Thursday, July 13, 2017

Ineffability: Dunkirk & Visual Philosophy (2017 Film)

I want to make it perfectly clear that I will always go to bat for Christopher Nolan; why? He's earned it. I'm relaying this to you so you know my prejudices, and you know that I know I have them. This appears to be a simple poster; almost insultingly simple, even. Within its simplicity, however, we can find everything we need. Let's start with the obvious. We know that black, the dominant color of the poster, symbolizes death, there is the "bad death," being alive to things of this world and dead to things of the spiritual world, and then there is "good death," being alive to the things of the next world, the spirit, and being dead to the appetites in this world, materialism and those things that will perish. Next, is the color blue as being dominant. Blue is an exceptional symbol because it always "embodies" both its "negative"side and its "positive" side simultaneously: blue symbolizes sadness, suffering, sorrow and heartache, but it also symbolizes wisdom, because wisdom is the greatest of all human treasures, not just because it costs us the most to attain (no amount of silver or gold can purchase wisdom, only hardships) but also because, the wiser we become, the closer to God we become. If we depend upon Him in those same trials, we are rewarded in that He makes us to be more like Himself, which is what He always wanted for us. So, there is both wisdom, suffering. Then, we realize, it's not just the lettering that's blue, rather, it's an image of the beach and the sea where the action takes place, so we have the visual intersecting the verbal (the word DUNKIRK), meaning, that which took place there at a certain time, gave this place a new meaning. Originally, "Dunkirk" means "church in the dunes," and I am confident we will see this played out on multiple levels.
Permit me to seemingly go off topic for a moment. In Heidegger's concept of existence, each person occupies a certain place at a specific time. I am who I am because I am sitting at my desk, at this exact moment, typing these words, and no one else can claim that they are me, because I am the one carrying out this action at this specific marker in history (it's like the latitude and longitude of a globe, but with a place and a time).  This is what is going to happen with Dunkirk, the area in Northern France: it's no longer going to be just the "church in the dunes," rather, it's also going to become synonymous with the events that happened there, at that specific beach, at that specific time. So, too, will those men and women who were there, the "meaning" of the events, the evacuations, the heroism, the deeds, the deaths, the odds and the fear all coming to mean something different to each of them who experienced it first hand, but also contributing a shared meaning of the events taking place there on the beaches of Dunkirk that we, too, in the audience will share with them.
So, what does the poster say to us?
There is death, but from death, comes life far greater, richer and more abundant than what we can possibly imagine. 
Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk, about the evacuation of British soldiers during World War II, opens July 21 and reviews have started coming in: it's visually stunning, but the characters aren't developed. Such "lazy" reviews exhibit the perfect reason as to why you and I work so tirelessly to understand and decode art: NO ONE BELIEVES IN HUMANITY LIKE NOLAN DOES, and we know that because of ineffability, the prime character in every Nolan film, who has taken on a greater and more definite role in each work, because of Nolan's own confidence and continuously increasing skills. Nolan knows that which cannot be said can still be communicated, and he does. Please watch the first trailer released for the film:
"Why waste precious tanks when they can pick us off from the air like fish in a barrel?" This statement is the film's thesis announcing what it's about: the "precious tanks" vs "fish in a barrel," and how the enemy has dehumanized the British soldiers and that, ultimately, is their mistake and why the men were able to be evacuated: the human soul is not less precious than the tanks, and the men on the beach are not cheap like "fish in a barrel." This causal reference might be referencing two specific films: Emperor, with Matthew Fox and Tommy Lee Jones, about the role of the Japanese Emperor in the bombing of Pearl Harbor and The Hobbit: Desolation Of Smaug, when our heroes were hidden in barrels filled with fish so the could get to the mountain. At the end of Emperor, one of the Japanese generals tells Fox's character that Japan lost their humanity during the war, because of the horrible war crimes they committed; in other words, in dehumanizing their enemy (the Americans) they only dehumanized themselves. In The Hobbit, the brave heroes who have been through so much, are buried in the foul smelling fish, and humbled, but it's their quest which ultimately brings together and unites the dwarfs, elves and men to fight off and against the orcs and Sauron. In both films, we see the individual choices of the characters having an effect on events far greater than themselves, and all working towards a greater good, which I am confident we shall see in Dunkirk as well.
The first image we see is of the Warner Bros. logo fading backwards into fog (first image); later in the trailer (second image down), we see this soldier on the beach, unloading himself of his gear, and going into the water to drown, fading into death; we see the words HOPE IS A WEAPON emerge from the fog (third image), along with the words SURVIVAL IS VICTORY. What these images have in common is the visual philosophy of existence: we either emerge from suffering victoriously, or we give into suffering and fade into oblivion. Just as the troops are surrounded by the enemy forces (bottom image) so you, and I, are too, every moment of our lives, and if we aren't battling the the enemy (Satan) actively, if we aren't emerging from the battlefield triumphantly (or at least putting up the best fight that we can) then we fade into nothingness. Throughout the film, we will be seeing images like these: a vast expanse and just one, maybe two people there, or, we may be shown the exact opposite: a crowded beach loaded with 400,000 troops, and we are just one of them, but each has the same individuality as we ourselves; there is no such thing as an "unimportant life." There is also no such thing as an unimportant moment of life: of course, there are moments that are really important, but there are all the little moments that lead up to the big ones, because our character, our philosophy of how to approach life and suffering, is defined by the little moments, the moments of either giving your all to fulfill your destiny (the soul's total capacity of virtue) or if you have slacked off and just took the easy way out, did the simple thing and compromised your way through life, like the soldier going to drown himself out at sea (second image). What that soldier really means is, every single man on the beach fights the same battle he is fighting, the temptation to drown themselves in despair, so they have to fight the despair with hope, but so, too, do you and I, in whatever circumstances we find ourselves.
It's difficult to see, but if you look at the bottom of the propaganda paper showing the troops surrounded by the Germans, at the bottom, it says, "SURRENDER + SURVIVE!"  We have actually all ready seen something very similar to this in The Mummy when Princess Ahmanet tells Nick (Tom Cruise), "Just give in, just give in," and let me kill you, she tells him, but he doesn't, he fights her, and it's more difficult because throughout Nick's life, he's taking the easy, self-serving way out, he's surrendered to circumstances. "Surrender and survive" is the antithesis of Dunkirk, while "Fight to survive" is the thesis, because we are not called in this life "just to survive," we are called to be victorious, but there is no victory without a fight.
The main reason I'm writing this post is because I am upset with a reviewer who snugly commented after seeing Dunkirk that it's a spectacular film, but there aren't any real characters in it, just like all of Nolan's films,... "characters" require "character," and if the writer of said review thinks Nolan's films don't have any real characters, that is because that reviewer himself has no personal character with which he can recognize the character of others. If heroism isn't a sign of character, what is? If fear isn't a sign of being alive and facing the terror of the abyss of death, what is a sign of being alive? If laying down your life so someone else can live isn't a sign of honor and love, then what is? I would like to suggest that, far from being devoid of characters, we will, instead, find the film filled with the ineffable, visually, and philosophically, but if one doesn't understand what it is, it's because they know there is nothing "ineffable" about their own self.
Mr.Dawson (Mark Rylance, top image) provides us with an example of courage we can all recognize, but how? How can we articulate what exactly Dawson's doing as heroic? "The call's gone out," he says,... a "call" isn't just a ring on the phone, it has important spiritual connotations: we are "called" to do something great in this life by God Himself, even if that "great" doesn't seem "great" to us. In Dawson's case, he is being called to put his life and the property of his boat on the line to save others (and if either or both of those boys with him are his sons, then they also are being possibly sacrificed). This is the measure of heroism, to do that which needs to be done for a greater good than one's self, and with no reward but knowing you did it and did it as well as you could. The great Cillian Murphy, whose character is officially titled "Shivering Soldier," (picture number 3) has a cut across his nose and another one below his eye; why? He doesn't want to go back to Dunkirk as Dawson tells him they are going to do, and the Shivering Soldier's fear of death has shown that his character is flawed: our face is the seat of our identity, and the nose is the most prominent feature of our face, so it symbolizes our character, which is also the most prominent feature of our (intangible) being. To have a cut or mark could just mean that Shivering Soldier has "lost face," he has not shown himself to be honorable, but it's more serious than that, he's shown that his character is flawed because he puts himself before others. George (second picture down) gives the perfect response when Dawson tells him they are going into war: George doesn't say, "I'm dying to see some action and excitement!" "I'm thrilled at killing some Germans!" "I want to prove myself!" He doesn't say any of these things, he says, "I'll be useful." That's not only humble, it's courageous. An interesting symbol is introduced at 0:48: the umbilical cord. George has the line of rope in his hand, but instead of throwing the rope onto the boat and staying behind, George holds onto the rope and boards the boat. The umbilical cord rarely shows up, but when it does, it's always a powerful instrument in the hands of the right director. George leaves behind the "motherland" and the safety of the deck to gain a new identity, to be born as an individual who is going to the aide of others, so in facing war and possible death, George is being born, and the rope acting as a "life line" between the land of England and the boat setting out to face the enemy, is the womb of a new birth for George, as it is for all the characters.
In the bottom image, we see Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branaugh) with his hat off (I'll talk about that red circle in just a moment). We know that our head symbolizes our thoughts because that's where our thoughts originate, so anything on our head or pertaining to our head (like hair) can tell us what a character is thinking or how they are internally responding to something even though they might not say anything. We have seen Bolton wearing his hat in nearly all the clips of him, meaning that he likes to keep his thoughts and emotions "under his hat," he doesn't share what he's thinking with others, readily, anyway. In the clip above, I don't know what is happening, but it's made him take his hat off, meaning, there is going to be a show of emotion when this happens, something has unsettled him, and removing his hat might be the only way to understand what his character is going through. Now, I circled a ship, in the far, far distant background of that image (just off his right bicep) because that's an example of Nolan using his spatial vocabulary to emphasize isolation and the building of character: that might be an enemy ship, or it might be part of the British Navy, but we can see the incredible distance between Bolton and the ship, because that's a distance Bolton feels interiorly and is being shown to us by Nolan: "You can almost see it from here." "What?" "Home." Bolton might be able to almost see home, but he knows there are 400,000 men between him and that home. 
As Christians, we believe we are mortal, however, because we are also created in the image of God, and by God's blessing, we are kings and queens, co-heirs of the kingdom of God and of His own Life, i.e., we have God within us. Not only are we a temple for God, but we, too, are God in that He desires to share His Love for us with us; the more we unite our will to His, the more God can dwell within our souls this side of heaven. What all this means is, we believe that, in spite of being human, there is, essentially, no limit to our soul, there is no limit to our humanity which God cannot decide to heal or strengthen, enlighten or enhance; we are limitless because of God's Love.
I am guessing that these two visual extremes are going to be the bulk of the vehicle of Nolan's ineffable expression, because they do the job so well. In the top two images, we see the crowd, the "fish in a barrel," the all of us and who am I in all of this, the "face in a crowd" (as we see in the second image down, the extreme front and center, the one young man looking up when no one else is). So there will be "crowd shots" where we can't tell anyone from anyone else. No one stands out in a crowd, everyone looks the same (especially in uniform), there is no individuality, except that individuality which has been achieved over that person's lifetime within their self. Then there are the incredible realities that bombs are being dropped; why should the soldier next to you be killed, but not you? How do you even begin to explain that? This is the moment when our lives intersect with the purpose and will of Our Creator, who does not become our destroyer when we face death, rather, like George grabbing the umbilical cord of the boat taking him to war, so these moments are, too, meant to give birth to faith. To hope. To resolve and abandonment. These are the most intensive moments of our existence, because they are the moments that no one else can live for us, they belong to us and to us alone. This is why we will have shots like the two on the bottom: a solitary figure in a massive landscape, the very stuff of the awesome and sublime. Just as the one solitary figure stands out on the beach (image number three) or the one airplane that has been hit and is going down into the water (image number four) so that is what's happening within those characters, there is no one else, there is nothing else, except what that person has stored up for themselves from their past actions to fortify their souls in moments just like this. In another way, we can even see the broad expanses of landscape being a kind of metaphor of the broad outlines of history which generally describe for us the events such as these, where solitary individuals stood out and against the anonymous background of history to literally change the tide: that one fighter pilot who heroically save a friend, but goes down himself, that father and shopkeeper who hears the alarm and answers with his life to bring home the sons and fathers, brothers and husbands of people he doesn't know and never will,.... Such moments are too great for us to understand, but we can understand that they exist, and we exist within them. 
Those who do not believe in God, believe that we are limited by humanity, and that it is exceedingly limited indeed; having such a small and narrow understanding of hearts and souls, it's because they themselves have not yet been tested and pushed to embrace God standing just at their limitations, that is, the intersection of the effabile and God's ineffability (we can be described, God cannot). The events we will see in Dunkirk are those very ones that will dramatize the expansion of the soul, and make us see that which we cannot put into words, we can only approach in wonder. (UPDATED: reviews for Dunkirk have started coming in; this one, from Variety, hails the film as a "masterpiece," and I'm sure I will be quick to second that).
Eat Your Art Out,
The Fine Art Diner
Here is the second trailer released for Dunkirk: