In keeping with its newfound mission of highlighting not just movies but a variety of media — including television, virtual reality, games, and live performances — the Tribeca Film Festival closed out its fifteenth year with one of the more unusual works ever to premiere here. The brainchild of filmmaker Smriti Keshari and author Eric Schlosser (whose 2013 nuclear-weapons exposé Command and Control partly inspired the project), the bomb is so tricky to pin down that even the festival’s press materials seem to have trouble describing it. “A groundbreaking multimedia installation” was the best they could manage.
After experiencing it Saturday night, I could see why. For the four performances of the bomb, Tribeca transformed Gotham Hall into a 360-degree screening space, with eight immense screens surrounding the audience and the electronica trio the Acid playing on a small stage in the middle of the room. Music is at the center of the event — both figuratively and literally — and you could almost mistake the whole thing for an intimate concert with some projected images. But that wouldn’t quite describe its eclecticism or ambition, or its surprisingly powerful emotional trajectory.
“Try to enjoy it, if you can,” went the gentle announcement before the event — an almost offhand invitation and warning. Words like that can make you conscious of your own response: Can I enjoy this? Should I enjoy this? That the audience is situated between the band and the screens — some of us standing, some sitting, some walking — makes us part of the performance as well. And whispered reports that some people got dizzy and passed out at an earlier show helped add to the tension in the room.
Throughout the performance, the eight screens are mostly synced up to show the same images, giving them an all-enveloping, inescapable quality. The immersion is key, as the bomb is, at heart, a journey through a nuclear exchange — first seductive, then rotten, and finally deeply disturbing. The show opens on serene images of the Earth, as seen from orbit, then cuts to footage of military parades. As the Acid’s music builds to an infectious techno pulse, the screens around us fill with soldiers — North Korean, Indian, British — all marching in unison. Their movements, their steps clearly modified to fit the rhythm of the music, have a kind of hypnotic pull — it’s a death wish you can dance to. (Oh shit. I am enjoying this!)
We then proceed into the launch of the weapons themselves. Rows and rows of gleaming missiles move into place, and we see them make their way across the skies. The music becomes more ethereal, all hypnotic wailing and dreamy soundscapes. Vintage footage from nuclear tests shows us houses being equipped with dummies to gauge the damage; mock towns built just to be destroyed; massive mushroom clouds reaching into the heavens. Educational films about preparing for nuclear attack (“Duck and take cover!”), mostly shown these days for ironic purposes, now gain an overwhelming poignancy: Seen in the context of imminent annihilation, these films reveal themselves as more than ill-informed attempts to educate the public. They were the work of a society that knew the futility of surviving an attack but felt it had to do something anyway. One scene shows how a well-kept and clean house can withstand a nuclear blast better than an untidy, cluttered one. Another exhorts men to do their manly duty in keeping their families safe, over an image of a patriarch huddled in a corner of the house with his wife and child. Yet another advises us on what to do with a dead body in a home fallout shelter. (In case you’re wondering: Put it in another room, but after five days, bury it elsewhere.)
Experiencing the bomb, I worried that at times it was a little too lovely, a little too compelling, to work as an artistic deterrent. Indeed, for much of the performance, the Acid’s minimalist, evocative work managed to put me in a reverie that undermined what should be, y’know, an absolutely terrifying experience I should never want to revisit. That all changed as we moved along to the actual human cost of war — fiery death and agonizing illness. Onscreen, we see footage of animal tests in nuclear explosions, with caged dogs, chickens, pigs, and sheep placed in the path of the blast — with predictably harrowing, hard-to-watch results. Then we’re presented with images from the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Blood-red paintings that look like a child’s vision of hell. Photos of the surreal devastation following the attacks. Film of the chilling, frozen faces of survivors.
Meanwhile, the music becomes more dissonant, with distorted drums creating a rhythmic buzz that you might even call irritating. At one point, the sound goes out completely, and we’re left with the silence of the room, save for the hushed audience’s nervous shuffling. (Right at that instant, the guy standing next to me had his phone go off, and, as he comically scrambled to silence it, I couldn’t help but feel a slight twinge of relief — the tension had broken.)
It might have been interesting to end it all there and let us out into evening reeling from the images and sounds of existential annihilation. But the bomb, understandably, has some hope left in it. The music picks back up as we see news footage of congressional hearings, 60 Minutes reports. We also hear snippets of speeches from Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama about their desire to see nuclear weapons eradicated from the Earth.
Is that meant to be ironic, or a call to action? “What we create doesn’t exist in isolation,” Schlosser said at a press conference before the event, noting that it was a viewing of the 1983 TV drama The Day After that prompted Reagan to change his mind on nukes and actively pursue disarmament. The idea, articulated by co-director Keshari, is that nukes have largely been forgotten about, even though 15,000 of them remain around the world. “The less we know and talk about nuclear weapons, the more dangerous they become,” she has said. Certainly, the bomb is marked by a desire to break free of typical forms of cinematic discourse — the scolding documentaries or dramatized and predictable fictions — and create something that has real-world heft, both as an experience and for its potential to effect real change. Is a strange, immersive concert/film installation the best way to do so? Who knows? I enjoyed it. I’m still not sure if I was supposed to.