*Spoilers Follow Suit*
“If you don’t see yourself reverse-exiting the machine, then you ain’t gettin’ out.”
In Tom Shone’s introduction to his new book on Christopher Nolan, “The Nolan Variations,” he notes how the first time he met the filmmaker, he leafed through the menu of Canter’s Deli, backwards, and later learned it was also normal practice for the filmmaker to read magazines and other print material in the same fashion. Thinking about Christopher Nolan’s work through this prism, it illuminates how many cinematic trademarks he’s come to be known for – that many of his detractors chalk up to “he makes smart movies for dumb people” (a vapid sentiment revealing subjective insecurities) – are no mere narrative gimmick, it’s simply how he see’s the world.
The largely lukewarm reception to “Tenet,” – which was also caused by, you know, a lot of other factors – can quite possibly be attributed to audiences who are not accustomed to giving themselves over to a inverted style of processing how we see and feel things. His latest work is a double-sided film that almost requires repeat viewings, not because it is too intelligent to follow, but because that is part of its very conceit. “Ignorance is our only protection,” becomes the suppressive Policy adhered to by our Protagonist. “Whose policy?” John David Washington’s lead character asks, before he has learned what any of this means. “Ours my friend,” his partner Neil says, “We’re the people saving the world from what might have been.” Learning about the cause after the effect is, well, “Tenet’s” tenet.
“Every magic trick has three parts, or acts… the second act is called: The Turn,” Sir Michael Caine’s stagehand character, Cutter, tells the audience, (implicitly) alongside a professional illusionist’s daughter, in the opening minutes of Christopher Nolan’s “The Prestige.” A film partly about the poisonous allure of showmanship for the sake of showmanship, Nolan’s first movie after taking the reins of the “Batman” franchise was almost a man stopping a foretold prophecy before it could be fulfilled. Instead of becoming a Robert Angier, he made “The Dark Knight,” and “Inception” followed shortly thereafter. Two back to back masterpieces. If you don’t agree, well, sorry my perspective is inverted from yours. “Tenet” almost entirely revolves around one of the boldest narrative devices of Nolan’s career, the Sator Square revolving Demon Door. This enormously ambitious set-piece – a temporal pincer, as the entire film is (dream within a dream) – relies on seeing both sides of the action on screen: the before and after the car crash, moving forwards though time but seeing it backwards, and the other way around.
On one level or another, most of his movies are about audience immersion – whether through his craft process or the themes of the films themselves. In an exposition scene that immediately follows the first half of “Tenet’s” recursive, double-sided fight scene, he describes the situation to Dimple Kapadia’s character Priya as having encountered “two antagonists, one inverted.” Robert Pattinson’s character, Neil, discovered that the Protagonist was in fact both of these antagonists in said sequence. Our perception of what we are seeing is inverted alongside the protagonist, the film being structured in a way that allows for them to feel completely enveloped by said Protagonist entering this new world; a world that he himself will create the policy for one day. Nolan’s vision for the film he insisted be released was that people see it more than once, and in theaters more than once, as the subjective qualities of experiencing a film projected on film is something incredibly important to the filmmaker. Nolan’s work has come to be defined by obsession(s), and Nolan himself will be the first to admit that his movies also reflect his own. “Tenet” is a film meant to be seen and felt in the cinema, at least twice, and was released at the worst possible time.
“Ignorance is our ammunition,” is the another way the mantra is phrased, it can be used as an attack or a defense, depending how you look at it: a weapon or a way to save the world. This is the conceit of all spy films: the goal of the opposing sides – the one who wins, and the one who loses. “Our job is to fail to diffuse that bomb.” Aaron Taylor Johnson’s Ives explains in his briefing. It takes more than a minute for one to wrap their brain around a sentiment like this; “wait, our Protagonists goal is to fail to stop the Antagonist?” Well, Nolan’s playing with the inverse of how those stories work, reverse-engineering the cut and paste Hollywood plot machinations of most all CGI-laden grand finales. “Won’t you have to kill me anyway?” Neil asks the Protagonist after being inducted (although, really it’s the other way around), “I’d rather it be my decision,” he says. In a sense, this is a also a reworking of Nolan’s first masterpiece, “Memento,” wherein Leonard (Guy Pearce) has caught himself in a loop of vengeance in order to satisfy what the effects of a memory condition have done to him over the course of his revenge-seeking. He decides to kill Teddy (Joe Pantoliano) anyway, setting in motion inevitable events we have already seen. But here, Nolan is playing the tragic noir game, and so exploits the narrative to that effect. With “Tenet” he’s created “the end of a beautiful friendship,” ironically perhaps accidentally conceding that its time the industry step away from overspending on such massive behemoths, as that’s part of what brought us to where we are today.
“Until you see my signal, you don’t let him die.“