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Dunkirk and Issue of Genre Legitimacy

The release of Dunkirk has been interesting in many ways.

Most obviously, it seems to confirm Christopher Nolan as a brand name unto himself, managing to open a blockbuster war movie with no stars to speak of to impressive box office results in the middle of July. The film has been widely acclaimed, both by critics and by movie-goers; it scores well on Rotten Tomatoes, Metacritic, IMDb and CinemaScore. There is already talk of a massive Oscar push for the film, with reports of Academy screenings being so packed that additional screenings had to be scheduled.

However, beneath all of this success, there is an interesting narrative forming. There is a recurring suggestion that Dunkirk is not just a great piece of cinema from an incredibly talented director, but that it in some way represents a maturing of Nolan’s talent. Some of the critical narrative of Dunkirk has been framed almost as a cinematic “coming of age” story for Christopher Nolan, as if the veteran forty-six-year-old film maker is finally delivering on potential that has been teased over the past seventeen years.

In a not-untypical comment, David Fear at Rolling Stone reflected, “Everyone knew he had a mastery of the medium. Dunkirk proves he knows how to use it say something.” At The Guardian, Andrew Pulliver suggested that Nolan had finally earned one of the stock comparisons that had been (misguidedly) following him for most of his career, “With Dunkirk, Nolan may at last be able to walk the Kubrick walk.” The implication seems to be that Nolan’s previous nine films were all creative dry runs, cinematic confectionery suggesting (but never delivering on) true artistic talent.

This is, of course, complete nonsense. Nolan arguably established himself as a bona fides film maker with Memento, which was an impressive theatrical debut. Memento was structurally ambitious, thematically rich, and exceptionally clever. Nolan followed that up with Insomnia, a remake of a Scandinavian thriller. He then segued into a big-budget reimagining of the Batman mythos with Batman Begins, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises, interspacing them with his own projects of interest, The Prestige, Inception and Interstellar.

Whatever an audience member might make of individual films on that resume, and some are undoubtedly better than others, it seems quite clear that Nolan has been doing good work for a long time. Dunkirk is not a break in the pattern. It is in many ways a continuation and extrapolation of his earlier work. It is not so much a quantum leap forward in terms of technique, but simply a nudge in a different direction. So, why is Dunkirk being treated as a vital moment in Nolan’s career? It seems likely because Dunkirk belongs to a much more respectable genre than its Nolan stablemates.

For better or worse, Nolan’s previous eight films were quite clearly “genre” films. Sometimes those genres overlapped and informed one another, sometimes individual films pushed further, sometimes Nolan integrated them with more conventionally respectable genres. Memento and Insomnia were modern noir. Batman Begins, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises were superhero films. Interstellar was science-fiction. Inception and The Prestige blended a noir aesthetic with science-fiction storytelling. The Dark Knight was as much a crime epic as capes feature.

Dunkirk has a lot in common with Nolan’s earlier films. There is the familiar sound of a ticking clock on the Hans Zimmer soundtrack, recalling The Dark Knight and Interstellar. There is the presence of Cillian Murphy and Tom Hardy, harking back to Inception and The Dark Knight Rises. There is even a vocal cameo from Michael Caine. There is the same unbearable sense of claustrophobia; the same non-linear storytelling; the same underlying humanist philosophy that suggests while individual people might be generally awful, collectively people are remarkable.

Indeed, it is quite easy to draw parallels between Dunkirk and certain earlier films within Nolan’s oeuvre. Dunkirk is in many ways an evolution of the sort of broad ensemble epics towards which Nolan had been building with his city-under-siege narrative in The Dark Knight Rises and his humanity-must-survive story within Interstellar. The world of the film appears just as illusory as the one in Inception, with the film remaining deliberately abstract in its approach to characterisation and detail. The cast’s sense of identity is often as fragile as that of the main character in Memento.

There is something slightly unsettling in the suggestion that Dunkirk is somehow objectively a “greater” movie than any of Nolan’s previous efforts, if only because it seems so hard to objectively measure that distinction. In what way is Dunkirk elevated above the rest of Nolan’s filmography? In this case, it might be worth looking at Dunkirk as something distinct within Nolan’s filmography. What makes Dunkirk different than his previous nine films, which makes it worthy of being treated as “coming of age” for a technically proficient director now worthy of being considered an artist?

Is it the timeliness of the film? After all, it seems almost obligatory to discuss Dunkirk in the context of Brexit, another strategic withdrawal by Britain from Europe. Of course, Dunkirk was actually the story of leaders who had the courage to retreat from a catastrophic error. The pro-Brexit version of Dunkirk would feature the soldiers on the beach setting out sunbeds and insisting that the battle would turn any day now, in spite of all evidence to the contrary. Still, Dunkirk has generated discussion of its stance of important themes like war and patriotism, cowardice and valour.

However, where these sorts of hefty themes absent from Nolan’s earlier work? Batman Begins and The Dark Knight were feature films that engaged with the concept of the War on Terror, the use of fear as a weapon, and the sense of escalation that became inevitable in a state of perpetual warfare. The Dark Knight Rises has aged phenomenally well as a class epic about the dangers of treating crass populism as a viable solution to economic inequality. These are all big ideas, and Nolan grappled with them in an interesting way. Dunkirk does not seem “bigger” in scope than these.

Maybe it is the exact opposite effect. Maybe Nolan’s earlier films were too impersonal and Dunkirk represents a much-needed reversal of course. Maybe there is a warmth and intimacy to Nolan’s work in Dunkirk that was absent from his earlier films. However, this discounts the fact that Nolan’s earlier films tended to be tightly-constructed psychological thrillers. Memento, Batman Begins and The Prestige are stories of men with singular obsessions. In contrast, Dunkirk is consciously designed so as to minimise any individual character’s importance to create a broader impressionist narrative.

Dunkirk is most certainly not “warmer” than Nolan’s earlier films, even if it demonstrates the same humanism that defined the last acts of both The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises. After all, many of the key characters in Dunkirk are (literally) anonymous. In contrast, Interstellar was the movie where Nolan cast off his (unfair) reputation as a cold and cynical filmmaker by suggesting earnestly that love was a force at work in the universe as much as time or gravity. Mileage may vary as to the effectiveness of that pitch, but Dunkirk is no more humanist than any other Nolan film.

As such, it seems like the most significant difference between Dunkirk and the other films in the Nolan filmography is one of classification. Dunkirk is a war film, rather than a superhero film or a fantasy or a science-fiction epic or a noir thriller. By virtue of classification, Dunkirk is imminently more respectable than the films preceding it, because it falls into the cliché of the more “grounded” and more “realistic” and more “conventional” trappings of something that really happened rather than something involving a grown man in a cape or a dream heist or time dilation.

It is no coincidence that there is already gossip of Nolan earning his first Best Director nomination at the Oscars for his work on Dunkirk. After all the Academy is notoriously resistant to “genre” entertainment. Silence of the Lambs was the first (and remains the only) horror film to win the Best Picture Oscar, and even then it is highly debatable as to whether it is “really” a horror film. The only Nolan film to earn a Best Picture nomination was Inception, and that was only after a change to the rules prompted by the Academy’s decision to shun The Dark Knight a few years earlier.

In contrast, the Academy loves its prestige pictures. War movies have been a fixture of the Best Picture nominations since the Oscars began. Wings was the first movie to win the Best Picture Oscar in 1929, set against the backdrop of the First World War. All Quiet on the Western Front would win two years later. The list of nominees is saturated with worthy contenders. Most recently Mel Gibson was able to earn his way back into the Academy’s good graces by directing Hacksaw Ridge.

To be fair, this sort of genre prejudice is very much par for the course when it comes to the Academy, reflecting the attitudes of a cinematic establishment that is wary of “genre” entertainment like horror or science-fiction. The implication is that these movies are somehow diminished by their genre trappings, weakened by relying on bold concepts that exist beyond the conception of the modern world. It is a very elitist attitude, one that tends to suggest that films are not worthy of consideration on their own merits, instead that films can be written off by classification.

This is most likely the reason that Alfred Hitchcock never earned an Oscar as director, one of the Academy’s most notable oversights in a long list that includes only ever affording Charlie Chaplin a competitive Oscar for the soundtrack to Limelight almost two decades after its release. Hitchcock was a bold and visionary director, one who shaped modern cinema. However, he produced films that were seen as belonging to trashy genres, eroticised suspense thrillers with splashes of shocking violence. As a result, he was locked out.

There is something condescending in the attitude that certain types of film are inherently inferior because of their genre trappings. It is very important to capture real life on film, to document history, and to convey the day-to-day realities of human existence. However, there is nothing wrong with using allegory and metaphor to explore these issues, to use it to phrase abstract philosophical questions in a way that makes these issues approachable and understandable. Just because these films conform to a certain style of storytelling, it does not mean that they have nothing to say.

After all, The Prestige is not really a movie about a guy who invents the transporter, it is a story about obsession and mythmaking. Memento is not really a mystery about a dude with a very specific brain injury, it is an exploration about how memory serves as the golden thread of personal identity. The Dark Knight is not really about some guy dressed as a flying rodent fighting some guy dressed like a monster clown, it is a story about the compromises that a society makes in order to ensure security and stability.

It is important to explore who people are, and where they have come from. Historical films, period pieces, biographies and war movies are all very important features of the cinematic landscape that can serve to illuminate the mysteries of human nature and the complexity of the human condition. However, the futures that mankind can imagine and the possibilities that people can conceive are just as valid. Just because The Prestige or Inception hinge of fictional technologies, or just because Batman Begins is a superhero story, doesn’t mean that these films should be reflexively dismissed as meaningless.

It is frustrating to see these attitudes still hold in mainstream film criticism, with the implication that Dunkirk is inherently more “worthy” than Christopher Nolan’s other films because it happens to fit within a genre that has a greater cultural cache. Some of the critical narrative of Dunkirk treats the film as a moment of triumph for a director who toiled for almost two decades in genres that somehow limited his artistic abilities. This is a reductive and condescending approach to Nolan’s body of work. Dunkirk is a continuation of Nolan’s themes, styles and interests. It is not an elevation of them.

It is a reminder of the boundaries and barriers that still exist in critical discourse, of the often unspoken assumptions and hierarchies that exist in how people talk about cinema. Dunkirk is undoubtedly a fantastic accomplishment, worthy of all the critical praise heaped upon it. However, so were many of Nolan’s other, earlier, less “respectable” efforts.

9 Responses

  1. Highly interesting article about a director whose films are hit and miss for me, but never fails from a visual standpoint. It is ridiculous that Tom Hooper won for his workmanlike direction of The King’s Speech while Christopher Nolan did not even get nominated for Inception.

    “This is most likely the reason that Alfred Hitchcock never earned an Oscar nomination as director.” I believe you meant to say he never won. Hitchcock was actually nominated five times for Rebecca, Lifeboat, Spellbound, Rear Window, and Psycho.

  2. I saw Dunkirk over the weekend, and while I enjoyed it, I came away feeling that reviewers are only hyping the film because a) it’s Nolan, and b) it’s a WWII film. In fact, I found Darren’s article so poignant because my first thought after leaving the theater was that if this had been a sci-fi or fantasy film it would have been dismissed as a mindless action film. Dunkirk really doesn’t have much in the way of a plot or character development. It’s a visual spectacle of war with fantastic cinematography. In my theater, many people complained they couldn’t understand the dialogue. In other words, it resembles sci-fi action films like Valerian far more than critics would like to admit.

    • I’d agree to an extent, although I liked the film far more than you did. I think the chaos and confusion are very much part of the point, and that it is a very thematically rich piece of work, despite its surface-level appearance of shallowness.

  3. There was a brief time in the late 70s early 80s when Lucas and Spielberg’s “genre” films were recognized. They awarded Peter Jackson and Lord of the Rings. And since expanding the best picture category, a whole slew of “genre” films have been nominated, Avatar, District 9, Gravity, Mad Max, The Martian, Arrival. While I do agree that genre films tend to get overlooked I also think there may something about Nolan or his work that heightens criticism of his films. I don’t know what it is. It’s hard to rank Nolan films but Dark Knight Rises and Interstellar are two of my favorite films of this century and I think they are both excessively maligned. In particular there is a glaring gap between Gravity, and The Martian and Arrival where Interstellar missed out on a best picture nomination that was afforded to the other three.Personal preferences aside, it’s difficult to draw a substantial enough distinction making those three more deserving of the nomination.

    • Part of me credits the backlash to Nolan at once as a response to his more vocal fans and as a strain of contrarianism. After all, what popular thing doesn’t attract a backlash? When the internet discovered that it liked Wonder Woman, for example, it dug through the archives to pick over the corpse of Joss Whedon’s first draft script. There’s a lot of begrudgery and resentment enabled by social media, along with an urge to feel outraged and a clear desire to position one’s self as a pop culture Cassandra, insisting that the emperor has no clothes, even if everybody else is holding them in their hands.

      With regards to the genre film, I’d tend to discount those without matching Best Director nominations, given the fact that the three-to-five other nominees are essentially “also-rans” from the moment that they are announced. But Lord of the Rings is the big counterexample, I will concede. Even then, the recognition only came on the third film.

  4. To the point about how LOTR was a major exception to the Oscar genre bias, I’d say that the LOTR novels are among the most recognized pieces of literature of the 20th century. That’s a pop culture ubiquity to LOTR that allowed people not into hard fantasy to overcome that bias for the Peter Jackson films.

    • That’s a fair point. There’s also the fact that the LOTR Oscars were largely cumulative, as well. And the films were in many ways framed in terms of old-school Hollywood epics, albeit using new technologies and fantasy trappings.

  5. I would argue that LOTR has a cultural ubiquity to it that few other fantasy films have. The Tolkien novels are among the most recognized peices of literature of the 20th century. That ubiquity likely got lots of people normally dismissive of fantasy to go see the Jackson movies.

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