It was about 30 minutes into Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk when the German torpedo smashed into the side of the evacuation ship and dozens of young men gasped and struggled and screamed and drowned in pitch blackness that I realized two things. First, as a film-lover, I was having one of the greatest experiences of my life. Dunkirk was a work of near-transcendent excellence—a distillation of operatic bombast and visual splendor seldom seen since the heyday of Sergio Leone, David Lean, and Akira Kurosawa. But secondly, as an autistic man, I was having one of the worst. My chest tightened into spasms of pain and my head began to teeter on the edge of disassociation. The sequence finally ended and the film continued. But for the rest of the run-time I fought off one of the most serious panic attacks in recent memory. Since the film’s release, I’ve heard many a critic and commenter reference Stendhal syndrome, the psychosomatic response towards overwhelming works of art that can cause fainting and hallucinations. Such a disorder presumes a relatively clean bill of mental health on the part of the witness. But what of people whose mental wiring is frayed and tangled? What of people whose emotional baseline is one of constant overstimulation? For them, Dunkirk is a nightmare.
Since its invention, cinema has existed in a state of constant reinvention. Give us something new, the masses cried. Give us something more immediate, more shocking, more novel. And so the studios and innovators complied, first giving us feature-length narratives, then sound, then color, then widescreen. But now with the rise of the internet and the so-called “Golden Age of Television,” movie studios are scrambling to find the Next Big Thing. And for now that seems to be a kind of augmented reality, one of total immersion transcending the concept of a two-dimensional image on a static screen. James Cameron yanked the 3-D gimmick kicking and screaming back into the mainstream with Avatar (2009) while Ang Lee baffled and nauseated audiences with Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2016) and its 120 frames-per-second frame rate and 4K HD resolution. Things are even more ludicrous abroad with the rise of South Korea’s 4DX technology featuring movie theaters equipped with moving seats, environmental weather machines, and even piped-in smells. All this beckons the question of why bother with a movie in the first place and not just go to a theme park?
But here in the West, the Next Big Thing in vogue is IMAX. Yes, it’s existed since the late ’60s, but recently more and more filmmakers and studios have embraced the format as the key to breaking Hollywood’s blockbuster slump. And few directors have taken to it more enthusiastically than Christopher Nolan, who went so far as to hold a private IMAX screening of the first six minutes of his superhero film The Dark Knight Rises (2012) for a number of A-list directors like Michael Bay and Edgar Wright in an attempt to prove its superiority over digital formats. “I think IMAX is the best film format that was ever invented,” he explained in an interview. “It’s the gold standard and what any other technology has to match up to, but none have, in my opinion.” Nolan is unique in his determination to craft films specifically designed for the all-encompassing immersion of IMAX, a determination enhanced by his fondness for high-concept, effects-heavy narratives about superheroes, astronauts, and citizen soldiers. Go into an IMAX theater and see how the screen stretches to fill your entire peripheral vision. Close your eyes and you’re swallowed by the pulsating soundtrack blasting from every angle. Plug your ears, and you can still FEEL the film as the heavy vibrations from the speakers smash and crash over your whole body.
All of which is the problem for people like myself who live with Asperger’s. We are constantly on the verge of overstimulation, something we tend to self-medicate with deliberate disengagement from society into our own little worlds where we can obsess over rituals and interests that soothe us. We rebel against a universe we can’t control by cloistering ourselves into environments that we can. Some of us escape through headphones and music, some through locked doors and reading, others with monotonous, mechanical tasks that let our minds wander freely. Almost a decade ago, I discovered the power of cinema as a coping mechanism for my own Asperger’s. Watching a film is a culturally approved excuse for disengaging from the outside world for 90 minutes. You get to cut yourself off from everything and everybody by sitting in a dark theater where it’s expected that everyone will leave each other alone for the duration. Even better are movies at home or on laptops. Here you get to control the volume and picture quality; you can fast-forward or mute scenes you don’t like and rewatch scenes you do.
But in an IMAX theater there is nowhere to run. There’s no hiding as the theater’s space-age technology fries your every nerve. And for people with Asperger’s, that’s a problem.
No, I’m not calling for a boycott on IMAX. I’m not calling for special screenings of IMAX presentations with the sound system turned down or the picture size diminished. But what I am saying is that cinephile circles can be notoriously grouchy when it comes to issues concerning projection and theatrical experiences. It’s not unheard of for people to walk out of screenings of rare movies because they have the wrong DCP or complain when audiences laugh at revivals of comedies or scream at revivals of horror films. And Film Twitter’s reaction to Dunkirk has been particularly troubling: apparently many people think that if you don’t see the film in 70mm IMAX, you’re not respecting Nolan’s vision and haven’t truly seen the film. I’m here to gently inform you that sometimes it’s okay to not see films on a big screen. Sometimes it’s okay to catch the 2-D screening of that 3-D blockbuster. Sometimes it’s okay to wait until an IMAX movie gets released on Blu-ray so you can watch it in your living room. I’ll never forget the time a few years back when Jon Stewart hosted the Academy Awards and joked that the only way to truly appreciate Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962) was on an iPhone. But have any of us considered that for some people with extreme social anxiety, that might be the only way they can watch it? We watch movies on smart phones because we love them so much we’d prefer seeing them in a diminished form than not seeing them at all. We watch blockbusters on home video systems because it gives us the access to these films our social anxiety won’t afford. And in the future, I know that I’m going to watch IMAX films in regular movie theaters. Why? Because I don’t want to risk going to the hospital just so I can go to the movies.
Featured Image: Warner Bros. Pictures