Tuesday, 25 July 2017

DUNKIRK MORE SPOCK - review of Nolan's new major film



Dunkirk by Christopher Nolan (not the 1958 film with John Mills and Richard Attenborough) may well be the summer movie event of 2017, just as Saving Private Ryan was the autumn event of roughly 20 years ago (the same year Nolan's Following debuted). However, whereas the earlier WW2 classic featured a bravura beach invasion of Europe scene unrivalled in contemporary film, and was directed by the leading blockbuster film-maker of our time, Spielberg, this new movie features death on a beach where the soldiery are seeking to escape the beachhead and the seabed, equally, and exit Europe (at least mainland). It was the first Brexit, as it were, and as endless pundits are muttering, and that forsaken politics does shade some of the gung-ho little England flag-waving at the end.

More pointedly, the new film is an attempt to outdo Spielberg, but also Kubrick, James Cameron, and Ridley Scott, potential rivals to Nolan, whose immaculate, precise, and intelligent space, comic book, and fantasy thrillers, share many elements with these other masters of the film arts. Christopher Nolan, famously, divides most fans and critics, though more are on than against his side. I remain agnostic. I think Memento is a great film, and Inception nearly is; and the three Batman films extraordinarily competent, with genuinely eccentric performances; The Prestige is deeply haunting. Interstellar is a failure of considerable interest with moments of greatness. Dunkirk has been positioned as his most serious, large-canvas work to date, a truly prestige vehicle, that should win him many Oscars. It is a bridge too far.

I dislike critics calling ambitious works failures. Hamlet and The Bridge by Crane are often called failures, but they have too much genius not to be successes as well. Dunkirk is like this sort of failure. It is riddled with the style and vision of the achieved auteur - Nolan is that sort of film-maker. However, since the film is mounted and presented as a major human experience, it cannot but fall a bit on the portentousness of its presentation, form, plot and ideas.

The key decision is to remove the "enemy" from view. They are not called Germans in the opening title card, and are faceless throughout. We only see the effects of their torpedoes, bombs, and bullets. We only see their planes. And, at the very end, a few faceless shadows. We are presented instead with a God's eye view of various aspects of the escape - a small civilian vessel captained by Mark Rylance, the best thing in the film; the soldiers on the beach waiting to escape, officer and lower rank; and Spitfire pilots chasing German planes seeking to inflict damage on the ships coming to rescue the over 300,000 stranded Brits. This is a terrible error, because the menace demanding escape is rendered far too philsopsophical and abstract - there is an idea of doom, but far too little sense of the guiding hand of real generals and officers, and fighting men, on the other side, driving the British into the sea.

At times, this faceless nemesis is awesome and strange, as when the choreographed masses of men huddled and bereft on the piers bow and fly as bombs loom, like cruel gods playing with flies. The attempt to establish that war is indifferent, cruel and random is successful, but given the humanity of the British characters, it is a bit rich to pretend the enemy is of another order.

More problematic is the impressively alienating score, by always-talented Hans Zimmer. The film is almost entirely wordless, filmed a bit like a Malickian reverie. It sounds like ragged claws scuttling across silent synthesisers. It is disturbing when not very loud. It makes the beach desolate and eerie, and sad. But it would have been, anyway. It plainly shouts serious trouble, and is a bit like an actor reading poetry, all inflection where nuance would be advised.

I say the film is more Spock than Kirk because wherever emotion is attempted, it is shoe-horned into a time scheme and three-part structure that, though at times a bit surprising and informative, is mostly baffling and unwanted. Logic takes precedence over feeling. This is a math-rock attempt at a Beatles album. We get the 'Penny Lane' stuff at the very end, when a few women are allowed to speak (almost all the nurses are there to hand out tea and bread and jam, then die, with almost nothing to say); and the many Mum and Dad boats come over the horizon, in a genuinely moving moment, only because it was an historically wonderful moment. Nolan misses the beat here, and it falters.

The very ending of the film is a reverse of a Kubrick moment.  Kubrick's most famous moments are about technology advancing to fail, or failing to advance properly - as in the bone to spacecraft, and then the dying insane computer. Nolan's film ends with a Spitfire's final astonishing resilience, coming into land at sunset, a requiem for impressive modern aircraft design and plucky cockpit derring-do, as if humanity can be summed up in that second when wheel touches sand. It felt more like an Apple ad frighteningly exaggerated. Nolan may well think this is an iconic image, and it might work as one for an Olympic opening ceremony or other second-tier propaganda, but it does not convince as deeply ethical or thought-out screen art.

The other faults with the film are astonishing. The great Sir Kenneth Branagh's thankless role may well be lampooned in future SNL skits - the stalwart naval commander who never does anything but stand stiffly and look astonished as bad things happen. He does nothing else, really, not even shout many orders or plan anything, except intone info-dumps, bland and over-written in a mostly worldess picture. At the end he stays to "help the French" - an unintentionally comical claim since he has helped no one yet. Worse is the downbeat and needless subplot of a 17-year-old boy with a wonderful sweater, who leaps onto Rylance's boat, and ends up blind then bled out, not from enemy fire but a shell-shocked seaman, rescued and then immediately, like some sort of Ancient Mariner, cursing his new ship. This is a cruel waste of a likeable character.

More comically-bad is the idea of having one character (The Mole) function like a slapstick silent movie comedian, literally shuttling from one frying pan to sinking frying pan to fiery frying pan, after another. No one was ever less or more lucky to be a key part of the plot. The whole film is like a documentary made by a very smart child with a slide-ruler, who thinks that people mostly die in battle by burning, or drowning, or being shot or blown up, by The Enemy, with no sense of history or context, but who perfectly models, on some remote and vast stage, the precise and accurate models of all the boats, and guns, and planes, as they once were, as if about to enter the realm of Time.

Beautiful, with brilliant editing and cinematography, and a few set pieces of genuine terror and wit (the stretcher bearer scene is a 10-minute-sequence of genius), Dunkirk is, after all, still Very Good: a four out of five star film that wants to be a ten star film. It will have to settle for less, and will likely end up being a superb Boxing Day staple of UK telly, at 4pm, where the ludicuous edge of importance will be worn off like a decal, letting the ageing model assume a passable likeness to the real thing, memorable after all.

Friday, 7 July 2017


Dominic Leonard
Runner-up, Meg Eden
Dominic Leonard is an undergraduate studying English at Christ Church, Oxford. His poems have appeared in IRIS, the Oxford Review of Books, The Kindling and the Poetry Business Book of New Poets (forthcoming), and in 2017 he won the Poetry Live competition. He is the President of Oxford University Poetry Society for 2017-18. 
a new poet with a future
Judge's Citation (by Oliver Jones)
This fortnight's raft of submissions contained many poems remarkable in their willingness to push their poet's expressive range to the very edge of non-sequitur.  None did so with such superb panache as Dominic Leonard's winning submission, which stretched personification to its logical limit  - as did our runner up, Meg Eden in the highly effective 'Alzheimers, In Which My Grandmother Is A Blueberry Bush'. 
Dominic's gift for accelerating his abstractions up to an impressive tempo is typical of a cluster of emerging British poets - Daisy Lafarge springs to mind, as does Andrew Fentham. His dislocated narration, simultaneously anatomical and cosmic,  gives his poems a freedom and freshness that rewards multiple readings.
Choosing among such strong pieces was no easy feat, but ultimately it was the pleasing prosody of 'No God Is Like A Vapour' - Dominic's paean to the deep sea jellyfish - that set it apart. The words in this poem seem to drift apart on the page, scattered and disarticulated; a mood that's belied by the piece as a whole, which shows exemplary concision and focus. Like a Bartok variation, it turns sharply around its key image without ever allowing the reader to face it full-on, and reaches far beyond its subject matter towards something equally diffuse and ungraspable. A young poet to watch out for, certainly.

No god is like a vapour *
Stygiomedusa Gigantea

no  god  is  like  a  vapour           gods are   as oil   & sponge   as this      here  are  my   droplets  :   here  are   my tendrils   &  their           galactic
melting           here    :  i am   a dish   of  brine  &  pink  water          watch :   i will  show  my face  to  death       except   do  not watch          i can  only 
  perform           down here          here    under  a  thousand   atmospheres in   dreams   i was  not   licked into this   salt existence        down in      these 
 murky  whirlpools       not  licked  into  this almost-life           in   dreams  i am shocking  everything   with   my  hot twitching knowledge          but i   fear
corners &   small  rooms  & i      can do  nothing  but   atrophy this   almost-flesh  through  the           water        in  dreams i   am  not  naked   &  afraid        in
dreams i   have  been  given    hands  so  that  i  might   hold  myself
copyright the author 2017
* due to blogger limitations this poem may not display its full typographical design on all viewings

Thursday, 6 July 2017


THE EYEWEAR FORTNIGHT POETRY PRIZE is now into its 4th iteration, this time judged by Oliver Jones, and the shortlist is cheekily extended by 2 to 16! Who will win the £140? Stay tuned until tomorrow's announcement... congratulations to all these fine poets, from Australia to America, and in-between...

Alison Palmer for‘Felling Trees’
Cassandra Cleghorn for ‘Drunkle, After Rehab’
Dominic Leonard for ‘No God Is Like A Vapour’...

Eliza Mimski for ‘At Seventy’
Ellen Girardeau Kempler for ‘Inauguration Blues’
Emily Osborne for ‘Four Drawers’
Greer Gurland for ‘Chapter Three’
Kate Ennals for ‘Heidegger's Truth’
Lynne Burnett for ‘It Rains For Him’
M.E. MacFarland for ‘A Halo And Some Doves’
Masa Torbica for ‘Landscapes’
Meg Eden for ‘Alzheimers, In which My Grandmother is a Blueberry Bush’
Phill Provance for ‘Triangle’
Sarah Carey for ‘Accommodations’
Seanin Hughes for ‘Pink Is A Sister Sick’
Wes Lee for ‘They Say We Made It Up’


A WORK IN PROGRESS... I am writing this first part on the eve of New Year's Eve day - and as new remembrances come to me, I may well...