries of which the movie is guilty--observing its "pompous grabs at horror" that still failed to demonstrate any "grasp of what genuine, unhyped suffering might be like, or what pity should attend it; they are too busy fussing over the fate of the human race--a sure sign of metaphysical vulgarity."
With these digitally rendered apocalypses, it's not really about the ideas, but about the opportunity to gawk at a scene we'd never want to witness. Take the gratuitous cool! of the "fridge scene" in last summer's Indiana Jones flick, which was hardly a movie 'about' the bomb. But even in more ponderous pomposity like in Watchmen, atomic explosions in contemporary Hollywood are reckless in their spectacle.
This is beyond a shame. Not because each fantasy blockbuster should bear the weight of reality on its over-budgeted shoulders per se, but because Hollywood in general fails consistently to say anything meaningful about nuclear anxiety, and we as humans so desperately need to think more about the bomb's meaning. Worse, we as viewers must try so little to consider it. If a film is provocative and evocative enough it will pierce through the concerns of routine with the effect of shocking, scaring or saddening us out of our aversion to self-reflection and towards awareness of the bomb, which threatens to obliterate the routine. But films that use the George Lucas or Steven Spielberg approach to portraying disaster--what the film theorist Tom Gunning refers to as "spectacle cinema"--allow enjoyment of violence as diversion, which is the opposite of profound consideration of violence. We're seduced, then euthanized, by bang!
On the other hand, an effective film that prompts a more profound consideration of our nuclear capabilities relies on imaginative power to fill uncertainty and to activate anxiety. This means the film must inspire visceral reaction. While a (great) film like Dr. Strangelove can be deeply disturbing, the thought it provokes tends to be political or intellectual, rather than existential. Satire appeals to reason by highlighting the illogical. But politics has reasoned the world into the nuclear age, hardly probing the moral or existential consequences. Now these half-acknowledged disquiets remain, hanging in the air as nightmare.
Non-satirical film can provoke this nightmare, but not by throwing it in our faces. Literal representations of nuclear explosion--such as images of mushroom clouds--are at best iconic rather than profound; at worst, as in Watchmen, they are brashly aesthetic. Yet the most jarring, piercingly human images from the explosions at Hiroshima and Nagasaki signify gaping, horrific absence: a ghost-like shadow cast permanently on a stone as the body was vaporized, the tangled metal of eyeglasses. These are not images we instinctively turn away from, but instead are drawn to, because the void must be filled by our imaginations.
Akira Kurosawa was adamant about the inadequacy of literal representation of nuclear violence and its fall-out. In 1991, he described in an interview the "unfilmability" of atomic explosion. "These are events that provoke only one type of reaction: to avert one's eyes. It is better to not present them," he explained. "It is better to have [the effects of nuclear weapons] imagined by the spectator since in the end one risks showing them in such a manner that people will turn away."
More effective--and more terrifying--Kurosawa said, is "to evoke and nurture the imagination." This he did, in heartbreaking lucidity, in Ikimono no kiroku in 1955, and later in Dreams. These films act as warnings, requiems for innocence and humanity, and their mood is mournful, haunting, evoking both disgust in the moral limits of human nature and faith in enduring strength, love and personality. They force us to imagine apocalypse by focusing on the psychological. They force us to think for ourselves, to fear for ourselves--precisely what we are not encouraged to do about nuclear war normally.
The imagination haunts itself with its own images. In his essay "To Scan a Ghost," Gunning describes the psychology of what haunts us: "Traditionally, hauntings are the result of an inability to forget, due to an incomplete process of memorialization. As harbingers of the future, ghosts show what we are to become in minatory mode: as they are now, so we shall be." As film critic James Goodwin argues, "denial, indifference and historical amnesia are common impairments to consciousness" about the bomb, and so the underlying nightmare most often lies dormant.
The fallout¬≠¬≠--literal and metaphorica--of the nuclear age haunts popular culture. Susan Sontag wrote that the "historical reality [of nuclear war] has greatly enlarged the imagination of disaster." More than any other possible human fate, mutilation and annihilation caused by nuclear warfare is real yet inconceivable, abstract yet looming. Granted, no longer do bomb drills and fallout shelters preoccupy us on a daily basis as they did during the Cold War, and the existence of nuclear weapons appears irreversible as a political reality. This acceptance of the nuclear age and adaptation to its stresses has brought with it a slew of underlying--though sometime exposed--anxieties about human nature and habitual existence. after the explosion of atomic bombs by American forces on Japanese civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we continue to live with nuclear weapons, suggesting that global society has not fully grappled with the implications of our ability to self-destruct. The last thing moviegoers need is another film like Watchmen.
Gee, I wish we had one of them KATIE OKAMOTO B'09.5 machines.