Going Nuclear

Nick Pinkerton on Peter Watkins's The Journey

Peter Watkins, The Journey, 1987, 16 mm, black-and-white, sound, 870 mins.

ONE OF THE SCORES of interviewees offering their opinions on nuclear proliferation in Peter Watkins’s The Journey (1987) is a middle-aged Mexican woman in Guadalajara who implores that the presidents of powerful nations might link hands to “go around the world and look at the situation of the people.” This is among the not-inconsiderable undertakings attempted by The Journey, a film little seen in part because of availability issues and in part because of its daunting runtime: 873 minutes, which comes in at a frisky fourteen and a half hours.

Light Industry, an experimental screening space in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, is no stranger to epic undertakings: To begin their 2013 calendar, they ran an all-day marathon that gave tribute to “The American Serial: 1914–1944.” The Journey, presented by Watkins scholars Rachael Rakes and Leo Goldsmith and shown in fabulous 16 mm, will kick off Light Industry’s 2017, with the weekend-long screening, perhaps not coincidentally, beginning two weeks before the inauguration of a president-elect who has cavalierly announced his intention to begin stockpiling nukes anew with no discernible endgame in sight and has averred his willingness to, should the occasion demand, evaporate Europe.

Watkins’s film was shot during the last escalation of the arms race, between 1983 and 1986, in countries that were nuclear players—the United States, the unknowingly near-death Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, France—as well as several that were used as test sites and landing strips by those powers: Norway, for example, or Mozambique, where people speak of their struggle for subsistence living while a king’s ransom is spent on armaments every day, or Japan, where the relationship with the mushroom cloud is somewhat more than abstract, or what Watkins, a good anticolonialist, pointedly refers to as “(French) Polynesia.” In each place, he sits down with what we will broadly call average citizens, many of them living in proximity to a hidden-in-plain-sight facility that plays a role in the construction, housing, or transportation of nuclear arms, and asks them the same questions, intended to discover what these average people know about these weapons, and how they feel about them. Often they don’t know much but are willing to learn—sometimes I hoped to see some subjects with a bit more resistance in them, in fact—and Watkins, for whom this ignorance is indicative of a vast conspiracy of obfuscation, makes a point of regularly confessing his own ignorance prior to the research and production: “Did you know this?” he asks more than once via voice-over. “I didn’t.”

The Journey is baldly didactic, and Watkins states his purpose for undertaking the project in plainspoken terms. “These people,” he says in the first of the film’s nineteen chapters, each of which ends in a hanging question mark, “have been denied information by the system in which they live.” Watkins’s intention, then, is to reveal “the mechanisms they use to deprive us of information and participation.” (The “they” is, of course, the powers that be.) One of the mechanisms brought in for extended scrutiny is television news, with its elisions and misrepresentations. The Journey is on the ground for the Shamrock Summit of 1985, a Saint Patrick’s Day meeting between Ronald Reagan and Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney in Quebec City. Not only does Watkins go behind the scenes to film the production meetings and man-in-the-street interview shoots of French-language station Radio-Canada, he also shows “finished” excerpts from international television news, employing the deconstructionist technique of using blips of various tones to show the sutures, drawing attention to the busy editing and the intervention of on-screen graphics.

In a sense, the capsule-size packaged, easily digestible television news report provides Watkins with an antimodel for The Journey, which acts as a rebuke to TV news just as the snatches of native folk song and unsullied landscape are a rebuke to the images of airstrips and bulldozers and windowless government buildings—the world we’ve been handed against the world that’s been made of it. In contrast to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, which devotes 0.3% of its Shamrock Summit coverage airtime to the public, Watkins gives the public his full and undivided attention. Rather than streamlining and simplifying, he keeps everything in: the mountains of statistics (dollars, casualties, destructive power), the tally of expenditure on nuclear weapons throughout the film’s runtime (of which we’re kept abreast), the maps, and, above all, images of the burned and carbonized victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which we see time and again splayed out across various families’ kitchen tables, with Watkins listening to the families as they respond, aghast, to the scenes of horror. Some of these same families participate later in visceral “reenactments,” recalling Watkins’s approach in his Punishment Park (1971) or La Commune (Paris, 1871) (2000), as they perform their roles as panicked refugees playing out the clearly insufficient, haphazard civil defense plans in place to deal with what is referred to, in the deadpan delivery maintained throughout, as the “unlikely event” of nuclear catastrophe.

Watkins’s approach is scrupulously honest and ethical—though it’s clumsy as satire in moments such as the animated interlude starring an anthropomorphic mushroom cloud called “Nukie,” and perhaps this limits the efficacy of The Journey as a “tool for social change.” A fourteen-and-a-half-hour documentary about nuclear proliferation just doesn’t address itself to the broadest possible audience—although if you, like myself, happen to believe that the use of art as a tool for social change fails in just about every case other than maybe Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Blackfish, this isn’t necessarily a demerit. Watkins tells hard truths here, and in a language that owes very little to those he opposes, and that is enough. The Journey isn’t made to be seen by the greatest number of people, but instead to be really seen by those who brave it. (It might be noted that Watkins was responding to a proliferation of Anglo-American Armageddon dramas in the Reagan-Thatcher era, including The Day After and Special Bulletin [both 1983], and Threads and Countdown to Looking Glass [both 1984], whose imaginings of a nuclear holocaust Watkins took to be a kind of invitation.)

The making of a movie as enormous as The Journey is, in itself, an act of defiance. I’m reminded of something the film director and shit-stirrer Nick Zedd once wrote about avant-garde deity Jack Smith: “Attending a [Smith] event was a long march of endurance, a challenge: the realization of a way of life not lived by people on time schedules dictated by jobs, personal responsibilities, or the need to be distracted and amused.” Watkins tells us that his subjects in The Journey are “money and time, and the ways which we use them on this planet,” while the sheer heft of the film—by most reckonings the longest nonexperimental film ever made, an achievement even more remarkable when you consider the rigor of construction on display throughout—is a reproach to how we do use them. (I write this on a day when the internet is abuzz with rumors concerning the iPhone’s new “theater mode,” which presumably will allow the cubicle dweller to remain on call and on the clock at the multiplex.)

Watkins is still a filmmaker, however, and he avails himself of the medium’s tools, helpfully announcing his own pieces of deceit. (He explicates his motives for an associative edit, and during a Gaelic-language community meeting in the Scottish Hebrides discussing the militarization of the region, he announces, “These are cutaways I put in . . . to condense the main scene.”) Most freely used is cinema’s ability to collapse distances, moving, for example, between sunny Polynesia and the frozen Saint Lawrence River in the blink of an eye. At least one journey, though, he is eager for the viewer to experience step by trudging step—one on foot along the tracks that carry assembled warheads on a so-called white train from the Pantax assembly plant in Amarillo, Texas, to a nuclear submarine base in Bangor, Washington. He returns to images of walking the last leg of this journey throughout the film, like a sort of refrain; following the trajectory of the warheads provides the film a kind of structure. These tracks are the film’s spine, one journey among many, and I doubt that anyone can walk their entire length with Watkins and remain wholly the same.

Peter Watkins’s The Journey runs January 6 through 8 at Light Industry in Brooklyn, New York.