“Dunkirk”: A Minimalist Portrait of Heroism and Sacrifice

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Spoilers Warning:

On the surface level, “Dunkirk” is about the great retreat of the British (and French) army during the Battle of Dunkirk. It focuses on the various soldiers waiting, with an eerily reserved calmness, on the bombarded beaches for the ships to arrive ashore to take them home, as well as the fighter pilots from above launching their own counter attack to protect those soldiers below and the noble civilians aiding in the retreat out of love for their country (or humanity, depending on one’s view I guess).

One could certainly see the film as yet another exercise in destructive spectacle. The wide panning aerial shots of entire military ships, carrying thousands of soldiers and other military personnel whom just minutes before thought themselves completely safe, tragically tipping over like sailboats is truly horrifying. And getting real up close to soldiers ducking and covering on the barren shelterless beach from the ever-present bombs from above can make the viewer feel extremely vulnerable. But most of the anxiety-ridden action sequences derive from the build-ups. Coupled with Hans Zimmer’s characteristically bombastic, sometimes repetitive, score, these sequences sometimes feels cheap. Christopher Nolan never seems to have any interest in letting scenes play out on their own. I suppose the rationale for this would be that he wants us to feel the drama in its totality, in all its vastness both thematically and geographically, which can hardly be done without some overarching grand score. But it could be toned down a bit; the silence when the soldiers are all grouped and piled together awaiting for their ride home, each of their heads slowly craning upwards as the bomber jets begin their deathly routine, is frightening on its own right.

Furthermore, those looking for a more character-driven narrative may be gravely disappointed. Apart from our noble civilians, such as Mr Dawson humbly portrayed by Mark Rylance, at no point in the film do we really get to know any of the characters. The story is not interested in who these soldiers are. But that’s also perhaps what elevates the film into something else, something beyond the banal nationalistic heroism of one’s love of queen and country. Anyone who’s seen “Saving Private Ryan,” or, more recently “Hacksaw Ridge”, knows why these soldiers are here and any further elaboration would reduce the film to another hackneyed sentimental war piece on the chivalries that arise out of war. With “Dunkirk”, Christopher Nolan is trying to do something less conventional and more macro. Instead of focusing on the individual as some hero to the story, Nolan wants to show us that heroism is a collective enterprise.

This is precisely why “Dunkirk” might be Christopher Nolan’s most artistically unique film since “The Dark Knight.” With “Dunkirk”, Nolan is trying to paint an impressionistic portrait of the necessity and vitality of heroism, sacrifice, and cooperation in face of a common apocalyptic enemy (the constant threat of death raining down from the sky with nowhere to run definitely strikes an armageddon-like vibe). Like Kubrick’s more potent “Paths of Glory”, “Dunkirk” looks at individuals as parts of the greater whole. But at the same time, where the film falls thematically weakest is where it should be driving home its strongest point–namely, in the story of Mr. Dawson. Here, Mr. Dawson is supposed to represent the heroism of the everyman, or everywoman–a reminder that we should not forget the numerous civilians who’ve contributed just as much as the actual soldiers, such as the industrious, mentally hardened women at home working tirelessly in the factories and brave nurses treating the ill (the lack of narrative on that side is also unfortunate).

But Nolan depicts Mr. Dawson as being a bit too confident…the way-too optimistic note in which we end his story–with him proudly looking on at the clippings of a local paper calling the luckless boy who boarded his boat a hero (which isn’t completely undeserved, though one could say that by trying to help out without having any real skills to help out you might actually be harming the overall effort by getting in people’s way…)–it makes the film feel ingenuous. And the fact that he’s not even a little bit hesitant to bring his own and only son on board on a virtual suicide mission strikes a slightly jingoistic tone. One of the biggest dilemmas of the human heart is in deciding which duties are more important: the love for one’s own kin or one’s moral duties to the community at large. In this instance, Nolan makes it seem as if the latter is so obviously true….which it isn’t because if it is, we’d live in a completely different world.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Anomalisa: There’s Only One Ending

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So, this post contains spoilers…

Many who’ve trekked through Charlie Kaufman’s dark but strangely touching stop-motion puppet drama Anomalisa have been confounded by the ending. Was Lisa just a psychological fill-in for the sex doll that Michael Stone brought back to his hotel room? Did she even go back to the room with him? Was the whole experience just a dream?  If it indeed was all a dream, then that would make for a much more anti climatic takeaway to a film so sincere and compelling in its emotional thrust.

The main conflict in Anomalisa lies in Michael’s deep self loathing and his feelings of alienation, a word, might I add, that’s not used enough in our world of heavily bureaucratized, spiritually monotonous office labor. Michael, like many of the working-middle class in the United States, deals with the intensely humdrum task of customer service. After spending a good portion of the night unsuccessfully trying to hook up with a former flame, Michael recedes back into his inner shell and drinks himself into a stupor. He’s awakened by the voice of Lisa, her voice being unique from all the others. From an audience perspective, we know why Lisa’s voice is unique. It’s the only voice, besides our protagonists, who isn’t voiced by the same actor (a brilliant Tom Noonan whom creepily provides the monotonous deadpan voices of  “everyone else”). From Michael’s perspective, Lisa’s “voice” represents perhaps her extremely awkward but refreshing personality. Unlike “everyone else”, Lisa doesn’t appear like any of those other ostentatiously polite doll faces. She seems to carry her emotions and insecurities on her like a sleeve, which is what makes her “voice” stand out so much.

Of course, what we “see”, i.e. the faces and voices of every character in the movie, is really what Michael “sees.” Part of what lies in Anomalisa’s brilliance is how easily it plunges you into the depths of Michael’s existential loneliness. The hotel’s luxuriousness is a facade, a cushioned prison, nothing seems alive.

There are certainly moments in everyone’s lives where they see themselves as the lone fruit in the basket, the independent soul traveling amongst the hoard of seemingly dead-eyed conformist automations which we sometimes call “other people.” It’s very tempting to view people, and by extent society, in such a solipsistic manner. But at the same time, it is perhaps our over-reliance on trying to be different, to satisfy the illusion that it’s all just about me, that renders us to view the world in such a way. Michael is, at the end of day, an extraordinarily narcissistic human being. His obsession with trying to satisfy his own spiritual needs, whatever that may be, comes at the price of failing to communicate properly with both his wife and child, thereby neglecting them. He’s utterly incapable of owning up to any personal responsibility.

Paradoxically, like all great character studies, Anomalisa also depicts Michael as a sort of victim of circumstance. Sure he’s an asshole, but he’s also someone who’s spent his entire life working in an industry where you are essentially an automation, conditioned to interact with other human beings via. a pre-written script. Combined with the fact that Michael is in some ways a celebrity in his industry, one can easily grasp why Michael suffers from severe alienation. The last shot of the film is of Lisa on the road, basking in the optimistic warmth of the sun, smiling, feeling truly at peace that somebody out there appreciates her for who she is, writing a letter to Michael thanking him for the intimate night they had together.

The last shot reveals what Anomalisa is ultimately about: perspective. Michael’s obsession with his own emotional needs is what predominately leads him to narcissistic despair. His inability to see human beings as human beings as opposed to the faceless voices on the other end of a telephone is what renders him cold and alone and unable to form meaningful relationships.  If everything was indeed a dream, it would greatly diminish Lisa as a character, marking her as a sort of ideal abstraction rather than an actual character with personal agency. Ultimately, the movie is as much about Lisa as an agent of change as it is about Michael as an agent of change. That Michael is just a cynical cold bastard because, well, he’s a cynical cold bastard doesn’t strike me as very interesting.

 

 

Reflections on “Goodfellas” and “Casino.”

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There are many reasons why mob movies appeal to the masculine-obsessed and bravado-prone. For one thing, these movies almost always center around characters with unrelenting ambitions to attain the quasi-godly status of the alpha-male, and whose greatest fear is to be seen as a pushover.

Then again, maybe I’m just just talking from my own experiences. I first saw “Goodfellas” when I was eleven years old and “Casino” when I was thirteen. The cinephile part of me was attracted to all the usual cinephile stuff–the long winding tracking shots, the swift pans and abrupt freeze frames, the sprawling depth of narrative detail, like the hierarchal nature of who’s watching whom on the pit floor in “Casino”, all of which made us really feel like we were inside the world, and not just watching it as a spectator. The boyish part of me, however, was attracted to the utter power that these characters wielded, from the way Jimmy Conway decides last minute not to whack Maury, leaning into our apprehensive protagonist Henry Hill with a casual head shake, as if the entire issue of murder was but a minor dampening inconvenience to the day’s plans, to the way Nicky Santoro administers his own brand of swift pen-stabbing justice to some disrespectful douche bag who had, without warrant, called Nicky’s best friend a jagoff.  In a large part of culture where being a man means viewing woman as commodities and suppressing feelings is a means of avoiding to appear weak, it’s easy to see why mob movies can be seen as nothing more than cathartic porn for the testosterone-driven.

It’s a minor shame because I truly think that “Goodfellas” and “Casino” are very telling films about the world we live in today. The former is about our compulsive thirst for what society dictates as “success”–flashy cars, adorning clothing, superficial admiration and respect, etc. It’s about how social institutions and the circumstances we’re brought up in, such as Henry growing up around the mob life, how these things all play a very vital role in who we want to be, as autonomous citizens of a society. If “Goodfellas” is about how and why we want to get to the “top”, whatever and wherever that is, “Casino” is about what we do when we’re finally “there.” Our major characters, Ace, Ginger, and Nicky pretty much have everything Henry and co. desired. In a milieu where social relations are nothing but a business contract, where people are not ends of themselves but a means to an end, one will seldom feel settled or even accomplished. Any meaningful relationships, whether its friendships or even love, become devoid of trust, the most important aspect of any meaningful relationship. In a world where self-interest is sacred, apocalypse is inevitable.

Hm, all of this reminds me of something that happened about a decade ago. What was it that crashed due to self interest run amok, where pretentious bellicose suits believed that “success” must be achieved regardless of the cataclysmic consequences that would follow? One need not say more about the necessity of the lessons brought forth to us by these two great films. Unfortunately, this is where one can see the moral limitations of art.

It’s been said that the best arts are the engaging ones. I once discussed the movie “Wolf of Wall Street” with my hometown boys and was not too surprised to find that their reactions differed pretty dramatically from some of my artsy-film friend’s reactions. Apparently, I had been at a liberal arts school way too long. My hometown boys expressed admiration for Jordan Belford’s self interest, business wit, and “entrepreneurial initiative”, and, of course, saw his hedonistic lifestyle as something to emulate (albeit underneath the surface).  There’d even be half-jested remarks about where one could find quaaludes on the market. My film friends, meanwhile, admired it for all the reasons they loved “Goodfellas” and “Casino”, for its ability to tempt us into that world of excess, and even, at times, making us question our own motives for “success” and “ambition”. Either that or they reacted with a sort of ironic air— “It’s horrible but I loved Wolf of Wall Street.”