At The Movies: Dunkirk & Baby Driver

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From the September 2017 Newsletter

What? Movies? Oh yeah. I saw two movies in theaters recently, doubling my yearly total. And they were great. I know I’m late to the party on both of these films, but I do think they’re worth talking about as opposite ends of the same spectrum.

At first glance, Dunkirk and Baby Driver seem like totally different movies. And they are. They’re distinct films that embody their creators. In film, there’s an idea known as auteur theory, where a director controls a work to such great extent that they’re said to be its author, and the work their singular vision. And with Baby Driver and Dunkirk, it feels as though Edgar Wright and Christopher Nolan were born to make these movies.

If you’ve seen any of Edgar Wright’s previous work, you know that his style is fast-paced fun. He makes dynamic scenes, using every visual and audio trick he can think of. His films move. So it only makes sense that he’d make the best music video of a getaway driver ever made. Baby Driver is fast, bright, and fun, a showcase of every audiovisual technique Wright’s ever used to tell a story since he first started filmmaking.

On the other end, Dunkirk is tense, muted, and serious. It contains nearly no dialogue, features a soundtrack heavy on ticking clocks, and takes place across three overlapping timelines of varying lengths. These innovative concepts build tension in ways I’ve never seen in a mainstream film, and certainly not together. Christopher Nolan is known for his filmic puzzles, his sometimes overly-layered plots, and his unique manipulation of time.

These films are showcases, portfolios of each director’s greatest hits, given free reign to be fully realized. But what I find most interesting about these films is not that they’re created by auteurs. Many films have their director’s fingerprints all over them. The reason I find these two to be on the same spectrum is because they are two drastically different takes on what kind of spectacle a movie should be.

With the prestige television industry exploding—and because we live in a culture of instant gratification—filmmakers are struggling to find a way to get audiences to come to the theaters. Why should you go spend $15 to see “Enter Latest Oscar Nominated Film Here” when you can binge Breaking Bad and then catch that film on demand in five months? The answer seems unanimously to be spectacle. No matter how good television sets or surround sound systems get, they can’t quite rival the awe a movie theater can induce.

And in Baby Driver and Dunkirk, Wright and Nolan offer their opposing approaches to that answer. Neither is particularly interested in plot or story here, but instead in telling those stories in the most interesting and striking ways. Dunkirk is an art-house war movie designed to build tension that feels (and looks) like drowning, all carried by the drama and visual gravitas of World War II. Baby Driver’s plot is a vehicle—ha!—for set piece after set piece of quick cutting, highly choreographed action.

Watching the trailers for Thor: Ragnarok and Black Panther, I can already feel this idea of auteur spectacle creeping into the realm of franchises. They’re both highly stylized, light on the details, and serve as showcases for their unique aesthetics. I’m not sure if this is going to be the new normal for film: story and character taking a backseat with the aesthetic being the main draw and work on display. That kind of world makes me hesitant, as it’s just a stone’s throw from all-flash-no-substance, but for now, it sure does make for a good movie-going experience.

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