But This is No Ordinary Topic.
It was all about
plutonium in a riveting opera chorus. Physics. Poetry.
Baudelaire and the Bhagavad-Gita. Babies born while the "father
of the bomb" works on
the ultimate destroyer of life. What kind of kaleidescope
could go behind – and beyond — the scenes of "Dr.
Atomic," the haunting San Francisco Opera about the
device that forever will haunt the world?
That was the new challenge Jon Else had hoped for ever
since he made "The Day After Trinity" in 1980,
the first documentary about J. Robert Oppenheimer and the
Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, New Mexico in World War
11. Else's new documentary "Wonders are Many: The
Making of Dr. Atomic" will open Saturday during the
San Francisco International Film Festival's 50th anniversary.
It stars the patrician, New England — born and bred, white-haired
composer, John Adams, an eminence with a self-deprecating
sense of humor, and director Peter Sellars, an impish dynamo,
full of passionate persuasion. On Sunday, after delivering
his optimistic "State of the Cinema" address,
Sellars will fly to Amsterdam to prepare the international
premiere of "Dr.Atomic."
"I learned more about directing from Peter," Else
volunteered during a recent interview here. " than
I did from working on dozens of films."
Else had been shooting a documentary on Alice Waters,
owner of Berkeley's Chez Panisse restaurant, when he heard
that an opera about the bomb was in preparation. "It
took me all of 3 seconds to know what my next film would
be. I got Adams' number and to my amazement, he answered
the phone. He knew who I was because he and Peter had seen "The
Day After Trinity" and were in the early stages of
working on the libretto.
"We shared a lot of the same values about that astonishing
moment in world history. We shared a belief that art can
make a difference to culture and society and politics.
We shared an interest in the moral conundrums and complexities
of this big story." The three were fascinated by the
baffling, erudite figure of Oppenheimer who named the test
site Trinity, inspired by John Donne's poem whose words "Batter
My Heart Three-Person'd God" reverberate throughout
What particularly excited Else was their decision to make
the centerpiece of Act One the secret meeting, organized
by physicist Robert Wilson, to debate the use of the bomb
over cities where thousands of people would die although
the war was practically over.
In grappling with the disparate issues that emerged before
the bomb was exploded on July 16, 1945, Else shifts scenes
from the opera shop where the stage bomb is being made
to choral rehearsals enlivened by Sellars' exhortations,
to Adams worrying about how his notes will sound when sung,
to Oppenheimer's bedroom where lead singer Gerald Finley
is baffled by his mysterious erotic poetry lines. To the
upsetting last-minute major cast change. Throughout, there
are previously unseen glimpses of Oppenheimer, recently
declassified footage on the bomb and the carnage in Japan.
Everything uncannily achieved a clarity sometimes muffled
in the opera itself.
Else, a lanky, humorous 63, first saw a lightning atomic
flash at age six when his artist father took him into the
backyard of their Sacramento home before dawn to observe
the light from one of the bomb tests being conducted 300
miles away at the Nevada test site in the 1950's. That
glow, he said, "must have lodged itself into my consciousness."
His was a circuitous route to filmmaking. After getting
a BA in English at the University of California, Else worked
on voter registration in the civil rights movement when
he met Haskell Wexler who was shooting a film on the freedom
riders. It was the first time Else realized that "people
could make films about interesting things" and Wexler
became his inspiration. While he studied film at Stanford
University, he got a "wonderful" education processing
negatives in a laboratory dark room. After dreaming about
a Cinema career á la Jean-Luc Godard, his first job was
a letdown: a movie on snoring in Stanford's Sleep Disorder
Opera was not on his agenda. Else had seen only one before
he was 45. Later, planning a documentary on the San Francisco
Opera's "Ring Cycle," he listened to a Wagner
recording. His first reaction was unprintable. Since then,
he has become a fan. As for "Dr. Atomic," he
said , "It's not for the chicken-hearted. It's real
beefy opera. Part of it has some of the greatest music
I've ever heard and parts were just not for me. Parts make
you tear up. I warned my crew to stay focused and not to
cry. Still, there were moments when the opera was just
too strong for us and it broke through that professional
shield we needed to stay focused."
Perhaps what remains in focus for the audience is the
shot of Picasso's anti-war masterpiece "Guernica," followed
by Sellars' moving talk to the chorus. Only silence is
appropriate, he says, as they wait for the countdown to
the explosion because "art is not up to such sheer
horror." "'In our century,'" he quotes Samuel
Beckett, "'some things must remain unspeakable."
Times April 2007