Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer”: A Symposium, Part III
For eighty years, from Griffith’s Birth of a Nation in 1915 to The Matrix in 1999, cinema was the supreme cultural form of Western modernity: a visionary recital which expressed the highest creative powers of humanity. What “the most excellent painters and sculptors and architects” were for Renaissance, film directors were for the American century, with Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael reborn as Kubrick, Kurosawa and Tarkovsky. But America has been dying for decades and cinema is now the death mask of its intentions.
Everywhere cinema sighs with exhaustion. The box office is dominated by sequels and comic books and corporate state propaganda. Movies based on children’s toys are treated as serious art works. The biggest star in the world is the 61 year old Tom Cruise — and none of this has any impact whatsoever. “Apparently for Netflix,” Quentin Tarantino observed recently, “Ryan Reynolds has made $50 million on this movie and $50 million on that movie and $50 million on the next movie for them. I don’t know what any of those movies are. I’ve never seen them. Have you? Good for him that he’s making so much money. But those movies don’t exist in the zeitgeist. It’s almost like they don’t even exist.”
Does the zeitgeist itself still exist? In the age of algorithmic reproduction the paradigm is no longer the big screen but three billion tiny screens replaying fragments of a broken dream. The individual masterpiece has been superseded by the “Cinematic Universe” as a matrix for immersive simulation. From the Marvel Universe, which has set the template for similar projects, including a new Star Wars universe, to online political symbolic fandoms like the “Nazi Cinematic Universe” which dominated social media between 2017 and 2020, and then the plague kabuki of the “Pandemic Cinematic Universe” which replaced it, everywhere participation has replaced aesthetic contemplation.
Cinema disclosed the miracle of grace that illuminates the world: cinematic universes are parodies and mirrors of a real world which has vanished into a purgatorial “Xilbalic” blur of inchoate sensations. Meanwhile, cinema itself has entered one of those periods which, as Marx put it, “limp along after great artistic epochs… and busy themselves with copying in plaster and copper what sprang from Carrara marble.” This is the context to understand the reception of Christopher Nolan’s new film Oppenheimer and the hyper-inflated reputation of Nolan in general.
Oppenheimer has been widely acclaimed as a masterpiece, but what this reaction expresses is a hunger for masterpieces alighting on a work that appears to resemble one. Oppenheimer has big ideas, an A-list cast, and is set at the zenith of American greatness. Most important, the film is actually a film in a sea of film-shaped objects. Unfortunately, it is also an artistic failure whose flaws define the crisis in the medium as a whole.
Nolan’s early films were strange, seedy and suggestive. In an alternate reality, or a previous epoch, he continued developing his insights, and became an excellent psychological filmmaker — as good as De Palma, maybe. But with his success after Batman, his technique became aggressive and clumsy, to the point of abuse.
The attractive delusion that Oppenheimer is “brilliant” extends from its blinding quality. The film as a whole is defined by a graceless and overblown use of music and a barrage of short cuts and short scenes which pummel the audience into hypnotic submission. Even in the endless interrogation scenes which dominate the last act of the film — a textbook case of diegetic failure — Nolan continues to pound away at his audience, drowning-out the dialogue with telegraphed emotional manipulation. This is the antithesis of confident, masterful filmmaking, which respects intelligence, and enhances sensitivity, instead of attacking it.
Nolan’s cinematic technique only partly deflects from a script which exhibits the same problems as his visual style. It is surprisingly hard to say what Oppenheimer is about. The film in fact refers to meanings, rather than exploring them: ideas pass through Oppenheimer, but the film does not disclose them. What Nolan relies on instead is Cillian Murphy staring poetically into the void of the mess of his structure.
The story that Oppenheimer wishes to tell, but Nolan does not know how to tell, is the story of the 20th century, and the revolution, or rather the crisis in thought it exhibited, and the solution, or rather the exacerbation of this crisis in the birth of the administrative state. The darkly ironic role played by Communism, and its ideological variants fascism and Democratic and National Socialism lie at the heart of this story, but Nolan fails to pursue the theme. His treatment consists in a handful of dilettantish and naive statements made by his central protagonist, brief encounters with essentially “well-meaning” Communist fellow-travelers and finally scenes of anti-Communist persecution.
The historical irony, which Nolan fails to show, is that Oppenheimer’s nominally anti-Communist persecutors were the Communists all along: not because they were “actually” Communists, the historic infiltration of the New Deal American government notwithstanding, but because it was these types of men who emerged from the cracks in Marx’s ideas where psychological thought should have been. Communism was simply the name, an assumed name, for a more or less deliberate confusion of concepts and motives. Across Russia and Germany and the United States, dynamics of delusion and silence engineered by resentment and arrogance materialized as open conspiracies and ultimately revolutionary bureaucracies. Their formation served to empower specific psychological types, embodied in this case by Oppenheimer’s nemesis Lewis Strauss. This was the personality type who came to dominate the Soviet Union, and who dominates the United States today.
All of the themes that remain under the surface of Oppenheimer, inexplicable, and unarticulated, also remain there because these men hold a grip over contemporary cultural production. The limitations of Oppenheimer are the limitations of a Hollywood blockbuster marketed to the widest possible audience to make the most money possible without disturbing the global political power structure. Once it was possible to create artistically and commercially successful movies on a global scale. But this is probably no longer possible.
Cinema was democratic medium but we are in a post-democratic age which retains the language of democracy, only to deploy it for repression. For this reason, genuine artists are compelled to adopt a more experimental and wild attitude. From this perspective Oppenheimer is usefully compared to the very different priorities which shaped the avant-garde Russian film project DAU.
Oppenheimer and DAU show striking parallels. Both projects revolve around charismatic scientists: in the case of DAU, the Russian physicist Lev Landau. Both works also engage with bureaucracy and the power and nature of the secret police. But whereas Oppenheimer is a polished commercial product, DAU was a Russian oligarch-financed extravagance which presented a paradigmatic example of what philosopher Georges Bataille called “useless expenditure” which defines all authentic artistic productions.
The production took place in a reproduction of Landau’s original Stalin-era institute complex including armed guards in period uniforms, where actors lived for years. Periodically a cameraman came and shot footage; over 700 hours were eventually edited into more than twelve feature length films and screened on an invitation only basis at a central London mansion, filled with realistic mannequins of characters who feature in the film.
Whereas Oppenheimer replicated the form of a twentieth century film, DAU reimagined the idea of a film project and decentered it so that the line between the real and the unreal became uncertain. As Urbanomic editor Robin Mackay put it in 2018: “It’s like a completely new medium, really difficult to work out what level of reality it is operating on.” The result was a much deeper engagement with the instability of contemporary reality and above all an encounter with the “occult” dimension of bureaucracy that underpins consensual reality.
The question that DAU presented was the question of the excess, the “more than life” which every sacred system, through sacrifice, is elaborated to deal with. Oppenheimer confronts this question too but mystifies it through an excessive focus on the “American Prometheus” protagonist who appears in every scene. In truth, if Oppenheimer is Promethean, it is not because he built the atom bomb as such, but because, through the Manhattan Project, atomic physics entered into a Faustian pact with Big Government to create Big Science, at the start of a trajectory whose next development was MK-Ultra.
Oppenheimer is chained to the rock of an endless committee meeting, not as a scientist, but as a politician. Today, we are all there with him, tethered by Big Data to our phones. Here Nolan does at least put his finger on something important. The designation of the Manhattan Project as the symbolic and mythological crux of the century needs to be understood in the light of its only viable alternatives: Auschwitz, a symbol of mass murder, and the Apollo mission, a symbol of the highest human aspirations. But the Manhattan Project combined both. For this reason some form of atomic theology presents the most plausible path out of the nihilism in which contemporary society finds itself. As for Nolan, if he really wants to make a masterpiece, his next film should be ‘Sydney Gottlieb‘. Of course we know that won’t happen. But we can dream.