David Cox’s no doubt controversial take on Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk has spurred me to writing, and not, as you might think, to leap to the film’s defence.
I saw Dunkirk on Saturday morning; not in IMAX, as Nolan would make everyone if he could legally do so, but at my local cinema, on a normal screen.
I’d heard similar things to Cox: that Nolan had crafted a perfect war film, a stark and bleak story of suspense and survival. But I, too, left the cinema feeling wholly underwhelmed.
We had a protracted discussion in my studio yesterday about Interstellar and confection. I avoided discussing Dunkirk too much so not to ruin my students’ gut reactions, which I consider just as good a mark of a film’s impact as any well-crafted review. But in Interstellar, as in much of Nolan’s recent work, the score is solely responsible for imbuing any meaning to the image. We watched a 15-minute clip where the protagonist leaves his family and launches into space. Apart from the opening tears and family stuff, the rest of the scene is highly procedural, with McConnaughey, Hathaway, Bentley et al floating about the spaceship, flicking switches and checking systems. There are moments of banter, but nothing hugely affecting. This scene is ‘confected’ (an excellent word used by my co-teacher) to feel like a massively emotional scene, purely by the score. Humorous lines are given a push by lilting string phrases. Little barbs about home are sent into the realm of epic pathos by a booming bass note. It just feels entirely artificial and wrong (comparisons were made to 2001: A Space Odyssey, which pulls off suspense, emotion, awe much more effectively).
Dunkirk is equally confected, but in a very different way. Cox mentions the lack of character development and backstory. When I read the early reviews, I came down on Nolan’s side, arguing naively that perhaps there is room for both well-developed character war films and those that are more visceral. After seeing the film, though, I can’t help but agree with those critics. I would add a couple more criticisms, though.
Compared to the over-exposition of previous Nolan stuff, this film has virtually no dialogue. What dialogue is there is mumbled, or hastily whispered from cover. The dialogue does nothing to explain the characters’ decisions or motivations (exposition), nor does it give a more rounded insight into the characters’ personalities (abstraction/expression). The words just sort of sit there as awkward observations about the characters’ surroundings that, arguably, with the film being shot in IMAX, the audience could probably see and figure out for themselves.
The supposedly ever-present threat from the unnamed enemy comes off as wholly artificial. The enemy is basically represented by a Shepard tone and, because Nolan doesn’t want you to forget that you’re under threat, the Shepard tone never ends. The result is a suspense that is driven not by empathy, or by a feeling of anticipation or fear, but by sheer audience discomfort in the cinema.
The third and final criticism is that this is a blinkered story. The protagonist, if there is one, is played by Fionn Whitehead, who does an admirable job of injecting some affect into the lifeless husk with which the audience is meant to sympathise. If you are going to focus on someone, though, if the audience is indeed meant to feel what a protagonist is feeling, we need something more than an innocent-looking face. At least for Whitehead’s character — Bobby? Jimmy? What gratingly archetypal British name did they give him in the credits? — the audience needs some hint of a story of home, a family or partner waiting for him, loving parents. We get more of that for the sailor’s son, who dies purely accidentally (‘He always wanted to be in the paper’), than we do for the protagonist. We also get next to no sense of the scale of the evacuation, nor of the role that non-British countries played, both in terms of being evacuated and off fighting off the German threat. Apart from two French soldiers holding the line at the beginning, one blink-and-you-miss-him-Dutchman, and the other French soldier pretending to be British, you wouldn’t know that there were not only British, French, and Dutch troops at Dunkirk, but also Canadians, Poles, and Belgians.
330,000 people made it off that beach. That’s the story of Dunkirk. I’m all for visceral cinematic experiences, for switching off my own life in favour of immersion in a story or experience. But in the case of Dunkirk, to ignore the scale of what may well have become ‘the greatest military disaster in our long history’ — to steal Churchill’s words — does something of a disservice to everyone, of all nations, both home and abroad, who somehow got most of those men and women home. To do that, we need to get to know the people on a level greater than pure affect. We also need to see how great, how enormous, this military achievement was. Somehow Nolan, of all people, failed on both counts.
Words that I’ve not had the utter, utter privilege and luck to utter in what is rapidly approaching six years.
We have shot our little short film, and it was such a joy to see it come together. The crew were superb, and professional, and I look forward to working with them again very soon.
My cast were absolute professionals, and lovely, lovely people to boot. This shoot, I was able to just focus on them, and their wellbeing; not to mention the emergence of their characters, that they fleshed out and to which they gave life from my pitiful typed text.
I am incredibly happy, and satisfied, and humbled. Dear film-gods, let’s not leave it this long until next time.
My last short was made in 2011, and I feel like I’ve learnt a ton since then, but have struggled to find time to put it into practice.
It’s something of an irony, given that since my last film, I’ve taught around 350-400 students how to conceive, develop, shoot, and edit their own media projects.
The script is short, simple; a single location. I’ve been obsessed with single-location drama for some time. In part, because it’s close to theatre, but also because it’s a challenge for the writer, the director, and the cinematographer.
A lot of ideas are converging on this little film of mine, and I can’t wait to get stuck in.
No one ever consciously thinks of GoPro footage, ‘I will make this beautiful.’ I think the whole understanding around GoPros is that if you point it at nice things (nature/landmarks/out the front of a car), your footage won’t be half bad.
I mourned a little when the new GoPros featured phone connectivity. Part of the joy of the early GoPro experience was not really knowing what you’d got until you were back in front of your computer.
You just sort of arranged the GoPro, or held it, or strapped it to yourself or something, and hoped for the best.
I GoPro’d old school last week. I and my GoPro floated down the Yarra River in order to try and record the sense of being swept along by the tide. The results were mixed. Depths varied from about six inches to eight feet; there were rocks, sand, weeds, scrapes, cuts, and the constant underlying fear of being taken under and devoured by some as-yet-undiscovered Victorian crocodile species.
Mostly it was fun, if slightly stressful; the sense of accomplishment at the end was overwhelming. Only now am I looking over my footage. The set-up stuff I took on the bank is of course nice and composed, and properly exposed. But in the odd frame of the GoPro stuff: that’s where I find real gold. Where else could you see the sky through a thin veneer of water? Specks of dust hover in the frame as they float by the lens. A duck, up close, floats past, more bemused than startled. An unexpectedly violent splash of white water as I lose my footing: the perfectly sunlit day plunged into murky brown depths.
I’ve done some nature this week. I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed it.
Nature the first was a walk in an inner-city park on Tuesday. Nowhere to be, nothing really in mind to see: just walking, looking, feeling.
Nature the second was some experimental filming done as part of a research day in north-east Melbourne. The hastily-cut-together results of this experimentation are included below. More to follow in the coming weeks. Nice to get something in the can, no matter how out-there.