Tenet

Tenet ★★

Almost a year later, and the distance allows me to clarify a few things for myself. There's a way in which this is a tremendously easy film to hate, and Nolan himself invites this all the more with his personal, greedy irresponsibility with the release of this film. At the same time, its unambiguous failure last year does little but confirm one the one hand the Netflix-HBO Max view - that is, the shareholder's view - of the fiscal improbability of the theatrical experience, which itself isn't so lamentable to me as is the way the absence of this reshapes the creative priorities of the studios for the worse and hence why both of their releases become more and more unwatchable; and on the other, very briefly, Disney's revival of a factory system in which individual creative talent is an outright impossibility and regarded as a great financial risk to be micromanaged with as short a leash as possible. The general implausibility of a film like this, at this budget, with this great an audience (at least in principle), taking these risks - at the very least, trying something - is something I do sincerely admire at least for its unlikeliness.

All the same, I only know how to say what I hate about it, and lack the language for anything else. When I wrote about it last year, I was too speculative and also too unspecific so let me now focus on two extremely specific elements in the film that may as well pass as creative synecdoches for the film as a whole. (1) I hate the tracking shots in this film. The one that stands out especially is I believe the second encounter between Priya and the Protagonist, where they walk along some columns not unlike something out of Inception. (2) I find the way he cuts dialogue to be terrible, almost unwatchable. (Unlike the tracking shots, which I noted with frustration during my first watch, this aspect I completely missed.) The scene between the Protagonist and Michael Caine at lunch is the worst offender, with the scene between him and Priya just before the final military operation also demonstrating the point: lacking any sound bridge, each actor is basically given a series of singles to bark one line at a time, with Nolan stuck having to cut from each to each independent of the actual dramatic pace of the scene. In fact, these two objections are really expressive of the same issue. If I say Nolan is too much an engineer, this would suggest the term was in itself pejorative when, in fact, so many great artists of the cinema (Eisenstein, Hitchcock, etc.) started out this way. So it is not that he is an engineer that is the problem, but that he only sees the hydraulics and has little to say about the stuff to which they are applied. This problem is very clearly worse in Dunkirk, which is at any rate more prepared to announce itself as a series of converging exercises in elementary film form à la Biograph circa 1908. But if it is more frustrating here, it is perhaps because "the stuff" - is it even possible from the scenario to be more specific than this? - would seem to aspire to more. There's a sense in which the limited information given to animate Dunkirk is still sufficient for it to be gripping, the Tom Hardy plot especially. But again it isn't so much that there is not enough information given or that it's too sparse, which is hardly a problem for me. And, at any rate, there are details. But, for lack of a better way of putting it, they are details in name only. That is to say, it is the name itself - Mumbai, Oslo, etc. - that carries the weight. It is reduced not in specificity but in quality, in intensity. What stands out seeing it now, in fuller definition, is that for all the beauty of the film's locations, it remains profoundly flat and technical - never not technical. I wrote before and would argue still that Nolan is rarely capable of an interesting image that can stand on its own. For a film that appears so free form, and on paper very likely is, it is striking to me that none of its pieces, no frame, could hold up to scrutiny apart from its place within the whole, containing ideas particular to it. Nolan would rather it stay put together, which is fine. But it feels flat and empty. That's all I was left wanting to say.

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