Issue 082
August, 8, 2023

Sandwiches, Oppenheimer, Shooting Film

Science as sort of the only real thing

Rodenians —

Hello from the other side of England-to-Tokyo jetlag, from a week of nights where I’ve slept only three hours and nights where I’ve slept a terrifying fifteen hours (sublime, but I also felt as egg-hatched as Richardson for the rest of the day). It’s been a busy few months. Good lord. What’s happening out there? Are you all well?

This is the Roden newsletter, founded in ~2012, run off Craigstack. I’m Craig Mod, and this particular Craig Mod took July off — my first Roden break in a long, long while. I had just finished the BASIE!BOP!JAMAICA! project/newsletter/book draft (see: “A Northern Japan Jazz Kissa Tour” and “Jazz Kissa Tour — Thank You!”) and it went exceedingly well, and I met all sorts of inspiring old people, and we had hilarious conversations (“You look like someone who’s been divorced.”) and listened to a more jazz than you can fit onto an iPod (OK, maybe not that much jazz). Thank you to everyone out there for your support in the project, especially SPECIAL PROJECTS members (archives for the BBJ! newsletter are available to members).

The BBJ crew

So, like any sane person, three days after finishing the jazz project (brain melting out my skull having written 35,000 words during the trip, body beaten by a dozen different hotels) I hopped on a plane to England (14 hours over the Arctic Circle?), and started walking 300km the next day with a buddy. It was fabulous. It also almost killed me (the timing, the lack of scheduled recovery). But — aside from all the natural beauty and funny fauna, I got this bit about sandwiches out of it, too (Ridgeline issue 167):

I ate a cheese sandwich. I ate a cheese sandwich with Branston Pickle. I got crisps. I put the crisps in the sandwich. I ate a cheddar cheese sandwich with Branston Pickle and salt and vinegar crisps on brown bread while looking out over Lakeland. I got more daring with my sandwich orders. To the consternation and confusion of various surly-yet-kind proprietresses, I ordered Madness: brown bread tuna no mayo, French mustard, cheddar cheese, Branston Pickle. That knocked ‘em back on their heels. Alright, love, they said. Within that “love” lived a universe of judgement. But I am not British, and so that judgement rolls off me like water on a duck. I am not of you people. I know not of your ways. I know not of your willy-nilly pluralizations and singulars. Back home I use a scale. I employ math. I thought I was ordering Pickles. I thought I was walking through the Lakes District. I thought wrong. I know only of my avant-garde tuna-no-mayo ways. I put crisps on that sucker, my beautiful bastard sandwich. I was a maniac. I was a maverick of the sandwich in these parts. Wordsworth’s (or is it Wordworths’?) ghost loomed. I cooed in abject ecstasy while seated at Innominate Tarn (THAT NAME), the ash-scattering-spot of subtle anarchist and bohemian walker Alfred Wainwright. I was walking, and you bet your bottom dollar I was eating sandwiches.

Damn, I miss those sandwiches already. As much as folks praise Japanese convenience store grub, soft egg mush on white doesn’t match a grated cheddar and Branston and onion on brown.

OK OK — enough palaver. Onto this issue about Oppenheimer (2023) and shooting film for the first time in two decades.

British summer sky

Oppenheimer: Ho-hum Politics, Exciting Physics

I went to see Oppenheimer twice over four days in London a few weeks ago. Once in “normal” 4k IMAX and then once at the British Film Institute in 70mm IMAX. I had to go at noon on a Tuesday because every other showing for the next two weeks was sold out. What a wild thing, to have a movie like this — a movie of, essentially, three hours of arthouse techno-rambling, an inscrutable protagonist, one boom in the middle — being so rapturously inhaled by the movie-going public.

As longtime Roden readers will recall, I had a brief moment of Atomic Mania (Atomania?) in March 2022, Roden Issue 66, after finishing Richard Rhodes’ The Making of the Atomic Bomb (1986), a book I still consider perhaps the most compelling, page-turning thing I’ve ever set my eyes upon. What I found so thoroughly gripping: the science, the collaboration, the coördination. To quote:

Here is the very moment Francis William Aston realized — as mediated via weirdly archaic-looking/sounding mechanisms pushing gas and spectrometric measurements — that the atom was an energy powerhouse:

Comparing helium to hydrogen, nearly 1 percent of the hydrogen mass was missing (4 divided by 4.032 = .992 = 99.2%). “If we were able to transmute hydrogen into helium nearly 1 percent of the mass would be annihilated. On the relativity equivalence of mass and energy now experimentally proved [Aston refers here to Einstein’s famous equation E = mc2], the quantity of energy liberated would be prodigious. Thus to change the hydrogen in a glass of water into helium would release enough energy to drive the ‘Queen Mary’ across the Atlantic and back at full speed.”

There is something almost embarrassingly exciting about seeing this written out — this moment of insight, propped up by mathematical transparency and certitude, of the literal power of splitting the atoms of the world all around us. And remember: We’ve barely had 100 years of living with this first insight / observation of latent energy.

You can read more in that past Roden about how math and science influenced my life as a teenager, really cracked open my brain as to what was possible in the greater world.

As for 4k vs 70mm IMAX, I didn’t notice much of a difference? (Both screens being equally huge, both backed up by otherworldly speaker sets.) Perhaps I’m outing myself as a film philistine by admitting this — I mean they both looked great, and I suspect if you played them side by the side, the differences would be evident. The 70mm theater was an objectively better theater, the screen maybe a tad larger. And there were fewer British people yelling at each other to shut up at the BFI. The standout detail of 70mm: the remnants of two old piercings in Cillian Murphy’s left earlobe, the scars of the holes some twenty-feet high as Nolan set the camera (smartly, rightly) upon Murphy’s (incredible) face. Given how easy it is to remove stuff like this in post, it’s a marvel they left those holes in. (Because they really were distracting!)

And as for the film — given my love for the science, my love for the process of getting to the bomb, and as astounding as the film was in many ways — it felt like Nolan missed an opportunity to produce a true heist film of the highest order, the heist to end all heists, an Ocean’s Hundred-Thousand where the bomb is the greatest, most cursed diamond conceivable, where the stakes are true and immutable. But instead we were given a little bit of science, half-a-heist, and a whole lot of muddy, post-war political intractability.

Which makes the first twenty-or-so minutes so heartbreaking — it’s there, the science wooing, the romancing of the research stone through music and strange b-rolls. But I wanted more more more.

My ideal version of this film would have begun in the 1900s or ‘10s, with flashes of Relativity and then the steps of Quantum Mechanics with Planck, Bohr, and Heisenberg. Quantum tunneling with Gamow and Gurney. The nuclear shell model with Maria Goeppert Mayer and J. Hans D. Jensen. Chadwick’s discovery of the neutron. Anderson’s positron unveiling. Hold the camera longer on Lawrence and his cyclotron. What’s going on there? (I mean, ya got Josh Hartnett’s pretty head, plaster it up!) Shoot in high-grade mega-IMAX-bokeh the oddly simple experimental setups, the beakers, the blips, the radiation tick-tick-ticks, the iterations, the step-by-step expansion of understanding the fabric of everything around us. Give us an hour of this, this arguably greatest moment of human insight. You can still call the film Oppenheimer. Let the man loom, weave him between it all as he makes his way through Europe, sets up at Berkeley, is selected to lead Los Alamos. Ramp up the Nazi threat. Show the diaspora of brilliance more clearly. Believe the audience is willing to sit through more than just “Is it a wave … or is it particle?” Oh! There is so much excitement, so much incredible science to be mined, and Nolan mined so little.

And then — with the science built up in our imagined film, with the stakes and genius established — then the true heist begins. That Nazi threat is maximized. The Oppenheimer machine is put into motion. We have our crew. Our Martians. Our Hungarian and German escapees, Americans, and other Europeans. Ninety minutes of that. Does Trinity work? Make it the most emotionally complex and harrowing and thrilling button press in movie history.

Strauss and his kangaroo court and Oppenheimer’s philandering all become (quite frankly) sort of meaningless things in the greater context of quantum matter, in the context of splitting the atom, in the context of briefly running a nuclear reactor beneath a football field in Chicago, in the context of somewhat arbitrarily vaporizing a few hundred thousand civilians. I couldn’t but feel heartbreak that the miracle insights of our consciousness (we are the eyes of the universe looking back at itself and all that), the ingenuity of our skull-protected meat-lumps, played a distant second fiddle to (an admittedly well-acted) Downey Jr. as Strauss and his bafflingly pea-sized ego.

Because every time Strauss was whimpering I couldn’t help but think: You are absolutely nothing.

The biggest emotional gut-drop in the film was watching the rote, principle-untethered efficiency with which Our State Machine deployed death so quickly after a single successful test (July 15 Trinity → August 6 Hiroshima; I mean …). Watching that, I mostly felt what I’ve felt for years now: That our political and social structures, the philosophies and ways we’ve educated ourselves aren’t up to the task of truly, ethically handling many of our contemporary technologies or sciences of the quantum echelon. Our egos are simply too fragile, our horizons too short, our systems too rigid in the wrong ways.

Somewhere in the universe, there exists a version of Oppenheimer that is more There Will Be Blood (2008) (scientific research shown with swelling soundtracks, the maniacal pursuit of quantum knowledge as oil) and Primer (2004) (“science” bibble-babble with full verve and commitment) than A Few Good Men (1992), and I’m sad we didn’t get to see it … yet? Holding my breath that someone else will recognize the beauty and power of all that early 20th century physics work.

Somewhat related reading (as I link to in the original Atomic Roden): When We Cease to Understand the World — a historical novel that basically does a bit of what I wished Oppenheimer did. (It riffs and rhymes along the same “desire vector.”)

Take quantum mechanics, the crown jewel of our species, the most accurate, far-ranging and beautiful of all our physical theories. It lies behind the supremacy of our smartphones, behind the Internet, behind the coming promise of godlike computing power. It has completely reshaped our world. We know how to use it, it works as if by some strange miracle, and yet there is not a human soul, alive or dead, who actually gets it. The mind cannot come to grips with its paradoxes and contradictions. It’s as if the theory had fallen to earth from another planet, and we simply scamper around it like apes, toying and playing with it, but with no true understanding.

I mean, obviously, I think there are lots of folks who do get it, but the gist is there.

hasselblad 500cm porta 400

Film Revival!

So … I did the thing that for many years I said I wouldn’t do. I started shooting on film again. Rather than wade into the mess of that online favorite, Film vs. Digital, here are simply some notes on my experience of revisiting the old thing over these last three months:

  • I pulled my old Hasselblad 500CM body (medium format, 6x6cm square negatives) off the shelf, a shelf it had been sitting on for some 20 years (purchased on eBay for $306.00, Feb 3, 2003), and grabbed a used 80MM f/2.8 Zeiss (40-50mm-ish in 35mm lens terms; purchased for a lot more in May, 2023) and put a few rolls through it.
  • It seems my Hasselblad A12 back had slightly broken down in the intervening decades (ha ha!), had sort of fallen apart at the (light) seams and gears, so a bunch of the shots were inadvertently double-exposures (kind of fun, but also annoying). Bought another used A12 that works.
  • The camera doesn’t have a meter, so I’ve been using an iPhone app (Lightme) to estimate exposure times.
  • Interestingly, the shutters on Hasselblads are in the lenses. (The main body is just a square, hollow block with a flappy thing allowing light from the lens to hit the film in the back; on longer exposures, you have to hold the release down to make sure the flap doesn’t close before the shutter closes.) They max out at about 1/500s — pretty slow. So I slapped a ND-16 (4-stop) filter on a bayonet mount allowing me to open the lens up even in broad daylight.
  • I picked up a used newer split-prism focusing screen.
  • Turns out when you whip out a Hasselblad people get excited. “Is that a movie camera?!” I took some fun portraits of friends and folks around town. Everyone was like what’s that and uhhh, yessss please take my photo.
  • Many of the shots did not turn out at all — light leaks, bad exposure, etc. But that was also fun:
fun failures
  • Still, I thought it was a funny (if heavy) object, and — on a masochistic whim — I took it with me to England and walked (much of) 300km with it. I put it on a Peak Design shoulder strap holder. Meaning it was just there, hanging off my shoulder. I thought it would elicit more conversations! The folks who recognized it got a kick, for sure. But mostly it was ignored. It was a strange feeling to carry something so burdensome and take so few photographs. Over 14 days I took 30 shots.
  • The cost of film is ridiculous. And developing even more so. Truly, a several-dollars-per-shot kind of medium. It’s a somewhat idiotic constraint but one I leaned into, though it certainly minimizes experimentation / playfulness. Every shot is like OK GOD PLEASE WORK.
  • But I got those Coast to Coast rolls developed and … freakishly, against all expectations, almost every shot was decent, and many quite fun, some maybe even good? Turns out: that large film surface area, the 2.8 lens, the ND-16 filter is a potent landscape combo for pulling weird large-ish format vibes from the world.
dry-stone walls out the window
  • It was nice to not import photos each night, to not edit each night, to not be looking over images each day. I mean, I shot maybe 20 or so photos a day using my iPhone (in Halide in Apple ProRaw format), and would edit those each night, but that was a ten minute procedure, and just for fun. I couldn’t rightly use those images in a book, for example. (As impressive as they are, the per-pixel quality is still icky; physics!)
  • After finishing my Tōhoku jazz tour, and having taken thousands of photographs, it was nice to have a camera system separate from my “work” system, making Hasselblad photography feel almost like a different activity altogether.
  • The slowness of shooting medium format was plainly fun. I am not a “shoot four thousand images of a single object” kinda person (which I know some digital shooters do?). But I sometimes compose more hastily than I should, mainly because I know I can fix so much in post. So to feel the kind of “do or die” nature of getting it right on the Hasselblad’s ground glass itself was nice (although, of course, you can easily crop / fix in post with film, too).
  • It was so nice, so much fun, to have this “other” space through which to enjoy looking at the world, a space far from the phone and far from the M11, that (here it comes) I actually (bald-faced justifications) picked up (gasp, horror) a pristine M6 TTL 0.58 when I got back from England. As much fun as the Hasselblad is, it’s a clunker.
  • I think this is what we now call a hobby?
  • Why the M6TTL 0.58? I always shoot with glasses (sunglasses, often), and have never “loved” the tightness of the standard 0.72 magnification Leica rangefinders for shooting my usual lens: 35mm Summilux/Summicron. For a few years Leica allowed you to custom order bodies with 0.58 or 0.82 magnification for the rangefinder mechanism. (They no longer offer this, AFAIK — though some say you can mail your Leica to Germany and they’ll retrofit for a hefty fee.) So I found a used 0.58, recently overhauled. And for the first time in years I can see the edges and beyond of my 35mm framelines — a wonderful thing.
  • Overall, it’s been a positive (if expensive) experience! It’s shaken up my eyeballs. I’m thinking often why this angle and why this light more than I’ve thought in years.
  • That said, it feels maybe 40/60 distraction/potent tool. The fetishization of gear over the doing — over being out in the world, over meeting people, over taking the shots, getting the shots, over looking looking and looking more, and ultimately over collating, sequencing, publishing — is a dangerous drug.
  • Film photography YouTube is weird — so much GoPro walking around and then showing pictures of gasoline barrels at sunset, talking about how much the film was pushed or pulled.
  • Again: Hobbies, a hobby. (I have to keep saying this to give myself context, or else I feel like I’m losing my mind.)
  • Randomly: I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the dynamic range on Porta 160 and Porta 400.

All in all, it’s made me realize the marvel of a digital camera like an M11 paired with a, say, 50mm Summilux. What a setup. You’re getting into (surpassing in many ways) medium-format levels of quality and depth of field with such a small package. Each shot is “free.” You can experiment until you’re blue in the face and see precisely what happened the second after you release the shutter. This makes for great feedback loops.

Still: The “quiet” of something like a Hasselblad is undeniable. (Even if the slap of its shutter shakes the table.) We’re in an age of self-imposed “artificial scarcity.” I wrote about this briefly during BASIE!BOP!JAMAICA!. We have access to such abundance — a billion photos, infinite video at our fingertips, the ability to fill our closets with clothes for a hundred bucks, a near-zero-cost amusement bonanza straight to the grave — that the move to “scarcity” mediums like vinyl or cassettes (!!) or film or obsessing over 70mm IMAX prints does make sense (in a cockamamied way). Sixty years ago, jazz kissa owners saw an “arbitrage opportunity” in music, in record ownership. Today that opportunity is lost. Today we have all the music we could want all the time. Ten thousand YouTube channels to explain each album. Transcriptions of every instrument. So what do we do? We arbitrage attention by hunting for records of albums on Spotify to put on our shelves. We load a clunky (mostly) light-tight box with celluloid and pretend like every shot is our last. These are ostensibly pointless acts (“Just tell Siri to play the album, just use your phone to take the photo!”) but in reality they’re goofy forms of prayer for us godless folk, prayer for honing attention, for cultivating intimacy, for looking a little more closely in a world beset by distraction, seductive distraction.

(You could argue these are foundational qualities — attention and intimacy, and with that empathy and responsibility — of a personhood required to handle nuclear technologies.)

As for work: I can’t imagine having shot BASIE!BOP!JAMAICA! using only film, though. Too many dark interiors, too much needing to know that the shot has been got. But I can imagine having done it with the Hassey in tow (cue the film people: Muhahaha this is how it begins!), for the once- or twice-a-day portrait. Or with the M6 in the pack, for golden hour town rambles. Just something to shake it up a bit. To put your head in a space of less abundance, more scarcity. However artificial it may be. And to get from that, one hopes, something a little different.

OK! Wow. Way more than expected up there. I have a new book I need to be editing right now. Announcements forthcoming. Please hold. More soon. Stay cool (unless you’re in England in which case: I am jealous of your summer sweaters).

And never forget: The sheep are always watching.


some herdwick sheepies