Monday, January 31, 2011

Michael Madsen (Nordic version) explores nuclear waste going INTO ETERNITY

A gliding camera, together with a narrator's peaceful voice, moves us slowly underground as that voice quietly explains, "You are now at a place where we have buried something from you to protect you. And we have taken great pains to be sure that you are protected. We also need you to know that this place should not be disturbed. This is not a place for you to live. Stay away from this place and you will be safe."

Oh, those Scandinavians!  Is there another culture that could bring us a subject like this is such a cool (in both meanings of the world) thoughtful (again, in both meanings of the word) artistic, beautiful, scarifying way? I doubt it. An artist such as Ingmar Bergman could only have hailed from Scandinavia. He was Swedish, and the man -- Michael Madsen -- who made this new and unique documentary INTO ETERNITY is Danish, but I think there's plenty of spillover in terms of content, style, state of mind and even artistic ability.

Mr. Madsen, shown at left, proves a fine narrator and host. A conceptual artist and now a filmmaker, he appears kindly but strong, intelligent, insightful, serious but with full ironic capabilities, and even rather sexy under those horn-rims. Where the filmmaker has led us is Finland's burial ground for its nuclear waste, called Onkalo, which means hiding place in Finnish. This forward looking little country plans ahead, farther ahead, in fact, than just about any other country in the world, it seems. As one scientist tells us along the way, we cannot have nuclear energy without having the nuclear waste that attends it. Think of this is the final solution for this waste -- one that has not been implemented anywhere else so far, and in fact will not even be implemented in Finland until the next century, for it will take that long to create the proper burial ground.

If recent documentaries Countdown to Zero (the threat of nuclear war) and Plastic Planet (the threat to our world from plastic) determined to scare our pants off, Mr. Madsen instead wants us to consider nuclear waste from several angles: the waste itself, the burying of it, what that burying means to the future -- and finally the future itself, and how very far away it is. Thousand of years from now, the waste will still be a danger to the living -- if indeed there are any living left.

Into Eternity works surprisingly well on so many levels and as so many different things that its pleasures are nearly non-stop. It's both an art film and art itself: The photography, pristine and playful, is often stunningly beautiful, featuring some gorgeous images of machinery and water and some wonderful effects (ghostlike figures blending, disappearing into their environment). It's a meditation on time and eternity, for the lifespan of the waste forces us to go farther in the future than we've had or wanted to consider. It's a profile of some wonderful Scandinavian scientists, forced to consider the very worst possible scenarios and then somehow heading each of these off.

Along the way we learn why Finland was chosen ("Its bedrock is the most stable environment we know of!"), why the final resting place of the waste must be a "fully passive" site, and perhaps most important, what kind of "markers" should be left to explain to future generations why they must never unearth what is buried below. This last provides the film with its philosophical conundrum.

Will future generations (hello: future species!) even understand what we have "written" out for them. Would visuals be better than words? And knowing humanity as we should, wouldn't saying "Don't go there" simply ensure that they will?  Might no marker be best of all, since the waste will be buried so deep and sealed so tight that, it's unlikely to ever be unearthed.

Using any markers, as with the pyramids of Egypt, one scientist notes, might induce attempts at robbery, for nuclear waste contains elements within it that are valuable and that people might want to steal: copper, uranium, plutonium. Wow -- think of it as the more immense version of that little, lighted, lead box on the beach at the end of Kiss Me Deadly!

The wonder of the film is that you see these scientists, these smart but fallible humans, thinking hard about all this and giving the best answers and advice that they can.  The film's funniest -- or is it saddest? -- moment comes with Madsen's question to one of them, "Do you trust future generations?" This reduces the fellow who tries to answer to confusion and near apoplexy, and then to an impossible silence. Yet a few moments later he rallies and goes on.

The movie is best seen, perhaps, as Mr. Madsen's own marker: a filmed letter to those who may be living hundreds, even thousands of years from now and who might need or want a little guidance. I suppose, then, the best question might be: What kind of signifier can we leave that cockroaches will appreciate and understand?

Into Eternity (from International Film Circuit), the new year's first must-see documentary, opens Wednesday, February 2, in New York City at Film Forum for a two-week run. Click here for further playdates and cities in the U.S. and Canada.

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