Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Dunkirk in 70mm

Saw Dunkirk last night at the Century 9 in downtown San Francisco in a lovely auditorium. Some theater chains are giving up on seat-filled rooms and are opting for a luxe experience. This place had just that: reclining seats with footrests, low wall between each row so you couldn’t even see the heads of the people ahead of you. If they wanted to re-create the living room experience, they succeeded.

Christopher Nolan lines up a shot on an IMAX camera.
Dunkirk features some of the first hand-held IMAX
footage ever shot. That does not sound like an
easy thing to do.
The Format: Dunkirk was screened in vertical 70mm-- the second-best way to see it: 2.20:1 70mm film threaded through a Cinemeccanica projector. This yields a super-sharp picture, the equivalent of a 13K Digital Cinema image— which is significant because 13K Digital Cinema does not exist. In the few moments when the film slows down— there aren’t many— you can scan the frame and take it in. The 65mm cameras captured it all: Every gold thread on the brim of Kenneth Branagh’s cap. The anguished face of a solder standing on a quay, far in the background. The deep color of Blue Hour over blowing sea foam on the strand.

The Story: Dunkirk follows three main story threads happening at different times during the evacuation of Dunkirk, in different places: on the French shore, on a small boat joining the improvised rescue, and in three Spitfires above the fray. These plots intertwine and cut back and forth, in a way that is unusual for most movies and almost unheard of in war movies, which tend to stick to a linear timeline. But it is a testament to this film that this intercutting is never confusing or abrupt: as the threads come together the tension builds and builds to an almost unbearable level near the end. I would credit this to director Christopher Nolan, of course— but he was abetted by both Lee Smith’s precision editing and Hans Zimmer’s percussive musical score.

Requisite cast of thousands, on a quay.
It’s worth noting that the script for Dunkirk was only 76 pages long. This has everything to do with the dense action sequences and remarkably spare dialog. There are many scenes where soldiers say things to each other which are entirely unintelligible over the noise of war. It doesn’t matter in the least. Nolan, I believe, is making a statement about the smallness of the individual in the face of titanic events (like World War II and the evacuation of 400,000 people from a beach in France) but also about  the sort of everyman quality of the average British soldier. Much has been made of the fact of One Direction’s Harry Styles having a lead role in Dunkirk— but really he just looks like every other British soldier in the film: a skinny, pale extremely young man in a brown wool uniform wearing a permanent expression of terror.

The official format guide for Dunkirk. We saw it in
70mm, the left center format. When I see it again,
it'll be in IMAX 70mm.
The Scope: Christopher Nolan is famous for relying on practical effects over digital effects, and in Dunkirk this is very much in evidence. His extras are running from real explosions on the beach. He had ships rigged to capsize, and strapped cameras onto them so you see and feel the roll over. He put Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden in a two-seat Yak modified to look like a Spitfire and flew them over the English Channel. In fact, his hesitancy to go digital shows on the edges: You can take in stretches of beach other filmmakers would have filled with “tiled-in” digital extras, and ocean vistas that could have been populated by little digitally inserted boats but weren’t.

Lack of Germans: You never see the face of the enemy in Dunkirk. There are fighters and bombers doing damage, and snipers and machine-gunners, but the film doesn’t bother with scenes of the German soldiers or pilots. This makes this an even more unusual war movie. As Jared pointed out after the film was over, you don’t need 'em: The British soldiers stranded on the beach never saw them either.

One of the best elements of Dunkirk is its length, or rather lack of length: 106 minutes. Tell a story, do it well, and tell it with efficiency. And hopefully the relative shortness of the film will give you extra time to travel to a screening in 70mm or 70mm IMAX.

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