- IVY (ISSN:09142266)
- vol.51, pp.1-26, 2018-11-30
Christopher Nolan is a master of puzzling narrative films including Memento, The Dark Knight, and Interstellar, among his many other blockbusters. In 2017, he released Dunkirk, his first war film, which he defines as a survival story. This article examines the film’s complicated narrative, with special focus on Mr. Dawson as a key person. It also analyzes the film’s kinesthetically affective style, to pin down its stylistic and aesthetic qualities and explore their possible function of establishing the audience’s reception of memories of the historical evacuation of Dunkirk in the early days of the Second World War. The world of Dunkirk can be broken into three areas, the land (which is in fact “the mole”), the sea, and the sky. Each of them, however, has a different time span, one week, one day, and one hour, respectively. They intertwine alternately to compose the whole puzzling sequence. This hectic time scheme is one of the most idiosyncratic features of Dunkirk, preventing the chronological flow of the story, and demanding the audience’s repeated viewing for understanding. From a narratological viewpoint, Nolan’s Dunkirk can be said to have a touch of “puzzle films”, as exemplified by Warren Buckland, with its contingencies and deceptions brought by frantic but strategic cuts in the film. If what happens on Dawson’s boat is rearranged chronologically with some twists in the film sorted out, the symbolic meaning of his existence will emerge as a hub to hold the whole narrative of Dunkirk. His emblematic predominance is aptly and necessarily contrived because the original historical facts of Dunkirk are mainly related to the miracle of “little boats”. Among the main characters in the film, only Dawson is given background information, especially that his eldest son died serving as an RAF pilot, and his discernment is delineated as influenced by the aftermath of the Great War. Dawson is assigned to function as a hinge to link two generations together, as well as to unify the people contingently meeting in Dunkirk. As for its aesthetic style, there are three aspects of note in Dunkirk. First, its depiction of explosion and firefight is sometimes so excessive that vibrations are felt in the theater seats. Its effect is greatly enhanced by the IMAX projecting system, which Nolan strongly recommends. With its spectacular stimulation, Dunkirk offers genuinely sensual or physical sensation and shock for pleasure, in which case the audience is exempted from moral impropriety in appreciating the expression of violence. Nolan’s Dunkirk is greatly dependent on this kind of kinesthetic pleasure, traced in the early cinema of attractions and explained originally by Tom Gunning. The near absence of German soldiers as the second stylistic feature of Dunkirk is effective in suppressing inappropriate excitement and agitation on the side of the audience. The ethical conundrum for the audience, usually brought about by the dichotomy of “friend or foe” or “us or them” in the framework of a war story, is prevented mainly with actual German soldiers being obscured in Dunkirk. The third feature is concerned with the beauty and cleanliness predominant throughout the whole story of Dunkirk . The soldiers fatally shot just fall down without much bloodshed and their dying process is not depicted in detail. This is completely different from depictions in Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line. Especially in Saving Private Ryan the brutally wounded soldiers have their intestines exposed or their arms and legs mutilated. The body of the audience and that of wounded soldiers in the films are closely linked in the sense that they are so vulnerable to violence and brutality of war. The excessive aesthetic quality in Dunkirk, however, has the effect of covering up the crude essence of war inflicting brutal damage to the human body. This kind of concealment or suppression is relevant to the aestheticization of war that could be politically abused, dependent on the situation. This seems to be the only crucial moral hazard potentially contained in Dunkirk. Since the 50’s, the film industry has seriously declined in the United Kingdom. A spectacle film featuring Dunkirk evacuation would be impossible without financing from an American film company which trusts Nolan’s potential for making successful films. This background may have certain influence on the content and style of the film, which was intended to be received by as large an audience as possible. In addition to those stylistic features mentioned above, another characteristic should be referred to as an effective factor for making the film agreeable. The mode of narration in Dunkirk is not thrusting, far less thrusting than in Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line, at least. The historical story of cooperation by English people may be amazing, but the message from the story is open to interpretation and acceptance on the side of the audience. Viewed in an IMAX theater, Dunkirk will provide its full kinesthetic and aesthetic impact to the audience. On tablets and other small devices, however, it will tell another story, which is enclosed in its complicated and intense narrative-- the story of a father who tries to save as many young soldiers as possible, feeling deeply remorseful for his generation starting the war and his own son getting killed in it.