Jon Else's "Wonders Are Many," showing at the SF International Film
Festival (http://tinyurl.com/3cjvud), is the subject of an interview
with the director by JUDY STONE -
It was all about plutonium in a riveting opera chorus. Physics.
Poetry. Baudelaire and the Bhagavad-Gita. Babies born while
the "father of the bomb" works on the ultimate destroyer of life.
What kind of kaleidescope could go behind and beyond the scenes
of "Dr. Atomic," the haunting San Francisco Opera about the
device that forever will haunt the world?
That was the new challenge Jon Else had hoped for ever since he
made "The Day After Trinity" in 1980, the first documentary about
J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos,
New Mexico in World War 11. Else's new documentary "Wonders are
Many: The Making of Dr. Atomic" will open Saturday during the
San Francisco International Film Festival's 50th anniversary.
It stars the patrician, New England - born and bred, white-haired
composer, John Adams, an eminence with a self-deprecating sense
of humor, and director Peter Sellars, an impish dynamo, full of
passionate persuasion. On Sunday, after delivering his optimistic
"State of the Cinema" address, Sellars will fly to Amsterdam to
prepare the international premiere of "Dr. Atomic."
"I learned more about directing from Peter," Else volunteered
during a recent interview here, "than I did from working on
dozens of films."
Else had been shooting a documentary on Alice Waters, owner of
Berkeley's Chez Panisse restaurant, when he heard that an opera
about the bomb was in preparation. "It took me all of 3 seconds
to know what my next film would be. I got Adams' number and to
my amazement he answered the phone. He knew who I was because
he and Peter had seen "The Day After Trinity" and were in the
early stages of working on the libretto.
"We shared a lot of the same values about that astonishing
moment in world history. We shared a belief that art can make
a difference to culture and society and politics. We shared an
interest in the moral conundrums and complexities of this big
story." The three were fascinated by the baffling, erudite figure
of Oppenheimer who named the test site Trinity, inspired by John
Donne's poem whose words "Batter My Heart Three-Person'd God"
reverberate throughout the opera.
What particularly excited Else was their decision to make the
centerpiece of Act One the secret meeting, organized by physicist
Robert Wilson, to debate the use of the bomb over cities where
thousands of people would die although the war was practically
In grappling with the disparate issues that emerged before the
bomb was exploded on July 16, 1945, Else shifts scenes from the
opera shop where the stage bomb is being made to choral rehearsals
enlivened by Sellars' exhortations, to Adams worrying about how
his notes will sound when sung, to Oppenheimer's bedroom where
lead singer Gerald Finley is baffled by his mysterious erotic
poetry lines. To the upsetting last-minute major cast change.
Throughout, there are previously unseen glimpses of Oppenheimer,
recently declassified footage on the bomb and the carnage in
Japan, all uncannily achieving a clarity sometimes muffled in
the opera itself.
Else, a lanky, humorous 63, first saw a lightning atomic flash
at age six when his artist father took him into the backyard of
their Sacramento home before dawn to observe the light from one
of the bomb tests being conducted 300 miles away at the Nevada
test site in the 1950's. That glow, he said, "must have lodged
itself into my consciousness."
His was a circuitous route to filmmaking. After getting a BA
in English at the University of California, Else worked on voter
registration in the civil rights movement when he met Haskell
Wexler who was shooting a film on the freedom riders. It was
the first time Else realized that "people could make films about
interesting things" and Wexler became his inspiration. While
he studied film at Stanford University, he got a "wonderful"
education processing negatives in a laboratory dark room. After
dreaming about a Cinema career a la Jean-Luc Godard, his first
job was a letdown: a movie on snoring in Stanford's Sleep Disorder
Opera was not on his agenda. Else had seen only one before
he was 45. Later, planning a documentary on the San Francisco
Opera's "Ring Cycle," he listened to a Wagner recording. His
first reaction was unprintable. Since then, he has become
a fan. As for "Dr. Atomic," he said, "It's not for the
chicken-hearted. It's real beefy opera. Part of it has some
of the greatest music I've ever heard and parts were just not
for me. Parts make you tear up. I warned my crew to stay focused
and not to cry. Still, there were moments when the opera was
just too strong for us and it broke through that professional
shield we needed to stay focused."
Perhaps what remains in focus for the audience is the shot of
Picasso's anti-war masterpiece "Guernica," followed by Sellars'
moving talk to the chorus. Only silence is appropriate, he says,
as they wait for the countdown to the explosion because "art is
not up to such sheer horror." "In our century," he quotes Samuel
Beckett, "some things must remain unspeakable."
[A jaw-dropping related item from JG: Sellars, appearing at the film
festival, was asked about Rostropovich's death, and he said at one time
he almost worked with Slava when asked to direct Schnittke's 1991 "Life
with an Idiot." Sellars turned down the assignment because "although
Slavic Studies was my major, I felt I didn't know enough about the subject
to do it justice." No such problem with "Peony Pavilion," commented the
impertinent reporter. PS No. 2: Sellars said changes will be made in
"Atomic" at both its Amsterdam and Chicago productions.]
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