At the end of his New Yorker review of Dunkirk (Christopher Nolan, 2017), Richard Brody comments on format. If this movie is “not seen in enveloping and engulfing and body-shaking scale,” he writes, [it] may be nothing at all.” I start with Brody’s ending because I saw Dunkirk on a tiny airplane-seat screen as I was hurled halfway across this planet. Indeed, the film was to me barely more than nothing at all. At the end of it, I wondered what all the fuss had been about. Here is a war film, yes, giving way to massive scale, underscoring (and musically scoring) high stakes, tracking closely the small grain of young and vulnerable lives, each one a name, each one someone’s boy. It is a film about brutality and chance, about valor and menace, about the surreal feeling of walking among corpses and feeling one’s life acutely.
And yet, I didn’t feel much of anything. I barely retained the names of the few men singled out by the camera for focus amid the throngs, and their names were just about all I knew of them. Who these men are in the events that catch them up like a riptide seems to matter not at all, only that they are indeed caught up and are forced to react, respond, in a kind of mammalian need, frenzy, or determination. Perhaps we can view this as a different kind of bare life from that foregrounded by Agamben, a bare life of military men who repress their humanness in order to function as obedient cogs, or at least as animals insistent on survival–anything but persons. Saving Private Ryan, this is not. The film did not elicit heart-pumping questions about a people’s right to self-determination, or just war, or the inevitable moral compromises wrought by the brutalities of war. Instead, I just felt war’s stupidity. I felt it a man-made and man-run thing, a bizarre and relentless brutality that reframes civilization as, itself, merely brutal. In the end, I found Dunkirk the most non-dialectical and (I’m sorry, I really am) boring film I have seen in a long time. If the problem was the tiny airplane-screen format, then I suggest that critics are giving far too much credit to the receptive affect of sheer spectacle (“Wow”) and not nearly enough to reciprocal and matrixed affects of engagement, bonding, personality, and story.
On the way back from the other side of our orb that continues to spin through a mostly empty universe, I finally watched Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel. I know, I’m really behind. But I found it an eery bookend to Dunkirk, or perhaps the latter’s Looking Glass Land opposite. Ralph Fienne’s M. Gustave is the full expanse of affective and effective personhood to Dunkirk‘s multitude of hollow men. He is the epitome of eternally cascading love that can be eternal precisely because he is so exacting about boundaries and standards. The opening scene draws the viewer into this robust dialectic and never lets up. Saying farewell to Madame D (Tilda Swinton), an elderly woman who loves him truly, Gustave’s words and gestures are both sincere and compartmentalized. Yes, he loves her–as he loves all the old, rich, blonde and female clients he beds during their stays–but he has a hotel to run. As he ruminates on Madame D and his need to attend to other women and other obligations, he finally focuses on his small interlocutor, Zero (Tony Revolori). M. Gustave is drawn up and taken aback. Zero is a thing out of place and must be dealt with! And yet Gustave’s response is not brutal, it is merely exacting and, in the end, he draws Zero, too, into his circle of love.
The brutalities of war engulf Gustave and the Grand Budapest Hotel as much as they took over the French coastline in Dunkirk, but unlike Nolan’s epic, Anderson’s film amuses me and moves me with its proper-improper tenderness. The entire film seems to me a Gedankenexperiment on whether one man’s insistence on the civility of a love-driven moral code can make a difference.
None of us is surprised that the answer is yes.
I am disheartened by the fact that we need (I suppose) films like Dunkirk, but at least such nonsense (in the literal sense of that word) can be counterbalanced by films that demonstrate the slow accretion of positive, affective sediment by one man’s (and his protege’s) careful attention to detail–the details of flowers, itineraries, and sex; the details of gruel, marzipan, and closely-hewn gestures of loyalty and love.