The following should tell you a lot about me – I went to see a Played Loud screening of Atomic: Living in Dread and Promise (ALIDIP) at the Glasgow Film Theatre and I wore earplugs. Partly because I’m a wuss but partly because tinnitus is a real thing and nothing to be scoffed at. I did read the letter that Mark Cousins and Mogwai wrote to cinema projectionists requesting that ALIDAP be played loud. The endearingly polite letter says that they spent ages on making a sound track with “real power, which felt a bit like an explosion” (their bold). Whilst I agree that the sound track does indeed have real power, their wish of making the experience as a whole “special, rare and exciting” is sadly unfulfilled.
Mogwai have outdone themselves with a score that is by turns exhilarating and unsettling – SCRAM is a particular highlight – which is a shame as the film portion of ALIDAP is so disappointing as to detract from it. The documentary is edited together from a wealth of impressive archive, with the PSA films about how to survive a nuclear attack still maintaining a unique shade of terror despite the production values. But the film as a whole feels meandering, slapdash, rather than a considered exploration of humanity’s Icarus complex. Mark Cousins’s previous work is so skillful precisely because it manages to clearly state nuanced situations but that is, sadly, missing entirely here.
It is fair to say that the film delivers what it says on the tin – dread and promise. Nuclear technology was developed for war and destruction but its power could be harnessed and used against the most debilitating, often fatal, diseases. The footage of parents discussing the death of their child, weeping in their relief that at least their daughter is no longer suffering, is devastating. But the film doesn’t offer anything beyond these already well-established elements of human experience.
It is futile to look for narrative in a documentary whose mission is to evoke a mighty sensory response but I don’t think it is too much to ask for focus. Take Koyaanisqatsi, Godfrey Reggio’s warning incantation about modern living, with its utterly immersive and symbiotic score from Philip Glass. The sound and images fuse together so that you cannot possibly separate them and have the same effect, such is the intention that runs through every note, every frame. Mogwai’s score seems entirely incidental, running in parallel to rather than in complete conjunction with the imagery. I am someone who likes an unorthodox structure but there is so little evidence of structure in ALIDAP that it just feels like a mess, a bad VJ set that you wished you were stoned for because then it might make more sense. A Sebald quote imposed over a dramatic image does not a poetic film make.
Admittedly, perhaps if I didn’t have my earplugs in, my dissatisfaction with the film itself would dissipate – but somehow I doubt it.