My significant film: Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk”
What does a quote from one of France’s great early 20th Century poets have to do with Christopher Nolan’s recent “Dunkirk”? Good question. The most exciting elements of the film was the structure itself, a plaiting of three not mutually exclusive story lines.
Before I dig deeper I must announce that I was biased as I bought my tickets, long before that even, probably starting when, at the age of 7 or 8, we took a family holiday from The Netherlands, where we lived (my dad was in the USAF, stationed with NATO at Brunssum), to Weymouth, Dorset, in the UK, where my maternal grandparents lived and where I was born. We crossed the channel- guess where? Yes, at Dunkirk. I had already learned some of the history, from books, films and from my grandparents, unheralded survivors of London ‘neath Nazi bombs. Thus I was roused from reading comics to stare out of the window at pillboxes cloaked in sand, their heavy shoulders and gun loops visible despite Nature’s efforts to heal itself. Dunkirk! It was an exciting stage of the trip.
As I am half British, I entered the cinema prepared to drink deeply of this film, free of expectations because I am a fan of Nolan’s other work and I didn’t doubt he would deliver. That is my bias somewhat explained.
About Appollinaire; he was a cubist and a surreallist poet. His poem “Zones” portrays literary cubism, which amounts to literary 3D, or, to put it another way, simultaneity. In the poem we are privy to multiple views across continents, at simultaneously occurring moments. Since paper and print are not three dimensional, linearity is unavoidable. The same goes for ‘Dunkirk’. The three story lines are at times simultaneous, and other times not. I loved this because it was disorienting. It was just as I imagine battle to be. Stendhal in “La Chartreuse de Parme”, expresses the disorienting nature of battle when the main character Fabrice del Dongo goes into battle to defend Italy from Napoleon’s army. “Stendhal, a veteran of several Napoleonic campaigns (he was one of the survivors of the retreat from Moscow 1812), describes this famous battle as a chaotic affair” (Wikipedia). It is precisely this novel I thought of when I realized what was going on in the film.
In “Dunkirk” Nolan has recreated the sense of cubism Appollinaire describes, by interchanging the formal story elements in a way that not only renders a compelling impression of the confusion of war, but also allows us a three dimensional perspective. Manohla Dargis of the New York Times (2017) also appreciates what Nolan has done: “At first the dividing lines aren’t always obvious as Mr. Nolan cuts from daytime scenes on the ground to those in the sea and in the air, a slight merging of space and especially of time that underlines the enormity of a fight seemingly without end.”
Peter Debruge of Variety (July) concurs, noting “the result is so clearly “a Christopher Nolan film” — from its immersive, full-body suspense to the sophisticated way he manipulates time and space”.
However, David Edelstein of Vulture.com (July) is not so appreciative of Nolan’s effort. “When the structure of Dunkirk becomes visible, when it stands as a mathematical demonstration of brave individual choices lining up in a tidy row, you might realize that you’ve been had.” I wonder what he means by that. As if there were some trick being played on the audience. I contend that each film, realistic or fantastical, has its own ground rules, which we learn as the film begins to unfold, implicitly teaching us how to watch what we are watching. It would be all thumbs and clumsy ugly if it were otherwise, and hugely inelegant. Can we imagine Nolan including a voice over explaining what is going on? Are we so juvenile in our viewing habits as to require such hand holding? I think not. I think Edelstein’s comment reveals him as one who doesn’t enjoy much, as one who takes the title ‘critic’ to the nether reaches. But we are all entitled to our opinions, and I will share another disparaging comment, this time from Christopher Hooten, of the online version of The Independent:
“Nolanoids I know talk about needing to go back and see the movies again as if to demonstrate how challenging he is. But needing to rewatch something because you can’t make sense of it the first time isn’t exactly a testament to a director’s skills as a storyteller.” (2017).
This quote is evidence of childish tit for tat between Hooton and his interlocutors, and such name-calling is, well, uncalled for. I detect more than a taint of harrumphing jealousy, either of the director’s success or of the fact that Hooten is unable to make sense the first or possibly even the second time. Boo hoo.
Debruge also complains of the film: “While unnecessarily confusing at times (and not especially satisfying as a puzzle — at least not in the way the ingenious backward-logic of “Memento” was back in the day), by splintering these three storylines, the director allows us to experience the Dunkirk evacuation from multiple perspectives.” (July) I think he is missing the point raised by Stendhal and recreated by Nolan: War is Confusing, especially to the active participants.
I don’t go to a movie for spoonfeeds; I go for entertainment, to have parts of my brain twanged, if I’m lucky, and for a glimpse into some aspect of the nature of humanity. In “Dunkirk” I found myself on the battlefield, driven by the unnerving soundtrack with its clock ticking and dread-inspiring sub tones. The camera, and thus the person in the cinema seat, is a participant in most of the action, rather than a remote observer. In the Lincoln Center interview (2017) Nolan mentioned much the same regarding camera placement in “Dunkirk”. I cottoned on to this immediately as in my current animation project I decided to use the camera in the same way. First, to convey the sense of isolation and abandonment felt by the characters, who, as they move through the city, do not have any bird’s eye views to help them avoid dangers in the road ahead. Secondly, I chose this for a practical reason: to obviate the need to construct extensive and elaborate environments. I’m such a lazy cheater.
My bias was not only apparent but utterly rewarded when the story shifted to scenes of men preparing a yacht to join the rescue flotilla, shot in my hometown of Weymouth. I actually shouted out in the cinema. Some angles showed the pantomime theater at the end of the esplanade, and the reverse shots showed houses very close to where my grandparents lived, and the harbor’s edge where I used to catch prawns of a summer evening. If I started in now about the Spitfire battle I would whip myself into a nostalgic patriotic fervor wholly inappropriate for this venue.
Christopher Nolan is a director whose stories and stylistic choices resonate with me, but what strikes me most are the parallels with my own artistic quest. For him, as it is to me, it is important to portray lost or unknown chapters of history, and in my case it is the soldiering done by colonial conscripts for France in wars of the 19th and 20th centuries. During an interview at the Lincoln Center, Nolan noted, regarding historical topics, that he is ‘always looking for a gap in the record, for the untold story’. (Lincoln Center). I too, have a nose for those stories.
To quote Appollinaire once more, “Memories are hunting horns whose sound dies on the wind.” (Inspiringquotes.com).
Through film and literature we can perpetuate human events which might otherwise be lost or forgotten, we can keep those horn sounds echoing, both for ourselves and our personal links to less known history, and for the next generation. With this filmic cubism Nolan invites us to take part, and to experience. As a filmmaker I aspire to also bring viewers into the worlds I create, and to entertain and ultimately move them. Let the horns blow! (as long as the camera and sound are rolling).
Dargis, Manohla. (2017). “Review: ‘Dunkirk’ Is a Tour de Force War Movie, Both Sweeping and Intimate”. New York Times, July. Online version accessed November 16, 2017: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/20/movies/dunkirk-review-christopher-nolan.html?referrer=google_kp
Debruge, Peter. (2017). “Film Review: Christopher Nolan’s ‘Dunkirk”. Variety, July. Online version accessed November 16, 2017: http://variety.com/2017/film/reviews/dunkirk-review-christopher-nolan-1202495701/
Dunkirk Q&A with Christopher Nolan (2017), by Film Society of Lincoln Center, distributed on YouTube. URL: www.youtube.com/watch?v=49Jt5k1W0bw [accessed on 10.26.2017]
Edelstein, David. (2017). “Dunkirk Is a Great War Movie Marred by Christopher Nolan’s Usual Tricks”. Vulture, July. Online version accessed November 16, 2017: http://www.vulture.com/2017/07/dunkirk-movie-review-a-great-war-movie-except.html
Hooten, Christoper. (2017). “Christopher Nolan has crafted a minimalist war film with maximal impact”. The Independent, July. Online resource accessed November 16, 2017: http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/films/reviews/dunkirk-film-review-2017-christopher-nolan-tom-hardy-cillian-murphy-mark-rylance-harry-styles-a7841876.html
Inside the making of “Dunkirk” (2017) by Popcorn with Peter Travers July 21 2017.
www.youtube.com/watch?v=3xHKBRtVNE0&t=1155s [accessed on 10.25.2017]
Inspiringquotes. (2017). “Guillaume Appollinaire”. (March). Online resource accessed November 16, 2017: https://www.inspiringquotes.us/author/8823-guillaume-apollinaire/page:2
Wikipedia. (2017). “The Charterhouse of Parma.” November. Online resource accessed November 16, 2017:https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Charterhouse_of_Parma