Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

I study people, technology, and the worlds they make

Category: Film (page 1 of 8)

Dunkirk and different forms of heroism

My family and I saw Dunkirk late last week, and I spent the next couple days turning it over in my head. It is, of course, a really great movie, as you would expect from Nolan, and one that does a certain amount of time-bending and bobbing and weaving with narrative. The performances are terrific, and the end of the film is just wonderfully bold.

But Dunkirk also defies virtually every wartime movie convention. There’s no movie reel explication, no character has their backstory detailed in conversations over rations or a bottle of wine found in an abandoned farmhouse, the politicians and generals are completely absent; all that’s left is people, many of whom look pretty similar (uniforms and haircuts will do that), trying to escape the machinery of war.

And, as Guardian columnist Zoe Williams points out in her essay “Dunkirk offers a lesson – but it isn’t what Nigel Farage thinks,”* trying to help each other escape the machinery of war:

the emotional heart of the event has nothing to do with battle – give or take a bit of dogfighting – and everything to do with generosity; unarmed sailors saving strangers for no better reason than that they needed to be saved…. Up close, all you can see in a thousand small boats, defenceless against the skies, is what Thatcher dismissed as the “soft virtues”: humility, gentleness, sympathy. Of her “vigorous virtues” – self-sufficiency, independence, rectitude – almost none.

Indeed, that is the immediate legacy of war: that self-reliance is revealed as not just a myth but a peculiarly unattractive one, thin and tasteless against the richness of fellowship. The mood of postwar Britain was the one that built the NHS, created social housing and signed up to the UN refugee convention. If anything is ever learned from bloodshed, and it would be better if we didn’t have to learn it repeatedly, it’s that there is no fit memorial to those who gave their lives but near infinite generosity between those who didn’t.

This reminds me a lot of Harry Leslie Smith’s writing about the legacy of World War II, and how at fantastic cost his generation built a postwar world that was not only peaceful, but incomparably fairer, more secure, and more prosperous for everyone, most especially people who had grown up poor during the Depression (as he had). Dunkirk, unlike most war movies, isn’t mainly about action and killing; it’s mainly about saving people. Even the dogfights are about shooting down German planes that otherwise would strafe and bomb British soldiers and ships, which makes it more like the action on the ground.

It also reminds me of some reading I’ve been doing on heroism, and how to think about it. In a series of essays (this one on “The Banality of Heroism,” is easily accessible), Stanford psychologist Philip Zimbardo argues that people who act heroically voluntarily risk life and limb, or reputation or honor (as whistleblowers and reformers do); that they often have to actively navigate and overcome obstacles to undertake those acts; that they do so without expectation of reward, or even much expectation that their acts will be remembered. Heroism isn’t just something you exhibit on the battlefield or fighting criminals; it’s a quality people exhibit when standing up for justice, or opposing popular but wrong points of view, or rescuing stranded soldiers and allies.

So you go into Dunkirk expecting military heroism, and witness a very different sort: that kind of heroism exhibited by the first responders in the World Trade Center who risked life and limb to help people get out, or the heroism of people who help rescue strangers during an earthquake or flash flood. But better than most movies, Dunkirk makes the case that both varieties of heroism deserve our respect.

* (Of course, “It’s not what Nigel Farage thinks” is one of those lines that typesetters would be able to set in their sleep; they wouldn’t even need to think about where in their trays they’d need to reach for the correct letters, they’d done it so often.)

Keep Me Posted

I recently got a message about the new Web comedy Keep Me Posted:

Keep Me Posted Teaser from Hillary Nussbaum on Vimeo.

As the Seed And Spark fundraiser explains:

We spend an embarrassing amount of time analyzing the nuances of that text from our latest Tinder match, or the meaning behind that random “like” on our last Facebook post, but what about the particulars of the way we communicate with our closest friends? 
Are we mistaking constant communication for true connection? 
Keep Me Posted is a 3×20 comedic web series that raises those questions and more. It follows the lives of three childhood friends stumbling towards adulthood, three friends who are constantly in touch, but still find themselves growing apart. As their lives diverge in significant, challenging ways for the first time, they hide their respective struggles behind a constant flurry of chipper texts and insincere status updates to project the impression that everything is just awesome.

Incidentally, I have that copy of Stephen King’s On Writing that they show at 1:26. It’s great. (It’s where he talks about writing as “creative sleep”.)

Les Mis

Yesterday the family went to see the new film version of Les Miserables, with Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe et al. I can see why critics dislike it, but I found it quite engaging. Yes, Russell Crowe approaches singing the way some Americans approach making themselves understood in a foreign country– if the cabbie doesn’t understand you, just yell your destination, and your words will be magically translated– and the close-up style that worked so well in The King’s Speech takes a little getting used to.

But the movie is every bit as manipulative and heart-tugging as the play, Tom Hooper can be sweeping and bold when the scene calls for it (some of his shots of Paris and Javert singing from rooftops reminded me of Gore Verbinski), Amanda Seyfried and Samantha Barks were terrific, and the film did the musical justice.

Quote of the day: Margaret Thatcher

Via Meryl Streep:

If you want something spoken about, ask a man. If you want it done, ask a woman.

Quote of the day: Cars 2

From Slate:

A little girl near me kept asking her dad, “Which cars are the bad guys? What are they doing?” Her father shushed her politely, but he would have done his fellow audience members a bigger favor by loudly and accurately answering her questions, since we were just as stumped.

Uh oh.

Even Uwe Boll can watch “Battle: Los Angeles” and say, “Man, this sucks”

When Roger Ebert calls your movie an “assault on the attention span of a generation,” you know you’re in trouble:

Here’s a science-fiction film that’s an insult to the words “science” and “fiction,” and the hyphen in between them.


[To the tune of Johann Johannsson, “Part V: The Sun’s Gone Dim and the Sky’s Turned Black,” from the album IBM 1401, A User’s Manual (a 5-star song, imo).]

Oh how I love Netflix

I don’t care if it could destroy the Internet: Netfliex streaming has totally changed my life.

Okay, that’s not quite true, but I’ve had somewhat the same experience with it that I had with iTunes in the early days, when I used it to buy digital copies of singles I’d loved in high school and hadn’t heard in twenty years or more. There are lots of movies I haven’t seen in ages that I’ve watched again (though for some reason they turn out no to be so great– what was up with Ghostbusters 2?).

More interestingly, Netflix also drives down the cost of experimenting: it becomes incredibly cheap and easy to try a vast range of movies and to dive into unfamiliar genres. Scandinavian World War II movies? Spanish feral children serial killer films? Mountaineering tragedies? Thai action flicks? It’s all here, and if you don’t like what you’ve chosen, after 10 minutes you can switch to something else. (It reminds me of how picture-taking changed when I got a digital camera.) It’s like channel surfing, only there’s actually stuff to watch.

And the kids have access to every episode of Johnny Test ever created in this universe, which they seem to quite like.

Airbender: the new Plan 9 From Outer Space?

Maybe when the kids are back from camp we won’t go see The Last Airbender after all. The kids love the original animated series (called Avatar: The Last Airbender, but to avoid confusion with the Cameron film they dropped the A-word), which I find to be smart, funny, and ultimately very deep. My daughter had always had doubts about a live-action version of the story, and according to Gawker’s roundup of the early reviews, it looks like she was right. This is Roger Ebert:

“The Last Airbender” is an agonizing experience in every category I can think of and others still waiting to be invented. The laws of chance suggest that something should have gone right. Not here.

And, incredibly, it gets worse. Then there’s the New York Times:

After 94 minutes — was that all? I could have sworn it was days — of muddy 3-D imagery and muddled storytelling, the idea that this is just the first “Last Airbender” seems either delusionally optimistic or downright cruel. An astute industry analyst of my acquaintance, who is 9 and an admirer of the Nickelodeon animated series on which the movie is based, offered a two-word diagnosis of its commercial prospects on the way out of the theater: “They’re screwed.”…

The problem — the catastrophe — of “The Last Airbender” is not in the conception but the execution. The long-winded explanations and clumsy performances are made worse by graceless effects and a last-minute 3-D conversion that wrecks whatever visual grace or beauty might have been there…. So the best way to watch “The Last Airbender” is probably with your eyes closed.

Apparently the 3-D is singularly bad. The Chicago Tribune calls it “the latest 3-D offering in theaters, yet barely functional in 2- or even 1.”

Even The Onion is not amused:

Shyamalan lets his unimpressive special effects do the work for him while coaxing performances from his young cast that make Jake Lloyd’s performance in The Phantom Menace look studied. [ed: OMFG OMFG OMFG] (Star Noah Ringer, who plays a messianic figure who might unite the warring forces, delivers his lines as if reading a book report, and his older co-stars don’t fare much better.)

And they’re not the only ones who think the acting is bad:

Newcomer Noah Ringer, who plays the title role of Aang, a messianic child with the power to manipulate the elements, is woefully miscast. Not because he’s white, but because the kid can’t act…. Ringer brings less than zero gravitas to the role. He makes the kid who plays Gibby on “iCarly” look like Sir Lawrence Olivier…. Making matters worse are Ringer’s young castmates. Playing Katara and Sokka, Nicola Peltz and Jackson Rathbone are stiff and awkward. Short of a screen test, it’s hard to imagine less convincing line readings.

I admit I was a little taken aback by the whitening of the main characters (Katharine Hepburn’s niece as Sokka and Katara’s grandmother? really?) but that turns out to be the least of the movie’s problems, and the whole project will accelerates M. Night Shyamalan’s downward spiral. That’s a shame, because I really liked The Village (it kind of reminds me of my kids’ school), and you get the sense that he’s trying hard to do interesting things, even if he often fails. (As one commenter said, “so the twist is that it sucks? he’s done that one already.”) I think I’ll just watch the cartoons again.

[To the tune of Willie Nelson, “September Song,” from the album Stardust (a 3-star song, imo).]

Too brilliant (though completely NSFW)

Bill O’Reilly rant remix (thanks, Jess!)

[To the tune of Joni Mitchell, “Strong And Wrong,” from the album Shine (a 3-star song, imo).]

More on Avatar

The New York Times weighed in a few days ago on the Avatar Interpretation Complex (something I wrote a bit about), and I’m just now getting around to reading it:

[“Avatar” has] found itself under fire from a growing list of interest groups, schools of thought and entire nations that have protested its message (as they see it), its morals (as they interpret them) and its philosophy (assuming it has one).

Over the last month, it has been criticized by social and political conservatives who bristle at its depictions of religion and the use of military force; feminists who feel that the male avatar bodies are stronger and more muscular than their female counterparts; antismoking advocates who object to a character who lights up cigarettes; not to mention fans of Soviet-era Russian science fiction; the Chinese; and the Vatican. This week the authorities in China announced that the 2-D version of the film would be pulled from most theaters there to make way for a biography of Confucius.

That so many groups have projected their issues onto “Avatar” suggests that it has burrowed into the cultural consciousness in a way that even its immodest director could not have anticipated. Its detractors agree that it is more than a humans-in-space odyssey — even if they do not agree on why that is so.

“Some of the ways people are reading it are significant of Cameron’s intent, and some are just by-products of what people are thinking about,” said Rebecca Keegan, the author of “The Futurist: The Life and Films of James Cameron.” “It’s really become this Rorschach test for your personal interests and anxieties.”

[To the tune of Oleta Adams, “I’ve Got To Sing My Song,” from the album Circle Of One (a 2-star song, imo).]
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