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.

 

Out of Memory and Time: The Cinema of Victor Erice

 

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The Spirit of the Beehive (Victor Erice, 1973)

As my generation trudges ever forward year by year, there is a creeping and growing sense of nostalgia that overcomes us with each passing birthday. The never-ending “90’s kid” retrospectives on the internet filled with pictures of old video game consoles, Toys R Us toys, commercials, movies, celebrities, and sports events don’t make reconciling with the fact that our childhood and innocence is gone for eternity and will never come back any easier. Is that too dark?

Nevertheless, nostalgia is arguably the strongest agent of emotion in human beings. What we’ve experienced and lived through is our deepest connection to ourselves. This is especially true for our childhood when we’re still shielded and safeguarded and it seems like life is a cool breeze of care-free afternoons, exciting summer vacations, and instant food anytime anywhere delivered by mom. The longing for the “simpler” or more innocent times is something humans do with social life as well as politics and art. How many times have you heard politicians talking about taking our discourse back “to a simpler time” before everything got all screwed up, or critics saying “they don’t make ’em [movies/tv/literature] like they used to!”. Some of these have more nefarious intentions than others, but in general, we tend to fall into line behind the idea that hindsight is twenty-twenty and the way things used to be was always in many ways ‘better’ than the way things are.

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In art, particularly cinema, this emotion of nostalgia is the most potent connection formed between filmmaker and viewer. Our longing for a particular time or place or general memory of an area or event is a human trait that great filmmakers observe and pick at with an incredible precision and good intentions. It is where melodrama, fear, joy, and pain are all extracted from and used to build connections with characters and places. A recent filmmaker who’s sparse but utterly brilliant body of work I recently became acquainted with is Spanish filmmaker Victor Erice. A filmmaker adroit in his ability to evoke a very overwhelming sense of time and place, Erice’s cinema is the ultimate embodiment of nostalgia in art.

Playing along the same wavelengths as Terrence Malick in regards to textures and themes of youth and abandonment, as well as a very personal connection to his home country’s culture, politics, and daily life, Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive, regarded the world over in cinema circles as a undeniable masterpiece, centers around a small Spanish village in Francoist Spain in which a young girl name Ana becomes disturbed and entranced by her viewing of Universal’s 1931 adaptation of Frankenstein. A particular infamous scene in the 30’s horror classic features the monster and a young girl throw daisies into the river and the monster, fascinated by the idea of using his hands to “throw”, picks the young girl up and throws her into the water as well. She subsequently drowns and dies. The historical symbolism of this scene in the context of The Spirit of the Beehive‘s fascist Spain setting aside, the crux of the film’s power in Ana beholding this sequence comes from our own experience witnessing cinema for the first time. The first time we saw moving images in the form of a story, how were we emotionally altered by its presentation and what did it mean to us? I remember the first movie I ever watched was Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and it was the first time I truly became terrified and disturbed by a fictional character (the witch with the poisoned apple).

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As kids, one of the lessons we always learn is to “face our fears”. It is a necessity of growing up and every adult tells you it prepares you for the horrors of the real world. Many of the fears are actually much more elaborate, real world fears which we manifest in things closer to ourselves. This theme is repeated throughout coming of age tales, many times as symbolism for the turbulent political affairs of the country at the time. In Erice’s film, Ana is haunted by the interaction of the monster and girl, and the movie’s plot, though it’s really more of a loose string of painterly movements, focuses on Ana’s obsession with finally finding and confronting the monster from the film that haunts her dreams. It’s not inconceivable that Ana’s tussle with Frankenstein was meant by Erice to represent the Spanish populace’s ultimate reality of having to confront the fascist takeover by dictator Francisco Franco. Nostalgia often places these circumstances and events in a rose-tinted light. We do it all the time now in our political spheres, framing our upbringing under the Clinton and Bush administrations as times of much less political intervention despite the fact that even they were in perpetual war with foreign nations. The difference is, back then we didn’t have reason to care. Likewise, in The Spirit of the Beehive, the notion of Franco exists only in small clues such as the rationing of food, the opening scroll, the time-period of the film, and the encounter Ana has with a rebel soldier. But Ana is still very much shielded in her village from any notion of a fascist leader wreaking havoc and despair in his own country. Her preoccupation lies within her childhood experiences of make-believe, much like the young Ofelia in Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth.

 

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El Sur (Victor Erice, 1983)

While Erice’s debut was concerned with the memory of fear, his second film El Sur (English: “The South”), much greater in my estimation and much more pronounced in its ability to evoke the passage of time and its nostalgic effects, focuses on the memories of family, or in particular, father figures. Reflective of his debut, the film centers around yet another young girl, this time named Estrella, in the backdrop of yet another tumultuous time in Spanish history, the Spanish Civil War. Estrella’s father’s disappearance to fight in the war shapes her view of him as she comes of age as a young lady. Her experiences of youth with him are a constant projection in the back of her mind, and her search to finally meet him again shapes the basis of the film. Erice’s ideas of memory are deeply rooted in the characters’ own thoughts and words, but his painterly depictions of Spain play as an additional vehicle of “remembrance” as if the world his characters inhabit is a Spain of a time gone by even for them.

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Perhaps the most quintessential sequences in El Sur center around Estrella going to bed and waking up. Many conversations about her father’s past, which she has with her nanny, and conversations of the Spain from before her time are recounted as relics which shapes her present life. The ideas of nostalgia can also be many times cruel, as Estrella comments on the war and the meanness of her grandfather towards her father. Perhaps then, the fondness we feel for our past is revisiting even the less than comforting events with a fresh set of eyes and confronting them with an added confidence. As Estrella’s nanny states, “even the wildest of animals tame with age”. Perhaps it is our nostalgia that does it.