Back Asswards


Lots of them.

I felt a sort of historic obligation to see TENT since it positioned itself as the Great Return to Cinema — its writer-director seemed eager to create a series of super-spreader screenings and, like his Russian supervillain, bring his medium of expression (arms dealing, cinema) to an end along with all of us. That plan was thwarted, perhaps by a time-traveling secret agent, and now, also like his Russian supervillain, his movie has bellyflopped into the icy waters of indifference, pausing only to smash its skull on a jutting section of luxury yacht, and will shortly be towed off by a motor launch, its pale and shapeless body, a Felliniesque dead mackerel, glistening with poorly-applied sun cream. Or am I stretching my simile too far?

I enjoyed this film! Maybe my favourite Nolan since THE PRESTIGE. Of course I have grumbles, but there were at least moments where I felt a kind of glee over what was about to happen, or maybe what had just happened? So hard to tell.

Of course I went in knowing that all the dialogue was exposition, and most of it was inaudible. Knowing that helped to not worry about that. Must be even tougher if you’re unused to Cockney.

Robert Pattinson’s impersonation of Christopher Hitchens may not be as dazzling as Roger Allam’s in V FOR VENDETTA, but it’s very entertaining.

About that: Sir Michael Caine appears, since this is a Nolan joint, and it’s always nice to see him. But the appearance feels valedictory. Damn you, 2020! It’s a wholly sedentary appearance, unevenly cut, and that fine actor seems to be having trouble speaking. That thing, whatever it is, when your teeth are no longer firmly rooted. Nolan gives Caine some of the best lines in the film, and drops the thundering Zimmerist music of Ludwig Göransson so we can hear him. Caine is playing Sir Michael Crosby, and when John David Washington (continuing to prove his worth as an excellent, sensitive leading man) gets up to leave he pauses, and in a specially weighted close-up, says, “Goodbye, Sir Michael.”

So there’s THAT — the only emotional moment in the film, really, and the most successful emotional beat of Nolan’s career. Maybe I’m out of line for even mentioning it. I do hope Caine does lots more films. Nolan and Caine seem to be admitting otherwise, if that moment is there for a reason.

Elsewhere, the film is a series of heists and capers and assaults. You know that thing about INCEPTION? That thing where they bend Paris, and it’s just a DEMO, to let you know the kind of thing they can do in a dream? And then they never do anything like that again? Except the Fred Astaire punch-up in the rotating corridor?

Well, TENT, sorry, TENET, isn’t quite like that, but I was waiting for them to do more with their reverse gear. I had guessed from the title that the film would go forwards for half its running time, then backwards to the beginning, but that’s not really true. They do start reversing at the halfway mark. There’s a fun backwards car chase. And a fight played first with the protagonist moving forwards, then replayed with him reversed (Nolan can’t quite shoot this expressively enough to make the masked man the hero — your eye keeps going to the unmasked one). And at the end there’s a “temporal pincer movement” in which one set of attackers are in reverse, but why?

Best bit in that attack — where a building seems to blow up twice, both forwards and backwards and there really wasn’t time why or even WHAT — is when a wall reverse-explodes and sucks a passing trooper into itself. Presumably, if we had a flashback to the construction of that wall, we’d see a couple of builders going What do you want done with these human bones? Oh just put them in the wall, it’ll be fine. Are you sure? Yeah, when somebody eventually blows up the wall all the bits will turn into a person and he’ll run off backwards it’ll be FINE.

Disappointing the film does not include that scene.

TENET contains the palindrome Tenet, and also the reversible names Sator and Rotas, and it contains a racecar (kind of) and a mom. But no kayak or madam. The LA JETEE moment when a memory is replayed only this time the person whose memory it is becomes a character seen in that memory — I saw that one coming — is, given that the character is called Kat, perhaps a visualisation of the palindromic sentence “Was it a cat I saw?”

In terms of clarity — I think the film suffers not just from everyone saying important lines through masks or cockney accents, but because Nolan is not the world’s most lucid visual storyteller. Think of the incoherent fights in his first BATMAN, then listen to him saying they were like that on purpose, then look at the later BATMEN and their fights, which are only like 25% better. So he can’t help it. I always felt THE PRESTIGE needed not just a big CITIZEN KANE shot at the end — which is easy to do if you have a big budget for man-sized mason jars — but a tracking shot that shows a reasonable sampling of WHO is in those jars. Because I value clarity. TENT has a big briefing scene (I think it’s actually in a TENT) where they explain what they’re going to do before the final battle, and it’s STILL confusing.

Some really nice location shooting. But if it had proper James Bond swooning strings and torch song vamping over it, that would have been better than the pounding, throbbing stuff Nolan always goes for. The James Bond films that inspire him are technocratic power fantasies of violence and casual sex, and when you put s. strings and t.s. vamping on top, you get wonderful IRONY. Which Nolan doesn’t do, does he? Extraordinary that you can be a Bond fan and not appreciate or aspire to an ironic tone.

But he’s quite an odd fellow, I think, Nolan, in his dry, boring way.

TENT stars Ron Stallworth; Crocker Fenway; Fleur Delacour; Rev. Preston Teagardin; Bobby J. Braganza; Harry Palmer; Mopsy Rabbit; Prince Bertie; Hercule Poirot; John Lennon; and Lilian Roth.

8 Responses to “Back Asswards”

  1. I don’t understand what you’re saying about Christopher Hitchens and v for vendetta and tenet

  2. David Ehrenstein Says:

    Haven’t seen “Tenet” and see no reason to. Like Soderbergh, Nolan is glib, cynical and has no insight whatsoever into the world as it’s currently constituted.

    I much prefer Barry Sonnenfeld’s “Men in Black” series when it comes to contemporary commercial filmmaking.

    The person to make a film about Hitchens is Matt Tynauer.

  3. Robert Pattinson said that he decided to make his character in Tenet an impersonation of Hitchens. And it’s pretty good. But Roger Allam as the hateful broadcaster in V For Vendetta is a VERY good Hitchens-alike.

    I suspect from his films that Nolan is pretty reactionary, and his demand that people see this one is a little close to Trump’s urging his followers to go out and get killed in the pandemic.

    Soderbergh and Noland are both game-players more than storytellers, and if you find their games fun you can get a lot out of them, and if you don’t, there may not be a lot else there for you… the content is generic, only the form is playful. Summing it up after we saw Inception together, experimental filmmaker Toni Dove said, “I didn’t understand why the unconscious had to have so many explosions in it.”

  4. Robert Pattinson is never going to be able stand up to Roger Allam in a Hitch-off due to insufficient pouchiness. Hate to dismiss a young actor like this, but it’s the truth.

  5. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    I like Soderbergh and I like many of his movies, even if stylistically he can try a bit too hard sometimes or other times, not try at all. As for “no insight into the world”, Soderbergh made CONTAGION, the one move made in the last decade that directly anticipated and recreated the conditions of a global pandemic almost to the last detail (the only mistake is that Soderbergh didn’t anticipate that Jude Law’s character would actually run the government and also that he’d come to believing his own lies…as Trump proved when he got infected). The words “social distancing” even feature there. And his movie CHE is a masterpiece.

    Agreed about Nolan though. He truly has nothing to say. I do find his movies fun for a single viewing but they’re not great. I enjoyed Interstellar but have no desire to see it, especially now that we got a legit picture of a black hole, which has dated the movie in less than a decade. Inception was great thanks to Leo DiCaprio. I am curious to see TENET but to the extent it is conceivable that there are movies I would actually risk my personhood, health, health of my loved ones, to see…to the extent I would do that (and I wouldn’t) it would never be for a Nolan movie.

  6. David Ehrenstein Says:

    When it comes to cinematic game-playing I prefer Raul Ruiz to these twerps.

  7. Ruiz’s games seem more worth playing, yes.

    Yes, pouch and paunch are central to Hitchens. You can’t just put on a crumpled jacket and act louche. Well you can, but you run the risk of actually appearing attractive and then the gig is up.

    Tenet I think is fairly risk-free from a virological standpoint: you go to the cinema and sit in an auditorium all by yourself…

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