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Michael Vazquez

Michael Vazquez

Posted: February 11, 2011 06:27 PM

Weekend Film: On Into Eternity


Into Eternity, a film positing our suicidal quagmire of nuclear waste as an open letter to whatever life may exist -- and might happen upon the 250,000 tons (and-counting) that we'll leave behind 100,000 years from now, serves as an urgent original bulwark against our collective denial.

Into Eternity: You're Living In Your Own Private Onkalo

After watching this film I found the snow of New York -- gigantic heaps stratified with flotsam and jetsam, unearthed through violent, chance discovery by a plow -- has never seemed more menacing. And perhaps never has Marshall McLuhan's Tetrad analysis of a technology, and his maxim: "A moral viewpoint can serve as a substitute for technical knowledge" felt more instructive.

Into Eternity is narrated by writer-director Michael Madsen, who looks like the kid in My Life As A Dog now grown and testifying (in tones similar to Laurie Anderson's mythic narrator-persona) in a dark cave, as a match burns out. Visually, the film alternates between preternaturalistic exteriors and footage of an underground nuclear waste storage facility, filmed in dually ominous and playful slo-mo, evoking a sense of existence outside of time, and this effect is heightened by an Ambient soundtrack possessing nary a drumbeat's measure, while a unique tension arises from the garish contrast between the facility's sterile, vacuum-like interiors and the exploding bowels of the Finnish bedrock, where construction began in the 1970s and is set to be complete in the 2100s.

The name of the facility is "Onkalo", and despite its cuddly phonetic persona, "Onkalo" means "hiding place" which is on par with "Viagra" as an insouciant monniker. Speaking of cum and radioactive waste, here's a link to an article about veterans dealing with radioactive semen, resultant of contact with depleted Uranium weaponry. In corporate terms, Onkalo's being billed as the world's first permanent storage facility, and throughout the film the concept of permanence serves as a touchstone.

Irrespective of the director's stated intent (see my interview below) to not muckrake (for lack of a better phrase) he inadvertently does, while straddling a fine line, also inadvertently serving the company's interest, by structuring a grand apologia and cautionary note to the future.
And despite his making the rare concession of submitting a documentary script for approval, Madsen nets full candor from the project's participants -- a rock blaster, a theologian, and several scientists -- all of whose signatures Madsen includes on screen, literally underlining that they are co-signatories to a future they are shaping (pre-empting?) but will never see.

The negotiations to film at the facility lasted nine months and none of the Onkalites showed up on the first day of shooting; only after Madsen explained how conspicuous they would be in their absence, did they emerge, perhaps realizing that it would be wisest to keep a potential enemy close. One interview was stopped by the director of communications, and Madsen parried by requiring him to also be on-camera. Ultimately, nuclear waste's unique hazards served as a leveling agent, and the subjects -- ostensibly experts -- simply talk themselves into a place where there is no wiggle room.

Particularly unnerving were the contradictory statements of a science editor who estimated that in only 100 years Uranium will be as scarce and potentially war-causing (to say nothing of war-waging) a commodity as oil, while she also charted a bizarre path, which to some extent, we are already on: "If you're gonna take the people in India and China to the same level as the people in the western countries in the next twenty years, you have to start three nuclear reactors a day."

In view of this presumptuousness, I asked Madsen about any dissenting voices in Finland, and he said that there were, and provided a surprising lesson on the Finnish ethos: "They see it as a case of: 'We believe in authority; if something is decided, we don't discuss it anymore. And we believe in technology, and we are used to making very, very difficult decisions; we fought the Soviets in the Second World War almost alone, and that was a hard time.' So they, in their own self-perception, can do what needs to be done."

One backyard that was denied to the Finnish is Australia, a portion of which is presently under several feet of water, though Australia was in fact, the unanimous first choice of the scientific community to deposit the waste. It is worth noting that water seepage through ruptures in the bedrock before or during the coming Ice Age could in fact flush the radiation out into the biosphere. The instability of life above-ground is an oft-referred to justification for subterranean storage of nuclear waste by the Onkalites, whom a theologian assesses as being "infected with the scientific disease" as he warned against the risk of dangerously mis-focusing on waste storage, rather than on the problems inherent to nuclear energy.

Madsen had originally opted to exclude ecclesiastic voices, but there was a theologian on the nuclear council in Sweden, whose waste Finland is storing, and to whom Madsen was referred by the Finnish, who told him, "Look Michael, for philosophical questions you have to talk to the Swedish." But, Madsen added, "There are no philosophers" in Onkalo, where all seems copasetic, thanks to the visual grace that informs the photography of humans at work; you feel Madsen's recognition of an inherent dignity, and the occasional ghosting effect serves the film's letter-to-a-future-generation motif well. Madsen's filming of the rock blaster with a bag of take-away, climbing a spiral staircase to his Spartan bed-sit, sleeping, waking, going to work again -- over which we hear narration about the cyclical nature of the rise and fall of civilizations, is amongst the film's most devastatingly powerful.

The scope of the cinematography is so epic that it's easy to forget an alarming fact: while Onkalo is absolutely massive, it will only hold 1% of our nuclear waste. Which means that to store the waste that we already have requires ninety-nine more facilities; in Madsen's estimation, there aren't sufficient locations, and he noted that Japan is in a unique quandary, as an island nation on a fault line, possessing little space, and no means of transporting its nuclear waste. Japan is also the only nation to have endured an attack by non-State Actors using gas, but it likely won't be the last, and the need for securing of nuclear material the world over, is simply not difficult to comprehend, and is well manifested in this PBS Newshour piece on dirty bombs . All of which beg the question of why our president, during his State of The Union address, boasted of supercomputers "reducing" waste, when nuclear energy and its subsequent waste by definition embody the law of diminishing returns. In fact, one could reasonably argue that the job of securing nuclear material is made more difficult with every reactor built.


I wasn't able to attend the 2010 TriBeCa Film Festival where (to that festival's eminent credit) Into Eternity was first screened in the U.S., but missing it last Spring turned out to be a good thing: sitting in a freezing screening room in January with a fever (wheezing like one of Sandy Skogland's radioactive cats, had it swallowed a Geiger counter) and watching footage of the frozen Northern European wilderness and massive caves was painful, and yet, the abject misery, the fear of spreading contagion, and even the tiny miracle of popcorn wafting invisibly through the room situated me most powerfully.

Further mentioned need be made of the cinematography. In addition to the subtle otherworldly exteriors and the Kubreckian interiors, there is the sublime ending of the film, for which Madsen uses an Edgard Varèse piece -- "Un Grand Sommeil Noir" which, as he points out in my interview, has its own evolutionary relation to Kraftwerk's "Radioactivity", which is heard in another sequence comprising what I'll call the greatest Kraftwerk video never made; we also get an elk looking like the last -- first? -- animal on Earth; an overhead shot of carbon rods, during which the twin towers-esque containers sway a little too easily. This overhead shot was itself captured much in the spirit of Onkalo's (incalculable) calculated risk of accidental discovery: after the crew finished shooting, facility operators measured them for radiation, informing everyone after the fact, of the real risk, and that no one had been up there in a long time.

Perhaps the only image I found lacking was the clinical depiction of Chernobyl as a computerized, geothermal chart; Chernobyl may be best presented to posterity by the (presumed) universal language of visceralia -- but it is a measure of this film's impact that a viewer feels invested in grappling with the selection of the correct visual vernacular. And in the film, the question of what visual language to utilize in any posting warning against Onkalo's potential discovery (Munch's "The Scream" is a favored option) is exceeded only by the question of whether to leave any marker at all, and there are effectively two camps: those believing a signpost creates a Pandora's Box, and those considering it logical to leave a marker (there was talk of leaving a copy of the film, but that died down as Madsen's relationship with the Finnish company deteriorated).

Madsen explains his own view by looking at its opposite: "I believe that [the notion of leaving no marker as a warning] testifies more to present-day confidence in our own technological abilities, than to any perhaps, more sober assessment in terms of what 100,00 years means to human beings."

Michael Madsen's next film will be on the conducting of a civil society. Into Eternity is screening through February 15th, at Film Forum

Interview with Michael Madsen, director of Into Eternity

Into Eternity trailer

Extra-credit future-themed viewing, screening at SXSW Film 3/13: Future States TV

Extra credit listening: SETI -- Search for Extra Terrsetrial Intelligence disc gets remixed