' ' Cinema Romantico: Tenet

Thursday, January 21, 2021


“Tenet” gives itself away with the title. It’s a palindrome, a word spelled the same frontwards and back, just as writer/director Christopher Nolan’s latest spectacle is essentially the same frontwards and back, a narrative moving forward until it stops mid-movie and then gets told backward. Is that a spoiler? Have you seen a Christopher Nolan movie? What, did you think “Tenet” was going to begin in the spring and ended in the winter? Turning time inside-out is his thing. His American breakthrough “Memento” was told in reverse and his bending of the the past, present and future has only grown more convoluted and spectacular to the detriment of all else, character and dialogue, even visuals. No, for Nolan, cinema has become something apart from a canvas for images, not the end, to dust off my Kent, but the means to it, telling stories by manipulating the minutes and hours. For awhile, at least, characters and moods could still emerge, like surrounding “Memento’s” deliberate zero (Guy Pearce) with entertaining balls of fire (Carrie-Ann Moss, Joe Pantoliano) or the drone chase in “Interstellar” when any underlying meaning falls away for thrill of the chase. But despite an impressive concerted effort by Nolan to finally be straight-up entertaining, by the end, character and mood in “Tenet” has completely fallen by the wayside.

More than most Nolan films, even, “Tenet” is at once elaborate and elementary. The plot turns on some mysterious device called The Algorithm, less a classic MacGuffin a la The Process in “The Spanish Prisoner” and more an element within the equation, not unlike the film’s protagonist, a CIA agent, named, ahem, Protagonist (John David Washington), merely underlining how little anything within “Tenet” matters. The Algorithm, it turns out, can reverse time and is tied to an evil Russian oligarch, Sator (Kenneth Branagh), a name almost as obviously emblematic as Protagonist, seeking to end life as we know it by erasing the past. Essentially, then, The Algorithm is a doomsday device, the fate of the world hanging in the balance, though the world is a hazy idea in “Tenet”, evoked in the opening at an opera hall where the audience is gassed, spectators as pesky distractions who hardly matter in the grand scheme of things. Nolan tries injecting some meaning by way of the oligarch’s wife (Elizabeth Debicki) and her son though this comes across like Insert Plot Point Here, waiting for further detail that goes unprovided. 

I keep thinking about how such simple-minded designations could have been comical or even revealing in the hands of someone else, like Charlie Kaufman, or, more accurately, his twin brother Donald. And that’s the thing, for all my past complaints about Nolan being so serious and refusing to cut loose, he is trying to have fun some here, even occasionally succeeding, especially in the series of setpieces and conversations comprising the film’s first half. The Protagonist is funded by Sir Michael Crosby, played by Sir Michael Caine, a British intelligence officer who is more like a Hollywood benefactor, giving the Protagonist an unlimited Amex and telling him to go wild. This scene takes place in a highfalutin restaurant where the Protagonist’s suit doesn’t cut it and he dryly asks the snooty waiter to box his order, maybe the most humorous thing that’s ever happened in a Nolan movie. A complex heist, meanwhile, turns crashing an airplane into a building into an elephantine punchline. 

Sadly, however, the humor mostly falls away as the movie meets itself in the middle and then the Protagonist goes backward through time, moving forward (literally) while everything that has already happened plays out around him, giving him the opportunity to stop Sator from seeing through his diabolical plan. The Protagonist crossing over into this alternate world is meant to invoke a sensation similar to “The Wizard of Oz’s” monochrome giving way to color, but like “Inception”, Nolan can only conceive of such a fantastical turn of events through the lens of action movie cliches, car chases, fleets of helicopters, etc., with nary a hint of flair or wit. In its Enchantment Under the Sea Dance rewind, the much maligned “Back to the Future II” managed this sort of parallel reality with more imagination and joy. Nolan’s determination to painstakingly connect the dots, on other hand, eventually overwhelm any sense of joy he has curated.

If dream logic is supposed to make sense until we wake up, it remains an ongoing issue with Nolan’s work that his dream logic makes no sense when we are under it, needing to be awake and pouring over message boards or rewatches to make sense of anything. Indeed, though his tongue may be firmly in his cheek when calling his Protagonist a Protagonist, when it comes time for a climactic monologue of exposition with accompanying flashbacks, no one in “Tenet” deems it a Monologue. No, this kind of monologue is merely Nolan’s own hallmark. “Don't try to understand it,” The Protagonist is told at one point. “Feel it.” Great advice! If only Nolan had followed it.

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