Getting Closer

No one else can truly know what it’s like to be you. To think the things you think. To feel the emotions you feel (the way that you feel them). The things that get under your skin. The worries that play on repeat. Your hopes, dreams, and convictions about how the world works.

Our distant human predecessors had emotions and thoughts before they had language to describe them. The structure of our brains reflects that developmental history. There’s a whole complex of feelings and thoughts we have inside ourselves before we can put words to it. It can be extremely difficult to formulate them into something sayable or writeable.

But it can also be extremely fulfilling. Words give tangibility and translatability to our internal lives. In conversation or typed on a page, there’s a shared point of reference.

Other media do this, too—songs, sculptures, architecture, and more. They each in their own way provide something that other people can reflect on and respond to. This is how we build connections and relationships with other people. And how we make sense of the world together. One person says things, write things, plays things, and makes things. Others listen, feel, examine, or respond.

We’re all on this peculiar blue rock in the universe—trying to process what’s going on and what our part is in all of it. We’re all trying to figure it out. It’s exciting and terrifying and full of potential.

I love what prolific film composer Hans Zimmer said in a recent interview about “getting closer.”

I’m writing one long score. It’s called my life. How many deaths have I written? How many kisses have I written? Each one, I try to do it differently. I try to get closer to the reality. I try to get better at it. “Better” is the wrong word. I’m trying to find out what’s hidden from me and what’s hidden from the audience. I’m trying to peel back the layers and actually get to the essence of what it all is.

Peel back the layers and actually get to the essence of what it all is.

Whether it’s words, or music, or something else, we’re all trying to get a little closer to reality through the course of our lives. What we know about ourselves, and what we know about the world.

I look back on some of the things I’ve written or said, and they make me cringe. I butchered sentences. I lacked perspective. Because people change. The way we articulate ourselves changes. Our sense of what’s right and good and beautiful changes. That’s part of being human, too.

Those changes and the drive to get closer are crucial to living well together. We’re dependent on others to fully see and understand. We need other people to show us our blind spots, where we haven’t taken things far enough, and where we’re way off track.

The path of getting closer is an imperfect, in-progress one, because we’re imperfect, in-progress creatures. Our vantage points are limited—conditioned by what makes each of us us. No one person is going to get things exactly right. Our efforts to communicate what we know about ourselves and the world don’t always come out the way we wanted. That’s what makes getting closer that much more rewarding. Over time, you can get closer. You end up in a different place than where you started. And there is always room to go deeper and wider.

It’s much more interesting to live life trying to discover what’s hidden from you. To get to the essence of what all this is. Throughout each day, in everything you say and make, and with every opportunity you have to hear perspectives outside your own purview. Each of us has things to share that will bring us closer to the world as it is—and closer to one another.

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.