Sunday, July 23, 2017

HOME: Dunkirk

Perhaps I understood 50% of the dialogue in Dunkirk, but as we know from previous films, this is actually a part of Nolan's strategy: sometimes he doesn't want us to understand what his characters are saying; why not? Because it actually deepens the message. In the chaotic evacuations of the beaches, how can we understand what they are saying? We can't possibly relate to their situation, or make the kinds of choices they are being forced to make between life and death, as when Alex (Harry Styles) insists that "Gibson" get off the boat, or how we can't hear poor George articulating the desires of his heart as he lays dying on the floor; it may seem cruel to us sitting in the comfy chairs of the air conditioned theater, munching popcorn and sipping our Cokes, but these soldiers were not only fighting for their lives, but their countries, and trying to uphold their honor as best as possible, and their enemies were not only the Germans, but the elements and their own physical limitations (hunger, drowning, exhaustion). How can we understand what they say? We can't possibly begin to put ourselves in their positions, and Nolan's mastery reveals itself in these communications between the master storyteller and his audience. There are, no doubt, still those who, knowing what Nolan intends, would still rather "understand what is being said," because it's a emotionally less vulnerable position for the audience to occupy, that of armchair observer and judge, rather than allow Nolan to erase the false boundaries of security we erect around our little worlds to protect our personal notions and the very fact that we aren't qualified--on any level at all--to judge any of what we see and hear. Nolan employs noise (or the inability to understand what characters say) to engage the audience on a deeper level than what most film makers would even consider daring. The inaudible speech, then, highlights even more the audible speech, when we can clearly understand the words, like the differences between what the Shivering Soldier (Cillian Murphy) says, to the epic speech of Sir Winston Churchill, and how different are their agendas are for the future of the world unfolding that day. It's always tempting to complain about certain elements Nolan intentionally weaves into his narratives, but if we allow the great man to work his magic, work his magic he will
Towards the end of the film, there is a man pass out blankets and food to returning soldiers, saying to each one, "Good job," but he doesn't look up at them; Alex (Harry Styles), ashamed they had to be evacuated, takes the blanket and goes on down the line, but when Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) comes to the man, the man looks up, and we perceive he's blind; his puts his hand to Tommy's face to "see" the best he can, who the soldier in front of him is, and then the blind man tells Tommy, "Good job," and gives him a blanket and food; on the train, Alex says to Tommy, "That old bloke wouldn't even look us in the face," supposedly because he was ashamed of them, but Tommy knows better, why?
Besides the blind man at the end of the film, I think George is my favorite character of the film, because of his humility and his willingness to put others first. In my first post on Dunkirk and the "ineffable," I noted how George is supposed to toss the rope he holds back into the boat and stay on the dock, but instead, he gets on the boat to go into war with Mr. Dawson and his friend Peter; why? The rope symbolizes an umbilical cord, and just as a baby within the womb of its mother is fed and nourished to life by the umbilical cord, so the Moonstone will be an umbilical cord for George; but he dies, you might argue; and I would respond, a greater and better George is born. When the Shivering Soldier knocks George down the stairs, and George hits his head, what does he do? He curls up in a fetal position, like a baby in the womb, the womb of the ship, and yes, he dies, but he was born a hero. But he didn't do anything! you may still argue, and that would be a good argument, except that he does do something: he saves the Shivering Soldier. Mr Dawson tells George that the Shivering Soldier has shell shock and he may never get over it, but the Shivering Soldier does get over it by expressing his concern over George, in other words, having George's condition to focus on and care about brings Shivering Soldier out of his shivering and coldness (like the coldness of heart he expressed to Tommy and Alex as they were swimming to the boat Shivering Soldier was in charge of, but he wouldn't let Tommy and Alex in the boat, telling them instead to tread water and another boat would be around for them). George, then, no only saves the Shivering Soldier from the shell shock by making him realize that reality is still happening around him, but cures him of his emotional coldness, so George is not only a hero for going into war when he could have stayed at the safety of the dock, George is also a hero for saving a man's life from ruin.
When George falls, it's like he has taken the Shivering Soldier's "fall" from grace (coldness of heart and shell shock) upon himself, as Christ took the sins of our fall from grace upon Himself. We know that George hits his head and then he can't see; just like the blindness of the blind man at the end of the film, George "can't see" how his sacrifice will prove heroic, because that a boy so young would die to suddenly and seemingly for no reason, doesn't make sense (George hitting his head, because the head is where we "make sense" of things). George mentions to Peter that he would have liked to become a reporter for the town newspaper, but George does better than that: he becomes a story himself.
The idea of George having a "moment" when he makes a difference, just like Peter, Dawson, Collins, Farrier and all the other captains of the little boats who come to save their boys, was something we also saw in Transformers 5: The Last Knight, when Sir Burton (Anthony Hopkins) attacks an enemy and buys Cade a few extra moments; as he lays dying, he says, "I had my moment," and even though no one else in the world knows what he did, and how it helped saved the world, he knew; George, in Dunkirk, on the other hand, doesn't realize how his sacrifice saved the Shivering Soldier, and usually, that's how our own sacrifices in our life will be: we won't know until we stand before God, and either He will be able to show us all the good things we did, even though no one but He saw, or He will be forced to show us all the things we thought no one would see and we could get away with, but He was watching, and that's how we chose to spend our time here instead of doing good.
"Sight" and "blindness" play an important role in the film: for example, "You can almost see it form here," Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) tells his Lieutenant, and then, when Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) is heading his boat to Dunkirk, and airplanes come up behind them and Dawson doesn't look back to see if they are British or German, George (Barry Keoghan) mentions, "You didn't even have to look," then there is the young soldier who looks through a bullet hole in the side of the ship and he gets shot in the eye, George falling and going blind, oil in Tommy's eyes, Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) who sees an easy way to get out of situations, Farrier (Tom Hardy) who can't see how much fuel his plane has left, there's George's dead body that the Shivering Soldier (Cillian Murphy) doesn't see and how he doesn't want to go back to Dunkirk because all he sees there is death, there's the way the English soldier died that Gibson buries that we don't see, and why Gibson can't get out of the boat when it's sinking, there's the stuck landing gear of Farrier's plane he can't see and then his fate of surrendering to the Germans at the end of the film that we don't see and there are all the soldiers who once lined the pier that the sleeping private wakes and doesn't see, realizing he's the last one to be evacuated. So, back to the original question, who--in a metaphorical sense--is the blind man at the end of the film?
Blind faith.
In terms of the theme of "seeing" and "not seeing," this scene is important: they know they are surrounded by the enemy, even though they can't see them, the enemy knows they are there and helpless; they do, however, see another enemy in action, and that enemy is despair, physically manifested by the soldier who walks onto the beach, dropping his gear, and dives into the water to drown himself, because he has all ready drowned himself in despair (which is the opposite of blind faith, it's blind pessimism and foreboding; we discuss the suicide more at the bottom of the post); why does the man commit suicide? Because he has no faith in his English brethren to care about him and save him from the beach. Even though this man dies, we can see something else being born (as the rope George holds as he jumps onto the Moonstone to join the Dawsons going to war, so the foam on the beach surrounding the young men can be seen as a birth symbol, because it was from sea foam that Aphrodite was born, and the young men, watching even as this other soldier would rather end his life than wait just a little longer, have to make a choice: will they have faith in Churchill and their officers to get them out? You see, the reason each and every choice we make is so heavily emphasized in Nolan films is because with each and every choice, we change who we are: we are never static, we are always changing. The young men pictured here are choosing not to give up hope, not to give into despair, just as they are not giving into the Germans to surrender, and so they are being born anew as the soldiers who wouldn't die, the soldiers who wouldn't give in, the soldiers who believed and fought with their hope and faith; this moment changes them, as does every moment in their lives, and every moment in your life and mine. Every single decision we make prepares us to make the next decision, and to make it with as much heroic virtue as possible, even if that is just as simple as returning someone's hate with kindness, no one might see it, but it will have an immediate impact in the person we become because of the decisions we choose to make.
Let's talk about "Gibson." At the start of the film, we see Tommy escape the opening gunfire, and make his was to the beach; he goes behind a dune to "relieve nature" and doesn't because he sees a man burying another man; Tommy stops and helps bury the guy, and at the time, I thought the dead soldier had all ready been dead and "Gibson" needed new shoes, or a new uniform. We see Gibson then help Tommy carry the stretcher with the wounded man to the Red Cross ship, and manage to get on, then when they are kicked off, he shows him where to hide, and so many times, Gibson saves Tommy, almost like a silent guardian angel, but then, Alex accuses Gibson of being a Frenchman who murdered that English soldier,... so what happened? Tommy stands up for Gibson, that there were plenty of dead English soldiers on the beach, but we see those English soldiers, they are laying in the open, covered, because they are going to be carried back to England for burial at home, none of them are being buried on the beach where their bodies will exposed by the tides,... this detail suggests that the Frenchman did, indeed, kill the Englishman and take on his identity of "Gibson," not as a spy, but just trying to get to safety like everyone else. However, the scene has a far more sinister, and real historical equivalent: what has come to be known as the half-hearted Saar Offensive which happened prior to Dunkirk, when the French were supposed to have attacked the Germans at an extremely vulnerable point so they would have been permanently weakened and not have secured their offensive foothold so strongly, but the French failed to launch any attack, and retreated. The body of the dead English soldier Tommy helps "Gibson" bury has his bare foot sticking up in the air; we know that feet symbolize will, and nudity or nakedness symbolizes "exposure," so Alex, later in the boat, exposes "Gibson" for having killed the soldier, because with the failure of the Saar Offensive, so many English soldiers died who didn't have to if the French had actually followed through with the Offensive, rather than just retreating, and so the will of the French is "exposed" by Alex (the dead English soldier's bare feet). The failure of the Saar Offensive is what lead to the start of the ""Phoney War" when neither the Allied powers nor Germany and her allies, were able to launch offensives even though war had been declared, just as "Gibson" isn't really Gibson, but is a "phoney" English soldier. We know that a character never dies unless they are "all ready dead" in some manner, and "Gibson" would not have died if Nolan didn't want to communicate to us, the viewers, that Gibson/what he represents is a form of death; but Gibson saves Tommy so many times! you might argue, and you are absolutely correct: how many brave French men and women risked and gave their lives, family, property and everything to defeat the Germans? No one but God will ever know, because they fought so long and hard, even while being occupied, just as Gibson makes so many rescues for Tommy; Nolan points out, however, that had the French acted at the perfect opportune time with the Saar Offensive, how many French and English lives would have been saved, property and damage? 
The blind man (played by John Nolan, who is the uncle of writer/director Christopher Nolan and his genius brother Jonathan Nolan, and has been in several of his nephews' films) looks down as he passes out the blankets; why? It's a sign of humility, to keep one's eyes averted; he hands out gray blankets, why? Gray is the color of pilgrims and the color of penance (because it's the color of ashes) but it's also the color of a novice, and while the blanket is a symbol of warmth (like human warmth we give to one another with our words and empathy, for example), Alex doesn't take the gestures of the blind man to be those of warmth because Alex is blind himself, just as he doesn't see that the man is blind, so Alex can't see what is happening on a larger scale (so Alex is actually the character with whom most people in the audience should be identifying themselves because so few people live by faith) so the man handing out the blankets is a source of shame and Alex doesn't want to recognize who he really is, just as Alex didn't want to give Gibson the benefit of a doubt earlier in the film, the difference, then, between Alex and Tommy becomes what they choose to see and then do with it. So, why does the blind man put his hand on Tommy's face?
What most of the men on the beach won't see, or hear, is the conversation which takes place between the officers (top image) when they figure out what to do and how to do it: 400,000 men can't be saved, they reason, but hopefully we can save 30,000 to still have an army that can win a battle another day,.... of course those sound like cruel and inhuman calculations they make, but we the audience don't see the darkness of invasion facing these officers, the years of war they believe are ahead of them, the strength of the Germans and the pain of the surprise attacks that cornered them into this part of the world to begin with. None of the officers see the support the "little boats" will bring with them, and the giant effort for rescue they will manage (but note how often Bolton reaches for the binoculars, to "see" more clearly what is coming). In the bottom image, a German plane has appeared, and is ready to tear the beach and pier up with gunfire, and Bolton closes his eyes because he's right in the path of the plane and he knows he won't make it out of this moment alive, but what he doesn't see is Farrier behind him and ready to take him out, and the sacrifice Farrier is making because of his fuel source, but later, Bolton does see, when Farrier's plane flies by and the propeller isn't turning, he's just gliding in the air, and everyone knows he's out of fuel, and that he stayed to fight instead of turning back.
Let's talk about Bolton for a moment and how his character is presented to us. Look at his mouth: he hardly has one, his lips are so thin; why? Bolton has no "appetite" for war. He has quite blond hair because his thoughts are like gold, in other words, the thoughts he thinks, are the best thoughts to have in that moment, like when he looks and sees the little boats, and his lieutenant asks him what he sees, and he says, "Home," or when the Red Cross boat is sinking, and he knows that if it sinks right there, that will block other boats from being able to rescue the rest of the men, so he knows the difficult call must be made, even as men are dying on the ship, that it has to be cut loose and pushed to sea, or they wouldn't be able to save anyone. It's because of those moments that Bolton has gold embroidery on his uniform, he is the "king" at this beach, and he has to make the decisions and sacrifices for his men that will mean the most, but it's not an easy decision to make, which is why his coat is a dark blue, he has to exercise wisdom, but that wisdom comes from the sadness of his sacrifices. However, he's a man of faith, which is why he has the white sweater (white symbolizes faith and hope) and it's a sweater because his faith keeps him warm from the coldness of despair.
There is one other important detail: wedding bands. At different times, we see different men wearing their wedding bands, At key moments, we will see one of the men's wedding bands, it specifically catches our eyes; why? Nolan is making a point. We know that our hands symbolize our honor, and a wedding band indicates that we have taken a pledge to honor another person for the rest of our lives. America is in a terrible predicament, with the majority of couples deciding not to get married, and for the first time since 1950, there are more single people in America than those who are married. Nolan seems to be pointing out to men that marriage is a sign of a man's honor, and not being married is to not behave honorably (living with your girlfriend instead of being married and legitimate).
We know that the face symbolizes our identity, more than any other part of ourselves, it's by our facial features that we are recognized, so the face is the manifestation of our individuality. The hand symbolizes our honor, because when we give our word, when we make a vow, we "shake hands on it," we keep our hands clean and free from "dirty deeds," so the hand of honor of the blind man ("blind faith," metaphorically speaking) covers the identity and individuality of a young English soldier who was just evacuated,.... who fits this description? The film tells us in the next scene: Winston Churchill.
Both pilots, Collins (top) and Farrier (bottom) find themselves in interesting positions in the film. Collins, hit by enemy gunfire, opens his cockpit to parachute out, but then decides to close it and land on the water (he sees the Dawson's boat nearby, how does the simple act of closing his cockpit window alter the events? Had Collins parachuted out, Dawson would probably not have gone back for him, and Collins might not have made it landing in the water; with his cockpit window stuck, Peter was able to insist they go back so they could save him; having Collins on board with them, they are able to rescue more men, faster, and avoid the oil, so when an enemy plane crashes into the oil and lights the water surface with flames, Dawson has avoided getting his boat burned, and he can carry on with his mission.
Farrier, the only pilot left in the sky to defend the men and boats below, can't see his fuel gauge; why? None of us can see our "fuel gauges," only God knows how far we can go, because we wouldn't want to go that far if we could, so we have to have faith in God, that when we do run out of gas, just like Farrier, we will switch to our reserve tanks (God's grace) and keep going because others need us to.Why does Farrier's landing gear get stuck? Because Farrier and Collins both became miracles for others, by willingly going into this dangerous situation and be "sitting ducks," God performed miracles for them so they would have some idea of the greatness God had just worked through them: Peter breaking open Collins' cockpit hatch when he was about to drown, and Farrier getting his landing gear down in spite of it getting stuck, so they would know how important miracles are in everyone's life, and they would be willing to be the instrument of miracles again in the future. 
Just as Alex doesn't see that the blind man is blind, so he also can't see that Winston Churchill's speech about the evacuation would be one of celebration and thanksgiving, one of gratitude and awe, that when the enemy's forces were aimed at wiping you out, and you managed to survive, survival is a victory, but the words we hear Tommy reading, repeating from Churchill's great speech, has just been manifested by the blind man in the previous scene when the two young men were boarding the train: it's meant to communicate that even though there are future defeats in store and they should prepare themselves now to hear of those defeats (the blanket to keep them warm in the cold, hard truth of war) because the war is young (gray for the novice), there will be the victory, because not a single one of them will never surrender, each one will take up the honor of defending the homeland, and being one who sacrifices and gives everything the moment demands to protect and enable the ultimate defeat of the enemy, and it will be the anonymous soldiers like Tommy and civilians like Mr. Dawson who do so, but are in no way anonymous to Prime Minister Churchill. He knows everyone of them is a son, husband, brother, father, and loved and cherished. So, the final question, how has the events at Dunkirk shaped our world today?
One of the technical means by which Nolan signs Dunkirk with such artistry, is the application of extremes: when Tommy first steps onto the beach at the opening of the film, we notice how neat, tidy and professionally organized everything is, in contrast to the horrible chaos that we can't see, but we know is there. We've been watching Tommy, a single, young individual suddenly standing amidst 400,000 others who are indistinguishable, but each just as anxious to get home as the next, and everyone of them the whole world to someone waiting for word about their safety back home. Then there is the huge contrast between the battleships and the little boats (bottom image), like the contrast between an individual and an entire army, but it shows, what one single person is capable of doing, and the immense difference each and everyone of us can make in this world. And for Christopher Nolan, I think that's everything.
What propelled Dawnson to answer the call to go to Dunkirk, or Collins and Farrier, Tommy and Alex? As Dawson, Peter and George are headed to Dunkirk, Dawson faces east, and planes fly over his head; George asks why he didn't look to check if they were ours or enemy planes, and Dawson replies he knows the sound of the Rolls Royce Merlin engine, "The sweetest sound out here," he adds. That reference to "Merlin," while obviously about an engine, works in the same manner as so many other metaphors in the film (like the blind man, the phoney Gibson, Farrier's fuel gauge, etc.) because it's the identity of Merlin, Arthur and the Knights of England that propels Dawson and all of England. We have, of course, seen Arthur invoked in Guy Ritchie's King Arthur: Legend Of the Sword and Transformers: The Last Knight, because he serves as the example, par excellence, of what bravery and self-sacrifice means, and why the English hold him so dear to their hearts: he reflects the very heart of England itself. The point is, such a noble inspiration would not be so continuously summoned today, if he were not needed back so desperately in these, our own perilous times.
One last note about Dawson: actor Mark Rylance portrayed a Soviet spy in Steven Spielberg's film Bridge of Spies; while I personally didn't like the film, it was incredibly pro-socialist, I think it's highly possible that Nolan wanted Rylance to portray Dawson because of the story of "Standing Man" Rylance's character narrates to Tom Hanks' character: Dawson himself, the English army and civilian force, become "Standing Man" who, no matter how often and savagely beaten down they are, will get back up, and stand to fight yet another day.
"The call went out," Mr. Dawson tells the Shivering Soldier (Cillian Murphy) "And I'm not the only one who has answered it," he goes on, because the call to mobilize the civilian boats wasn't the first call that went out to stop the spread of socialism: each soldier on that beach, in some way, answered that first call when Poland was invaded, and then others answered the call to support them, and then, after the events of Dunkirk, more would continue to answer the constant calls for heroism that would be required, day and night, for years, to hold the line and to never surrender,.... That they didn't surrender on that day, meant they would not surrender ever.
THAT has shaped our world, even to today.
Surrendering is not acceptable.
Visually, this scene illustrates an existential thesis Nolan has about humanity, which I have all ready discussed in the Ineffability post. On another level, the suicide we watch in this scene is exactly what the Germans wanted the British army to do: self-destruct. When we self-destruct, we loose our identity. We don't know who this man is, what was the final, crushing blow of despair that caused him to cross the threshold of despair and become one with the faceless sea rather than be home again. Everything fights against us in our lives, like the propaganda sheet (bottom image) illustrating how surrounded the British forces are; the enemy says, at the bottom of the sheet, "SURRENDER = SURVIVE!" but we see the man in the images above surrendering to despair, and that surrendering is death, in more ways than one. He is faceless, he is nameless, and we know nothing of him but that he surrendered
The socialists in Germany should have wiped Britain out. They should have been able to invade England and they should have been able to conquer her, but they didn't accomplish any of their plan, and the massive defeat of England's survival meant that socialism couldn't spread any further, (socialists know that as long as one country remains capitalist and democratic, that will always be a threat to socialist countries because their enslaved people will be reminded of what freedom was like, and they will always prefer the freedom-with-risks of capitalism to slavery-and-security of socialism) like future wars in North Korea and Vietnam would accomplish: socialism was held back and keeping a cancer from spreading its malignant infection to healthy parts of the body started there, on the beach at Dunkirk, the "church in the sand" (Ineffability: Dunkirk & Visual Philosophy explores how Nolan uses his imagery to communicate that-which-cannot-be-communicated).
Eat Your Art Out,
The Fine Art Diner