This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
ZakkirGanesh’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
Random Tenet observations as I’ve spent more time with it. Some of them embarrassingly highfalutin, some of them embarrassingly “r/tenet”-ish, summed up in zero meaningful order lol, but hopefully people find something interesting to chew on 🙂
1. REGARDING EXPOSITION
I hear an absurd number of complaints that this movie “explains too much” or has “too much exposition”, and I honestly find it ridiculous. But I will say that I think the film’s main issue is not that it explains too much, but rather that it’s explaining the right amount but using way too many words. Too many conversations unfold as “you know what XYZ is?” and responding with a really basic definition, and then some really simple statement followed by a “so why then did yadda yadda yadda”, and it uses up more time than is actually necessary. But all the actual information makes sense to be brought up at that point and isn’t “tOo mUcH eXpOsiTiOn”; I would only streamline the actual delivery.
2. REGARDING PINCER MOVEMENTS
Only just realizing that The Protagonist’s method of stealing the Plutonium-241, by surrounding the security vehicles with trucks and crushing them from the front and back, essentially functions as a kind of spatial pincer movement, which gives a nice extra punch to his being outflanked by Sator’s temporal pincer movement. The inverted section of the Tallinn car chase on this viewing also gives me greater awareness that Sator’s biggest advantage over The Protagonist is not just his receiving information via his henchmen’s monitoring of events so he can act accordingly, but his actual thought process when moving inverted. Despite Barbara’s (Clemence Poesy) clarification during training that “[he’s] not shooting the bullet, [he’s] catching it”, The Protagonist still tends to think and act as if he’s seeing an action occur in reverse. But Sator understands that inversion also means you must do the opposite of said action; Sator may have been catching the orange case from The Protagonist’s forward perspective, but Sator was actually throwing it back from his own inverted perspective, seeing the handoff and crashing The Protagonist’s car, and escaping with the final piece of the Algorithm. In the most simplistic terms, hearing A to Z in reverse is not necessarily the same as actively going from Z to A, and The Protagonist learns that the hard way, barely escaping with his life.
3. REGARDING THE OSLO FREEPORT
I thoroughly enjoy the first Oslo sequence of the film, but it’s the inverted Oslo sequence that really works for me. The first half of the film is The Protagonist essentially having to cosplay as a suave James Bond, lying to Kat about who he is and pretending he will remove the fake drawing from the Oslo freeport in order to thwart Sator’s blackmail, but in reality he’s just trying to get close to Sator and find out what his plan is. So the first run through Oslo is entirely driven by misdirection and charade. Crashing a plane to trigger the lockdown but also to cause a distraction while they break into the different vaults to find what’s in the center, not actually taking even a moment to look for any fake drawing. However, the second run through Oslo, the stakes have completely changed. Kat has been shot with an inverted bullet by Sator, and the only way to save her is to invert her body to undo the radiation poisoning, but that means finding a turnstile 7 days earlier to be able to return her to forwards time. Now, the plane crash isn’t misdirection for The Protagonist to do something that contradicts what he promised Kat, the plane crash is misdirection for him to save her life. I appreciate this running motif in the film, that The Protagonist seems to run into the most trouble whenever he makes the more cynical or superficially pragmatic decision at the expense of taking someone’s fears of immediate danger and harm seriously, but the most successful decisions involve breaking with protocols or taking risks in order to protect innocent people from becoming collateral damage, and this is exactly what makes the inverted Oslo sequence so riveting for me.
4. REGARDING INVERSION
Watching things move forwards and backwards in time, I’m realizing only now that much of our exposure to inversion revolves around discreet physical entities. We get some individuals moving through the site of a plane un-crashing. We get the hallway fight between two separate versions of a person. We get cars being chased by cars that are actually driving away from their perspective. We get one half of a destroyed building re-assemble itself just as the other half explodes. There is always one thing forwards and one thing inverted, and they may occupy the same space in disorienting ways but ultimately you can classify everything you see into one category or the other. But what about water? We only ever see giant waves un-forming, but we assume the entire body of water is experiencing the same entropy even if we’re inverted. But what would it look like if a forward-person jumped into water at the same time an inverted-person appeared to be jumping back out? Maybe we’d see one splash occurring outwards while another splash seems to be returning inwards, but it’s not that simple, because they both share the same body of water, and unlike a solid wall that can have one bullet hole fired into it while another bullet-hole is removed without either bullets affecting the other, the ripples of either wave will inevitably interact with each other when in the same body of water, regardless of which direction of time they’re flowing in. Does the universe randomly determine that half the microscopic molecules of water in any given position are affected by forward entropy while the other are affected by inverse entropy? Or is it that an inverted swimmer would actually create a wave that appears normal when viewed forwards and therefore interacts with a forward wave the way we’d expect, and the only difference is that the forward wave is somehow being created when they reverse-jump out of the water? That would mean that from their inverted perspective, they’d already start feeling progressively more damp and wet until they jump into the pool, but technically would exit the pool drying almost instantaneously. Much of this line of questioning still basically boils down to immediate logistics rather than some greater metaphorical resonance about peoples’ relationship to the world, but that doesn’t make it any less interesting or worthy of further examination.
5. REGARDING THE SOUND MIX
Assuming no pandemic and shit, I would have loved to see this for the first time in the Lincoln Square NYC IMAX theater, since it’s the biggest 70mm IMAX screen in North America, I had the chance to be watch Interstellar and Dunkirk there and it’s just the best theater experience, and specifically because I’ve heard that most people had trouble with the sound mix when they watched it in IMAX with the loud IMAX speaker systems. For the record, I honestly have never had a single issue hearing dialogue in Nolan’s films in theaters, and my hearing is pretty mediocre in general, but especially in regards to parsing out peoples’ voices in the midst of other loud noises, so the fact that I’ve never seemed to have this problem with Nolan’s movies always fascinates me. Anyway, I really want to know what parts of Tenet’s dialogue I’d find truly inaudible as others have complained, and I want to know if I’d be just as frustrated or if I’d actually love the film even more because I’d just vibe with the experience instead of getting hung up on dialogue. Whether it works or not (which I can’t really say since I’d have to have watched Tenet in the IMAX and experience it for myself), I can see how Nolan’s de-emphasizing of dialogue in the sound mix might be another example of his love of silent cinema, beyond the usually-noted Griffithian crosscutting or his converting dialogue of conversations into voiceover akin to silent film intertitles or just his general maximalism and emphasis on practical effects and set design. A lot of the old silent films will have actors speaking for a good 15-20 seconds only to then give us an intertitle that has like 5 words, and you know damn well that we’re only getting a tiny fraction of what was actually being said in the scene. Sometimes this can be frustrating, and I’ve sometimes wondered if they could be half as long if they just removed the footage of dialogue we can’t hear anyway. Nevertheless, I can also grant that this approach to imparting just pieces of larger dialogue in intertitles can also be a valid artistic decision that adds to the appeal of silent cinema for many; and if it is a valid artistic decision for early silent cinema, it’s certainly a valid decision for today’s mainstream cinema, even if a lot of people don’t like it or think it’s outdated ergo “objectively bad” or whatever dumb shit people say these days. Now I’m perfectly open to the possibility that Nolan might really just be bad at sound mixing, or purposely muddies the mix in order to trick people into paying for multiple viewings just to hear the damn thing, or maybe even that he’s just suffering hearing loss and still doesn’t realize, or whatever other explanation people insist must be the case depending on how much of an axe they have to grind with him. But given that there are points where you can hear the music deliberately drown the dialogue out until it’s almost non-existent, I think there is still an argument to be made that Nolan simply knows that eventually people might watch at home with subtitles anyway, so maybe he’s trying, for better or for worse, to make the theatrical experience something more directly sensory. To put it another way, some have complained that they only really understood the film or liked it after they could hear the dialogue or get subtitles, but maybe the true mark of the film’s success is if a viewer can literally hear none of the dialogue and have zero clue what might be happening but still manages to enjoy it because of the visceral experience. You could counter “well if the dialogue isn’t so important, why is there so much of it?”. But I actually believe the dialogue is there because it makes sense that someone would talk in certain scenes and also because the content of the dialogue is still relevant to the ideas the movie is dealing with, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we have to hear it right from the get-go. Perhaps anything that really needs to be understood about the film on a first viewing can be easily gleaned simply by watching the film and taking in the overall sound and music, and if and only if you like it enough to watch it again, the dialogue might simply add to your existing understanding rather than make up for inadequate understanding. Again, this is all conjecture on my part, and it’d be too late to test this theory out on Tenet now that I’ve seen it at home with subtitles on the first watch; watching it now in a muddied IMAX sound mix wouldn’t really clarify these thoughts since I’d project any dialogue I remember on to the scenes whether I hear it or not. So more than anything right now I’m just musing on a missed opportunity.
6. REGARDING THE VALUE IN CONFUSION
Ranted about this offline to my friend as well lol, but I remember that Arthur C. Clarke quote “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”, which is usually brought up when people talk about Nolan’s Prestige. After this rewatch, I think there’s a similar statement that works for Tenet and Nolan’s career in general: “Any structure or set of rules or logic convoluted and complicated enough may eventually become indistinguishable from unstructured random probabilistic chaos.” I think this is why, whatever myriad problems I’ve had with Nolan’s work over the years, I’ve still responded so strongly to it and still consider him a vital blockbuster filmmaker. At the risk of sounding unjustifiably high-minded, maybe the thing that most sticks out about my relationship to the world around me in the 21st century “post-9/11” era or whatever, is that the world is chock full of rules and logic sets governing our technology, our systems and institutions, or social interactions, virtually every fucking thing in this world is ultimately structured or programmed or codified to some degree... and yet somehow I’ve perpetually felt like I’m swimming in endless noise, that the rules that everyone maneuvers through to survive might as well be like walking on thin ice, and there’s just too much information that any amount of method never seems to make up for the madness, it still all feels unpredictable. This is probably why I always wince when people insist that Nolan’s films are just cold and unemotional pseudo-intellectual puzzle-boxes that are trying to use complexity to make up for a lack of profundity. Much like horror films can in somehow provide a safe place to experience intense fear or revulsion so we can confront feelings and ideas that are much harder to grapple with in the tumult of real life, I think Nolan’s films can be understood and appreciated as part of a tradition in films to provide a safe place to experience confusion and disorientation that comes not from a lack of apparent structure or logic (a la David Lynch) but specifically because of an almost insurmountable overload of structure and logic. The fundamental questions or answers about existence might be the same as they ever were, but that hasn’t made it any easier to implement those fundamental ideas into our everyday lives, because the world is just so chaotic and filled with noise even in more optimal circumstances that even the most seemingly self-evident moral decisions could become computational nightmares. While we can certainly be haunted by traumatic things that happened in the past, often what we are most haunted by are mistakes we feel we were supposed to know to avoid, those are the moments we’re most desperate to somehow turn back time and fix. And when not only the world and spaces we navigate are increasingly complicated but also the fabric of time in which we navigate it, even the seemingly simple answers to questions of how one must live (the kinds of simple answers that people would dismiss as “empty faux-profound posturing”) are being constantly reconfigured and re-evaluated. But this is not evidence that those simple answers are inadequate; this is exactly why they are so important to focus on and engage with. Movies like Tenet have great value for me, not because we’re supposed to jerk ourselves off for believing we’re smart enough to keep every single piece of information stored in our working memory in order to “solve” it, and certainly not so others can jerk themselves off for believing they’re smart enough to “see through” the film’s complicated structure and dismiss it for being somehow “thematically empty”. Movies can certainly be enjoyed in an escapist way, but I don’t believe that escapist entertainment means avoiding the kinds of confusing experiences that can stress us out in the real world. Tenet is an example of unabashedly escapist entertainment, one that but can allow us to experience massive confusion without immediate life-or-death stakes so we may be slightly more acclimated to it, and then return to the real world potentially less frightened by the chaotic possibilities inherent in all of even its most explicitly delineated patterns, and remember that it is in those moments of chaos that one should not drop their beliefs and values out of fear, but in fact remember them and hold to them more steadfastly. Which is to say, your tenets will weather the storms of time.
7. REGARDING LUDWIG FUCKING GÖRANSSON
Right from my first viewing, there was a very specific moment in the film that I knew I couldn’t give a flying fuck what “problems” this movie allegedly has. It’s the moment the Oslo tour guide is walking Neil through the freeport, and Neil has essentially tuned out whatever this guy is saying so he can focus on scoping out the layouts and security features. Suddenly Ludwig Gorannson’s score starts getting louder and louder, as the Oslo tour guide’s voice gets completely drowned out, because the music represents Neil’s focus and concentration, exactly none of which is lingering on the dude he’s occasionally nodding his head at. This is still without a doubt my favorite 30 seconds of the entire film, and it’s the point that I realized the movie is likely not going to be a lot of peoples’ cup of tea, but it is 100% my cup of tea lmaooo
A bit all over the place (this can refer to the movie and this write-up lol), and I’ll probably end up doing another one of these once I start kicking myself for whatever I forgot to write here lmao, but anyways, this movie is still straight fire, fuckin love it 😊