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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.

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Super-Snobbery…

I was very interested to read a piece comparing Christopher Nolan to Stanley Kubrick in The Guardian over the weekend. Ignoring the fact that I don’t think it’s fair to attempt to seriously describe anyone as the “new” anything (it’s really only handy as a shortcut, to form a quick association, rather than forming the basis of a whole argument) and, if I had to, I’d say Nolan was “the new Hitchcock”, one piece stood out at me, when comparing Kubrick’s work to Nolan’s under “thematic daring”:

In the end, what are Nolan’s films actually about? Two of them are superhero flicks, two are cop movies and one is about a magician. Nolan isn’t exactly going to the wall for the big ideas. (Interestingly, by far the most radical film he’s made was that very first one, Following – a very creepy existential story about a stalker.) Kubrick made films about paedophilia, military justice, atomic obliteration, urban violence and the Vietnam war … Nolan is – at present, anyhow – a confirmed establishment figure; nothing he’s done has caused the smallest ripple of disquiet. This may change, but with another Batman film in the works I can’t see it happening just yet.

What immediately struck me about that paragraph was how ridiculously condescending it was to the genres that Nolan worked with – as if to say he’s “only” made two movies about a guy who dresses in formfitting rubber, two cop thrillers and one film about some blokes who do magic. How ridiculously patronising can you get?

If Batman hears one more person say "The Dark Knight isn't bad for a comic book movie..."

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