Tenet ★★½

When teaching film, an old friend of mine would show two separate scenes and have his students explain to him what was happening. The scenes he would show were from Alfred Hitchcock's North by Northwest and Christopher Nolan's Inception. The trick was that both scenes would be completely silent. And the point was that a film can be so smart with how it conveyed and revealed information, that even when the sound is removed, a story can still be told. North by Northwest, even without sound, would be described in detail by his students, from the logic of its situation to the motivation of its characters. Inception didn't fare so well.

That exercise can only go so far, but it does reveal quite a lot about how information is considered by the filmmaker. A more limited director can only convey ideas through dialogue. A deliberate choice can still be made to reveal information through sound, but the distinction of stylistic choices by a good director and the outright limitations of a bad director is usually pretty obvious. If you can't compel yourself to consider the visual component of your work in relation to its content, don't make movies. Write a novel.

Christopher Nolan can't make any use out of his images. Christopher Nolan can't even make use of his words. His characters speak in grandiose deadpan ambiguity, filling the audience in without really saying much of anything. Nolan considers the logic of action more than he considers the choice to have it at all. Mistimed, awkwardly handled, and absolutely lost on how tone can be reflected in any way whatsoever. Robotic filmmaking, but in an uncanny valley that barely even resembles a coherent story structure, let alone acts as one.

The Tarkovsky mentality about "sculpting in time" applies in abysmal cases like Tenet. Each shot is a unit of time, almost like its own self-contained moment, to which shorter and longer cuts work to different effects ultimately to serve the broader picture. But you have to justify those cuts for the bigger picture to fit together at all. A shot should reveal information or serve a role to the film when added.

Every single scene in Tenet is visually redundant and structurally chaotic. I don't think I know of any other director in the modern-day mainstream with as much gross impatience as Nolan. When dynamics are formed between characters in a visual way, or motives are created, or feelings are conveyed, they feel accidental. And they are always always always the exception to scenes that were only made because they had to be, and not because Nolan himself had any unique angle on how to construct them. Each shot is an empty idea that only serves to prove, when added to the bigger picture, that Nolan had too many chances to explain himself without sounding like an eighth grade poet with stagefright. Tenet isn't burdened by the chaos of so much information. The confusion of Tenet represents the mismanagement of where and how that information is revealed to the viewer.

Nolan botches his own product yet again. Despite his many talents as a filmmaker, he has dug his own grave and won't let himself climb out. And to the persistent praise of critics and fans, I don't know why he would. I just think it's a shame. A fun film to explain to friends, or to rearrange in your own mind to meet the basic standards that Nolan doesn't care to meet. Too much of Tenet fascinates me to dismiss it completely, but if anything crushes me more than a bad film, it is a ruined one.

The difference between a good director, a bad director, and Christopher Nolan, is how they would direct a film like Tenet. A good director would make use of the premise's potential in a stylistically considered and confident way. A bad director would make you forget that the premise had potential to begin with, failing to match a story so bizarre with real out-of-the-box commitment. Christopher Nolan, however, doesn't let you forget that Tenet had potential. Because Christopher Nolan is NOT a bad director. He just can't direct.

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