A case for big-budget minimalism

James Hill /
Aug 2, 2017 / Film & TV

Minimalism within cinema is no trend or spontaneous reaction.

Ever since the early days of silent cinema and the works of Cecil B. De Mille there has been great emphasis placed upon the notion of less is more and more is less. With Christopher Nolan’s much lauded epic, Dunkirk, we are greeted with minimal dialogue and exposition on a grandiose scale. The effect of this is that there is no definable star, despite the presence of Tom Hardy, Sir Kenneth Branagh, Harry Styles (!) and Cillian Murphy. In terms of bucking the trend of traditional cinematographic progression, one can also turn their attention to Free Fire, which starred the aforementioned Murphy alongside Brie Larson, Armie Hammer and Sharlto Copley. Notably, the ensemble cast perform the entirety of the action within one, single space – the effect of this is that the minutiae of the scene, the lighting, the quick-fire shots create and imbue a subtlety and nuance.

Importantly, here, the discarding of expected trends usurps the conventions of traditional filmmaking and leaves the audience questioning what they think they know; and what they think they don’t. Indeed, the overarching question which we’ll attempt to answer, is whether or not there is space for the minimalist film to usurp – especially, say, in this era of cinematic universes.

Arguably, a minimalist aesthetic in Hollywood cinema has a long and progressive history. Specifically, during the 1920s, the style and grit of the German Expressionist movement had a palpable influence on the stylings of Noir in the ’50s. the artistic movements of minimalism in the conventional art world dominated the stylistic interstations of the respective scene of New York and Paris in the early ’60s; There was a sense that more can be said with less action, less dialogue and less paintbrushes.

Typically, however, the strength of a minimalist picture is in the laconic narration coupled with an undramatised narrative. For example, in Dunkirk, the characters do not adhere to their own dramatic story points, rather the events of history themselves form the backbone of their dramatic journey. Therefore, the naturalism of the miser end scene is not lost, a technique favoured by De Sica and Visconti in the early neo-realist works of Italian cinema.

Dunkirk has fallen under some criticisms for the lack of dialogue; rather, I posit that the small nature of these narratives, combined with the directors’ trademark manipulation of time create a sense of great moments born out of small narratives. We have already seen the excellent visuals and tracking shot of 2009’s Atonement which greeted us to a scene of chaos on Dunkirk’s beaches. Now, in Dunkirk 2017, the emptiness of said beaches, the floating bodies and thrumming score by the eclectic Hans Zimmer fosters a sense of artistry. Perhaps, the emptiness is a metaphor for Brexit Britain as it slowly turns its back on the continent. Yet, there is no need to overstate the obvious. Dunkirk is a panoply of different stories, told in vignettes which we are not supposed to move beyond. This minimalist aesthetic combined with the director’s trademark eye for deep focus shots infuses every scene and every movement with portent.

Harking back to the film Free Fire, it reminded me most intelligently of Sidney Lumet’s magnum opus, 12 Angry Men. A film dedicated to the small mannerisms of its jurors and the tense atmosphere of an almost bare room on a hot day, we see minimalism at its most persuasive. The substitution of spacial reality (12 Angry Men) with the actors themselves is neatly counterpointed by Dunkirk. Oftentimes the actors are lost in the crowd, lost in the long wide beaches or lost in a moment.

Minimalism is favoured as the tool of the auteur. Kubrick employed it with aplomb and this is the reason that comparisons have been drawn between Nolan and the legendary director. Yet, what Kubrick achieves in his films, especially in 2001, is the minimalist objective. Let the visual image speak for itself. Let the silence talk. Let the art sing.

Words by James Hill

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