Tenet

Tenet

"Time is a river which sweeps me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger which destroys me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire which consumes me, but I am the fire."
— Jorge Luis Borges, “A New Refutation of Time”

"The film camera shows us time, in a way that wasn't possible before the invention of the movie camera."
— Christopher Nolan

(DISCLAIMER: The following isn't a conventional film review but rather a free-form self-indulgent rambling, composed over one tumultuous week, compiling thoughts as they arose. Proceed with utmost caution.)

Let me see what I can write about Tenet. Or to be more precise, about my encounter(s) with the Tenet experience. Because Tenet happens to be less of a movie, in all the conventional senses of the word, and more of a cinematic 'experience package'. What one chooses to do with the contents of said package entirely determines how they experience Tenet, which is to say that it is almost a guarantee that every single encounter with the film (whether by the same person or different people) is bound to be different in its own ways. Now while this idea may just seem like a rehash of the way individual subjectivity works concerning film-viewing in general, the case for Tenet, I believe, goes much further.

Because Tenet, seems to me, has been deliberately crafted in a manner that defies full comprehension after the first watch, regardless of the audience member's IQ or their familiarity with reading genre films. This here is a film so compressed in its 150-minute running time, carrying a sprawling loopy-narrative laced with counter-intuitive plot devices, edited to match the pace of a spy-thriller, suggestively leaving gaps in information that require active spectatorial work to fill them in (an impossible task while absorbing the film the first time), that it's all but given that maker Christopher Nolan demands that his viewers re-visit the film multiple times to fully unravel and, thus, appreciate all that it has to offer. Which reminds me of a quote by Robert Bresson that holds remarkably well here:

"A highly compressed film will not yield its best at the first go. People see in it at first what seems like something they have seen before."

Quite so. And this, I believe, is what's been happening to most viewers (myself included) upon their first encounter with Tenet – a film that seems to conform to more than a few of Bresson's maxims, albeit in ways very different from Bresson's filmmaking praxis. Not only are viewers missing out (through no fault of their own) on key information necessary to unlock the plot's full potential, but because so much of their attention is being directed towards the narrative complexities, they are failing to appreciate the inherent pathos of Tenet's humanist core (which, albeit of minimal presence, is certainly not absent as so many reviews seem to claim). Finally, even the fast-paced race-against-the-clock pulse of the movie is thwarted by the viewer focusing more on unravelling the plot loops (again, understandably so) rather than wholeheartedly feeling the tension and rhythm of this epic-scaled doomsday mission. Tenet might be a rare exception among modern thrillers in the sense that it isn't hampered by spoilers. If anything, foreknowledge of 'spoilers' may only aid the viewer in better appreciating the film.

Therefore, I can hardly blame any viewer walking out of their first Tenet screening more frustrated than fascinated when the film itself seems to have been almost tailor-made to provoke such reactions. It is a similar frustration that bogged me after my first viewing but, fortunately, I was also greatly fascinated by the film's stiff unyielding resolve, its total commitment towards its high-concept sci-fi elements and the sheer overload of information at its every turn – fascinated enough to not dismiss it the moment the credits rolled. Tenet seemed to promise something, a kind of latent satisfaction, if only one were to willingly indulge its design and work on unravelling its knots, a feeling that has become alien to most big-budget mainstream releases. Being a fan of Lav Diaz, Robert Bresson, Pedro Costa and the likes, I was no stranger to films and filmmakers that demand active work from the viewer to be appreciated in full measure and often resist instant-comprehension and instant-gratification. And so, I began digging. After spending a total of two whole days puzzling over the film, scrutinizing every detail and watching it two more times over a week, Tenet began to bloom and open up and reveal its wonders in ways I could never imagine.

You see, the key to unlocking the full potential of the Tenet experience is to repeatedly perform its signature 'temporal pincer' on the film's narrative itself. According to the film, the essence of a temporal pincer movement lies in gleaning essential information by making a first-pass through a certain task and then going back in time to utilize the same information to re-execute the same task more effectively. Similarly, Nolan requires his viewers to accumulate all the details that they can extract from their first-pass of Tenet, and then go "back in time" to the start of the film (either by purchasing another ticket or hitting re-play) so as to encounter it all over again, this time armed with the knowledge they gained from their first viewing. Multiple passes may need to be made, each of them building upon the previous one by benefitting from experience, until one has sorted out every single time-inversion and charted the trajectories of every single character, forwards and backwards, and the viewer is ready to experience Tenet as a whole ― relieved of the burden of "understanding" and, thus, ready to "feel" its suppressed moments of intimacy, its steadily-building relationships that invert without warning, and the rush of adrenaline that inevitably accompanies every minute of this journey fraught between chance and predestination.

In our real world, we might never know for sure if our existence is fully deterministic or not, but the invention of an entropy-reversing machine in Tenet makes such an examination possible. And it chooses to reveal a deterministic universe running counterintuitively to people's usual illusions regarding free will, where the inhabitants are simultaneously (seemingly) free in their present but also a slave to their (pre-determined) future. It is this other very-Bressonian philosophy, of the eternal conflict between one's fate and their free-will, that Tenet imbibes in building the logic of its circular narrative that begins and ends on the same day. Bresson always insisted that "all of our lives are made in exactly the same way: out of predestination and chance." This spiritual conflict drove all his protagonists in their quest to gain control over their fates, as it drives 'The Protagonist' in Tenet's twilight world. He struggles to figure out the extent to which he has agency over his actions and his fate, in a world running by the maxim of "what's happened's happened", which seems to indicate a history set-in-stone and yet, one which must be continually carved out of willful action and effort. The Protagonist realizes that his place in the game is that of both a pawn and a king, a small cog in the greater Tenet machine that's also of his own creation.

The fictional Tenet organization operates on the policy "to suppress", their agents instructed to avoid intimacy and thus maintain a professional distance so as to prevent foreknowledge from hampering with history as-it-was-meant-to-unfold. Besides, The Protagonist himself is essentially a "dead man" and navigating through a maze of strangers, with his sole partner-in-crime being the man who has been actively suppressing any knowledge of their prior intimacy. Neil knows that these are his last few days on earth, and he is about to bid goodbye to his lifelong-mentor and best friend, and yet cannot afford to express his emotions the slightest. The real test of his "free will" lies in his suppression of the same. This can also be read as a sort of meta-commentary on the general lack of agency of all fictional characters, insofar as they are always subservient to the will of their creators (i.e. the authors) and must always run the exact same gauntlet that has been laid down for them. Thus, like every fictional protagonist ever written, The Protagonist in Tenet is also bound to merely an illusion of free will, as is the audience since they get to experience the film from his perspective.

All of this likely explains the complaints about Tenet's acting performances being too stiff and wooden, lacking emotional warmth as if Nolan took yet another page out of Bresson's book, the latter being famous for ironing out any theatrics from his 'models' so as to achieve a uniquely flat consistency with his characters. While Nolan's actors hardly approach the kind of automatism that Bresson extracted of his non-actors, they mostly remain restrained enough to be faithful to their non-conventional characterization, channelling the atmosphere of an organization so steeped in secrecy that its members barely know one another and, thus, can hardly afford to go beyond professional courtesies. And in a way, Nolan's characters find out they are automatons too, simply 'going through the motions' in a 100% deterministic universe. To quote Bresson again: "In real life, three-quarters of our gestures, even of our words, are automatic." The only difference being that in Tenet, the characters are forced to explicitly confront such fated automatism that directly contradicts their psychological reality. Given that Nolan has already admitted to being a student of Bresson, I get the feeling that he's internalized quite a few of the latter's "notes on cinematography" as he was writing Tenet and subconsciously adapted them to suit his big-budget spectacular needs.

Of course, this doesn't in any way imply that Nolan's latest film is at all similar to Bresson's work, the differences between the two far outweighing their minor similarities, most notably the inherent 'aesthetic of poverty' in Bresson's style being in stark contrast to Nolan's cash-fueled audio-visual onslaught. Bresson would also replace a lot of the dialogue with visual alternatives but, then again, Bresson would never imagine tackling a plot as convoluted as Tenet's. But this probably opens doors to wondering what results might be yielded when a so-called genre film eschews classic genre traits and instead, almost paradoxically, leans toward such Bressonian principles (without abandoning its pursuit of generating entertainment-value) as they seem to better serve the film's unconventional plotline. And the most readily-apparent results are visible in Tenet's apparent-coldness, a suggestive (rather than representational) approach to character psychology, focus on physical action over theatrics, and its pacy uber-compressed narrative, requiring multiple viewings and considerable mental gymnastics to be fully appreciated. Given that Bresson admitted to immensely loving the Bond film For Your Eyes Only (1981), I might even go on a limb to speculate that he'd have had a much higher opinion of Tenet than most critics seem to have, had he been alive to see it.

Having said and done all the necessary mental gymnastics, and having witnessed Tenet shed its skin and gradually transform right before my eyes (literally) from a seemingly-incomprehensible, too-cool and too-calculated, emotionally stoical, maddening headrush of information to a layered, thought-provoking, meticulously-designed and unbelievably-engaging thriller, all that remains is to ponder over the place that Tenet now occupies in the historical canon of cinema, in light of the way it seems to reject from the outset the coveted-rule of mainstream blockbusters which aims to extract maximum engagement from audiences through a minimum of spectatorial effort, despite (paradoxically) firmly identifying itself as an escapist big-budget entertainer. Audiences are, understandably, upset over the fact that the film yields so little on their first viewing, and first impressions are of utmost importance in a world moving too fast to wait for a second (or even a third, or fourth) attempt to lock-in their impressions of any work of art.

And yet, Nolan has repeatedly claimed that he aims to create pieces which resist passive viewing and won't exhaust themselves after a "first-pass", requiring viewers to re-visit one work multiple times and discover something anew each time. No film of his has pushed these tenets of his film-philosophy to such extremes as his latest feature, which also dares to repeat his experiment of using dialogues as sound-effects and making them harder to hear to encourage audience participation, as Nolan himself admitted when speaking about Interstellar: “There are particular moments in [Interstellar] where I decided to use dialogue as a sound effect, so sometimes it’s mixed slightly underneath the other sound effects or in the other sound effects to emphasize how loud the surrounding noise is.”

If Nolan's strategy to compress information and thereby demand repeat-viewings feels like a capitalist-move, it is only because the nature of theatrical film exhibition happens to be intimately tied to capital by default, especially so for a popular director produced by one of the biggest studios in the world. And yet, there used to be a time when works of art were celebrated precisely because they posed radical challenges to commonly-accepted notions of art consumption, when it was understood that a great work of literature would need to be read multiple times and worked upon to uncover the full scope of its author's creation. The fact that the growing consumerist-culture has completed obliviated such notions, to the extent that audiences shirk away at the mere whiff of any artist demanding anything more from them than short-term mindlessly-passive engagement, is the unfortunate truth of the scenario that Tenet finds itself in.

Tenet forces a viewer to confront their conflicting viewing prejudices when it comes to witnessing a mainstream big-budget entertainer: are you willing to completely suspend your intellectual faculties, despite the allure of mind-bending concepts littering the film, and be ready to simply 'feel' without 'understanding'? Or are you willing to suspend your need for instant gratification, and thereby fully engage with the cerebral mysteries, accepting that your first-viewing must necessarily be followed-up with more of the same, to unlock the full scope of Nolan's plotting? If you cannot commit to either, Tenet must remain for you a baffling, emotionless, thinly-characterized high-concept caper that seemingly takes advantage of your human limits of information processing to get by with its seeming-"plot holes". Not that fully unravelling the plot completely does away with the need for suspension-of-disbelief, of course, which would be virtually impossible as long as a film incorporates fictional concepts in a real-world-based narrative. In the pursuit to unravel a consistent plotline in Tenet, one must realize that ultimately this isn't a scientific research thesis but a fiction feature, and it would be silly to expect the former's rigorousness within the latter, especially when dealing with the physically-impossible concept of reversion of entropy.

Of course, it could be argued that Nolan could simply have not attempted to make such a compressed and puzzling film, one that deliberately hijacks a host of modern filmmaking techniques to always stay a step ahead of the viewer's speed of perception. But the simple fact of the matter is that, in order to be easily digestible like most other mainstream fares, Tenet would either have to be a film of greatly-reduced complexity, or one that's edited much slower (and containing far more exposition) to allow the audience to catch up at every turn. The former route would result in just another dumbed-down spy thriller, just another pointless addition to the heap that's already formed, while the latter would result in a film running up to 4-5 hours in length at least which, as anybody would agree, would be unthinkable if Tenet is to be marketed within the same mainstream industry and command such a towering budget. Not to mention that a more relaxed pace would have been unable to communicate the tension and sense of urgency that drives the film and feels characteristic of a doomsday operation. Better, in my opinion, to have a film that's taut and fits within the conventional format necessary to find its budget, and which rewards those viewers who choose to indulge its idiosyncrasies and toil with its mysteries.

Which finally brings us to the issues of indulgence, and of audience expectations and how they bear on Tenet. This is the point where I can generalize no longer and must speak for, and only for, myself. Because it is ultimately up to every individual to decide for themselves how they wish to engage with a movie, how much work they're willing to put in, how long they're willing to suspend their need for instant gratification, and whether they believe it will be worth it in the end. Some may outright refuse to even entertain the possibility that a commercial thriller could require such work and, thereby, feel rewarding in unexpected ways. And you can hardly blame them when such philosophy is propagated every single day by the commercial film industry, by continuing to finance films that require as little effort as possible from their viewers. For me, no matter which film or filmmaker, having to put in some effort to reach any work of art has never been an unwelcome idea, as long as that effort feels justified by the results reaped in the end.

And as far as Tenet is concerned, the result most certainly was worth the effort, once I earned the privilege of getting to "feel" the movie in one fell swoop, with the burden of "understanding" lifted. Maybe it is 'flawed' with a few awkwardly-placed dialogues and the complex nature of the narrative deeming some exposition inevitable, and there's exactly one plot-point that can't seem to avoid running into paradoxes, but I'm perfectly okay with a visionary project being so, because the goal here certainly transcends commonplace concerns of being polished, prim and proper. In fact, I might even say that it isn't possible to simultaneously be completely 'flawless' and also significantly transcend artistic boundaries. This is because the condition of being 'flawless' implies every aspect of an artistic creation being 'what it should be', which is an impressive achievement but still ultimately rooted in conforming to the pre-existing boundaries of art, the same boundaries that delimit 'what should be' from 'what shouldn't be'. Therefore, every time an artist experiments and attempts to break free from the confines this 'what should be' boundary, they risk having the results of their efforts be perceived as 'what shouldn't be' just by virtue of them not being part of the status-quo (yet). When the goal is to break new ground and demolish pre-existing modes of thought, old laws can no longer be used to predict or recognize success and failure, and an out-of-the-box experiment can only be evaluated in retrospect through the new laws that arise from the said experiment.

When D.W. Griffith decided to use a close-up for the first time, he was met with objections as silly as: "The public doesn't pay for the head or the arms or the shoulders of the actor. They want the whole body. Let's give them their money's worth." When a jump-cut was used for the first time in a narrative film, people and critics similarly protested what seemed like 'erratic' editing that violated sacred notions of narrative and spatial continuity. When Lav Diaz kept making features that regularly went up to 9-to-11 hours in duration, featuring static frames that lasted up to an hour sometimes, he also faced rejection from an audience-base who could only imagine films being much shorter, much faster and showing only what's necessary for plot progression. The ultimate mission of any artist, whether or not they choose to accept it, has always been to force viewers to re-imagine the possibilities of their engagement with works of art and, thus, with human consciousness at large.

And Tenet, in my view at least, is a revolutionary experiment of building 'meaning' by involving the human viewer's intellect to previously-unimaginable degrees, from narrative material arranged in a manner to aid feeling at the cost of hindering understanding, operating with the confidence (or hope) that the dedicated viewer's urge to understand will still trump the sheer difficulty of it. Therefore, Nolan's promotional catchphrase "Don't try to understand it, feel it" feels like a triple-bluff in retrospect, wherein he intends that his viewer put in the work necessary to take away the obstacle of understanding (and not abandon understanding altogether), to be able to 'feel' the movie as it plays out in realtime. The result being that the 'author' of the final fully-unravelled Tenet experience seems to be not just Christopher Nolan, but also the viewers themselves.

An attempt of this sort is near-suicidal in the mainstream big-budget entertainment industry (and Tenet is most certainly firmly-situated within this sphere), which generally tries to entertain by making the viewer do as little work as possible or, in rare cases, by presenting small narrative puzzles that are easily resolved by the plotting itself. Tenet, meanwhile, decidedly risks alienating a major section of the mainstream audience by demanding such a huge price for entertainment, in a world where cheap sources of the same are proliferating, a price that goes beyond the cost of tickets and includes the viewer's precious time, effort and willingness to suspend gratification. And for that, I admire and am thankful to Christopher Nolan. Generally, the filmmakers who dare to demand such extreme indulgence from audiences for their personal passion-projects, don't happen to command $200 million budgets or cast A-list actors or care much for crafting entertainment. They often end up being independent workers, operating at or beyond the peripheries of movie industries, ignored by the greatest mass of film viewers and only finding recognition at festivals.

With Tenet, Nolan shows us that it is still possible to find such boldness, such sheer-commitment to an idiosyncratic idea, such revolutionary form, within the sphere of big-budget Hollywood blockbusters, without having to make concessions for the casual viewer repulsed by the idea of a movie demanding patience and effort. And if it means that Tenet fails to find the expected immediate popular or critical acclaim, so be it. Being faithful to one's vision is so much more important than conforming to pre-established 'standards of quality', as when it comes to art and artists, integrity always trumps perfection. As Cyril Connolly puts it:

"Better to write for yourself and have no public, than to write for the public and have no self."

Time, and only time, will tell whether Tenet can inspire future big-budget mainstream projects to dare to be so original and uncompromising in their pursuit of an entertaining experience, to help create a generation of viewers that demand more from cash-strapped studios than just rehashed formulaic theme-park rides. Which is merely an expression of faith in the mechanics of the world, a world ready to reject the radical at the first hint of non-conformity, where there can be one and only one possible judge of difficult auteurs, genuine experimenters and visionary artists.

Posterity.

[P.S.- This diary entry will stay unrated due to the same reasons why other entries like The Image Book or The Haunting of Bly Manor were logged unrated. Because assigning a rating, any rating at all, implies a relative-positioning within the framework of past film-experiences. And once in a blue moon, there comes along an experience that resists categorization within any pre-existing framework at all.]

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