Thursday, August 04, 2016

How to stop worrying and film the Bomb

[a slightly extended version of my Mint Lounge column, which appears in print on August 6/Hiroshima Day]

How many ways are there of making a good movie about something as unthinkable as nuclear holocaust? Glancing through film history, I’d say there have been (at least) these modes: savage comedy; earnest message-mongering; fantasy involving primordial monsters; horror; B-movie hysteria; and 94-year-old Bertrand Russell in bright red shoes, giving his “blessings” to Rajendra Kumar (but more on this anon).

To appreciate the variety, consider two films released in 1964, with two endings that summarize their general tones. Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove, a jet-black satire about the Cold War jugalbandhi leading to mutually assured destruction, closes with a visual symphony of mushroom clouds – eerily beautiful, like those NASA photos of galaxies in cloud formation – drifting across a desolate, sterilized earth. On the soundtrack, Vera Lynn’s mellifluous voice sings “We’ll Meet Again”; a film that has consistently shown us the very worst of humankind – hubristic politicians, mad scientists – ends with a snatch of lovely music that only our doomed species could have produced.

That same year, Sidney Lumet’s Fail-Safe covered similar ground – an unauthorized first strike causes events to spiral out of control – but did so much more solemnly. In contrast to the mordant irony of Kubrick’s film, Fail-Safe ends with a rapid burst of freeze frames, images of New Yorkers caught in the everyday bustle of life – chatting, playing, jigging, unaware of what is about to rain down from the sky. (I wonder if Alan Moore had that closing scene in mind when he conceived the climactic panels of his great graphic novel Watchmen, in which a cataclysm – not a nuclear bomb but something comparable in its citywide devastation – strikes, a young boy and an old man reflexively reach out to hug each other, and then seem to fuse in an image of blinding white.)

As a teenager, I had little doubt that Dr Strangelove was the far superior film: surely, absurdist comedy was the best approach to this subject. Though I was a big Henry Fonda fan, it was almost amusing to see him playing the US president with po-faced sincerity in Fail-Safe when Peter Sellers had brilliantly (and with a similar deadpan expression) sent up the same position in Kubrick’s film.

Today, while I still think Dr Strangelove is better, I am more tolerant of grim, verging-on-pedantic art about tragic events. And I can certainly understand why another great director, Akira Kurosawa, said this about one of his least-seen films, I Live in Fear (1955): “We set out to make a satire, but how do you make a satire about the H-bomb? It was very difficult for us to keep a distance from the subject.”

Kurosawa and his crew were, of course, Japanese, and one can see why they would view Hiroshima and its aftermath through a different prism from the Americans. I Live in Fear (also known by the more austere title Record of a Living Being) is about crippling paranoia – an old businessman, played by Toshiro Mifune, is so haunted by the possibility of another atom-bomb attack that he wants to move his family to South America – and this is emphasized by the film’s visual language. A few years earlier, in Rashomon, Kurosawa had offered poetic, dreamlike shots of the sun glimpsed through a forest canopy. In I Live in Fear, the sun has its gloves off, so to speak: there are harsh shots set in the blazing outdoors, the heat and light seeming to beat down at the characters; it’s as if the narrative is infected by all those Hiroshima survivors’ memories of a blinding white flash.

For viewers familiar with Kurosawa’s work, the film works on another plane too. We know Mifune as the swaggering, indomitable Samurai hero of such films as The Hidden Fortress and Yojimbo (and the pretender who becomes a hero in The Seven Samurai), the alpha male who can mow down everything in his path with panache – but here he is, playing a character twice his age, a man depressed and frightened. It makes the horror even more palpable: the mere thought of the Bomb can turn the best of us into quivering jelly.

Incidentally the veteran Takashi Shimura, who plays a doctor in this film, had played a similarly oracular part in another, very different sort of movie with an atomic-age resonance: the 1954 Godzilla, about a giant monster – a product of nuclear testing – that wreaks havoc on Tokyo. Any fan of fantasy and horror knows that these genres often address real-world troubles, moulding them into new shapes. One of my favourite films, Kaneto Shindo’s Onibaba, is set in medieval Japan but invokes the memory of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in scenes where a face beneath a demon mask is shown to be similar to the disfigured visages of 1945’s victims. Within the
context of Onibaba’s story (about two women killing wounded Samurai and selling their armour for food) there is no reason for such an allusion, except for this: a filmmaker is admitting that he can’t tell a horror story without at least one homage-reference to the greatest real-life horror his country has experienced.

Speaking of which, Saira Banu once played a Japanese woman named Meloda in a Hindi film. Sorry, I know that’s an inappropriate quip, especially since the 1967 Aman is for much of its duration a dignified film. Rajendra Kumar plays Dr Gautamdas, who goes to Japan to work with the victims of nuclear radiation and spread the message of world peace. Before doing this, though, he is
granted an appointment with his idol, the “mahapurush” Bertrand Russell, who delivers a brief monologue and sends Gautamdas on his way. It’s one of the most unexpected cameos ever, and you’ll find it these days on online lists of gobsmacking moments from old Hindi cinema, but it shouldn’t detract from Aman’s mournful and conscientious approach to its subject. I’m not sure that a mainstream Hindi film made in today’s increasingly jingoistic climate would be so strongly pacifist, or treat the Bomb with as much dread – especially now that we are nuclear-empowered ourselves.

[Some related posts: Onibaba; Aman; Dr Strangelove; Mifune in Yojimbo]

1 comment:

  1. //Speaking of which, Saira Banu once played a Japanese woman named Meloda in a Hindi film//. Damn funny, Jai. I am also wondering how did they of 'Meloda' as a name. I googled for it. My search didn't show that its a common name among Japanese.