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.

 

Sunset Song

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Sunset Song (Terence Davies, 2016)

From its golden sun-dipped wheat fields, wood-walled enclosures, and stone laid exteriors surrounded by green gardens and beautiful forests, Terence Davies film Sunset Song, based on a famous Scottish novel, evokes a longing, a warming nostalgia, and a terrifying remembrance of time and place none of us have ever experienced in our lives, yet can feel deeply. That is really the underlying power of any great filmmaker. His ability to bring forth emotions and connections for something we have never truly known, yet, begin to understand and empathize with so deeply, on a purely human level. When Chris Guthrie the main character and daughter of the family, sits by her bedside consoling her older brother’s red bleeding marks from father’s belt beatings we can all recall the vile wrongdoings of certain family members and the kindheartedness of those closest to our hearts. When Ewan gets drafted into the war, we can remember the parting of someone we cared about and the fear of never seeing them again. When Chris folds her belongings in paper and as she notes they are memories “laid to rest forever”, we all remember the moments when we changed as people. These are hard moments, they are memories and times which make us reflect with deep difficulty because they are things we would rather forget.

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It’s hard to even call the film merely a romantic period-piece because it doesn’t dwell much on its setting or its time-period as a major factor for the relationships of its characters. Yes, there is a war, and its clear its the Scottish country-side, but people can experience what Chris Guthrie goes through in almost any time period. Enduring the abusive relationship with her domineering father, the death of her mother, falling in love, having her loved one changed from the inside-out by war. Davies turns Sunset Song into more a film of human emotion transcending time and place, but the pre-war Scottish countryside adds the nostalgia by channeling a near fairy-tale like setting, but bombarding it with a devastating story filled with every bit of the harshness of real life, but also the warmth.

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Why So Pretentious?

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Sátántangó (Bela Tarr, 1994) – another classic punching-bag of a “pretentious film”

What is the point of a movie that is 3 or 4 or more hours long and is really slowly, methodically paced? Don’t these people know we have lives? Don’t they know that the point of a movie is to keep people’s attention? Where do they get this self-indulgent mentality to act like they deserve our viewership for that long? Every time a movie is made up of slow meandering camera movements, features minimal dialogue, completely immerses itself in its own unhurried aesthetic, or concentrates on an object, landscape, or character which seemingly has nothing surface-level going for it, I can hear the thousands of people who go to the movies for their supposed money’s-worth entertainment say to themselves “what pretentious garbage”.

But what does pretentious even mean? It’s a word that gets thrown around at the drop of a hat lately. The direct easy-access, low-hanging fruit of a pickup for the lay film-goer to act like his/her inferiority complex is completely justified because the cinema they don’t have the patience to give a chance is there for no other purpose than as a high-brow exercise in showing off artistic ambiguity. Films beyond easily digestible fast-food drive-thru offerings of Michael Bay and Colin Trevverow exist solely to make us feel inferior, right? Like if we don’t “get” them, then automatically we’re deemed as lesser people. That’s clearly got to be the filmmaker’s motive right?

You don’t understand the point of Terrence Malick forgoing much of the blood and carnage and “war is hell” obviousness of Oliver Stone’s Platoon and instead trying to toggle with less obvious themes regarding soldiers in war, not as a collective, but as individuals with their own personal thoughts  in The Thin Red Line. It’s pretentious, you say, because it doesn’t play to the tunes of what we know or expect, it doesn’t give it to us straight. Instead of displaying soldiers as a singular entity or “one hero” each character has a wildly different view of their place in war. Nothing in Malick’s film is offered as an answer. If you notice, the voice-overs of the soldiers in the film are not statements, but questions.

Questions? Why are we asking questions about war, when we should be giving people answers. Because Oliver Stone’s cute little tagline on the DVD cover of Platoon, “The first casualty of war… is innocence” looks so good on a poster. It looks so good as a singular black-white umbrella term for his anti-war cinematic movement (furthered by Born on the 4th of July) that can be shared across social media by millions without anyone really thinking about it. It’s a one track mind, which is perfect because it means we have now formed an identity against war, from this one simple banner phrase. But this is true pretentiousness is it not? Applying grave importance and merit to a single sentence, an overarching term which really doesn’t mean anything but sounds like a totally solid slogan: “The first casualty of war is innocence.” Put that on a baseball cap or T-shirt and parade it around, man. You’re gonna look so insightful and provocative!

But really… The Thin Red Line is the classic example of  what the internet would deem “pretentious cinema” though, because it lasts 3 hours long and is comprised of extended sequences of soldiers questioning their own participation in the Battle of Guadalcanal. Blood is at a minimum, we don’t have scenes of a soldier screaming for his mother trying to stuff his intestines back in his lower abdomen like in Saving Private Ryan. Malick isn’t milking anything here, because he doesn’t have to. Doesn’t the opposite of pretentious mean that the filmmaker has enough trust invested in his audience that he knows, and he can be sure that we’re smart enough to get that war sucks? Do we really need to be told that through exploding organs, blood-drenched battle-fields and cutely worded taglines that people in war… y’know… die… and… uh… experience grief and loss? Are we going to call Malick’s film pretentious because presents the idea that soldiers may actually doubt themselves once in a while? That they’re not all like-minded courageous heroes who overcome all odds? They have their own personal views of war and not everyone is on the same page as each other? That when they’re actually in battle, there may be an inkling of them that isn’t sure whether what they’re doing? Is The Thin Red Line pretentious because it takes too long to watch, and doesn’t fill every sequence with some snappy, easily digestible dialogue that makes us feel like we totally have a grip on this whole “war” thing, or a rocking battle-sequence where we root for a side and hope they “win”? Are we going to point and yell “pretentious” at a movie that doesn’t treat us like children waiting to be lectured on war, but instead treats us like individuals who have our own questions to ask?

Pretentious is being used by people the same way the word “theory” was hijacked to mean “guess”. Pretentious no longer applies to just things which attach more importance to themselves than they are worth… Pretentious is now the spitball we throw at anything that may take more time to understand than we are willing to give it.

Ironically, the so-called mainstream Hollywood movies that have been coming out seem to embody every level of pretense. I just watched Captain America : Civil War and asked myself, what the hell about this movie even justifies the title Civil War? The film lasts about 2.5 hours, and maybe an hour of it is back-and-forth conversations between the Avengers making the most hollow, tumblr-post level arguments about whether their power needs to be kept in check because everywhere they went they saved people, but also inadvertently murdered a bunch as well (ATTENTION: war is hell guys… war is hell. In case you couldn’t figure that out for yourself). Not to mention that this giant epic battle of choosing sides between TeamCap and TeamIron takes place on… and airport. No, seriously, the whole thing happens on a deserted airport terminal, and lasts roughly 5 to 10 minutes . It is only in maybe the last 7 minutes of the movie where Captain America and Iron Man show any level of real, tangible animosity towards each other, where for a split second, Captain America raises his shield to slam it on Iron Man’s face, then catches himself. In 2.5 hours, this 6 second moment is the only time where I felt Tony Stark’s fear and grief over the killing of his parents, and Captain’s very-American level of nationalistic arrogance shielded as “a fight for justice”. Of course, this is erased right after when the movie cuts to the “future” and Captain America sends Iron Man a voice-mail saying “sorry”, and we’re all just supposed to act like he didn’t almost just bash the man’s face in with a metal shield… okay.

The word pretentious is closer associated to the title of this movie, Civil War (more like Civil Argument) than anything that goes on in Yorgos Lanthimos’s also recently released dystopian love story, The Lobster*… a movie that no doubt people will call pretentious because it completely subverts our idea of love and marriage into a bizarre ritual of “find a soul-mate or effectively die” that the movie gives no background for. The characters speak and behave in awkward pauses and robotic monotone dialogues on purpose, and its so hard for us to understand this level of non-conformity in our love stories that we automatically slap the PRETENTIOUS tag on it because its beyond our trying to figure out. Never-mind that the entire agenda of Lanthimos is to evade any sense of importance to his story, other than have it exist and just say “here… you deal with it”. Meanwhile a middle school locker-room argument between Iron Man and Captain America is a CIVIL WAR. Yeesh.