The Joys of Not Understanding Tenet

Some films seduce, winning you over slowly and languidly despite your best efforts to resist. Others simply open up beneath you and swallow you whole. Christopher Nolan has made both kinds of films in the past — The Dark Knight (2008) an instant blaze of pyrotechnical splendour, Following (1988) a slower burn — but never have I felt quite so entirely swallowed up as I did watching Tenet for the first time. But then, the film is centred around a Protagonist (John David Washington) who seems to unthinkingly fall prey to the convolutions of the world around him. Consider: when it is discovered that someone or something in the future is inverting the entropy of objects — making them run backwards through time instead of forwards — our Protagonist is tasked with manoeuvring through the dark corners of clandestine arms dealing and plutonium mining in order to prevent the assembly of a deadly algorithm which will irreversibly, and apocalyptically, invert the world’s entropy. Get it? No? Neither does he; he just stumbles into this story, somewhere between Kyiv and Mumbai. And one can reasonably expect the viewer to go through the same bewildering experience. We fall through the same trapdoors he does, and sympathise with his vulnerability and initial lack of agency. Yet it is the speed at which one is felled by its power which is the astounding part; I lasted all of 45 seconds. And then I was in, and it was overwhelming, and nothing else mattered.

This experience of total immersion is rare, and only the best filmmakers can pull it off. The true masters take their fiction and wield it so adroitly that one simply cannot believe it’s a fake — one thinks of films like There Will Be Blood (2007), or Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). It is not quite an experience of total belief, but the absence of disbelief, a preternatural willingness to just go along with it; impossible to pin down and completely delightful. Fun in the cinema can sometimes arrive to us in mysterious ways, and best of all is when the film feels so beyond reach that one has no choice but to submit, or else get up and leave. This is the experience of Tenet, a film so visually stunning — it contains at least three or four feats which are amongst the most spectacular I have ever witnessed on a cinema screen — and theoretically daring that by the end credits I was breathless and sticky with sweat.

But I cannot pretend that the first time around I, in conventional terms, “got it.” This was the question that I was repeatedly asked by friends when I told them I’d seen Tenet: “Did you get it?” In the name of honesty I had to come clean and admit that the film’s narrative had lost me somewhere in Oslo, with about 40 minutes left of its run time. This is not to say I cared that I felt left behind — far from it — but the repeated questioning did spark a curiosity within me, a premonition that the experience, which had at first felt utterly complete, still held something to offer me that I’d left on the table. What bothered me most about this nagging suspicion was not the novelty, but instead its predictability. In the same way that we go to famous art galleries and ask each other if we “get” the Miró pieces, film is susceptible to that same academic contrivance: the importance of understanding. The more educated about art we become, the more we try to look for the hidden meaning, connect the dots, intellectualise. The mist will never clear until we feel we understand the artwork’s true nature. Somewhere behind this fog lies the pure and unadulterated experience of art, playing out solely on the level of instinct and emotion. Perhaps, then, it is fortuitous that Tenet has come along, ready to teach us, in its own thunderous way, to more viscerally live our art.

Still from Tenet.

Ambiguity and cinema

In his essay ‘Everybody’s Protest Novel’, James Baldwin, an author ever-aware of the irreducibility of the human condition, expresses an attitude about his fellow man which at once astounds in its frankness and conquers in its compassion. Man, he writes, is “something resolutely indefinable, unpredictable. In overlooking, denying, evading his complexity — which is nothing more than the disquieting complexity of ourselves — we are diminished and we perish; only within this web of ambiguity, paradox, this hunger, danger, darkness, can we find at once ourselves and the power that will free us from ourselves.”

If we accept that art is a fiction whose aim is to most fully express the human condition, then it stands to reason that the greatest artists will be those who most completely comprehend the imperfections of their fellow man. In such terms, Baldwin is undoubtedly a great artist. But he is also working with the written word, a form that lends itself to ambiguities more than its counterparts. Nabokov once said that “to call a story a true story is an insult to both art and truth…every great writer is a great deceiver”. Literature is a psychological art form and, given how mysterious the brain remains to us still, it is not so unreasonable that it is full of lies, omissions, symbolisms, and vagueness.

Considering cinema for a moment, I’m not sure that Nabokov’s claim can be appropriated to other forms. Is every great filmmaker a great deceiver? I do not think so. They are only deceivers to the extent that they are using technical manipulation — make-up, visual effects, sound, and crafty editing — to give to an artifice the appearance of reality. But I don’t believe this is what Nabokov meant; he was not talking about world-building, but rather about what narratives we consider true and honest in our lives. This disconnect between forms is in part because films do not express themselves through first-person narrative in any equivalent way to books — that is entirely a literary construction, and it is an argument for what the different art forms can achieve. Theatre creates visual bombast; music generates nostalgia; and great writing communicates the subjectivity inherent in storytelling.

None of this, however, is to say that an awareness of subjectivity, of human ambiguity, has no place in cinema. When we express ourselves, we give incomplete versions; we omit; we lie, sometimes without knowing it. We give fragments. Our stories, if properly examined, are incoherent and at times indecipherable. I am a Nabokovian: I want my artist to understand the deceptive manoeuvres they’re undertaking. Artists who think they’re giving me the “true” version of a story make me nauseous. Great films, for me, know that they’re just that — films — and never try to overstep their boundaries. They accept the rules of their game and exploit them to create something wonderful. This feels honest to me. Humans are fallible and solipsistic, and so I want art that reflects that — as Camus puts it, art “on the human scale.”

All of this is abstract, and I understand if it strikes the reader as immaterial. To the confused reader, I say: watch a David Lynch movie. Perhaps it is a kind of truism that one cannot really understand how humans tell stories until one watches a movie like Mulholland Drive (2001), which is complex and demonically absurd and completely, utterly revelatory. It was a cold night in June when I first watched it, and I felt goosebumps by the end and knew it had nothing to do with the chill outside. I must admit that once I arrived at the credits, I thought to myself that, much like Tenet, I simply hadn’t “got it.” That I’d missed my chance to get anything out of the film because it had dropped me off the back of the van and sped away into the night.

What I understood only upon deep reflection was that I had spent the first half hour of the film not thinking about what to look for, but trying to figure out how to watch the movie. This is a key distinction, mainly because it necessitates a complete reversal of the customary, conditioned method of movie watching: you sit, you gaze, you take in the plot information you’re given, you follow along, you learn about the main character and empathise with them, you live their battles alongside them, and then you experience the same catharsis that they do. Well, not with David Lynch, who asks something radically different of his viewer: namely, a total re-orientation. He’s not looking for understanding. He’s looking for immersion, conviction, honesty in deception, humanity in fragmentation.

Put in rather facile terms, you cannot try and make sense of Mulholland Drive because if you do David Lynch will not allow you to enjoy the film. It is not hard to find the Reddit forums in which cinephiles and ardent Lynch fans try to put the puzzle pieces together, unravel the mess of Betty and Rita’s lives. This kind of exercise indicates that the film, which is intrinsically too far beyond comprehension as an abstract artwork, must therefore be dismantled and reassembled on more reductive terms in order to be accessed. This is clearly a disservice to both the film singularly and art more broadly. The same reasoning also stands true for a film like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1969), whose experiential nature is so wholehearted and so beguiling that to watch it on any level other than viscerally is to completely miss the point. Sometimes it’s just plain futile to want our art to “make sense.” 

In his book The Meaning of Art, critic Herbert Read argues that art “is not present in thought, but in feeling; it is a symbol rather than a direct statement of truth. That is why the deliberate analysis of a work of art… cannot in itself lead to the pleasure to be derived from that work of art. Such pleasure is a direct communication from the work of art as a whole.” With cinema this is an especial problem; something about literal moving images indicates to us that we need to rationalise them, if only because it feels within reach. The issue is that we sometimes fool ourselves into thinking we need that deliberate analysis in order to derive something substantive from the film. If only we were able to take a step back, view the film as a holistic experience, and feel it enter into us.

Still from Tenet.

Nolan’s obsessions

What sets Christopher Nolan squarely in the framework of this discussion is his persistence in attempting to make something material out of the abstract. Who else shoulders with such ease the responsibilities of being both a pop cinema auteur and epistemology and metaphysics aficionado? His predilection for mega-scale thinking is unmatched, and this informs not only the aesthetic sensibility of his films but also their theoretical and narrative ambitions. Nolan has consistently demonstrated an uncanny ability to render accessible some of the most complicated metaphysical concepts cinema has ever been tasked with approaching. The common themes of his oeuvre — time, memory, human contradiction, nostalgia, physics, and epistemology — do not ordinarily manifest in the physical world, much less in a form communicable to and digestible for a mass audience. The memory tesseract sequence in Interstellar (2014), in which memory becomes a four-dimensional space through which the protagonist can float at will, is the prime example of Nolan’s particular skill. Memento (2000) and Inception (2010) are also notably rich with similar moments; genius recognises no barriers too overwhelming to prevent the vision being achieved.

Nolan’s interest in the beyond-rational is, for the viewer of Tenet, instructive, for the film appears perhaps the grandest and most rigorously theoretical of Nolan’s ideas. Certainly the scale is unmatched: Nolan is here at the peak of his visual powers, achieving feats of spectacle unseen anywhere else. A building reassembled in backwards-time just as it gets exploded in forward-time? Bungee-jumping onto the side of a building before scaling it on-foot Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon-style? Driving a 747 into a high-security airport warehouse? Um, yes, that happened, and it was glorious. And yet, something about the film exceeds the sheerly spectacular. Tenet truly is the apotheosis of the Nolan filmography, a melding of the explorations of memory in Memento , the irrational and irreducible in The Prestige (2006), the transcendence of love and time in Inception, space-time in Interstellar, and the limits of human action and vulnerability in Dunkirk (2017). The themes are much the same, but they are couched in a narrative so mired in convolution and opacity that even the most seasoned Nolanite might be a little overawed. For example, the ‘temporal pincer movement’ — two teams attacking the same target, with one moving back in time and one moving forward — is confusing as hell, and after seeing the film a second time I’m still not quite sure I understand it.

This minor detail aside, it goes without saying that, perhaps beside Inception, none of Nolan’s other movies benefit from a second viewing as much as Tenet does. Not everything crystallises. Minute aspects of the plot remain mysterious, as do some of the concepts — the opening sequence, although among the most thrilling of Nolan’s career, is strangely inconclusive. But the experience, for me, was more complete, less driven by jaw-dropping spectacle than by the enrichment derived from getting a grasp on the story in advance, so that you have the luxury of enjoying some of the sequences without fearing you’ll get left behind if you’re too lax. Also, good sound is a must.

What is most interesting about this film is certainly its obscurity. The performances are indicative of this. Everybody, it seems, is directed to play the fool, including our Protagonist and his will-they-won’t-they love interest Kat (Elizabeth Debicki), who are both propelled through the narrative without any real control or agency. Meanwhile, the two characters who have the strongest grasp on the rules of Tenet’s world — Sator (Kenneth Branagh) and Neil (Robert Pattinson)­ — are the hooks onto which we latch, the understandable and consistent in a world populated by otherwise unassured and tentative agents. This sense of disorientation is also reflected by Hoyte van Hoytema’s wonderful cinematography, which thrusts the audience through scenes in a kind of perpetual movement, never quite sure of whether the camera is zooming in or out, rolling forwards or backwards, clockwise or anti-clockwise. This is evident from the very first scene, in which the Protagonist undertakes an undercover mission in order to seize a mysterious asset. Careful and methodical dolly shots, reminiscent of Deakins, raise the tension before an explosion of motion whips the scene into an exhilarating frenzy.

The film is a whirlwind of reverse entropy, time-shifting turnstiles, dual-temporal action sequences, hidden motives, and restless cinematography and editing. It is not impenetrable in the way Mulholland Drive is, but it’s still confounding. Perhaps perfunctorily, Nolan allows for a reorientation period. This is possibly the ultimate point of the opening Kyiv Opera House sequence; nothing to do with story, everything to do with understanding the rules of the game, with getting your bearings, with engrossing the audience. It is followed by the inevitable expository scene featuring Clémence Poésy as Barbara, a scientist researching reverse-entropy objects found scattered across the world. But not all can be explained in a three-minute scene, and with the eventual piling-on of new ideas and systems, the viewer is left very little room to move. Try to catch the two birds in the bush and you might get punished. This was partially my experience the first time around: the final half-hour sequence in the abandoned Soviet town was just a little much.

Yet a great filmmaker believes in his audience, and amongst all that we can say about Christopher Nolan, we cannot fault him for not believing in us. He has reliably demonstrated a disinclination to talk down to us — he is even so brazen as to call Tenet, rather amusingly, a “classic spy story.” Instead, he trusts us to get enough of it to follow along, and indeed trusts himself to deliver on the eye-popping sequences for which people flock to the cinema to see his films. Pauline Kael, the renowned critic, noted this crucial aspect of great filmmakers in her 1974 essay ‘On the Future of Movies’: “Perhaps no work of art is possible without belief in the audience, the kind of belief that […] comes out of the individual artist’s absolute conviction that only the best he can do is fit to be offered to others.”

Tenet has that “absolute conviction,” and it is astounding in part for that very reason. It has a fearlessness and complexity which speaks to a mind working on an obsessively deep level. And it is a kind of pure pleasure to be taken along for the ride. We don’t have to get everything to find something meaningful in it. Sometimes the most ambiguous, which is to say inexplicit, experiences are the ones which are the most explicitly instructive. Tenet is not an intentionally didactic movie, but it certainly does teach us just that: the necessity to sometimes let go, to leave behind our compulsion to rationalise, and to experience art on an ulterior wavelength. In the aforementioned explainer scene, as the Protagonist gawks at unshooting a bullet and undropping a piece of metal, Barbara grows weary at his perplexity and protestations. “Don’t try to understand it,” she stresses. “Feel it.”

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Elroy Rosenberg is a writer (read: louche layabout) based in Melbourne, with a degree in Creative Writing from the University of Melbourne. His work has been published by The Dog Door Cultural, Almost Real, and Melbourne University’s Turn It In Journal. elroyrosenberg.com

Elroy Rosenberg

Elroy Rosenberg is a writer (read: louche layabout) based in Melbourne, with a degree in Creative Writing from the University of Melbourne. His work has been published by The Dog Door Cultural, Almost Real, and Melbourne University’s Turn It In Journal. elroyrosenberg.com