Tag Archives: Christopher Nolan

Tenet

No worries, no spoilers.

I’m an insomniac, emphasis on the niac. As in: not sleeping turns you into a complete and utter maniac. As in: not many good words end in niac. Egomaniac. Pyromaniac. Kleptomaniac. Megalomaniac, for maniacs with positive self regard. But while the word insomniac focuses on that which I do not have (ie, sleep), it fails to account for the many things I’ve gained, (ie, time). Time to stew on thoughts and do deep dives probing insecurities and trying new anxieties on for size, sure, of course, but also time to read. There is a special kind of reading that takes place in the middle of the night, when everyone else is sleeping. Once you’ve reached at least the 36th hour of nonstop awakeness, your brain unveils a secret capacity, a wormhole of clarity, almost, wherein all things are possible. I do read a fair amount of trash, but every now and again I like to throw in a hefty tome or two, just in case I’m secretly a genius with untapped potential, should I ever come across it. And it was on one such night, June 6, 2018 in fact, in a feverish sleepless state, that I was reading a book about string theory and understanding it. By morning, the ghost of string theory was still with me, and as long as I didn’t attempt to look at it straight in the face, it was there, a light dusting of dew on my brain that I worried would evaporate with the sun. Or rather, with sleep. Anyway, I am to this day not a world-renowned particle physicist, so it wasn’t permanent or complete enlightenment. But this wasn’t the first time I’d experienced such insight. In March of 2003, I was making my way through James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. Ugh. That Joyce is a straight up dick. Finnegans Wake is the single most obtuse piece of literature to ever darken the Dewey decimal system. If you hate readers so much, why on earth did you become a writer? Idioglossia my ass, this man’s just straight up making shit up as he goes along all stream of consciousness like he’s never met a piece of punctuation he didn’t want to flick to the ground and grind it like it’s the stub of a cigarette and we’re the ones getting smoked. But for a minute there, a glorious minute, I was getting it. I was getting it! I was lost in the rhythm of Joyce’s unique syntax, I was beyond comprehension, I was feeling the meaning, and the subtext. I was absorbing it into my skin like Joyce and his opaque one-hundred-letter-words were nothing but aloe.

This might feel like kind of a digression, but first let me remind you that in order to digress, you have to have first introduced the topic from which to digress, and I haven’t done that, so consider the above paragraph bonus content. Now I will tell you that I am writing a review of Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, the saviour of the summer blockbuster. Except it’s now been released at the very end of August, and even as desperate as people are for a good movie and a return to some normalcy, Tenet is not some trashy beach read, accessible and easily digested. It is most definitely a Finnegans Wake, and it’s unlikely to save cinema no matter what the hype may have you believe.

After a brush with insomnia over the weekend, I got some medically-induced sleep earlier this week and am feeling fresh of brain and body. But Christopher Nolan knows how to hypnotize his audience. We feel, if not incapacitated, then intoxicated. Nolan builds the kinds of worlds we might encounter in dreams. Inception taught us to challenge everything. Interstellar taught us to think outside the box. Tenet merely kicks us in the teeth.

The good thing about not understanding a movie is that you can’t possibly spoil it. And yes, yes there were times when I thought I was getting it. I was a smug little shit, untangling the plot like it’s a delicate, thoroughly knotted rose gold pendant that I’m desperate to dangle above my cleavage at dinner, the diamond shining just a little brighter for having worked for it. But no. No.

John David Washington is simply The Protagonist, an operative with a global assignment to stop a renegade Russian oligarch from destroying the world. To do so, he’ll have to master time inversion because sometimes the only way out is through.

Parallel universes are for pussies. Christopher Nolan’s played with time and space before. This time he’s fucking with it, and with us.

In the deepest, deepest layers of Inception, it was difficult to judge just how many layers down we’d gone, and therefore it was easy to lose track of which reality was actual reality. When Leo spins that top and the screen goes black before we know whether it will topple over, that’s basic math. Like, ultra basic. Not even addition, just straight counting. Tenet is like abstract algebra, necessitating the contemplation of infinite dimensions. Plus number theory, the properties of and relationships between integers and integer-valued functions. Nolan may be one heck of a professor and Tenet the most sublime power point presentation, but this shit is hard and for most of us, a little out of reach. Way too many times during the film I could smell the smoke coming from my brain as it attempted to calculate and process too many things at once. I am way too linear a thinker to feel comfortable when Tenet hits its stride, which is frustrating because those are objectively the very most interesting bits!

You know those pricks who back into a parking spot just because they can? Like it was totally unnecessary so they’re basically just showing off? Nolan is that prick. Tenet is his oversized pickup truck. IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE THIS HARD! But since it is, a few tricks:

  1. Pay attention to everything. Because everything is something, nothing is nothing, the more nothing it seems, the more something it is.
  2. You’re going to want to watch it again. Even if you hate the movie and how it makes you feel (cough*inadequate*cough), you’ll want to see it again. You need to watch it with the knowledge you can only gain by watching it hopelessly and helplessly the first time. And you’re definitely going to want to discuss it.
  3. The title is a clue.
  4. The movie poster is a clue.
  5. Even my goddamned digression is an accidental clue.
  6. Everything is important, okay? And it’s all happening all the time, and especially when it’s not. So don’t let your guard down.

Inception

Inception, to me, is a near-perfect movie. It’s immersive and cerebral but also stunningly visual. It has some complex concepts but the script is so fine-tuned that it reveals only exactly as much as we can digest at a time so that the world opens up to us like a flower.

It’s about a man, Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) who goes inside people’s dreams to steal or plant ideas. It’s a dangerous world because when you fuck with the mind, screws come loose and there’s just no telling when the whole thing might come apart at the seams. But the money’s good, and Cobb’s got some troubling personal circumstances that make the game worthwhile. Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is his right-hand
man, and often the voice of reason. Eames (Tom Hardy) can impersonate anyone. And Ariadne (Ellen Page) is the architect – she’s the world-builder, the one who buries mazes inside of dreams. They’re hired by Saito (Ken Watanabe) to plant an idea in a business competitor’s mind so that he will sell off the company he’s just inherited from his dead father. Robert (Cillian Murphy) is the mark: he’s the grieving son who’s about to undergo inception – planting an idea so subtly that he’ll never suspect it’s not his own. And Mal (Marion Cotillard) is the one who can bring it all crashing down around them at any moment. Look out for her.

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To pull off this memory heist, they’ll have to build a dream within a dream within a dream – levels that director Christopher Nolan is clearly all to gleeful to construct. In one, rain pours down in sheets: the dreamer has to pee. But just like the dreams themselves, Nolan’s movie is always working on multiple levels. The first is this new world of corporate espionage. But the second is Cobb’s sacrifice. It’s the things he has lost in pursuit of the ultimate theft, and his last shot at redemption.

When Inception becomes about Robert’s dream, there are multiple worlds on the go, so we flip deftly between them. But there’s a catch: each world is experiencing time differently – the further down you go, the slower time moves. There are some very worrying consequences to this. But then there’s also “reality” – though their bodies are sleeping, they have to be somewhere, and someone has to be taking care of them. In fact, someone has to care for sleeping bodies in each dream within a dream for them to be able to access the next level. It’s complicated stuff that Nolan somehow makes feel perfectly reasonable, a true testament to his talent as a writer as well as his precision as a director. He is the audience’s true friend, unwilling to lose us.

My favourite set piece is Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) in the hotel. At this point in time, they have lost gravity, so everything is floating around him. Not only is Arthur caring for the bodies of his comatose friends, he’s also coordinating an important and infinitely precise detonation, and he’s fighting off bad guys. I didn’t know it until I saw it, but a zero-gravity fight scene was exactly what I was missing in my life. Nolan prefers practical effects, so you can imagine the lengths he went to in order to breathe awe into the spectacle. JGL performed all but one stunt himself.

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The film has a tantalizingly ambiguous ending. Cobb has a totem, a fool-proof method of testing whether he’s still dreaming, or back in reality. But in the movie, his character walks away – either distracted, or uninterested, or certain of the result. But not the camera. The camera stays with his totem, and it’s the most epic rim shot of all time. Will it or won’t it? Nolan focuses on the totem rather than any human character. Nothing else matters. But it just keeps going and going, never giving us its judgment until – the screen goes black before a conclusion can be reached. I know it drives some people nuts, but I love an ambiguous ending. To me, it’s the ultimate mark of respect for one’s audience, that Nolan has trusted us to participate in his film’s end, to choose our own ending, in effect. And for someone who produced such a tight and specific script, it’s a ballsy move to put the ending in our hands. But that’s what he does. I believe there IS an answer, a right answer, and the movie is littered with clues that should point you in the right direction. But it’s okay not to know. It’s okay to debate it. It makes us collaborators.

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Of course, the whole film is a show of respect for his audience. Inception is possibly the most complicated blockbuster of our time. Nolan is careful and exacting but he doesn’t dumb things down. He introduces concepts about the subconscious mind: the genesis of ideas, the source of pain, the malleability of memory, the vulnerability of reality itself. It’s a lot. And the more we chew on this, the more meaningful the movie becomes. It’s a thriller with higher stakes than anything before it, because Nolan has tapped into something worse than death. But he also makes the movie a game; it can be won, or it can simply be enjoyed. If there are bits of the plot that go over your head that first viewing, it’s okay. Inception is one of Nolan’s airiest and most forgiving pieces. There’s a gracefulness to the way this movie moves through its layers. Even if there’s something you don’t quite grasp, you don’t get stuck on it. It’s fluid…almost suspiciously fluid, as in, plot holes don’t matter. Now why would that be?

Inception is also a capital M Metaphor. As in: to film is to dream. If you inspect Cobb’s team, you’ll see what I mean. Cobb is the director. Arthur is the producer. Ariadne is the production designer. Eames is the actor. Even more than that: Saito is the studio, and Robert is the audience.

We watched Inception recently because I had a dream wherein I was engaged to Prince Harry. We were working on the guest list for our wedding, and I was being all bubbly thinking about how Grandma would be so excited to meet the Queen. Grandma is 96 and a big fan of Elizabeth II, who is nearly her own age. Grandma is sharp as ever, sweet and bright and entertaining, but her mobility has taken a sharp hit recently, and even in my dream I knew that an overseas trip would be a stretch for her – but that the Queen would be quite the motivation. But then I realized: Grandma is not actually MY grandmother, she’s Sean’s. If I’m marrying Prince Harry, I’m not married to Sean and I don’t know Grandma. And the minute I had that thought, my dream started to crumble. Literally, the walls fell over as if they had been the set of a play that was being struck down. I had contradicted myself and shown the dream for what it was: a fiction. I routinely inflict my dreams on Sean while we shower the next morning, and being the disgusting cinephiles that we are, talk naturally turned to Inception (and, in fact, to Inside Out, wherein characters are seen “filming” dreams for the sleeping Riley). Movies and dreams have always mixed, and have always had blurry boundaries. Inception exploits that. Nolan invites us to dream alongside him.