TENET: The Only Way is Through

I’m going to annoy my friends and probably more than a few strangers and out myself as a fan of Tool. I love the band and their weird spirituality, self-serious philosophy and the terrific and compelling command of visuals but above all, the music. It’s the complex, polyrhythmic, melodic-yet-masculine churning progressive rock/metal hybrid that is distinctive and influential yet never successfully imitated. Like System of a Down or Rage Against the Machine, no one sounds like them and no one really bothers to even try. But no matter how much I love Tool I’ve never, not once, enjoyed their music the first time I heard it. Ever. More often I hear what other people do, the obscurity or the pretentiousness, but I try to get past that and just figure out whatever is trying to get through which is usually a rewarding experience.

There are a couple of reasons for this, one is that aforementioned complexity, they just don’t lend themselves to being processed right away and nothing is more fun than watching a new fan, someone who is just starting to get into their sound, try to headbang or rock out to them. It’s the time signatures. They’re just ridiculous and new fans look like kids a Sadie Hawkins dance trying to boogie to Copperhead Road for the first time, but like, back when I was a kid, not nowadays when children appear to be trained hip hop back up dancers because of YouTube and Instagram. The other reason is that I’m pretty stupid that way. My brain requires repeated listens in order to pick out the patterns and chord progressions, and it’s similar with movies.

As much as I love writing about them, I very rarely pick up on the visual cues or motifs or, particularly, symbolism. Usually, if a film is good I’ll know it just not…why exactly. Then on a second viewing, when I’m not paying as much attention to the “what is going to happen” as the “why/how is it happening”, then a lot more gets through. I bring this up because I really enjoyed TENET….the second time.

This is not to say it’s bad the first go around, but it is relentlessly expository and unrelentingly convoluted. This wouldn’t be that big a deal if, and I say this will all the respect and affection in the world for one of my favorite writer/directors, it was possible as a theater goer to understand more than, hmm, half of the fucking dialogue. I could barely manage that and I was sitting up close, leaning into the screen the whole time.

Seriously. Interstellar is probably my favorite Chris Nolan film (yeah, I know) and that film has the same issues in places, as opposed to here where the muffled, low volume, the masked faces, the constant ambient background noise is absolutely endemic. I apologize for that word choice. But there is no excuse for this in a modern blockbuster, somebody needed to pull Chris aside and say, buddy, great job I think, now get these actors in an ADR booth and re-record the dialogue because it sounds like the audio was recorded on one of those Talk-Boy devices from Home Alone 2: Lost in New York. And I mean recorded back in 1992, not one now that has miraculously survived and is being used by a sound guy who duct taped it to a hockey stick in present day on a 200 million dollar movie.

I read somewhere that Nolan is red/green color blind and that’s both inspirational and an explanation as to why his films are so blue and yellow. It’s possible that this blindness to a certain range of the color spectrum has somehow enhanced his hearing, like Daredevil and he’s like, I don’t know what you guys are talking about, I hear everything. It’s truly more baffling than the plot itself and that is saying something.

About the actors, the only character who has any opportunity to emote or express pathos is Elizabeth Debicki, who comports herself very well considering. I also admire the fact that she is 6’3” and is absolutely depicted that way. No one around her are wearing lifts, she is not constantly lounging or kneeling. She towers over her male costars and, aside from being tall, is also very long, she’s like a beautiful, sexy wacky waving inflatable arm-person. John David Washington is very good as John David Washington, his facial hair is tremendous and I look forward to the rest of his career which is, unfortunately overshadowed by his pops. Denzel has the rare gift of elevating everything he’s ever been in, for example John Q. is objectively a bad film that is a terrific watch because of his presence alone. JDW, you’re alright, so far. Kenneth Branaugh is in this as well. Since people don’t always click on linked .gifs, picture a satisfied shrug that implies sarcasm. Robert Pattinson is, goddamnit, the best and most underutilized part of the movie.

So. TENET is probably the least emotional, the least human film that Chris Nolan has ever made. In Inception the main character was struggling with his guilt and the loss of his wife, this was central to his character and the plot, The Prestige was all revenge and professional jealousy, Interstellar was a giant cry factory (why I love it). But there’s really nothing like that at the center of TENET, which is just full on spy movie/Bond film that is mainlining NOLAN-TIME-JUICE directly into a major artery.

What is NOLAN-TIME-JUICE? Well. I could explain it but I’d have to start at the end. And the middle and start explaining before you actually asked. For better or worse, Chris Nolan has leaned entirely into his latest plot contrivance without attempting any real emotional connection with the audience, which is a new one for him and really tests his abilities as a storyteller to mixed results. I daresay his reach may have finally exceeded his grasp and that’s a good thing. It should, this bravery and bold approach is what put him on the map in the first place and I hate to say that I wonder where he’ll go from here but…I wonder where he’ll go from here, because this is probably his first real misfire, all technical achievement and virtuosity aside. However, there is an effort to address something that is permeating the collective conscience, the alarming, persistent sense of the world ending.

This is something that Nolan has had an eerie prescience for, when The Dark Knight came out he predicted the rise of George W’s surveillance and 4th Amendment violating Patriot Act in Bruce Wayne’s magical cell phone sonar technology, science that asked questions of privacy versus security in the age of terrorism. In The Dark Knight Rises, it was the Occupy Wall Street movement as weaponized in the form of Bane and Catwoman and her distressingly proletariat threat, “There’s a storm coming, Mr. Wayne. You and your friends better batten down the hatches, because when it hits, you’re all gonna wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us.”

TENET, for all it’s capabilities and innovation, turns a blind eye towards the world’s ails and, in it’s aspiration to be a Bond film, reduces the problems of global existentialism into what is both the most creative and least interesting MacGuffin-driven exercise in camera tricks and trick photography. On a second viewing, I’m still not quite clear on what was going on in the finale or why, and who I should care about, so…that’s actually pretty on par with Bond movies, point awarded. I am all about escapism but the resolution felt, in many way, worse than the letdown that Avengers: Endgame was in hindsight. While thrilling and funny and a fine enough end-cap to it’s 22 film long series, it was also utterly toothless and a pure fan-service and a testament to the unequivocal fact that time travel, as a plot device, results in a weak denouement, even when it’s at the forefront of the story.

As for that actual plot contrivance, well. It’s better experienced than explained and actually somewhat more confusing the second time around. I was worried I’d be slightly bored having already seen the final reveals but that’s not the case, instead I was able to focus more on the details and the landscape, on actually trying to wrap my head around the logic instead of just giggling stupidly to myself when things really ramp up, like Vince Vaughn at the end of the sex montage in Wedding Crashers.

A decent analogy would be to compare it to a roller coaster. The first time is all fear and uncertainty, the second is about looking around and the thrill. TENET is very cool. It’s also a uniquely Nolan-esque experience, no one does it like him, no one sounds like him. Like Tool or Rage or System, there just isn’t anyone comparable, it’s not that these examples including him are in a different league, they are playing a different sport. So with its flaws, which it certainly has, it’s an undeniably unique ride, one that requires a second, possibly third to be fully appreciated. Also fucking subtitles.

Is TENET worth trucking out to theaters during our current health crisis? That’s a tough question. I’m very fortunate in that I have access to Alamo Drafthouse, a chain that in normal circumstances is a bastion for cinema lovers. It’s a theater where I love showing up early because instead of commercials or advertisements, they screen fan films or have short documentaries about the source material, it’s invested in being as consumer friendly as possible, I’ve seen special screenings of Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan and Gerald’s Game with star Carla Gugino (who still hasn’t returned my emails but she’ll come around, I know we have a lot in common and WHY WON’T YOU LOVE ME CARLA) in attendance. It’s a great place that has put multiple checks in to ensure people’s safety, including temperature checks at the door, buffered seating and remote ordering of food and beverages. For me, it was a small return to normality that I needed. But TENET is not a life changing experience, rather a brief escape and lovely reminder of the power and possibility of cinema to expand our imaginations, which in turn has the capacity to cultivate the soul. That’s what art is for and this is certainly that, while being more of a technical marvel than an emotional one. Like a Tool song, it requires a second or third take to really process and it’s a worthy addition to….

*sigh*

Okay. I haven’t written in awhile and as a result, I’ve lost a step. I keep wanting to revisit this quote, I want to shoehorn it into the review of this film but it doesn’t quite fit so I’m just going to say it because it’s worth saying. Things are getting a little dicey in the world, storms both political, racial, and literal in the form of both fire and rain, chaos is starting to feel like the norm. And there is a temptation to accept this and feel helpless or defeated, like this is just the way it is and it’s only going to get worse. I know this because I feel this. I hope I’m alone, I know I’m not. Here’s the quote:

Len says one steady pull more ought to do it. He says the best way out is always through. And I agree to that, or in so far. As that I can see no way out but through.”

-Robert Frost

We’re in it right now but we’re not alone, not yet. So take it at your own pace, be safe, and look out for each other and see this film, one that didn’t blow my hair back as much as tangle it a little and give it some volume, when it is safely accessible to you and yours.

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