Totalitarian Vistas, Orwellian Dystopias, and the Myopics of Chernobyl

Well, are you ready for United 93, the movie dramatizing the experience aboard one of the planes hijacked on 11 September 2001? New Yorkers were the first to view the film, which premiered last night at the Tribeca Film Festival, where it is being screened alongside sequels and remakes like Mission: Impossible III and Poseidon. Are the popcorn-littered, digital surround-sound blasting multiplexes the most appropriate places to remember the past and commemorate the dead? Having lived in Manhattan during the terror and aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks—days of fear, frustration, anger and uncertainty—I am doubtful that any traditional film narrative, whether somber of sensational, could deepen our understanding of terrorism, let alone supersede the horrific images that continue to replay in our minds.

Our desire to see for ourselves is sometimes best left unsatisfied, unless the act of seeing—and of not finding—drives home that we must probe not elsewhere, but differently. However impressive, suggestive or manipulative, pictures cannot show us our thoughts that, at best, they can merely provoke. More often, they become too overwhelming or altogether numbing, leaving us in a state of stupefaction in which complex ideas become dim and indistinct, a state quite advantageous to propagandist efforts. I am reminded of the description of the movie theater experience in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, a devastating portrait of an insensate mind:

April 4th, 1984. Last night to the flicks. All war films. One very good one of a ship full of refugees being bombed somewhere in the Mediterranean. Audience much amused by shots of a great huge fat man trying to swim away with a helicopter after him, first you saw him wallowing along in the water like a porpoise [. . .]. then you saw a lifeboat full of children with a helicopter hovering over it. there was a middle-aged woman [ . . .] sitting up in the bow with a little boy about three years old in her arms. little boy screaming with fright and hiding his head between her breasts as if he was trying to burrow right into her and the woman putting her arms round him and comforting him although she was blue with fright herself [. . .]. then the helicopter planted a 20 kilo bomb in among them terrific flash and the boat went all to matchwood. then there was a wonderful shot of a child’s arm going up up up right up into the air a helicopter with a camera in its nose must have followed it up and there was a lot of applause. [. . .]

Orwell’s dystopian fiction proved highly useful during the Eisenhower years, when it was appropriated for the purpose of demonizing communist ideals and socialist ideas that, in the depression-stricken period of the FDR administration, had been widely embraced, sanctioned, and partially implemented. A radio adaptation of Nineteen Eighty-Four that aired on this day, 26 April, in 1953, underscored the timeliness of Orwell’s “prophetic reporting of the future,” by casting newscaster Kenneth Banghart in the role of the narrator.

“Perhaps you’re wondering why a newsman is appearing in a Theatre Guild on the Air dramatization,” Banghart introduced himself and the play.

It’s because George Orwell’s great novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, deals with the most terrifying subject in the news today: the threat to all free men of communism or totalitarian domination in any form. In fiction, Orwell creates for us a picture of what life might be, should the totalitarian forces succeed with their plan to become the earth’s masters.

It was a masterplan that—according to the disposable logic of America’s emerging consumer culture—was the due course of communism itself.

Thirty-three years after this broadcast—on 26 April, in 1986—the iron curtain was still firmly in place, keeping much from view and leaving more to the imagination of cold-war stirred westerners. It did not keep the radioactive cloud from moving westward, however well guarded the secret of the nuclear disaster of Chernobyl—or of its extent, at any rate—might have been. The boundaries we create in our minds, those we mind, and those we mindlessly accept, are no hindrances to the invisible force of destruction unleashed by hubris, ignorance, and greed.

Being pointed to it by someone who is generally a purveyor of visual treats, I took a virtual tour of the wasteland that is the area around Chernobyl today: a ghost world that will remain uninhabitable for generations to come. Not surprisingly, what renders these images—and the video clip above—most profound is what we do not get to see, what becomes tangible only to our receptive minds: the hazards of the half-life, the sorrow of lives lost, and the misery of life’s blind ambitions.

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