Category Archives: film

Friday AM Roundup

What’s great about Friday morning?  Having the Economist placed at your feet.  And even though this is a blog, sometimes it takes having the paper placed in your hands to do a good scan.

Tying together all the threads

Premesso’s not-quite week in review, drawn from the weekly of record:

1. On February 15, La Padania interviewed Pier Luigi Bersani, PD secretary.  (Shown elsewhere on this blog with his sleeves rolled up.)

Salient quote: Va anche bene che il governo rimanga nell’ambito del centrodestra. “It’s also all right if the government stays center-right.”

Is el Senatur sharpening the knife?

English language coverage.

2. As the holes in the immigration walls get harder to plug, shifting from Ceuta and Melilla to Lampedusa to the Greece-Turkey land border, Greece talks of suspending the Dublin Convention for asylum seekers.  The Economist’s Charlemagne comes out with the following sound idea: “A painful compromise might be tried: if Greece wants to suspend Dublin II, it should accept a temporary suspension of Schengen and the return of border controls.”  Me likey.

3. The Oscars: “this year’s awards are less relevant than ever.”  More need not be said, except that Hollywood need to keep looking to that export market.

4.  In Lexington, Obama’s handling of Egypt gets a look.  Much howling and gnashing of teeth from John Bolton, Niall Ferguson and Michael Scheuer, among others.  But maybe No-Drama Obama was the Decider?

Obama is said to have been more certain in private that Mr Mubarak’s jig was up than America’s public pronouncements (especially those of Hillary Clinton, his sometimes behind-message secretary of state) let on. He flatly rejected the Israelis’ analysis that the Egyptian president could hang on and that America should do everything to help him. Mr Obama’s conversation with Mr Mubarak on the evening of February 1st is said to have been the toughest between an American president and an ally since Ronald Reagan’s scolding of Menachem Begin during Israel’s bombing of Beirut in August 1982.

5. In Schumpter, the uneasy art-business axis is examined.  Damien Hirst is one shrewd businessman.

Damien Hirst was even more audacious. He not only realised that nouveau-riche collectors would pay extraordinary sums for dead cows and jewel-encrusted skulls. He upturned the art world by selling his work directly through Sotheby’s, an auction house. Whatever they think of his work, businesspeople cannot help admiring a man who parted art-lovers from £70.5m ($126.5m) on the day that Lehman Brothers collapsed.

And following in his footsteps in Venice, perhaps the Zero Group?  Stay tuned.

Remembering to Forget

It's air-conditioned.

Growing up,  no annual pilgrimage to my grandmother’s native Cape Fear was complete without a trip to the Brunswick Nuclear Power Plant‘s visitor center.  Nothing seemed strange about this habit at the time: they had educational and interactive exhibits, complete with a stationary bike you could ride to see how much human power it took to keep a light bulb illuminated.

Fun for all

The question of what to do with the spent fuel rods was cheerfully resolved in a few words: they’d either be put underwater, or buried underground for years until they presented no more problems.  Colorful diagrams showed glowing-red rods harmlessly cooling in tanks of water.  Just like that.  A stunning PR achievement, at least for a child, who would leave wondering why the whole world wasn’t more like Cape Fear.

Michael Madsen, a Danish filmmaker, provides a powerful explanation as to why in his remarkable film Into Eternity.

The Big Dig

Addressing an advanced civilization hundreds of thousands of years in the future is a popular heuristic tool, especially when writing about public policy.  Rarely is it applied in a sustained and literal way, but Madsen does just that for the entire hour-and-a-quarter running time of Into Eternity.

He provides an intimate look into the construction of Onkalo, an enormous facility four kilometers beneath the surface of Finland that will serve as final resting place for all of that country’s nuclear waste.  To insure responsible decontamination, it’s meant to last for 100,000 years.  To give some perspective into human civilization’s time on the planet, the Pyramids at Giza are generally thought to have been built starting in 3200 B.C.  Five millennia, versus 100.  If its successful, Onkalo might last longer than anything that humanity has yet constructed.

Mind-bending?  It’s supposed to be, and Madsen’s narrations, deadpanned as he strikes matches and lets them burn down, gives a sense of the fleeting nature of our time and energy that we expend so casually.

However, the main point of Into Eternity, by Madsen’s own admission, is not to make a polemic about clean energy or nuclear waste, but to evaluate the extreme long-term consequences of actions that we undertake today.   It’s a long view on mankind that is increasing rare in our world of 0.002 second searches, ever-faster processor speeds, live updating, tweetfeeds, and instantaneous newscycles.  Moreover, it’s a view that tries to make some sense of our epoch by saying what makes it different from other epochs.  From the above-linked interview, which is worth reading in full:

[C]athedrals and burial sites … have all been made in a religious context. But Onkalo is purely, sort of profane, there are no such concerns involved in the facility. And in that way, this is a pure expression, at least, of our time in the Western world. There is no religious understanding of reality any more, as I think has been significant in all previous epochs. I think that is significant about our time.

Pretty ambitious for a 75-minute film about a nuclear waste storage facility.  But it works.

Beyond that, the film has a plaintive and contemplative quality that matches the gravity inherent in the task of the scientists, policymakers and theologians who are puzzling out the problem of nuclear waste.  The photography is otherworldly; the soundtrack well-done (including tasteful use of Kraftwerk), and Madsen’s narration haunting.  If you can’t see it in its extremely limited two-week U.S. run, I strongly urge you to watch it by any other means.

I found A.O. Scott’s New York Times review to be sober and compelling, but Dennis Overbye’s writeup on that paper’s science blog is another matter.  Although broadly a decent piece, I take umbrage with his comment that “it might seem crazy, if not criminal, to obligate 3,000 future generations of humans to take care of our poisonous waste just so that we can continue running our electric toothbrushes.”

Of course it’s crazy, and perhaps criminal.  But the point that Overbye misses that Madsen and some of the Posiva scientists try to drive home is that it’s not a matter of dalliances like electric toothbrushes.  Our consumption of energy is literally in everything we touch, do or make.  Energy production and consumption informs and suffuses every part of our lives, and everyone shares some part in the responsibility for the disposal of its byproducts.

As Carl Reinhold Bråkenhielm, a theology professor who sits on the National Council for Nuclear Waste in Sweden (that fact alone is worth pondering – American religion seems to find more use in histrionic political debates; it’s hard to imagine a theology professor sitting on a national scientific council in the U.S.) has it,  “this is something which ought to be the responsibility of all citizens, irrespective of whether they like nuclear power or not.  Linking the issue of nuclear waste with nuclear power could easy divert attention from the material which we have and must somehow handle in a responsible way not to harm future generations.”

One thing I like about Houellebecq is his distaste for the near-religious proselytizing of environmentalists, but there is a difference between electric toothbrushes and providing drinking water and heat.  The rapid pace of development in India, China and Brazil highlights this even more.

As the stationary bicycle at the Brunswick plant shows, producing energy is hard.  This film highlights what is hardest of all about it.