Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Dunkirk

Christopher Nolan’s latest film Dunkirk is a Rorschach test.

For some viewers, the movie was grey, boring, deafeningly loud while the dialogue was muted, sparse and hard to follow. For others, the film was gritty, realistic, claustrophobic and showed war in its properly confusing context. Others saw Dunkirk as a beautiful dream strung together from half-remembered tales told to schoolboys rather than a depiction of a realistic situation, let alone an account of an actual historical event.

Is Dunkirk about soldiers, or the civilians who aided in their rescue, or is about something larger? No character in the film is defined beyond basic traits - first names and rank. We know nothing about them. But we still care because the film inspires empathy. What kind of empathy exactly? And for whom are we supposed to feel it?

Everyone will answer this in different ways. But they can only see what they want to see. And then there’s this guy:

“...But Dunkirk’s presentism means that it’s inadvertently a film about the present. It’s a Brexit movie: Nolan was adamant about casting actors exclusively from the British Isles; contemporary English icon Harry Styles offers a moment of light xenophobia when he argues that a Frenchman should be the first to die; the first spoken line of the film is “I’m English!” Curiously, Nolan has been applauded by critics for subtracting Nazi identity throughout—no German soldiers or German insignia are depicted—as if this abstracted enemy refashions history into a story of general human survival. But a faceless enemy means that anyone’s face can be inserted, a useful tactic in the buildup to war. Meanwhile, the good soldiers all speak the same language: “All we did,” says Styles, “is survive.”

This sort of paragraph can only be written by an aristocrat. Jonathon Sturgeon would probably recoil from being called an aristocrat, but his review oozes the thoughts of a member of the ruling elite who doesn't quite know he just watched one of his fellow aristocrats depict how the peasants live. Nolan has been smuggling these messages into his films for decades. His movies are a series of attempts to metaphorically explain to elites what it feels like to be constantly assaulted and called backwards, evil and bigoted for respecting traditions and rituals.

The broken memories in Memento (2000) are a motif for the chaos of collective Western memory under attack by the resentful and envious revolutionary activists who weaselled their way up society to pull on the levers of power. The Joker in The Dark Knight (2008) is a personification - almost an anthropomorphisation - of chaos introduced into a harmonised and ordered Western system by the same spiteful people. Elsewhere in Nolan's catalogue, the character Bane in The Dark Knight Rises (2012) is a mimicry of a specific moment in European history when a member of the socialist elite stirred up the people and let them loose on Russia to destroy a tired and stumbling monarchical regime which had forgotten how to rule. Bane's message of freedom and equality to the prisoners was a lie. He wanted only for them to enact their murderous thoughts in the required direction.

Batman is the representation of the individual who, apprehending the chaos, must rise above mere good and evil to embody both and reintroduce order. He knows the harmonised structure of society is more important than the consequences of risking one's life to defend it. Yet the order Batman seeks is elusive in Gotham because order has not returned in the real world. The movies end without reconciliation because there is no reconciliation out here, where Nolan lives. Chaos is everywhere, tearing down walls and ripping people and institutions apart. The forces represented by Bane encourage new twisted revolutions just as the previous cycles slow down, for revolution's sake. The Joker is unleashed, again, searching out diminishing and vestigial orders to poison. And so more traditions are lost down the memory hole every day.

Finally, there is that strange example of the gravity planet in Interstellar (2014), where everything temporarily slows down. It beautifully depicts the psychology of being caught up, concentrating intensely, pushing one's finger into a hole in the bulging dyke of society, trying to hold back the chaos one argument and "good fight" at a time. But the moment the gap is plastered, you lift your head out from that gravity back into the real world, only to find those who drive this relentless resentful chaos have moved on, ten or a thousand times faster. The exhaustion of it all...

Sturgeon and his fellow elites won power by weaponising their resentment and spite. They know they are weak in reality, so all they have is words. Hollywood movies are generally written for these people, but not Nolan's. Sturgeon castigates Dunkirk, but only with vague political nomenclature and artistic fudging. Dunkirk's meaning is over his head, so he defaults to assuming vulgar, low-brow and underclass - perhaps even seditious - interpretations. Some types of semiotics are unavailable to the elite. Not because they don't know them. Quite simply, they refuse to believe their lying eyes.

Consider the bullets crashing through the hull of a beached fishing boat. They were shots fired for effect, not malice. But to the trapped soldiers, the sledgehammer sound animalised their fear, turning them against each other. Their panic stole away all but two choices: band together or find a safety valve to release the pressure. And then a foreigner was bullied into leaving the boat so the rest could survive. You bet your ass this was a metaphor. Was it horrible? Racist? Bigoted? Sure. All of the above.

But who cares? It didn't matter to those trapped boys who could never plug the bullet holes and keep afloat. Their false safety as rounds slammed into their seclusion is precisely how the concerned and worried traditionalist sections of society feel to the daily practice shots by the progressive elites. Nolan's audience knows what it feels like inside that boat. Closed in from all sides, they turn to deeper human nature and traditions. Few can tell the difference between being targeted and being part of target practice.

On Dunkirk beach, the soldiers form queues. They are surrounded, waiting for their turn to leave on boats they were promised will come. Outside the theatre, everyone knows what these "boats" are. They are the retirement plans, pensions, grandchildren, directorships, houses, travel plans, medical care, etc. The enemy is destroying those boats systematically out of spite because they cannot achieve them on their own strength, and so no one should have them. Everyone can feel this attack. Yet still, the tired people stand in columns on the beach and in our streets, hoping those promises will arrive.

Sturgeon sees none of this. He spots the anarchy and fear in the movie but projects his own movement as standing on the beaches fighting for good while the nasty Tories threaten his heavenly utopian project. Sturgeon's elitist narrative is a mishmash of cognitive dissonance in which his movement is the clear overdog but continues to think of itself as the underdog, taunting Brexit voters, Tories and anyone who respects traditions as "boring," "craven" and stupid.

Nolan isn't stupid. He put Sturgeon's elites in the film too. They are the dive-bombers and U-boats, screeching down from unearned perches in the clouds and slipping silently through dark waves. They refuse to meet their foe in fair battle preferring to snipe, snipe, snipe at unarmed medical shipping or thin beached vessels covering cowering soldiers. It's the same outside the theatre too. Sturgeon's comrades hide in gated communities while they chip away at the traditionalists, who are now forced to live at the margins of the system their fathers created.

But even as defeat nears, the soldiers still form those pathetic queues, waiting, breathing quickly, not knowing why or for what reason they continue to follow their traditions. The dive-bombers strafe the wounded and healthy alike, slowly, methodically. And over those dunes, the enemy gathers on hills and plains, stretching now to the ends of the earth, having conquered every facet of a system built by generations of those broken soldiers. The game is lost for them. How can a dive-bomber or a torpedo be fought with a .303 rifle? How can social resentment and insanity be turned back by facts, reason or clear argument?

In similar shell-shocked desperation, traditionalists helplessly watch the progressive movement destroy the society their grandfathers died to protect on Dunkirk. This realisation is made more difficult knowing their ancestors were duped. The real enemy was not "over there" at all, but quietly capturing the fabric of their society behind their backs. Sturgeon's comrades erase every tradition until even the memory of the memory of Dunkirk fades. They applaud the retreat of Western civilisation with cackling glee as they pour gasoline on the fires scorching millennia-old institutions.

What remains is a small, wet, grey beach next to oblivion. We huddle there, wondering what to do next, while the enemy marshals to finish the push.

Those are not just Brexit or Trump voters on that beach. They represent a mosaic of a broken civilisation forced out of its resplendent social system. This civilisation's defenders are few, corralled into messy corners across the Western world and constantly hounded by a ruthless progressive elite salivating over the thought of driving the traditionalists into the sea.

Nolan's films document this transition of power in the West from one form of Christianity to the next - from traditionalists to the progressive communists. He is a pirate director, operating in plain sight from inside the new empire. Did you have this thought? If not, it's not your fault, some people are trained not to have it while others were trained to have it immediately.

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