Although June’s show in Hiroshima perhaps pipped it, filmmaker Mark Cousins and Mogwai couldn’t have chosen a better setting for the screening of Atomic, Living In Dread And Promise than Coventry Cathedral, which was decimated by Nazi airstrikes in 1940 and has been a working monument to peace ever since.
The cavernous building’s seating is reversed for tonight’s performance, a screen mounted in front of giant angel-emblazoned windows which frame the old cathedral’s bomb-ravaged ruins. Coventry-born Cousins was christened here and had spoken of his excitement at the home-city event, showing another of his films, I Am Belfast, on a second screen in the ruins earlier.
As for Mogwai, they take the stage in darkness and remain unlit all night, the sight of Martin Bulloch’s kick drum shuddering and the five-piece picking up and switching instruments about all that can be glimpsed.
Atomic’s brightest track, the twinkling ‘Ether’, signals a barrage of life-giving images, cells dividing, shoals of fish swimming, people laughing – a world of wonders. But what follows dents hope in humanity. Across 70 minutes of stitched-together footage, Cousins paints a terrifying picture of intended and accidental nuclear destruction in the 20th century. Tree-bending explosions, mushroom clouds, lurking submarines and the very real human consequences of Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Chernobyl are set against reportage of ordinary people with no idea what they’re facing and the politicians who push the button.
Mogwai’s film pedigree is established – the recent soundtrack to French return-from-the-dead drama Les Revenants one of their most affecting albums. The lack of narration on Atomic means their atmospheric instrumentation contributes emotional heft. Largely restrained, dual keyboards dominate, but when the Scots lift off the reverberations send shudders across the audience. The spine-tingling ‘Bitterness Centrifuge’, set to images of miles-wide radioactive detonation from US tests in the Pacific, is electrifying, Stuart Braithwaite’s guitar sending out piercing shards which ratchet up and up in intensity. The electro pulse of ‘U-235’ and the violin on the surely ironically-titled ‘Are You Dancer?’ also grip. To hear the soundtrack in isolation is to simply discover another good Mogwai LP. Experiencing it in the context of the film adds, to state the obvious, another dimension entirely and it’s clear that both rely on each other for direction and form.
At a time when nuclear power is back on the political and economic agenda and debate over Trident rages on, Cousins’ work could be dismissed as idealistic propaganda. Except that it does also depict the benefits and wonder of nuclear science and the medical breakthroughs it birthed.
More than that, you sense that creating an intellectual argument is not Cousins’ agenda. As I turned to leave, the woman next to me, in her 60s, who’d just sat through the climactic guitar scree that finished the film, joked that she could now take the tissue out of her ears. She then explained that she lived through some of the horrors we’d watched – and we’d re-lived them tonight. This was a new act of remembrance, in a building that will never forget. The empty beer cans left on the cathedral’s wooden seats a poignant collision of worlds that won’t cost the earth.
Words: Pete Bate (@petebate)
Picture: Brian Sweeney