Tag Archives: Dunkirk

A Spectacle Of War

“Of course, you know this means war!” – Groucho Marx, A Night At The Opera, 1935

Dunkirk

I don’t particularly love war films as a genre. I find most of them to be either overly sentimental, propagandist, violently exploitative, or just racist. For me the first really good and also fascinating war film is  Abel Gance’s J’Accuse (1919). The other war films (I’m finding this genre label a bit too loose and not very helpful) that have expressed anything of merit have all appeared to have taken something from Gance, even if it is just a shared impulse. The “good” war films, in my opinion, all cherish human life with a capacity that a blockbuster production is incapable of while also posing questions regarding the necessity of violence and the nature of violence as spectacle. The more popular route has always been more propagandist and celebratory of the machismo of war while simultaneously pushing the political agenda of a current regime. That’s precisely why masterpieces such as Chris Marker’s omnibus film Far From Vietnam (1967), Miklós Jancsó’s The Red And The White (1967) and Elem Klimov’s Come & See (1984) remain elusive to most American audiences during a time when they are, perhaps, needed the most. But playing in cinemas today are two films who navigate these concerns with war in different ways that make them as illuminating with regards to their subject while also functioning as a sort of litmus test for the ideologies of this moment in time. The films are War For The Planet Of The Apes and Dunkirk.

Matt Reeves’ War For The Planet Of The Apes (2017) represents a pastiche that apes (pun intended) from such distinguished and diverse films as John Sturges’ The Great Escape (1963), Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), and Sam Fuller’s The Steel Helmet (1951) to cite only the most obvious examples. The culmination of these narrative elements having been reappropriated and strewn together in a patchwork is not necessarily that interesting in so far as imbuing a new degree of emotional response to familiar stimuli, but rather in War For The Planet Of The Apes’ capacity to examine the principles of these narrative tropes that have allowed them to work in different iterations over many decades by simply rearranging and aligning them within a linear narrative construct. Ironically, the detachment required by such an investigation derives from the computer generated apes themselves (they represent a different though just as plastic and campy manifestation as the costumes worn by actors during the original franchise from the late sixties into the seventies).

War For The Planet Of The Apes exists in a kind of limbo in American mainstream cinema. This represents an alternative reading of War For The Planet Of The Apes. Reeves has still delivered an overwhelming spectacle of violence, so it isn’t very likely that many viewers will be watching the film for its subtle genre deconstruction. Due to its blockbuster status, critical discourse around War For The Planet Of The Apes will be miniscule while audiences will not likely feel encouraged to enter into an analytical dialogue with the film. War For The Planet Of The Apes, as campy as it is, successfully straddles the line which is so sacred in American cinema; the one between art and entertainment (intellectual vs. spectacle). The problem here is that there shouldn’t be any segregation.

War For The Planet Of The Apes

Then, on the other end of the spectrum, there is Christopher Nolan. His films have consistently pandered to artistic recognition while never truly accomplishing anything worthwhile or remotely interesting as far as I can see. Dunkirk could have potentially demonstrated the various sensations of duration born out of a variety of duress in its hodge-podge semi-linear structure. However, Nolan consistently assumes that his audience suffers from some kind of mental incapacity and chose to label these three experiences of duration, thus negating the final reveal that would have lent Dunkirk emotional power. Nolan’s approach to form via these labels (The Mole, The Sea, and The Air) also functions to deny the film any interesting exchange between the images within the three different timelines as he cuts back and forth between them.

Thus Dunkirk is the antithesis of War For The Planet Of The Apes in that it aspires to art and provides only spectacle. The spectacle itself is not even that rewarding for that matter. As I sat in the theater watching Dunkirk I kept thinking of Richard Attenborough’s A Bridge Too Far (1977). Dunkirk, like A Bridge Too Far, trades on its roster of celebrities and plethora of special effects to pull at the heart-strings of its audience. This strategy, while good in theory, doesn’t allow for ample character development, thus making it difficult for the audience to have anything more than a passing superficial reaction to the film. The only time Dunkirk comes close to achieving any real characterization is during Mark Rylance’s scenes. Rylance brings a subtlety and a sense of experience to his role as Mr. Dawson that renders his character with more depth and ambiguity than could be mustered by the rest of the film’s cast.

What Dunkirk and War For The Planet Of The Apes have in common is what they prove, each in their own way. These two films indicate that a majority of the movie going public see war and accept war purely as a spectacle, as a means for escape. This probably has as much to do with how these films are sold and marketed as with the way which wars are treated by journalists and the media in this country. Arguably, as the images of Vietnam on the 5 o’clock news fade from our national consciousness, so does our ability as a nation to treat war on film as anything other than “pulp”. I doubt that it is any coincidence that a majority of the most worthwhile films about war I have seen were made during the Vietnam conflict and in its immediate aftermath.

-Robert Curry

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Anticipating Dunkirk

The history of the cinema is replete with instances in which filmmakers have gone to extravagant lengths to establish a credible realism.  The most extreme ventures of this sort often form the basis of early marketing campaigns with the intention of tantalizing an audience’s impulses with the promise of a “real” spectacle as opposed to a fabricated one.  Through history these spectacles have varied from the Belgian Congo locations for John Huston’s The African Queen (1951), the rumored on camera intercourse between Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland in Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973), to the physical aging process as captured in Richard Linklater’s Boyhood (2014).The lure of the “real”, while elusive, is undoubtedly fetishized for its perceived scarcity in narrative films.  That is not to say that the emotional lives of characters in films are artificial, or that the narratives of most films take place outside of our own historical and socio-political context, or even that a large number of films do not make use of actual locations.  It’s a matter of special effects.  The simulated versus the documented.

The Train

A personal favorite example of this is the derailing of a steam locomotive in John Frankenheimer’s The Train (1964).  The cooperation of the French government and the backing of United Artists afforded Frankenheimer the luxury to opt for the actual locomotive crash and not the simulated crash of miniatures.  What imbues this spectacle with the sense of the awesome is that it is allowed to interact directly with the film’s star, Burt Lancaster.  The gravitas of this sequence derives from the high stakes of Lancaster’s very real jeopardy; he could have easily been killed during shooting.  By releasing this information prior to release in the trade papers United Artists was able to capitalize on audience’s pseudo-sadistic desire to watch Burt Lancaster narrowly escape death.  

The sadistic voyeurism of audiences has been making hits out of unorthodox or simply unmarketable films for decades.  Once it was rumored that native people died during the shooting of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo (1982) in the Amazon, Roger Corman was insured of recouping his investment.  Alex Proyas’ The Crow (1994) is another such film, albeit the death of Brandon Lee was no rumor at all but a very real tragedy.  However what unites these films is the reality of a life in peril and the audience’s intrinsic desire to see their own shared mortality put to the test from the safety of the multiplex.

Now enter Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk.  Nolan is a master of spinning technical innovation as marketing strategy.  Inception drew audiences for its digital effects more so than for its cast and certainly more so than for its incoherent script (Nolan’s most prevalent trademark in my opinion is that none of his plots make any sense).  With Dunkirk he has done it once again.  

behind the scenes of Dunkirk

Analog special effects are now mostly the province of memory for audiences.  Gone are the heydays of Cliff Wallace and Chris Walas.  There is no disputing that computer generated imagery quickly came to dominate American cinema in the wake of Jurassic Park (1993) and Pixar, culminating in a pastiche of the “actual” before the cameras and the generated images from a computer that are all unified in a single shot during post-production.  It’s this very context that gives Nolan’s latest publicity stunt on Dunkirk any claims for notoriety at all.

Slashfilm.com revealed not to long ago that Warner Bros. spent five million dollars on a WWII fighter to be used in Nolan’s Dunkirk.  Nolan, rumor has it, will crash the plane for Hoyte van Hoytema’s IMAX 65mm cameras.  That is to say that Warner Bros. potentially spent five million dollars on a single special effect (quite a lot more than they spent on the very “real” planejacking in Nolan’s Dark Knight Rises).  It’s a sum that clearly can be seen as an investment.  Why not spend five million on a special effect or even the buzz around that effect that will save who knows how many millions on advertising?  

-Robert Curry

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