sovay: (Rotwang)
sovay ([personal profile] sovay) wrote2017-08-10 06:30 am
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All we did is survive

And now for something completely different: a movie that's still playing in theaters as we speak. I didn't manage to get it written up in July, but the movie I dashed out to catch after writing up Way Out West (1930) was Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk (2017). The Somerville not only has a 70 mm print and the Philips Norelco DP70s to screen it on, it has David the projectionist who learned his trade on the format and handles it beautifully, so I figured I would not have a better chance to see it however Nolan intended. His films have a very mixed track record with me, so I was not sure what to expect.

The very short version: while I did not love the film as I had hoped I would, I don't think it fails its history and I liked it. It's visually striking, elegantly structured, and often curiously, intentionally anti-epic even while it's staging cast-of-thousands setpieces with a sweeping, elemental approach to historical fact. It's a war movie in which the first event on the fabled beach of Dunkirk is a combat-stunned young Tommy, thin, dark-haired, looking like a scarecrow in the heavy folds of his uniform greatcoat and whatever kit survived his scrambling, lucky escape from enemy fire in the falling city, wandering around the dunes looking for a place to take a shit because he damn near just had it scared out of him and instead finds another equally young, equally silent soldier burying a corpse, one cold, crusted foot just poking out of the sand. So he can't actually use that dune as a latrine because you don't crap on graves, especially not when you suspect they belong to other people's mates; he rebuckles his trousers and goes to help with the burial. That's a whole cross-section of a war in a few wordless minutes, black-humored, elegiac, still heart-hammering adrenaline from the soldier's race through deserted streets inhabited only by the eerie snowfall of propaganda fliers and machine-gun fire out of nowhere, splattering the men he was running alongside a moment ago. His name is Tommy, although neither my mother nor I picked that up until the credits; he's played by Fionn Whitehead in his screen debut and except for a few key scenes he is almost, like several other roles in this film, a silent part, anchoring the story with his wiry body and his dark-freckled, truculent face. Because he's one of our metonyms for the stranded soldiers of the British Expeditionary Force, it would have been easy to cast him pretty, innocent. He has the vulnerability of extreme youth, but he's also a little feral, something of a scrounger—a clever bit player, maybe, in a different kind of war film. This one shifts him and his fellow extras to center stage, displacing the more familiar heroism of steadfast warriors or brilliant strategists. The closest we get to the former are Tom Hardy's Farrier and Jack Lowden's Collins, Spitfire pilots aloft for one crucial hour to provide air cover for the most exposed phase of the evacuation; the closest we get to the latter is Kenneth Branagh's Commander Bolton, the tireless, anxious pier-master with a host of unenviable decisions to make. The much-mythologized decency of the ordinary Briton is represented by Mark Rylance's Dawson, the mildly spoken, cardigan-wearing civilian whose motor yacht the Moonstone is one of the shallow-draft "little ships" that can get safely to the beach where destroyers would founder, but even he has odd cracks and ripples that come late to light. The most important thing about the film, I think, whatever its faults, is that it recognizes the violence and the chaos and the terror and the failure without capsizing into grimdark or overcompensating into triumphalism. The ships did come. They never should have had to, but they did. And that was the end of the phony war and just the beginning of the real one.

I love the temporal structure, which runs three narratives at once with different time frames. "The Mole" is a week, "The Sea" is a day, "The Air" is an hour; each embodies a different element and the fourth is waiting. All three are linear in themselves, but intercut to refracting effect, so that we observe the same actions from multiple perspectives—and anything is fair game for this kind of reexamination, including apparently random background details—and sometimes, depending on the scale on which the internal chronology is playing out, see the results before the causes. "The Sea" discovers its first signs of war mid-Channel, when the Moonstone comes across the upturned hull of a big ship floating in a halo of its own oil and bodies. The only survivor is a man in British uniform crouched on the creaking metal and dragged bodily aboard when he can't manage the swim; he is played by Cillian Murphy and credited only as the "shivering soldier," a sea-numbed, shell-shocked wreck with salt-washed cuts on his face and a thousand-yard stare under his stiff, wet shock of dark hair. "He's not himself," Dawson explains gently: neither his tall, sure-footed son nor the glory-stricken kid who leapt impulsively to join them have seen this side of a war before. The stranger shakes with more than cold, can barely speak, won't go below because he remembers the water pouring in through the walls. "He may never be himself again." When we meet him again in "The Mole," for a moment he's hardly recognizable because time has rewound a day and a night and he has nothing to shiver about yet, standing dry and composed and in command of himself and others in the prow of a rowboat filled with soldiers rescued from an aborted evacuation attempt—a torpedoed destroyer. Tommy was aboard it, along with his mate from the dunes and a third young soldier they picked up in the sinking of a hospital ship; now two of them are in the water. They are refused when they try to climb into the boat. Not enough room. Too much risk. "You have to stay calm," the officer with the familiar, not-twitching face says, pleasant and inflexible. "Float here, save your strength—we'll come back for you." Here's your heroic figure, looking after the men in his care and trusting military discipline to take care of the rest, graceful and understated as John Mills; here's the oblivious brass with no idea of what he's asking the twice-sunk rank and file to endure. Furious, Tommy's companion who just fought his way out of a drowning wardroom thick with the bodies of soldiers and would-be saviors shouts at the other man, "Wait till you get torpedoed, then tell us to be calm!" The kid doesn't know his own prophecy, but we saw the officer's future when we met him, we know that's exactly what will happen and it will leave him even more helpless and dangerous than the men he left bobbing in the dark water—panicky terror and combat reflexes are a bad combination and they will hurt, with horrible inevitability, the character with the fewest defenses against them. As far as I'm concerned the cross-cutting of time justifies itself right there, but it's also used to echo visual and verbal motifs, illustrate the difference between observing an event and living through it, and in one extraordinary moment, by overlaying dialogue from "The Sea" onto an action sequence in "The Air," it almost seems to recall a character from the dead.

If you're getting the idea of a lot of formal conceits in the same hundred and six minutes, I can't disabuse you—for a blockbuster, Dunkirk is impressively abstract. The Germans are barely glimpsed onscreen, present most anthropomorphically as Messerschmitts or Heinkels in the aerial scenes and otherwise as sudden, strafing bullets and the concussion of bombs; the effect, however, is not the dehumanization of the enemy so much as a diffusion of danger into everything, sea, sky, stones, hulls, at any second it could all erupt. There's almost nothing in the way of tactics, troop movements, the big picture. We know the French First Army are holding the line against the German advance, but their valiant, tightening circle exists only in tense conversation and the mind's eye; we don't know the decisions being made at Whitehall, only the orders that filter down to Bolton and the even terser interpretations received by Tommy and his companions. The minute Dawson and his tiny crew shove off from the docks at Weymouth Harbour, their intelligence of the war shrinks to their personal observations and whatever they can glean from the survivors they meet—the shivering soldier, the Spitfire pilot they save from a failed ditching. If you come into this film with prior knowledge of the events of May 26 through June 4 of 1940, good for you, but I'm not sure how much it will teach you about Operation Dynamo if you don't. Nolan's handling of his characters is equally stripped-down. None of them talk very much. None of them have much in the way of personal history. Even among the main cast, either they don't have names, or we don't learn their names until the credits, or by the time we learn someone's name it's the least important thing about them. Beats that would occasion a groundswell of strings in another movie here take place almost in ellipsis—blink in the third act and you'll miss the moment when the shivering soldier stops being a hazard to himself and others and melds, however briefly, into the rescue effort, one more pair of hands hauling in the men salvaged like himself from the sea. With the personal details pared down, the ways in which the cast are standing in for various perspectives, attitudes, or demographics become conspicuously clear. The titles and the credits bracket all we can know of their lives; we are not even encouraged to imagine the rest of their war. They merge back into the country they came from, that came for them. And yet for the duration of the story they remain individual, identifiable people with their own fears and motives and tolerances; you can't quite generalize from any of them. It keeps them from reducing purely to symbols.

What Dunkirk is not at all like is a film from 1940. I have run across this praise in a couple of reviews and can only conclude that the reviewers have just not watched enough movies from rather than about World War II—the semi-linear katamari structure might have just squeaked by after 1941 and Citizen Kane, but the abstractness of the characters, the glassy, drifting tones of tension and boredom and dread, and the cinematography are all right out. Hoyte van Hoytema's cinematography is in fact the major reason I do not love this film as much as I might have. I recognize it's a weird thing to say about a movie that was lovingly filmed in IMAX and Panavision, but the camera movement and the editing make as much of a difference to the finished image as the picture information or the color saturation or where you point those System 65 lenses in the first place and Dunkirk lost me with the shaky-cam. It doesn't work for me in 70 mm. Shaky-cam is handheld, unscripted, intimately, awkwardly first-person; it jars for me when it's the dominant style of vision-filling multiple-camera setups and intricately braided timelines and a legitimately epic scale, even if Nolan intermittently cuts it down to size. 70 mm is what you use for Omar Sharif taking three minutes to ride out of a dot in the heat haze, not for strobe-stutter shot lengths of split seconds. I found van Hoytema's style worked best for me in "The Air," where it was always possible to follow the movements of the combatants: open, light-filled, the horizon wheeling over, and then the tricky, terrifying business of dogfighting—which is not point-and-click simple; time and again we watch our boys in the RAF wrestle to line up their gunsights and then miss—or Farrier grease-penciling estimates of time and fuel on his instrument panel because the gauge which should tell him when he's about to start spiraling out of the sky took a direct hit in their first engagement. I suppose it suits the weather and the water for the visual language of "The Sea" to be choppier, but for me it broke up the sense of space both unnecessarily and counterproductively: what should matter about these scenes is the height of the sky and the distance of the water and the inadequacy of this frail shell of wood and paint and rigging that feels crowded already with just four people aboard, but that's hard to keep in mind when the camera spends so much time cutting between people's faces and hands. "The Mole" was the jumpiest and the joltiest of the three strands and despite the gorgeous choreography of both a daytime and a nighttime ship-sinking gave me actual trouble parsing some of the action, which is not normally a problem I have with movies. Then again, I saw this film with my mother and she thought it gave the scenes in question a trapped, tunnel-vision immediacy which was clearly the intended effect, so your mileage etc. I feel similarly ambivalent about Hans Zimmer's score. It has brilliant elements: the Shepard tone that endlessly slides up the audience's nerves, the ticking that sounds like time always running out; it is often tenser or more mournful than the apparent action, keying us inside the characters' heads rather than their faces. I suspect I would enjoy it as a kind of independent suite. Most of the time I wanted it to get out of the way of the film.

The treatment of violence is, perhaps, old-fashioned and it works for me. This is 2017. If Christopher Nolan had wanted graphic, Spielbergian gore, he could have done it with trivial ease: I've seen movies with the same PG-13 rating which splatter (and swear) more. Instead the film seems to save it for moments when it really shocks and they're well-chosen. When the Luftwaffe bomb the mole where a hospital ship is loading, we see splinters flying, fountains of sand, bodies hunched away from the blast and then there's a man in the center of the frame and he just disintegrates. He's gone so fast it looks like a trick. ([personal profile] spatch believes it's one of the few CGI shots in the movie. Most of the effects were practical. The planes and the ships may or may not be of the precise vintage, but except for the radio-controlled models for the crash landings, they were all real.) But for that prestidigitating second, there's nothing weightless or reversible about a body coming apart. When the shivering soldier does violence to one of his rescuers in his terror of returning to Dunkirk and we see the blood welling darkly across the clean wood of the Moonstone's cabin floor, it's a thing out of place, the war itself suddenly sprung closer than the other side of the Channel. A man gets shot in the face through the rusted hull of a trawler—peering out through a newly punctured hole to see who was shooting at them—and though he's alive and making noises when he pitches over, something jumps in the back of his head and the audience cannot blame any of the characters around him for promptly losing their shit. I can respect the alternate tactic of overwhelming the audience just as much as the characters, but Dunkirk as a version of history seems to be aiming for a balance between documentary re-creation and grit-nailed myth and it matches this aesthetic for violence to be something that sharpens unavoidably, most real when it's most expressionist. It is also true that a lot of people in this movie drown and are blown up and burn to death; it's not like there aren't casualties. But the audience is permitted to imagine the details of most of them, and as we all know from Val Lewton, sometimes the half-seen—or the wholly imagined—is the worst.

I am aware there are holes in Dunkirk's history: that there were many more soldiers of color on the beach than Nolan shows, that there were many more women, that the city of Dunkirk was more battle-damaged and the weather for the days of the evacuation finer and the propaganda leaflets that flutter down around Tommy and his doomed comrades in the first scene are not of the correct design. I have enough of an eye for faces that I was never confused as to which of the three dark-haired, white, desperately young-looking British soldiers was which, but I don't think it would have killed the casting directors to throw in a blond or a redhead just for variety. I am not sure how to feel about the knowledge that Dawson is heavily based on Charles Lightoller and Bolton on James Campbell Clouston when we are supposed to take both of them as fictionally as the purely invented characters around them. I can't agree that it's the greatest war film ever made; I think there are better contenders as far back as Lewis Milestone's All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) and that Dunkirk is more in the tradition of stories of endurance and survival around the edges of war like J. Lee Thompson's Ice Cold in Alex (1958), anyway. The cinematography really did hold me somewhat at arm's length when a more classical or at least a less quick-cut style might have let me more easily in. But all the same, it worked for me. I learned after the fact that Nolan used as many of the real little ships as he could, piloted in the reenactment by their current owners, children and grandchildren of the civilians who had taken them across the Channel the first time. The movie crystallizes in moments like these: what a miracle looks like when it's salt and wood and strangers' faces and the slap of sea and the ring of a teakettle and no one's all right, but everyone's here; it's transcendent without being perfect. The film flickers with them, elemental things with human reality. Some are terrible, some are beautiful, some are low-key. Most of the movie is not in this register, but that's all right: even the Archers couldn't do numinous 24/7.

I don't know what most people of my nationality and generation know about Dunkirk. I don't know what they'll take away from this movie. It plays like it was meant to be the last cinematic word on the history, but so was Leslie Norman's Dunkirk (1958) and that had John Mills and Richard Attenborough going for it; I'm sure we can expect a new hot take in another sixty years. Personally I don't think it will displace The Prestige (2006) as my favorite Christopher Nolan, but there's a lot in it I'm still thinking about. My mother liked it and the history is important to her. The last image is as powerfully open-ended as it needed to be. I feel stupidly proud of myself for recognizing Michael Caine's uncredited cameo by voice. I guess I have opinions about cinematography. This homecoming brought to you by my fiery backers at Patreon.
owl: river and trees (country)

[personal profile] owl 2017-08-11 10:58 pm (UTC)(link)
John sailed Goblin to Holland with a crew of seasick, even younger children when he was about 13 - how could you resist the narrative satisfaction of making him a junior naval officer commanding one of the commandeered Little Ships, 10 years down the line?

Roger is also probably going to end up in the navy, but the Royal Naval Engineers.
Edited 2017-08-11 23:12 (UTC)