When it comes to cinematic storytelling, most directors follow traditional methods, while the minority use this status quo in order to provide a unique, immersive experience. Looking back at Christopher Nolan's 19-year filmography, with films such as Memento and Interstellar, his style is undoubtedly the latter. For Nolan, a story might be simple, but its presentation has to be as flexible as Wayne Enterprises' memory cloth. Be it Following's tale of a disturbed writer or Interstellar's trip through time and space, Nolan transfixes us with non-linear storytelling.
#ChristopherNolan's next venture is based on a real event, something that the acclaimed director has never tackled before. As the auteur takes on this new feat, let's look at how Nolan has developed his unique storytelling techniques and how they were adapted for Dunkirk.
Nolan's Narrative: How The Director Feeds Us Information
Because Nolan is heavily influenced by the thriller genre, he often limits information given to the audience, keeping us on-edge throughout his films. In his debut feature Following, Nolan creates intrigue by placing an intriguing yet seemingly irrelevant shot of 'The Young Man' coughing up part of a rubber glove in the first act, even though this won't logically occur until the film's third act. In doing so, he ignites curiosity regarding the protagonist's destiny and the events that will lead to that moment.
In Nolan's second film, Memento, half of the film's narrative is presented in reverse chronological order. This skewed narrative allows us to ponder upon Leonard's clues, and helps us empathize with his memory disorder.
Although Nolan opted for a more traditional narrative structure with The Dark Knight Trilogy and Interstellar, these storytelling techniques are making a comeback for Dunkirk. During an interview with The Playlist, Nolan mentioned that he'll be using three points of view to the story of Dunkirk,
"The film is told from three points of view. The air (planes), the land (on the beach) and the sea (the evacuation by the navy). For the soldiers embarked in the conflict, the events took place on different temporalities. On land, some stayed one week stuck on the beach. On the water, the events lasted a maximum day; And if you were flying to Dunkirk, the British spitfires would carry an hour of fuel. To mingle these different versions of history, one had to mix the temporal strata. Hence the complicated structure; Even if the story, once again, is very simple."
As the events of Dunkirk are widely known, Nolan faces the challenge of immersing the audiences into a story they may already know. With the use of three perspectives, he can provide a unique experience that we’re not going to get from a history book.
Nolan's Through Line: How The Director Binds Fractured Narratives
Christopher Nolan has been featured on many lists of the most confusing movies of the 21st Century. Due to the complexity of his cinematic narratives, Nolan often provides a single protagonist to drive the plot forwards, backwards or in complete circles. He establishes an emotional connection that helps us to understand the character's motivations while creating an elaborate illusion to hide the real crux of the story.
While most audiences have embraced these subtleties, critics have noted that his movies can be "emotionless" in nature. To address this opinion, Nolan has stated that he prefers to let the audience have their own interpretations of his characters' emotions.
"I try not to be obvious about it. That gives people a little more freedom to interpret the movies their way, bring what they want to it. I've had people write about my films as being emotionless, yet I have screened those same movies and people have been in floods of tears at the end. It's an impossible contradiction for a filmmaker to resolve. In truth, it's one of the things that is really exciting about filmmaking though. I seem to be making films that serve as Rorschach tests."
Nolan engages his audience because time periods and plot points are tied together by his protagonist's emotional journey. Memento has two color-coded timelines which follows Leonard on his path of revenge and The Prestige moves back and forth through time to depict two warring magicians. Even The Dark Knight, Insomnia and Inception focus on guilt in order to drive a character's motivations.
However, Dunkirk lacks the presence of a singular protagonist to interlink overlapping timelines. As this is ultimately a war movie, it's likely that Nolan will let the overarching theme of survival drive the narrative instead.
Fact Vs. Fiction: How Will Nolan Tackle His First Movie Based On A True Story?
Nolan has always maintained a sense of authenticity with the use of practical props and believable characters. So, what methods will he use for an event grounded in reality?
During an interview with Business Insider, Nolan explained his decision to embrace Dunkirk's subjective storytelling.
"Well, the tension between subjective storytelling and sort of the bigger picture is always a challenge in any film, particularly when you're taking on, which I never have done before, historical reality. So I really wanted to be on that beach with those guys. I wanted the audience to feel like they are there. But I also need them and want them to understand what an incredible story this is. I never wanted to cut out generals in rooms pushing things around on maps, so I settled on a land, sea, and air approach. I settled on subjective storytelling shifting between very different points of view. You're there on the beach with the soldiers, you're on a civilian boat coming across to help, or you're in the cockpit of the Spitfire dog-fighting with the enemy up above."
This is certainly a departure from his usual technique, as Nolan usually walks a fine line between realism and science fiction. In contrast, Nolan wants to shake up the entire theater with Dunkirk by doubling down on his penchant for reality.
By having minimal dialogue and three central characters, Nolan looks to remind us of the horrors of war. Many of us have been desensitized to on-screen violence thanks to a multitude of action-heavy, stylized blockbusters, but Dunkirk's initial reception suggests that moviegoers can expect a truly memorable experience - a fact that could make this the director's most important film to date.
Dunkirk hits cinemas on July 21, 2017.
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