Christopher Nolan claims that his 10th film Dunkirk (2017) is best viewed on IMAX. Shooting with IMAX cameras, he intended Dunkirk for the IMAX 70 mm format for a completely immersive experience. Nolan calls it “virtual reality without the goggles” owing to the movie’s clarity and scale (18,000 pixels on a screen that’s 16 meters high and 22 meters wide). Meaning to say, if we were to have a seat with an eye-level view of the screen in an IMAX theater, it would be as if we are on the ground, in the air, or at sea with the soldiers.
It’s easy to be wary of Nolan’s statement. First, he has every reason to suggest we watch Dunkirk on IMAX: The film gets hyped as a must-watch and it earns more from the expensive IMAX screening. The grand claim “virtual reality without the goggles” also further hails him as one of the most visionary directors in the world. Second, the IMAX screening can be dismissed as indulgent hence unnecessary. The most pragmatic among us may think that regardless of how we watch Dunkirk, we watch the same film; it will just have a different size and resolution, and have some cropping or stretching.
Yet the feeling of watching Dunkirk on IMAX is different, particularly with the wide-angle shots. We do get a vicarious experience of drowning, claustrophobia, isolation, and terror. These lows are counterpointed by the exhilarating aerial shots of shooting down the German bombers.
Having Dunkirk in the IMAX format shows the importance of scale, in this case a large one, in art. The massiveness makes us experience the work in the most palpable way possible. Seeming to break away from the confines of a frame, large art inspires a sense of awe as it equals us and our world, or is even bigger than us—in which case it urges us to measure up to it.
Great artists who have created artworks about war have rendered these at a large scale. Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, Joan Miró’s The Reaper (also known as Catalan peasant in revolt), Francisco Goya’s The Third of May, and Juan Luna’s Spoliarium are just some of the paintings where one can assume that the scale has import, because these painters took it upon themselves to depict the horrors of war in a canvas that’s bigger than they are. In fact, the massive size is one of the significant features of each of those paintings. For instance, Guernica (1937) is nearly 3.5 meters tall and stretches a little over 7.5 meters wide; The Reaper (1937) stood at 5.5 meters.
Having a work in a large scale is perhaps the artist’s way of making sure we respond to the event he features.
Picasso painted Guernica for the Spanish pavilion at the International Exposition of Art and Technology in Modern Life, which took place in Paris during the Spanish Civil War. While the Spanish government had requested that Picasso submit an artwork that reflected the country’s political milieu to call for international aid, the bombing of Guernica by German and Italian fascists spurred the Spanish painter to create the astounding piece. Before the bombing, the Basque town was inhabited by civilians and was without military presence, so the assault on it horrified many, Picasso included. At the Expo, the world received Guernica as an anti-war painting, and the work later toured Europe and the United States as tensions were building up for the second World War.
Perhaps something particular to motion picture is that it somehow gives us, the viewers, a role, and we can respond to this role. In Dunkirk on IMAX, the cinema disappears from our line of sight, therefore we see only what Farrier (Tom Hardy) sees—we are then the Spitfire pilot. We too are the civilians as we sail with them; we are the soldiers who will do anything to be rescued, and the soldiers who only look out for themselves. We are witnesses, and we inevitably ask ourselves: What do we do as we see—as if with our own eyes—people shaken with fear and running and swimming for their lives? What would we do if we were actually there?
Put another way, Dunkirk on IMAX makes us feel the suspense and thrill that come with war by filming it with IMAX cameras for the illusion that we are there in the evacuation. It helps that Hans Zimmer’s score of tension-filled strings and abrasive ticking doesn’t romanticize the struggle for survival, but instead heightens the nerve-racking fight for it.
As for war paintings, these have their own strength even as they portray one image. They can tug the heartstrings in what may be a simplistic fashion of showing corpses, blood, and smoke; or they can be more cerebral through symbolism or abstraction, through which chaos meets and jars us.
Guernica’s power lies not only in its size but also in Picasso’s cartoons and use of a gray palette. The distorted drawings capture how war tears bodies apart and snaps people from their sanity, hence gruesomely disfiguring them. The grayness invites us in, and perhaps challenges us, to see the work’s many details. Colors can distract us or cushion the strength of the imagery; bloodiness can disgust us or make it easy for us to dismiss the work as plain anti-war propaganda, then move on.
And considering its size, how it’s practically an environment, Guernica steals our attention. Allowing us to walk towards it to absorb the faintest details and distance ourselves from it to see the whole picture, Picasso’s masterpiece solicits a physical encounter that has us absorbed in its own world, overwhelmed by the scene of destruction and the work’s energy, and struck by the characters screaming their heads off. Guernica’s abstraction or symbolism at a large scale demands that we immerse ourselves in anguish as it stares us in the face. Perhaps that is the surest way for us to remember the horrors of war and the long, dark shadow of humanity.
Largeness is a definitive aspect of artworks that brings them to life and immerses us in their world. When it comes to art about war, size is one of the starting points for artists to get their sentiments or preoccupations across. After all, big art not only commands a room and demands we interact with it. It also imposes ideas and feelings on us.
Still, we can resist the work should we find it indulgent, boring, or predictable. We can always walk away. Yet we welcome Nolan’s Dunkirk and Picasso’s Guernica and allow ourselves to be confronted by them. Not riddled with clichés, these works strive to be as honest as possible about war: how there is more to its horror and damage which spilled blood—a passive and overly used image—can’t capture, or how it’s a force that drives people to do whatever it takes to survive while often harboring a sense of brotherhood. And created still with aesthetics in mind, they please the eyes so we may stare back at them in awe, and shudder.
“Dunkirk Is Playing in Six Different Formats. Here’s How to Decide Which You Should See It In,” Daniel Hubbard. Slate. 20 July 2017. Video.
“Original Stretcher for Picasso’s Guernica Rediscovered in MoMa Storage,” Genevieve Lipinsky de Orlov. Inside/Out. 7 September 2016. Article.
“Pablo Picasso: Guernica,” Museo Reina Sofia. Information Sheet.
“Understanding Picasso’s Guernica, 80 Years Later,” Natalia Pianzola. BBC. 26 April 2017. Video.