Yes, this is the time of year to be jolly, eat too many cookies, and count your blessings. So it may seem strange to recommend a film about the creation of an opera that's about the creation of the atomic bomb. However, Wonders Are Many: The Making of Doctor Atomic is not to be missed. This enthralling fugue of history, science, and art, with the human face behind genius, is the next feature of the Independent Lens series on PBS.
After several screenings, I'm still stunned by what director Jon Else has accomplished. Not only has he made a superior, behind-the-scenes look at the creation of the grand opera Doctor Atomic (which premiered in 2005 at the San Francisco Opera), but the event itself provides him with the perfect vehicle to examine his fascination with opera and nuclear weaponry, while showing two of the most compelling artists of their generation at work – minimalist composer John Adams and the legendary director Peter Sellars.
"The problem is the subject is so clichéd," Sellars says early in the film when speaking of the opera's subject – the creation and first deployment of the atomic bomb. "We've heard it all before. In art, one of our jobs is to take something you look at every day but never see and say, 'Look again.'" The same could be said of Else's Wonders Are Many. Using archival footage and well-selected interviews, Else manages to open a new window through which to look at the advent of the Nuclear Age while still celebrating the creation of a new theatrical work.
Doctor Atomic received mixed reviews when it opened yet is still produced around the world. Else offers no appraisal of the production. Instead, he focuses on making Adams and Sellars accessible – a smart approach, given the somewhat arcane nature of their previous opera collaborations (Nixon in China, The Death of Klinghoffer). He does the same with the opera's subject, J. Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb (and the subject of Else's first documentary, The Day After Trinity: J. Robert Oppenheimer & the Atomic Bomb). Like Adams and Sellars, Else is fascinated with Oppenheimer, the brilliant scientist who delivered to man the ability to annihilate himself. (In the film's voiceover, it's stated that Oppenheimer believed the atomic bomb would deaden the impulse for war, not turn it into the trump card that survives today.) However, as in Doctor Atomic, Wonders Are Many is not entirely fixated on the omnipresent doom the Nuclear Age begot. It spends as much time examining the pinpoint on which the human imagination dances in the act of creation – the place where madness and genius coexist, where one small choice can make the difference between arriving at something sublime, at something pedestrian, or worse.
"Nothing you can put onstage or in a painting can match the suffering of those people," Sellars says of the atomic bomb victims and survivors at Hiroshima and elsewhere. "Therefore, the art, if sincere, is strangely inadequate ... if insincere, really obscene. [As playwright Samuel] Beckett said, 'Some things must remain unspeakable.'"
Wonders Are Many played at last year's Sundance and Austin film festivals. Because of the Independent Lens series, what was available to a limited few is now available to a wider audience, right in your living room. Don't be put off by the subject matter. If there was ever a reason to be thankful for public television, the ability to see this extraordinary film is one of them.
Wonders Are Many: The Making of Doctor Atomic airs Tuesday, Dec. 16, at 9pm on PBS. Check local listings for additional airdates.
Also on 'Independent Lens'
Grey Gardens: From East Hampton to Broadway: Acclaimed documentary filmmaker Albert Maysles revisits his groundbreaking Grey Gardens (1975), about two highly eccentric women, Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale and her daughter Edie, who were aunt and cousin to Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. The film became a cult classic, making the Beales offbeat celebrities and later the inspiration for an award-winning Broadway musical. Airs Tuesday, Dec. 23, at 9pm.
Operation Filmmaker: An Iraqi film student whose school is destroyed in the early days of the Iraq war is invited by actor Liev Schreiber to join the crew of Everything Is Illuminated, Schreiber's directorial debut. However, good intentions get lost in the midst of cultural clashes, a high-stress movie set, and mixed signals. Directed by Nina Davenport. Airs Tuesday, Dec. 30, at 9pm.
E-mail Belinda Acosta at firstname.lastname@example.org.