San Francisco

Les Levine

Media artist Les Levine once described TV as “easy magic.” In his videotape Einstein: A Nuclear Comedy, 1983, he performs the conjurer’s trick of resurrecting the great scientist through the process of “deep television,” a technique enabling Levine to interview individuals dead up to a hundred years. (As the narrator relates, “Small details such as the noses may change.”) Played by the bulbous-nosed Eli Delauro, Levine’s Einstein is the quintessential Italian- or Eastern European–looking grandfather of socialist persuasion; we discover that his secret fantasy was to have been a music hall comedian. As the plaintive strains of the Walt Disney standard “A Dream Is A Wish Your Heart Makes” swell on a single violin, Einstein appears and delivers his shtick: timeworn jokes of the cops-delivering-babies-in-cabs genre segue into a monologue about nuclear power and politics.

Meanwhile, Levine superimposes a second, transparent layer of video imagery over Einstein. Comprised mostly of footage of Hawaiian volcanoes erupting and lava flowing, these images of fiery destruction function as a recurrent, almost subliminal backdrop to Einstein’s commentary. As his observations wander from nuclear power to paeans of praise of his own abilities as cook and handyman, or to punning asides about the nature of relativity, low comedy becomes a metaphor for low—or at least everyday—consciousness.

Levine’s masterstroke is to make Einstein not a genius, but Everyman; he is a figure to whom we can relate. For the first third of the 22-minute tape, Einstein is an impassioned advocate of nuclear power. “They say [nuclear] plants cause trouble for people who live in the area. They should move out of the area,” he pontificates. Yet a few minutes later he urges people to speak out against the Indian Point, New York, nuclear facility in as large numbers as possible. The transition between these opposed viewpoints seems effortless, and surely mirrors a path millions of Americans have traveled as disaffection with nuclear power has grown. Like the rest of us, this endearingly muddleheaded Einstein is a victim of corporate and governmental doublespeak.

Levine has been criticized in the past for a certain awkwardness in positioning his own viewpoint within the dialectical tensions he generates. Here, he authoritatively lets his musical, visual, and spoken elements speak for themselves. The resulting interaction is subtle and often humorous. As I write, the nation is reeling from that televisual presentation of nuclear holocaust, The Day After; this chilling phenomenon—one wonders if a few network television executives are determining all public-policy discourse—aptly illustrates the thesis of Levine’s essay “Media: The Bio-Tech Rehearsal for Leaving the Body.” In it, he astutely observes that “media fosters disbelief in everything except itself, constantly generating anxiety in fear that we may believe in something other than it.” The difference between The Day After and Einstein: A Nuclear Comedy is the difference between propaganda and art.

Robert Atkins