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kenmorefield

Chernobyl

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I am admittedly wrestling with whether now is the best or worst possible moment to finally getting around to HBO's Chernobyl

It is devastating on so many levels, but most particularly the blunt illustrations of how the failures of systems are borne by individuals, and usually not the ones with the most invested in the system or the biggest hand in making them that way. 

Neither is the series about "heroes" in the face of circumstance, unlikely or not. The guys that swim under the reactor to hand turn the pumps do so because, as the autocrat says, it must be done, and they are the only ones who can do it. And yet, if the series can be believed we came within 48 hours of half a continent being uninhabitable for thousands of years. There is something both horrible and familiar (horribly familiar) about how the doers at all class levels have learned to ignore the "leaders" either by work around (the scientist speak in code on the phone, talking about nieces and nephews of a certain age so that the initials and ages correspond to chemical elements) or simply speaking to each other directly. ("If those things worked," a miner says of protective masks, "you'd be wearing them.") Even so, the human cost is unfathomable since, given time, that is the only resource to be thrown at the catastrophe. And each lie increases the death toll, and yet some must lie to stay alive long enough to keep even more from dying. 

If, like me, you look around at some recent disaster and wonder, "Will this be enough to change us?" How close must we get to the edge before we turn around? And  if, like me, on your darkest days, you think, no, we'll never turn around of our own volition, perhaps things that break systems are lust horrible, painful events that force us, in some small degree, to do what we know we should but can't bring ourselves to by strength of our fallen will, then this series will most likely resonate with you.

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22 hours ago, kenmorefield said:

I am admittedly wrestling with whether now is the best or worst possible moment to finally getting around to HBO's Chernobyl

I'd vote for best, considering I'm reading Stephen King's The Stand for the first time since my adolescence, because 1) it's about all my attention span can manage, and 2) there's something cathartic about sublimating fears into an even worse-case scenario.

22 hours ago, kenmorefield said:

If, like me, you look around at some recent disaster and wonder, "Will this be enough to change us?" How close must we get to the edge before we turn around? And  if, like me, on your darkest days, you think, no, we'll never turn around of our own volition, perhaps things that break systems are lust horrible, painful events that force us, in some small degree, to do what we know we should but can't bring ourselves to by strength of our fallen will, then this series will most likely resonate with you.

I don't say any of this to get into a political dispute, but the facts that Trump's approval rating reportedly stands at about 52%, and that the Dems are leaning towards Biden over Bernie (as the New York Times put it, restoration over revolution) suggest a more pessimistic short-term view.


To be an artist is never to avert one's eyes.
- Akira Kurosawa

https://www.patheos.com/blogs/secularcinephile/

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On 3/27/2020 at 4:14 PM, Andrew said:

I don't say any of this to get into a political dispute, but the facts that Trump's approval rating reportedly stands at about 52%, and that the Dems are leaning towards Biden over Bernie (as the New York Times put it, restoration over revolution) suggest a more pessimistic short-term view.

Certainly one of the things that resonates to me about the series is the effects, both short and long term, on the culture of not being able to trust *any* sources of information. To that extent Trump's villification of the news is relevant and not a particularly partisan issue. Increasingly, in my observation, everyone (people on left and right) are suspicious of sources of information, not just the usual, partisan suspects. 

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Glad you had a chance to catch up with this, Ken. It is an amazing piece of work - well plotted, paced, and structured. There is some interesting commentary out there on how the series reads political elements of the event and perhaps overplays the scientist vs. the system plot. I did notice this in a few moments, especially the final episode with its series of manicured court scenes and soapbox moments. Though, even if these criticisms are accepted, the series does nail what more informed people have described as a base Soviet cultural willingness to labor on behalf of the state without question.

My non-faculty work requires familiarity with and application of the US history of policy related to science, biomedical research, and related domains. My mind kept wandering back to some of the events around the institution of FDA, especially the Kefauver Harris Amendment in 1962 and the complex series of events around NIH ethical review from the 1950s to early 1980s. Given cultural and economic differences, the regulatory narratives do not really align. But there is a very translatable theme here in Chernobyl, which has to do with how while governments see science/technology as a tool, scientists see their work as a matter of technique. This is a difficult utilitarian barrier to overcome, which leads to environmental crisis, abuses of humans and data, violations of social welfare, etc...   

The miniseries does a good job of tracking how scientists and mining experts kept thinking and innovating in terms of technique (e.g. iterations of roof clearing robots) to stay ahead of the bureaucratic frenzy to minimize the disaster. 

Which is an alarming familiar trope for the present. 


"...the vivid crossing of borders between film and theology may save the film from the banality of cinema and festival business, and it may also save the church from the deep sleep of the habitual and the always known."

(Hans Werner Dannowski)

Filmwell | Twitter

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12 hours ago, M. Leary said:

Glad you had a chance to catch up with this, Ken. It is an amazing piece of work - well plotted, paced, and structured. There is some interesting commentary out there on how the series reads political elements of the event and perhaps overplays the scientist vs. the system plot. I did notice this in a few moments, especially the final episode with its series of manicured court scenes and soapbox moments. Though, even if these criticisms are accepted, the series does nail what more informed people have described as a base Soviet cultural willingness to labor on behalf of the state without question.

 

The weird thing about the theme in your last sentence is that I don't think it is an unreasonable interpretation to say that their willingness to do this is the only thing that averted an even greater catastrophe. (Although, if it contributed to the catastrophe in the first place....). So I'm not so sure that it is only on behalf of the state. Part of what we are seeing in the show (and today) is the system's ability, and that of master manipulators to intertwine service to the state with other kinds of service (to the general good) in ways that make the latter impossible without kneeling to the former. So people are forever having to choose between acceding to the state or allowing some sort of large-scale suffering. The state is more tolerant of wide-scale death (it can preserve itself even in the face of that) and so better at playing chicken with innocent lives.

Regarding the science v. system, I resonated strongly with the exchange (maybe episode two?) where Shcherbina tells Legasov words to the effect of "I wish you'd stick to talking about things you understand and not about things you don't understand." Shcherbina reminds me of Fetisov in Citizen X, and the key relationship between the male leads in that film evidences many of the same dynamics. I am, in some ways, more interested in the Fetisov and Shcherbina characters because of their choices to work within the system -- how it simultaneously enables the scientist/policeman to do work they otherwise couldn't and yet strengthens the system to make it harder for it to ever change. It's fascinating because it gives me a glimmer, I suspect, of how people within systems rationalize their own participation.

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5 hours ago, kenmorefield said:

So people are forever having to choose between acceding to the state or allowing some sort of large-scale suffering. The state is more tolerant of wide-scale death (it can preserve itself even in the face of that) and so better at playing chicken with innocent lives.

This is an interesting reflection and merits more conversation! I do like the utter humanity of the miners in the series, who serve as a foil to state language around service, safety, etc... There is a Tarkovsky or Dovzhenko sensitivity to human charity working within the machinery of state language at play here.

After I wrote that science v. system bit, I realized my observation requires a lot more nuance. I have worked with numerous federally-funded scientists in the US and other national systems, and can confirm that what you are saying is a better description. There is an art to applying for federal funding in ways that matches national interests in science (as tools for social good or social manipulation) in such a way that scientific data and technique also advance in empirical ways.

We are seeing that play out right now in FDA expanded access for COVID-19 related therapeutics. If you read between the lines, you can see labs/researchers knowing exactly what to do and trying to negotiate existing federal pathways to make these studies and lab-based tests happen rapidly. The struggle is real.

Edited by M. Leary

"...the vivid crossing of borders between film and theology may save the film from the banality of cinema and festival business, and it may also save the church from the deep sleep of the habitual and the always known."

(Hans Werner Dannowski)

Filmwell | Twitter

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