Seeing Dunkirk a second time made me spot something which had passed me by in the IMAX image-blitz of the first viewing (see previous post). Nolan deals with three time-frames in the film: a week for the infantryman, a day for Mr Dawson and his boat, an hour for the flight of three Spitfires, and they all come together at a key point around three-quarters of the way through the film. To cope with this, Nolan puts the narrative on pause: we see a Heinkel attack a minesweeper from the air, then we cut away to something else, we then resume the narrative (actually Nolan has wound it back slightly, I think) from a viewpoint in Dawson’s boat. Secondly, the film’s cross-cutting is far from simple since the three stories on land, on sea and in the air are being shown ‘simultaneously’ but did not happen all at the same time. I hadn’t glued these things together when I first saw the film, but now I have at least a little.
I like time puzzles in films so I like this one, but there is another pleasure because it connects the film to some of Nolan’s others which opt for a labyrinthine manipulation of time and memory: Memento, The Prestige, Inception.
Still pursuing the auteur theory after all these years, I watched The Prestige again to see if I could see how one film-maker made both it and Dunkirk. They share top production values of course, as they do with a lot of Hollywood films. Prestige is much more labyrinthine, and consequently for all the fascination it engenders rather heartless, not an adjective that applies to Dunkirk. However, they do come to some degree from the same mind, although this is significantly complicated by the fact that Christopher’s brother, Jonathan, helped with the screenplay for Memento and Prestige. If Dunkirk is less labyrinthine, is that because Jonathan was not involved in the screenplay? I doubt it because Inception, Christopher Nolan’s most intricate film about time and space, did not involve his brother.
As it happens Prestige has a strand quite of its own. Is it a metaphor – I am sure other commentators have picked up on this – for the invention of the cinema? The film carefully makes sure that the spectator understands the trick behind each illusion of magic, while still preserving the magic. The birth of the cinema, which like the setting of Prestige belongs to the end of the 19th century, is both a mechanical process (projecting each image for a fraction of a second) and a scientific one (the phenomenon of persistence of vision on the retina means we see differently from a camera mechanism). We want the illusion created by moving images but once you know how this comes about you ‘see’ film is a rapid sequence of images.
One of the earliest filmmakers, the Frenchman George Méliès, was a magician before he was a film-maker. Prestige enjoys showing us conjuring tricks as if filmed in real time when film-editing makes them the easiest thing in the world to re-create. But the film narrative, in its pursuit of the Tesla transporter, wants to tell us, just as Méliès did, that there is a magic (or so it seems) beyond the magic: the trick is that there is no trick.
I had to re-see Prestige to get some sort of grasp on the film, and no doubt need to re-see it again to get a better one. Will Dunkirk need these repeated viewings? Maybe, but one would do it more for the pleasure and excitement of images than to fathom what is going on.