DUNKIRK – Racing Against the Clock

 

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Dunkirk (Christopher Nolan, 2017)

From the opening shot of a group of young British soldiers walking through the streets of a battleground French town during World War II, Dunkirk ignites its time bomb narrative and makes you hold your breath for the duration of the film.

Nolan’s penchant for cutting between different points of action simultaneously and muddling our perception of time between events was first showcased in the tunnel sequence in The Dark Knight, repeated again in Inception’s final dream collapse, and now here in Dunkirk, it has finally been used to its fullest effect. The film structures itself in three intertwining parts: The Mole* (where the majority of stranded British soldiers remain), The Sea (where ships hope to carry them back home), and The Air (where British jets fight with the Luftwaffe).

Nolan even quickly spells out the background of the Dunkirk situation with title cards, where German forces had cornered British and French soldiers at The Mole and the British were waiting for ships to take them home and escape death at the hands of the Germans. Of course, the Luftwaffe was flying around trying to sink any naval rescue the British had in mind. Thus, the situation was dire and the clock was ticking as the Germans were closing in.

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The transparency of intentions may sound disappointing, as fans of Chris Nolan have grown to enjoy putting the pieces of his ambiguous film-puzzles together after the credits roll, but then, Dunkirk is a true story of a real event with real people. Nolan plays this straight and appropriately so. Nevertheless, there are many facets of Dunkirk which belie the traditions of a Hollywood war film, and Nolan’s direction innovates along with Hoyte van Hoytema’s camerawork and Lee Smith’s editing juxtapose points of view and deep focus shots that are mesmerizing in 70mm projection.

Adding to the technical innovations, the politics of the film, a topic which is almost impossible to not touch on in today’s climate, are in themselves unique in comparison to how Hollywood deals with war. Modeled more closely after Terrence Malick’s masterpiece The Thin Red Line rather than Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, Nolan concentrates on time, survival and the impending fear of death rather than the blood-and-guts patriotism (there is no blood in this movie) most war films aim their eye on. Sure, the pride of Britain is on display especially in Mark Rylance’s character, who is fundamental about his duty to his countrymen, but even that is more often discussed in the film as a general act of “doing good” rather than a soapbox stance for national pride. He continually says he needs to save people, not necessarily Brits. The idea of the “nation” or “citizens” is actually missing from a lot of the movie. In fact, the Germans are identified only once or twice as the enemy. In this approach, the film posits that the bravery and will to fight on for these soldiers stems from the fear and desperation that compound with each minute. They are strictly fighting to live.

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Within the film’s race-against-time narrative, there are several microcosms of the same theme peppered throughout, where two young soldiers try to carry an injured man to the boat before it sails off, a pilot crash lands in the ocean trying to get out of his cockpit before it fills up with water, soldiers try to escape from the ship’s kitchen before being trapped and drowned. All of these moments are handled with efficiency by Nolan, who lays all of his cards on the table and replaces his often critiqued overwritten dialogue with well directed and nerve-wracking action sequences beautifully captured by cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema. Part of me thinks Nolan used this as an opportunity to shut all the critics up about his inability to direct action as well as Michael Bay or Michael Mann.

Dunkirk is exhausting, and it hits you like a machine gun. Every moment runs at fast-forward and every cut jumps from one tense moment to the next gripping us in with an ambiguous sense of time that leaves us hanging in the balance at each second. Combined with Hans Zimmer’s deafening score which features a relentless ticking of a clock in your ear, Christopher Nolan embarks on a 106-minute sprint of directorial showmanship in what may not be his best, but at least at first watch, I can say is easily his most technically accomplished film.

 

The Oscar (of) Race

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We didn’t get a White Christmas this year thanks to El Nino, but the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, for the second year in a row, didn’t hesitate to bestow upon us a White Oscars. There have been hashtags (#OscarsSoWhite) and continuous discussion from all angles about this topic. I’ll try to touch on a series of prompts I have read and heard throughout this whole debacle (yes, these are real prompts that have been stated in the past week):

Who votes for the Oscars?

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is an elite group of industry members, who are invited to join by current members. The membership is divided into groups based on craft. This means, that there is a Directors Division, an Acting Division, a Music Division, a Cinematography Division and etc. for all the different categories which are awarded Oscars. Each division votes within themselves for nominees and winners, and everyone votes for nominees and winners of Best Picture. There are currently more than 5,300 members in the Academy. Of those members, a whopping 94% are Caucasian, and 77% are male. This is incredibly lopsided to one particular demographic. To add to the problem, only 2% of the Academy is black.

What does this mean for Hollywood as a whole?

The reason that the Academy’s lack of diversity is a big problem in regards to Hollywood diversity is not because we have an overwhelming amount of Caucasian males voting for awards, but the fact that these statistical demographics reveal a sample of a whole population. The Academy’s racial skew, or incredible lack of diversity directly reflects the fact that Hollywood doesn’t deliver an equal amount of opportunity for minority individuals to be nominated and succeed within the industry. This works as a cyclical and almost inescapable barrier for current black actors and directors who want to get recognition in the Oscars. Why? Because you need to be prominent in order to even be considered for invite into the Academy. It’s viciously systemic.

Black/Minority individuals in Hollywood:

Can’t get invited as members of the Academy because they can’t get recognition in Hollywood because they can’t get voted for Oscar nominations because they can’t get invited as members of the Academy because etc….. get it?

But I thought Hollywood was LIBERAL?

The reason that Hollywood has gained the notoriety of being a very liberal entity is because its individual members are very outspoken on political, social, and economic issues that promote liberal positions. But this is only on an individualistic level, its on a personal statement level, where actors, directors, and other industry folk have opinions about things and because of their public stature, express them more freely and openly because they feel a moral obligation to.

The thing that people need to understand is that the individuals in Hollywood are not Hollywood. Hollywood is an industry. That means that it functions based on the same principles as any other industry: “what sells?”

From this standpoint, there is hardly any doubt that the business model of the Hollywood film industry is by and large fiscally conservative and purely capitalist. It’s the same as with politicians in Congress. While few may be hard-headed individuals willing to be wrecking balls that destroy everything for the sake of a personal set of beliefs, such as Ted Cruz, most politicians from both sides of the isle, will “play the game” behind the closed doors while publicly decrying the “establishment” in front of the camera (Marco Rubio).

Hollywood works the same way. When you’re in those focus groups and meeting rooms trying to make money off of films, there are many personal beliefs and decisions “for the moral good” that you need to set aside to make the business model work. If you’re casting for an action movie, you’re going to choose an actor who has cross-cultural appeal, and in most cases, that guy is white. If you’re making a romantic comedy, you’re going to cast a couple who most Americans can identify with, and in the Hollywood boardroom, the conclusion will arrive at a white couple. If you’re casting a movie about coming-of-age, you’re going to pick a kid who’s experience growing up most resembles that of the average American kid in the suburbs… again, a white kid. This isn’t racism, this is a business model. This isn’t because Hollywood execs hate black people or minorities, its because for their money’s-worth, they have to take the best bet, and the best bet in their eyes, will be the average white person on the silver screen.

But it’s certainly a problem, because it shows that executives and American audiences still haven’t warmed up much to the fact that an action hero, or a leading actress in a drama, or a cute couple in a romantic comedy, or a young kid growing up, can come in all colors and shapes. This needs to change, and the way it can change is through trial error. Keep in mind, it used to be inconceivable for a black man to have a universal appeal and liking in a big Hollywood film. Movies like Shaft and others in the “blaxploitation” era were targeted at the African-American demographic because that was the only demographic which seemed interested in black-actor-centric action films, and other films starring great black actors like Sidney Poitier (In the Heat of the Night) and Harry Belafonte (Carmen Jones) were generally exclusive artistic endeavors and critical darlings with limited commercial appeal. It wasn’t until Denzel Washington and Will Smith that for the first time, we got minority leading men who appealed to white individuals as much as they did to black individuals. You could put Will Smith in any action movie and it would sell. Denzel was the guy every guy wanted to be. This was a cultural breakthrough, but it also highlighted that conservative business model… Hollywood will reward and cast the black individuals who appeal to white audiences. Again, we have to ask, is this a case of subtle racism, or is it just the laws of economics? If it is the laws of economics, the trend of having diversity in big budget franchise films (the two lead characters in The Force Awakens are not white-males) should be pushed forward, for the sake trying to shift these laws to favor diversity.

But…how can black people in America demand racial diversity when they only make up 12% of the U.S. population?

This is a problematic question. First of all, it assumes that just because a section of a population is in the minority, it has no right to express itself on the same pedestal as every other sect of the population. In fact, this type of questioning is exactly why slavery and Jim Crowe and segregation and racism existed in the United States for as long as it did. Because there was a preconceived notion that “democracy” is a be-all-end-all game of majority wins. This may play out without much consequence when kids are voting on what sport they want to play during gym class, but in the real world, where actions reach far and wide and human beings become marginalized, “majority wins” is one of the worst rules in human history (I don’t think I need to give the litany of examples as to why, it should be fairly obvious).

Since the advent of the Academy Awards back in 1927/1928, there have been a grand total of 12 black acting Oscar-winners… in 88 years. That means that 88 years of Oscar-nominees, 4 acting nominees each year, that’s a grand total of 352 winners of an acting Oscar. 12 black acting Oscar-winners makes up only 3% of that. In addition, there have been only 3 black directors ever nominated for Best Director: John Singleton (Boyz N Tha Hood), Lee Daniels (Precious) and Steve McQueen (12 Years A Slave), with none of them winning. Again, that’s in 88 freaking years of the Academy’s existence. So, black directors make up 0.7% of the Academy’s directing nominees and 0% of their winners. That is astounding.

So even if you wanted to use the 12% excuse for lack of representation, the numbers clearly show that even 12% is an exponentially higher percentage than black representation within the Academy and their awardees.

Finally, we can point to percentages of population when it comes to minority groups in certain areas, but that argument consistently breaks down when we get into the why of the matter in regards to their lack of representation, lack of opportunity, and lack of populace. When people point out the incredibly small percentage of Native Americans in the United States, approximately 2% of the current population, we already know why this is. They had been marginalized, discriminated against, and in the darkest of times, murdered off in genocidal campaigns for the sake of “manifest destiny”. It’s the same reason why Judaism is the least followed major religion in the world (yes, behind even Buddhism). But when it comes to black individuals in America, we tend to brush aside the fact that their history in this country for the most part, was a living hell of consistent beat-downs with absolutely no hope of upward movement. People talk about racism and segregation like they are century old grievances that are now mere hieroglyphs on the walls of ancient tombs, when in reality, if you’re in your 20’s, then segregation still existed in the United States when your parents were kids and even when they were in college. Remember, just because the Civil Rights Act abolished segregation via court mandate in 1964, doesn’t mean our good friends in the South didn’t claim “states rights” and continue to discriminating against people of color anyway.

But I digress… the fact of the matter is that for many people, the completely minuscule proportion to which black individuals in Hollywood have been nominated or recognized for honors in comparison to white individuals is not representative of black individuals presence in the industry. In other words, the percentage or proportion of black individuals in industry is not done justice by their statistical numbers when its comes to being honored with at least a nomination for an Oscar. This is undeniable.

But I don’t hear other minorities like Latinos, Asians, Middle-Easterners, Native Americans complaining. Why is it always black people?

One of the biggest pieces of information that people always leave out in these minority comparisons is that the ancestors of black individuals did not come to the United States (for the most part) by choice. They came specifically via capture and imprisonment in one of the most vicious and morally bankrupt events in the establishment of America: the slave trade. Yet, the presence of black individuals in America was woven into the fiber of the country, with every aspect of film and music in the United States today having been in some way influenced via the African-American culture. While blacks were treated as non-human property for much of their existence when first being brought here, they still managed to make a marked effect on the way America operated. Their songs, their culture, their ideas paved a way for generations of talented artists, writers, philosophers, and eventually Presidential candidates to stake a claim that the black community in the United States had as much of a history, as much of an impact, and as significant of a moral and positive effect on the shaping of what we know America as today as did white folks. For this reason, their “minority” stature, for all regards and purposes, is but a statistical misnomer. African Americans compared to every other statistical minority in America, are very much an indispensable fabric of the United States as the European settlers*. For this reason, which really has 200 years of American history on its side, the comparison of blacks in the U.S. in equal footing with other minorities is a false equivalency. I say this without hesitation as a member of an “other minority” (Indian).

*(I do want to note on Native Americans because whenever we talk about America, we do it at the detriment of the race of individuals who were unjustly stripped of all possessions and claim to a land that was essentially theirs to begin with… please read up on this here)

So what about the BET Awards, or the Black Reel Awards, or the NAACP Awards? Don’t they promote segregation against whites?

No. The fact of the matter is that the BET, Black Reel, and NAACP awards were not created as an exclusionary award system against whites, rather they were created as award systems to congratulate and recognize accomplishments within a particular community in the United States. It isn’t different from the Movieguide Awards, an award show and academy which promotes and celebrates the accomplishments of Christian filmmakers and Christianity-inspired films.

Now, religion and race is of course, two different things because religion is a personal choice while race is not, but even then, the fact remains that these awards which are centric to a particular sect or group of people are promotional, not exclusionary. There have been white people who have won and been nominated for BET Awards:

  • The film The Help, about black maids in the south dealing with oppression, won Best Movie at the awards ceremony… the white director, Tate Taylor received the award.
  • Eminem has been nominated for 5 BET Awards. Justin Timberlake has been nominated for 8 BET Awards.
  • The NAACP has awarded, for movie achievements, Bryce Dallas Howard, Angelina Jolie, Justin Timberlake, and Emma Stone.

Even if the Oscars had racial diversity to the point where black actors did not feel left out or discriminated against, the BET and NAACP Awards would still exist, because they are awards which people in the black community use as a recognition of the best achievements within their culture. Are we to say that the Jewish Book Council shouldn’t exist because there is already a good deal of Jewish writers in America, some of whom have won Nobel and Pulitzer prizes? Should we say that the ALMA Awards for Latino achievements in film and arts promote segregation against non-Latino individuals in film rather than promote the achievements of individuals in or associated with projects about Latino culture?

For those questioning why we can’t have an award ceremony just for white people in the film industry, that’s like asking why we have International Women’s Day but no International Men’s Day.

What do you personally think about the Oscar situation?

I think the best performances and the best efforts in film for that year should be nominated. That is a wholly subjective take on the issue, but the biggest problem I have always had with the Oscars is that the ceremony is guided more by politics and campaigns than it is by merit. The same way people get fed up with the Presidential election process, I get fed up with a lot of the decisions that the Oscars make in terms of who gets nominated and who doesn’t. Maybe this is why there is such a dearth of African-Americans and other minorities nominated for the Oscars… because while their performances and achievements may be Oscar-worthy in all regards, they don’t get noticed because their presence isn’t as strong. The last time I have seen a clear and undeniable example of an actor/actress winning despite zero campaigning was Mo’Nique who won Best Supporting Actress for Precious. Maybe that’s a case that has Oscar campaigning been outlawed and artistic merit been the focal point, black performers would get more recognition as it is.

That’s the crux of my argument against Charlotte Rampling’s statements as well. She bases this notion of racism against whites in this debate on the fact that all the white performers who were nominated undeniably “deserved” their nominations. Well, I call bullshit mainly because there has never been a single year when all of the Oscar nominees, or even any of the Oscar nominees, got there on merit alone. Never. Ever. I will debate anyone on that, and I will win that debate.

You can’t tell me that, especially in a year when we are blindly allowing Rooney Mara (Carol) and Alicia Vikander (The Danish Girl) to be considered “SUPPORTING ACTRESSES” for roles that anyone with even one fucking eye and half a fucking brain knows were LEADING ROLES, that all of these acting nominees were selected because they were clearly the creme of the crop in performances. These nominations were not merit nominations, they were campaign strategic nominations. The Best Leading Actress category is so loaded this year with incredible performances that pitting Rooney Mara against her co-lead Cate Blanchette clearly made the producers of Carol fear that they could lose out on both nominations via vote-splitting. It’s no different from the Republican Party doing Trumps bidding for now in fear that if they scorn him, he will run third party, thus vote-splitting and allowing the Democratic nominee to run away with a victory. It’s all political, it’s all war-gaming. Don’t tell me, Charlotte Rampling, about racism against whites, when the Oscars have been a campaign war devoid of much recognition towards real artistic merit for as long as they have existed, which in direct effect has effected more black individuals in Hollywood than anyone else (need I remind that Spike Lee has never been nominated for Best Director, yet was given a Lifetime Achievement Award)? The fact that Charlotte Rampling even got nominated this year was an act of affirmative action on behest of the Academy because 45 Years was hardly on any American radar outside of some minority critical spheres… we can say, perhaps that, a Brit getting nominated for a British independent film is a minority occurrence in itself for the Oscars. Maybe that’s a case of imperialistic classism against Charlize Theron, who’s performance in the American film Mad Max: Fury Road, didn’t make the cut.

But all jabbing aside, this debate on #OscarsSoWhite is a case of social inequality more than it is a case of what connotes an Oscar-worthy performance… at least I hope so. I will say to the black individuals in Hollywood, I don’t agree with nominating black actors for performances that don’t deserve a nomination… I don’t want to see someone getting a nomination because they are a minority, and I think that such an occurrence does more harm to the cause of black and other minority actors than it does any good. Wouldn’t you want recognition because what you did truly deserved it? I ask this even to the white nominees… are you telling me that even excluding a Harvey Weinstein promotional campaign you’d still get nominated (hmm, Rooney Mara? Supporting actress?).

But I do see the #OscarSoWhite argument’s point in the context that Oscar acting nominations have hardly ever been purely about artistic merit to begin with… and in regards to the greater picture of diversity in casting and opportunity in Hollywood. Let’s not forget, merit or no, an Oscar nomination goes very far in launching careers: I always ask myself, would Jennifer Lawrence even be a thing if she hadn’t gotten that nomination for Winter’s Bone? She got her opportunity, and she seized it and hit a grand-slam with it. Yet, Lupita Nyong’o is still waiting post her Oscar-winning triumph in 12 Years a Slave, and the two castings she did get (Star Wars The Force Awakens, and The Jungle Book), hide her in a dark room, doing voice-overs for CGI characters. Just something to think about.

Is there hope for change?

Of course. The Oscars have changed their strategies when faced with major backlash several times before. While the previous two most notable occurrances were very much movie-centric,

In 1994, the Academy’s failure to nominate two of the most critically acclaimed and celebrated documentaries in American history, Steve James’ Hoop Dreams and Terry Zwigoff’s Crumb for the Best Documentary Oscar, the backlash forced the Academy to revamp its nomination process and criteria for future years.

In 2008, while getting 8 total Oscar nominations, Chris Nolan’s The Dark Knight was snubbed for Best Picture in favor of Stephen Daldry’s dry Holocaust romance-drama The Reader, creating a negative outlook of the Oscars as an “old people’s ceremony” with no outreach to younger audiences and millennial film fans. The Oscar ceremony’s dead-in-the-water viewership ratings being the hammer with the biggest force, the Academy decided to expand the Best Picture nominations to 10 nominees, allowing more young-viewer-appreciated films like Avatar, District 9, Inglorious Basterds, Inception, Toy Story 3, Up, Life of Pi, and this year, The Martian and Mad Max: Fury Road to get significant representation for the biggest prizes.

So clearly, the Oscars, when push comes to shove, will change, and just today, the Academy has already kicked off the revamping process (click for info) to bring in more women, more minorities, and younger fresher film industry members into the Academy’s voting block while deactivating older members who have been inactive in the industry for some time.

Let’s see how it goes, and what effect it has. Stay tuned. The 88th Academy Awards are on February 28th , 2016 and hosted by comedian Chris Rock. My Oscar picks are forthcoming in the next few weeks.