Tenet ★½

Writing in 'Cinema 2: The Time-Image', Gilles Deleuze observes of Ozu's Late Spring and A Story of Floating Weeds that, in each film,

[t]he bicycle, the vase and the still lifes are the pure and direct images of time. Each is time, on each occasion, under various conditions of that which changes in time. Time is the full, that is, the unalterable form filled by change. (17)

Which is to say that time is chiefly the encompasser of the human drama, felt in the changing of the world that it subsumes, "for everything that changes is in time". However, vitally, it must be emphasised, as Deleuze is alert to, that "time does not itself change, it could itself change only in another time, indefinitely". "Another time" — the possibilities of which are perhaps best expressed in questions related to modern cinema and its innovation of the time-image: "what are the new forces at work in the image, and the new signs invading the screen?" (271)

In this regard, what of Tenet and, indeed, Christopher Nolan? Beyond the moral assessment (i.e. the film is "art" for the futures market) or scrutiny of the ideology (i.e. Nolan is the business of manufacturing consent for elites through overcomplicated expository drivel that makes the notion at the centre of the thing go down easier), watching a film like Tenet play with time is much the same experience as one may find observing Richard Dawkins write a poem or Neil deGrasse Tyson a haiku. It would be entertaining in an anthropological sense, but the results would be at best unremarkable and at worst worthy of open scorn. Nolan's is a brute materialist cinema par excellence, and one beholden to every worst instinct associated with such a worldview. Time is not a determinist trap, it is not a recursive cycle to fast-forward and rewind, it is that which incorporates the moment to moment progression of everything seen as lost and gained in the change of the universe. What has happened has happened, yet we all know that we discard a great many things to become who we are, never mind maintain basic functionality — it might be right to conjecture this as the personalisation of making "another time".

At any rate, what is cinema but "another time" machine that courts "new forces" and "new signs" — each of which Tenet hopelessly lacks. Indeed, it may be fair to characterise it as vitriolically opposed to novelty as such. It is numerical cinema, an accumulation of discrete, countable units of movement forward and back. There is no time here because there is no change, and there is no change because there is only aggregation of movement — cinema as vulgar temporal jigsaw puzzle, linking shots to shots and movement to movement, but never time to change and all that changes in it. Or,

the movement-image gives rise to an image of time which is distinguished from it by excess or default, over or under the present as empirical progression: in this case, time is no longer measured by movement, but is itself the number or measure of movement (metaphysical representation). This number in turn has two aspects, which we saw in the first volume: it is the minimum unity of time as interval of movement or the totality of time as maximum of movement in the universe. The subtle and the sublime. But, from either aspect, time is distinguished in this way from movement only as indirect representation. Time as progression derives from the movement-image or from successive shots. But time as unity or as totality depends on montage which still relates it back to movement or to the succession of shots. This is why the movement-image is fundamentally linked to an indirect representation of time, and does not give us a direct presentation of it, that is, does not give us a time-image. (271)

Nolan has certainly studied the masters of the past but he has understood none of the lessons worth deriving from such study — which is to say, pushing the horizon of what both time and an image can do. Such a notion would not occur to Nolan, for whom facts stated are a subtitute for knowledge in a deep sense. Playing with time is, here, a challenge to go through the same river twice and find the mechanics of the universe fundamentally unalterable, missing that time is not a container of quantitative actions but all differences in themselves — differences that are not merely ontological but emotional, for the river is never entered twice not just because of the river; the one who enters is never the same: sameness is always different as much as difference same. This is to say, there is no time in Tenet, there is additional and subtractive movement happening in time, but time as form remains unplumbed. And in this way, while Nolan has now established, over the course of his career, a proven track record of being morally repugnant, philosophically ignorant, and filmically redundant; it is in Tenet that he is most explicitly all three at once and openly refuses — like the mechanical time of his film — change in every sense.

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