“The cherry blossom and the sharp sword. Humility and arrogance.”
Director Mark Cousins leaves us with a quote at the end of his experimental documentary composed solely of archival video and audio entitled Atomic: Living in Dread and Promise. It’s by W.G. Sebald and reads: “We gaze at it in wonder, which in itself is a form of dawning horror.” The description is apt, especially as I found myself basking in the beauty of these mushroom clouds forming in the sky with austerity despite the carnage left behind. There’s wonder in nuclear energy’s possibilities beyond its aesthetic too and I see no better way to experience it than through our own uncensored history sans omniscient commentary. Narration is unnecessary because the story is universal. We’re simultaneously cognizant it could spark our extinction yet hopeful it’ll become our salvation.
Cousins lets the visuals speak for themselves without distraction—although his intertitles’ font and coloring appearing as though ripped from a PowerPoint presentation almost do the exact opposite. He begins with life: organisms evolve from cells into simple creatures into flowers into sonograms into people, this last stage serving as the breeding ground for luminaries like Marie Curie and Albert Einstein. They are shown in regal pose, drawn or engraved for posterity with signatures designating the handful of others all the way down the line to Peter Higgs. These are the creators of our future, the ones who paved the road towards cheap energy and endless possibilities. But those effects come later. The bomb must arrive first in all its glorious destruction, parody, fear, and regret.
Alongside harrowing images of children shaking in the debris-strewn fields of nuclear fallout are campy black and white movies teaching ‘duck and cover’ as though the method might have saved those staring back at us in abject terror. There are handshakes and smiles, tears and screams. Famous people give their two cents while President John F. Kennedy discusses Soviet intervention in Cuba. Newscasters wax on and yokels speak about having to eventually move from their towns now contaminated by waste. It’s hardship upon hardship, Cousins culling together everything from Chernobyl HAZMAT suits to bombers dropping payloads to the owners of Japan’s Fukushima plants apologizing for the pain wrought by their failures. This is humanity pretty much embracing its own demise, relishing the efficiency of its hubris.
But what of radiation’s benefits? You can’t help but sympathize with parents speaking about their children’s chance at surviving fatal diseases. To see x-rays and gamma rays in diagram form or CT scans morphing and shifting in real time reminds us of progress. Cousins uses repetition often—images to mirror good and bad, blurring the line between them. Sometimes he also repeats interviews, a maneuver I must admit confused me since I didn’t witness a change in context as perhaps he hoped I would. That’s just one fault from a whole seemingly built to ignite the brain with familiarity so we are able to parse information we already know into a narrative we cannot avoid. So much of what’s shown is ubiquitous, but it’s never been so relevant.
And even if you can’t appreciate the experimental lesson, Atomic remains artistically crucial as the catalyst for a new soundtrack album from post-rock band Mogwai. The synth beats and electronic melodies are perfectly suited to the snippets onscreen, the pulse of the music coinciding with the sharp cuts or explosive plumes erupting in sync. It lends the piece a richer existence; a modern edge despite the antiquated, anachronistic footage. Sight and sound propel each other forward to ensure we stop simply accepting what has become of the world after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It’s so easy to take radiation’s positives for granted by forgetting the price many paid and will continue paying. We exist in the center of atomic energy’s lifespan. Hopefully the future learns from the past’s mistakes.