Dunkirk

I don’t often have the time (or bank account) to see movies in the theater. But I was pretty excited to be able to see an early 70mm screening of Christopher Nolan’s latest film Dunkirk. I would definitely see it in 70mm or even IMAX if you can. It’s visually stunning. Even more so, I came away feeling that Dunkirk is deeply resonant and thoughtful in its portrayal of war.

Every film about armed conflict and historical battles is a little different. They allow the director or writer to show off skills of historical accuracy, or tell a story that highlights heroes and national symbolism, or pop the hood on human nature and examine why people engage in violence at all.

Previous war films that I’ve seen have often been characterized by unapologetic gore and death, or the worship of self-sacrifice and patriotism, or a chess-like fixation on tactics and strategy. With Dunkirk, Nolan has done something more minimalist, more existential, more literal. Dunkirk is an up-close, personal account of the emptiness of war and the struggle to simply survive for another day.

(Spoilers Ahead)

By following three sets of characters, in a non-chronological weaving of their respective timelines, Dunkirk creates a feeling of disorientation in the audience like that of a shell-shocked soldier. Through the film’s nonlinear telling, a sense of time and order fades. You rarely know when a bullet, bomb, or torpedo is coming until it’s right on you. And Dunkirk not only shows it–it makes you feel it. It’s a rollercoaster of increasing intensity that is only occasionally alleviated for a fleeting moment. A simple piece of bread and jam after being pulled out of the water represents a brief taste of home, safety, and comfort. Until new bombardments ratchet up the danger and intensity again.

The sounds of the film are turned up to 11 and put you in the heart of the action. Every fly-by makes you want to duck. Every gunshot feels like it’s whizzing past your ear. Every tilting camera angle of a sinking ship nudges you to look for a way to get out and stay afloat. These are not moments for heroics. They’re for instinctual perseverance and leaning on the people around you to overcome the blasts and drowning depths.

Dunkirk is filled out and made even more felt by an excellently experimental Hans Zimmer score. With music as texture and just a few overt themes, Zimmer turns the intensity up and down in sync with the rising danger and brief moments of relief. A nearly constant stopwatch-like ticking conveys that time is always running out, while other instrumentals mimic the noises of fighter planes, ships, and munitions. A foundation of strings, synthesizers, and longing horns churn in the background. The melody of hope that appears late in the story is an intrusion of almost otherworldly warmth that washes over you like rays of purifying sun.

Dunkirk tightly fits it all together to depict the terror and disorientation of war. The primal strive to survive against ocean and machine. And the slight but tangible hope for escape and future comfort.

War is hell, as many have said. But Dunkirk perhaps depicts more of a purgatory–somewhere in-between heaven and hell. The Dunkirk beach is a stand-in for all of us trying to survive on this pale blue dot in a vast, dark universe. The twin forces of humans who’ve lost their humanity (the Nazis are symbolically faceless throughout the film) and an indifferent, wild planet constantly threaten to extinguish life and cause a permanent descent into darkness and meaninglessness.

But there is also the small glimmer of hope of making it out–making it home–if you can persevere. In Nolan’s worldview, it’s the industrious humanity of other people who come to the rescue rather than divine intervention. If we can make it another day together, maybe we will all eventually see the end of our existential desperation, and rest in the comfort of a heavenly home.

La La Land and Possibility

My wife and I went to La La Land the other night, and man–what an artistic and emotional doozy. We love and watch musicals whenever we can. It’s such an interesting movie genre. Most films don’t have characters casually slide into song and dance. Musicals do.

But it’s not just that some singing and choreography break into the story once in a while. It’s that oftentimes when a musical’s characters do begin their song and dance, the line between imagination and reality is blurred. Things happen in many musical performances that are literally unreal. They go beyond the limits of space and time–like dancing in midair, or the characters being transported into a painting. Or, the performances portray things that we as the audience understand are only visions of certain characters because they haven’t actually happened. We’re peeking into someone’s imagination.

La La Land modernizes the musical form in very entertaining ways–like seeing a smartphone notification interrupt a dewy-eyed duet. But it also plays off of and twists your expectations of what a musical is–particularly how a musical ends. Some people think La La Land’s ending is brilliant, and some people hate it. I think it was super clever, though definitely heavy.

Without spoiling anything, what I loved about how the story played out–and the film as a whole–was how it used the characteristic blurring of imagination and reality of musicals to make a profound point about what it means to be human. Essentially, that we’re always moving between the world as it is and the world as it could be. Between reality and possibility.

We are so often driven and inspired by dreams of a brighter, more interesting, more successful life. To travel. To be an artist or an athlete. To find our soulmate. To find freedom. Only to be painfully reminded that there’s a draining day job to clock in for, bills past due, failed relationships, and a world around us ravaged by the darker forces of human nature. There is always messiness and tension. Our imagination, fantasies, dreams, and hopes–tangled with and torn down by harsh realities.

How do we make possibility–the world as it could be–become reality? What kinds of things can we change by our own choice, and what is out of our control? How do we process the very difficult human experience of things we cannot change but wish had gone differently?

Go see La La Land. Pay attention to what it’s saying about reality and possibility, and how it smartly exploits being a musical to do so. You don’t have to know or like Los Angeles. You don’t have to know or like jazz or acting. La La Land has very interesting and true things to say about something we all confront. Interesting and true things to say about being human.

Truth is Hard for Humans

If you’ve heard anything about “fake news” lately, you’ll know that in many ways truth has taken a backseat to other forces. Oxford Dictionaries declared post-truth–“relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”their word of the year. And with good reason. The maelstrom of partisan politics, clickbait, underfunded investigative journalism, misinformation, outright propaganda, and other obstructions has left many of us wondering where we can find something approximating what’s real and how we’ll know that it does.

It doesn’t matter what politicians and political ideology you affiliate with, your favorite sites and social media personalities, or what you wish was true. We should all see actual truth as a worthy pursuit. Even–and perhaps especially–if it challenges your beliefs and feelings. Living out of ignorance, incomplete or incorrect information, or deception doesn’t do any of us any good. What’s real is real whether we accept it or not. And often it’s extremely important that we understand what’s real as best as possible. Manmade climate change, for example, may lead to an inhospitable planet whether we know about it and acknowledge it or don’t.

The problem, though, is that every person, community, and organization is going to get at least some things wrong some of the time. Even in the most humble, unadulterated pursuit of the truth, no one has a God’s-eye view. No one sees the world with perfect clarity and absolute comprehensiveness. Your favorite, powerhouse news source is going to get it wrong at times. Your go-to social media know-it-all is going to post some significantly misinformed things. A bunch of likes, retweets, and shares doesn’t make it more plausible.

Any attempts at understanding what’s real, no matter how pure, are done so as human beings. As fallible, finite creatures. Sometimes our eyes, ears, and other senses let us down. Did I really see what I think I did? And even when they don’t, there’s only so far they can reach and so much they can process. I can only give a firsthand account of a space of maybe a block or two from wherever I am right now. Same for you. Same for every other person on the planet. If I’m here and I want to know what’s going on over there, I’m dependent on some kind of eyewitness–recollection, photo, video–because I’m not there experiencing it for myself and reflecting on my own perceptions of it. Each of us is fixed in a certain place and time. We each have a particular point of view.

This means that most things in the world are mediated and interpreted. Mediated because you experience the real world through either your own limited human faculties of sense and reason or the articulation of someone else’s (via a Facebook post, a cable news report, or a conversation, for example). We don’t have a direct connection to reality. Interpreted because mediation always has a point of view. A live news camera is pointed at some action and not another. The president at the podium giving a speech, not the random guy on the phone in the corner. And why did they choose to send someone out to the speech and not some other event?

Each of us is constantly sifting through an inordinate and overwhelming amount of information to try to fully perceive the world before us. When, though, someone has sifted in a Facebook post or a news report or a friendly conversation, they’ve chosen what’s included and what’s left out. They’re interpreting what details before them seem factual, important, and connected. What things together constitute an accurate account–the truth–of an event, research study, institution, etc. What’s included and why, or what’s left out and why have to be carefully scrutinized.

Truth, as it turns out, is fundamentally a matter of story and storytelling. Truth is a weaving together of perceptions, observations, and supposed insights into a bigger sort of framework or pattern. Into a story. “A set of facts in context,” as some have said. Stories are how we make sense of things. They are the means and the form we use for talking about what goes on in the world. Journalists, historians, scientists, and others tell stories in various kinds of media to try to inform the public. Friends, relatives, and strangers pass them around and comment.

The thing is, just like some fictional stories are better than others, some stories meant to encompass the world as it is are much better than others. Some are closer to reality. Some–deliberately or accidentally–are far from it. We get truth by comparing stories against each other and seeing which one seems to best fit the real world. In our limited humanness, that’s as close as we’re going to get to something objective.

So how can we tell one story is better than another, or that a certain story has the best fit? We’ll have to save that for next time. The truth is hard for humans. It’s going to take more than one post to figure this out.

 

Why Do We Care So Much About Sports?

In the moments after the Green Bay Packers lost the 2007 NFC Championship game, I sat in disbelief in my small, college apartment. Brett Favre, now in the Hall of Fame in 2016, inexplicably played like anything but a future hall-of-famer in his wintry final game as a Packer. The New York Giants, who would go on to win the Super Bowl, won the NFC Championship on an overtime field goal set up by a Favre interception–amplifying the finality and devastation of Packers fans like me.

What was the point of all this?–I wondered to myself. I had put off a paper that I should have been writing so I could glue myself to the television for a few hours instead. And I had invested several hours more watching, celebrating, and agonizing through the course of the whole season–believing that whatever turns and bumps along the way, the road would lead to a championship and corresponding elation.

But like so many sports teams in so many seasons, it didn’t end in ultimate victory. And instead of elation, I felt an odd combination of sadness, anger, sardonic amusement, and confusion. Sports are utterly meaningless, I decided. Who the hell gets so invested in this stuff? How did I let myself get so invested? Come next NFL season, I would not waste my time again spending hours in front of a screen watching my team play when I could or should be doing other things. Or allow myself to hope against hope that the Packers could overcome the statistical unlikelihood of them winning a championship that season either.

But when the season started again in the fall of 2008, I eagerly tuned in for as many games as possible, and have done so every season since. And now here we are the start of the 2016 NFL season, the most popular sport in America by far, with hope springing eternally for millions of fans that this will be their year!

Why do so many people care so much about sports?

In the context of society as a whole, sports teams and the fanaticism they generate do not have an obvious contribution to the common good–save for maybe a local economic bump or some additional jobs under the right conditions. Even then, most economic benefits go to team owners and a handful of other powerful interests. And surely the tens of millions of dollars spent on new sports stadiums–sometimes funded publicly–could be spent in a way that more directly benefits the communities in which they’re being built.

Sports fandom is less about the economic, and more about the existential.

I think my college paper avoidance is a clue. Given the choice between writing a paper (about a topic you don’t get to choose) or watching your favorite team in a playoff game, which one would most people pick? Sports is a form of escapism from the rest of life. However awful the workweek was, whatever political disaster is transpiring, whatever relational turmoil you’re experiencing, sports are there as an escapist outlet. The world can be tough and crappy. Here’s something that allows me to get away from that for a little while.

But hardcore fandom is more than just simply escapism from the everyday. Researchers have discovered that “…highly identified sports fans have an above average sense of meaning in life.” Being a fan of a sports team–much like the group identification of a gang, religion, or attendees of Comic-Con–“leads to belonging, which in turn leads to a sense of meaning.” Sports, and other groups with die-hard adherents, create a sense of transcendent belonging and purpose.

Even though I now live in California, as a former Wisconsinite, the Packers are typically the second thing I’m asked about after cheese. It’s a bit stereotypical, but finding out that I’m a Packers fan alerts others to symbols, sports rituals, and a type of community I’m likely to be associated with simply by being a fan.

As a fan of any team, you can be walking down the street amongst strangers and suddenly when you see people with a shirt or hat with your team’s logo you feel that you have “friends…that you feel connected to. You might not even know their names, but you feel as though you are unified with so many other people in the community.”

Daniel Wann, a social psychologist at Murray State University, has discovered that there are nearly two-dozen well-being benefits commonly associated with sports fans. “Self-worth, frequency of positive emotions, feeling connected with others, belief in the trustworthiness of others, sense of vigor and energy”–and more–show a statistical correlation with degree of fan identification. The more one identifies with a team, the more one feels a sense of belonging, meaning, and enjoyment from it.

Does that mean that sports fanaticism is wholly good? Of course not. The economics of sports–the incomprehensible millions in player contracts, coaches’ salaries, advertisements, endorsements, and executive income–can spark indignation and outrage. Violence is always a possibility when fans and players experience similar blood pressure, testosterone, and other physiological increases. Players are regularly connected to on-field and off-field aggression: concussions, fisticuffs, playboy criminality, and serious domestic violence. The us versus them of fans–hooligans attacking others in the stands or the streets–can get carried away in the same sort of militaristic tribalism that has long been a part of our human history. And the absurd amounts of alcohol, chips and dips, red meat, and other calories consumed on gameday only add to the society-wide health complications of the Western diet. All of these are the things we often downplay or ignore as we aspire to keep sports a place of happy escapist belonging. That denial is when sports are at their most dangerous to individuals and society. Fandom can be fun and provide meaning while we, at the same time, work to address the dark side of sports.

So as the NFL season is set to begin, look behind the sexist commercials, showboating player celebrations, and cliches about winning and losing, for the larger pattern of identification, community, and meaning. Sports fandom is just one among many forms of escapism and finding purpose. And we’re all just looking for some kind of belonging and enjoyment in life–even if you think a little less of me now because you hate the Packers.

The Stories We Tell

For peoples, generally, their story of the universe and the human role in the universe is their primary source of intelligibility and value. The deepest crises experienced by any society are those moments of change when the story becomes inadequate for meeting the survival demands of the present. –Thomas Berry

Human beings are a creature of stories. We spend endless hours streaming back-to-back-to-back episodes of serialized television. We hand over record box office dollars to see the latest installment in one of the many ongoing cinematic universes. We look at best of summer book lists to find out what novel we should take to the beach. We talk about our workplaces in terms of roles and performance–the language of actors and actresses. We run political campaigns on stories like retrieving a supposed golden age (make America great again), going it alone for a future of safety and self-sufficiency (Brexit), and preventing impending dystopia (Trump must be stopped).

Stories are the way that we make sense of the world, and they long have been. The Enûma Eliš, the Illiad and the Odyssey, the narratives of the Hebrew and Christian Bibles, the Quran, evolutionary reductionism, neoliberalism, and countless other stories have shaped and given meaning to our existence.

Because we experience life as it unfolds through time, it makes sense that we often see things in terms of the narrative elements of beginning, middle, and end. We see ourselves as some kind of characters involved in an unfolding drama: whether it’s the macro level–tales about the birth of the universe and the place of humanity in it–or the micro–a local news segment on homelessness. We make sense of how all of the pieces of life fit together by organizing them into a plot with characters, direction, intentions, and resolution.

Stories are powerful and relatable because they answer some of the most profound questions we have. Why are things the way they are? How did we get to now? Where are we going? Why are we here? Stories give answers to our aspirations for prosperity and success, security and comfort, purpose and intelligibility. (These categories come from the very excellent book The Great Turning, which I’ve previously referenced here).

Some of the stories we tell are quite good. These stories are successful because they answer questions about prosperity, security, and purpose in ways that correspond closely to reality (as best as we can tell) and make us feel more alive. Think of your favorite movies. What makes them your favorite? I bet if you think about it a bit, they tell a story that answers one or more of these questions in a realistic, humane, and compelling way.

Think of your own worldview. What makes sense about the story you tell yourself about why the world is the way it is and why you’re here? It’s likely because it incorporates everything you’ve experienced, everything you’ve seen, everything you believe about human nature, and everything you hope for in a way that feels real, deep, and full of potential and purpose.

Other stories are unconvincing or wrong. The world is the way it is because of that group of people, and we should do away with them. A free market is the only way to prosperity for all. The universe was created in six literal days by a bearded grandfather in the clouds. Men are superior to women. Whites are superior to other races.

Many of these bad stories fail to perceive the interconnectedness and value of all things. They tell their story by excluding or belittling a whole chunk of reality. These stories cannot properly narrate why things are the way they are and where they’re going, because they have an incomplete or warped view of reality as we know it.

Think of some of the worst movies you’ve seen. What makes them so terrible? Is the acting bad? That touches on an inability to represent the reality of how emotionally and socially complex human beings actually are. The very best actors usually have extremely high empathy–they’re able to emote on screen in ways that feel as genuine as real life–and, in turn, we as the audience resonate with their performance. Is the plot boring, corny, or absurd? It’s likely because it fails to tell in an interesting and satisfying way why things are the way they are, how they got there, where they’re going, and the meaning of it all.

Whether it’s the stories we’re watching on TVs, devices, and movie theater screens, or our own real-world stories about our families, neighborhoods, workplaces, and current events, stories are everywhere. It’s up to us to winnow out the good from the bad, and elevate the stories that speak to the reality of the world we find ourselves in and how we can best find prosperity, security, and meaning in it.