Chris as Kant: In the New Normal, a director dares challenge the viewing public with his new film
Last Friday, hamstrung yet again by a habit I can’t seem to kick: searching, clicking, curs(or)ing, and just generally meandering along the internet’s infinite expanse—an infinite expanse that, of course, means about three or four sites, or Twitter accounts, that I refresh incessantly—I stumbled upon a notice that a local movie theater had opened back up for business.
Like a cartoon poof of smoke, I was out the door, running the two miles to this box office, which I found staffed by two workers. I asked for a ticket to Tenet, in IMAX, and like Charlie, ran back home clutching my Golden Ticket lest local regulators swoop in and take it away from me in the name of the latest lockdown legislation.
So many blips that could have spelt happiness have been disallowed since mid-March, so I figured I’d play it safe and pounce upon the nearest available (weekday) showing. Monday at 1 p.m. it would be.
This wasn’t my go-to IMAX theater in the city, but given that that particular complex has yet to open—though it’s less than 10 miles away from the one I chose for Monday, it’s officially part of a different “city”, so, you know, logistics. Anyhow, it felt fitting I would see this latest Christopher Nolan film on the biggest of screens. (Though to be honest, this was more of an IMAX-mini.)
Since Batman Begins, I’ve seen every new Nolan film, save for The Prestige, in IMAX, often on or around opening day. A 3:30 a.m. showing of The Dark Knight, on opening night, remains a personal highlight. These felt like pilgrimages. Formative experience. For Dark Knight Rises, I walked two hours to get to the downtown IMAX theater for a showing on its opening morning. I downed two large coffees along the way, intent that my senses be calibrated to the utmost to take it all in.
I spent the final forty minutes of that film doing a little dance and praying I could make it out of the theater to pee.
These days, it’s hard for me to feel this same excitement for any film—like so many things that diminish in importance as you traverse the path of adulthood, it just seems like something you shed along the way—but as a kind of middle-fingered salute to the solitude and solipsism I’d felt in recent months, I tried my best to work myself up into a bit of a frenzy.
Frenzy would prove an apt description for what Tenet would do to me.
Once I’d returned home from the sparsely-crowded theater, dazed and bemused, I went barreling down internet rabbit holes to try and make some semblance of sense about Tenet. The most rewarding vein I found came courtesy of Cinema Blend and The Guardian, the first two (Spoilers!) a carving up of key plot points, and a look the science behind the film’s plot structure. Then, in The Guardian, a no-holds-barred heaping of praise bestowed upon it. That excitement proved infectious. It worked me back into what I’d been feeling in the theater.
By the time it was over, I reeled out into sunlight unsure of what I’d just witnessed. It felt eerily reminiscent to Hugh Jackman’s character in The Prestige, coming home after witnessing Borden’s Disappearing Man. Sinking into a seat, asked by his mistress, effectively, if he’d seen a ghost, Jackman is able only to choke out, It was the greatest magic trick I’ve ever seen.
I feel like this after every new Nolan film I see. It might be an image, or a sublime sequence, or simply a bit of philosophy that sticks with me. It never feels repetitive—emblematic of the ethos Nolan first laid down in The Prestige, when Christian Bale’s Borden informs us that a real magician tries something new.
What could be more welcoming, in this age of the Soft Reboot, when every film franchise is resuscitated on a diet of market research and audience pandering? There is something remarkable in Nolan’s steadfast resolve to keep pushing the boundaries of his chosen medium—most notably, through his fascination of space and time. It feels like Jack White’s song Corporation: a Nolan film is a call to the audience. Who’s with me!?!
Like any good teacher, this excitement for taking us on a journey is infectious, and the gantlet laid down early on in Tenet is perfect for a cinema-goer making his way back to theaters after all these months of lockdown. Don’t worry about understanding it; at least on first viewing. Just go with the flow and let it sweep you along.
My first instinct, upon leaving the theater on Monday afternoon, was to buy another ticket and see it again. This is my chosen rubric for rating films—set two years ago when, during a lazy day in Salt Lake City, I killed time before a flight home by going to see You Were Never Really Here.
There was something about Lynne Ramsay’s latest film that stuck in my craw. Images seared in the mind, like a spectral figure, underwater, in white. Contrast that experience with Avengers: Infinity War, which I’d seen a few days before Never Really Here.
I also stumbled out of the theater on that occasion, not in staggered disbelief but anger that I’d sat through such an incomprehensible mess. For the first time in my life, I wished I’d worked up the nerve to stalk out after ten minutes and demand a refund. I gained nothing from the experience. Sure, cinema can be explained away as entertainment, diversion.
But we’re bombarded with mindless entertainment these days. Cinema may have served that purpose in its infancy, but amidst the endless stream of GREAT TV, why not focus upon providing something different?
The artist, wrote Kant, does not follow rules. He invents new ones. As Roger Scruton wrote in The Ring of Truth, a treatise on Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung:
“Hence, every true work of art is a departure from the natural order. Paradoxically, however, it can succeed as art only if it appears to be wholly natural, governed by an internal order that creates unity and harmony among its parts. Genius is the faculty through which ‘nature gives a rule to art’ — in other words, through which the original and rule-denying character of art is made to appear natural and rule-guided.” (p. 48–49)
Or it could be described as Belmondo-as-Ferdinand in Pierrot le Fou, musing amidst a serene sea setting upon the artist’s role in society, and landing upon the idea that it is always possible to push the envelope that little bit further. On peut toujours faire mieux.
This is where Tenet flies into view, with a heady dose of societal critique along with some mind-bending advancements in content and form. It does not ask our permission before launching into the tale it wants to tell us. It is content in knowing that those who are willing will come along for the ride.
I don’t want to give too much of the plot away, but the story hinges upon the revelation that at some time in the future, with the oceans rising and the land on fire, scientists searched for a way to prevent the disaster they found themselves facing. They were successful, but to the scientist responsible for this breakthrough of Manhattan Project proportions, it was deemed too terrifying in its potential ramifications. The answer, then, was to scatter the answer somewhere it would not be found.
For all the ways Tenet mushes your mind, there is a vital question that is posed from the outset: in many ways it is a rallying call for our present predicament. One can fully imagine future scientists asking, as they scramble to save the planet, just what the hell were their forebears doing while the world began burning before their very eyes? There was so much they could have done to work together and find a practical solution.
But where Tenet could have devolved into melodrama, a spoon-fed propaganda session on the level of Thanos-snaps-his-fingers-look-global-warming-is-bad-let’s-depopulate-the-earth-mmkay, that’s never been Nolan’s ethos. He presents problems with a detached perspective, like a scientist should. Rather than lambast us with a How dare you, he invites us into a tale, through which we might join together. The fate of all is at hand. So we ask ourselves: what are we doing, in this age, to better our situation? It is a question we should be fulminating over on an individual level.
No matter how labyrinthine Nolan’s plots, or how intense the action, his stories evolve organically from simple kernels of truth. With that kind of bedrock, you’re entitled to take a tale in whatever direction you see fit.
For all of Tenet’s twists and turns, it’s greatest gift might be the stubborn resolve Nolan has showed that it be seen in theaters, on a big screen, as it was intended. It has been depressing to read of people wondering if we’ll ever go back to theaters once this COVID thing is done. Why go to all that effort when you can just order something onto your TV at home?
But as Matthew McConaughey mused in Interstellar, we’re born explorers—a theme revisited in a tchotchke found on a boat in Tenet. I believe I’m misquoting, but it reads something along the lines of “A ship is safe in harbour, but ships were not built to be safe.”
So much of what once was accepted as our daily reality has been discarded in these past six months. Look at how society has changed, human interaction especially, since the introduction of the iPhone in 2007. It follows that people would think we can just change whatever we want on a whim at an advanced speed setting, and presto voila we’ll reach a new kind of nirvana.
Whatever happens, and wherever life goes in the coming weeks, months, and years, I will remain thankful that Christopher Nolan exists. I will look back fondly on sitting in that packed theater for Dark Knight, gasping along with thousands of others as we were thrown into that opening shot, up above the city, approaching a building at speed. Or the collective groan at the end of Inception, with that sharp cut to black.
It is hard to explain what makes it worthwhile to huff it to a theater. But those gasps, groans, and outright cheering at the wonderful things a master is capable of putting on a silver screen say enough, I think. I just hope we keep getting the chance.
The return to the theater, now, felt for a moment like the hobbits returning to the Shire at the end of their great journey in the Return of the King film. It seems the same; they, after their long journey, are different. Frodo quickly learns that there is no home left for him here.
I found myself rusty in my ability as an audience member. I wondered, if like Frodo, whether I am still at home in the Dark of the Matinee. There came a point, in fact it was almost exactly at the film’s pivot (you’ll have to see it to understand the boomerang) that I felt like my mind would explode. I had to check out for a few seconds before returning to the fray. But I stuck it out, and was glad I did so.
The audience was muted throughout the film’s running time, save for a … fun exchange after the Travis Scott music video that preceded the proceedings. A man sitting to my left objected to its inclusion, while two kids to my right couldn’t get enough of it. Meanwhile, there was me in the middle, ready to get lost in the Dream.
It was not a perfect re-entry, but I felt the promise it portended. God willing, we’ll get there.