Tag Archives: John David Washington

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.

BlacKkKlansman

Ron Stallworth is a young black man, proud to be Colorado Springs’ first African-American police officer, in 1972 (or 1979 in real life, but from these parentheses forward, please understand that though this is based on his autobiography of real events, I’ll be discussing the events in the film). He’ll be the Jackie Robinson of the PD, and like Jackie, he’s the impossibly perfect, flawless, magical black man who will need to constantly turn his cheek – not just to the racist public, but to racist colleagues as well. Life might be difficult for Ron walking the beat but he’ll never know because he’s buried in the basement records office being abused by his own fellow officers. He’s desperate to get some real police work but I bet he got more than he bargained for. When he’s partnered with a Jewish officer named Flip, the two of them together make a single perfect Klansman.

Wait, what? Yeah, true story, though it sounds like the setup of a joke with a cringe-worthy punch-line. A black guy and a Jew teamed up together, undercover, to infiltrate the KKK. Ron (John David Washington) says all the right things on the phone, all the way up to the Grand Wizard himself, David Duke (Topher Grace). Flip (Adam Driver) provides the requisite white face and trucker caps. Together nothing can stop them, except possibly guys in hooded robes.

Spike Lee directs this thing, based on Stallworth’s memoir. But the spin that Lee and the other writers bring to the movie is fantastic. While this would have been a remarkable story at any time, setting it is amidst blaxploitation movies and Nixon’s reelection 03-blackkklansman-review.w1200.h630campaign gives it a crisp edge, and the constant allusions to Trump’s eventual win, thanks in part to his KKK ties, give it a sharp one. Damn it’s smart. And also depressing. And funny. Like, really funny. And so sad. Because as astutely-observed as this stuff is, it’s astonishing and disappointing to realize that 40 years on, we haven’t made much discernible progress. White people were horrified and baffled by 45’s election, which is funny because it was obviously white people who elected him. The two kinds obviously don’t talk. But nearly every black American I’ve spoken to was not overly surprised by the result (which is a far cry from being happy about it). They knew the country’s true temperature since they live with its consequences every day. And now those things have been outed, given permission to be voiced, and suddenly 2018 is resembling 1972 is some very uncomfortable ways.

John David Washington is really great in this role. He made his movie debut at just 6 years old, playing a school kid in a movie Spike Lee made with his father, Denzel called Malcolm X…maybe you’ve heard of it? If he’s getting acting lessons at home, they’re paying off. He’s subtle and natural and the movie’s success hinges on how well he underplays events that seem so impossible. Adam Driver does well too; he knows he’s second banana, but his character undergoes an interesting arc, from “it’s just a job” to really internalizing the hated for Jews that he constantly has to endorse as part of the klan. It has to mess you up to say things against your own people, to disavow yourself from a group that is part of your essential self – we feel that every time Flip denies his religion out loud to suspicious klansman, but it’s an interesting callback to Ron’s police department interview, where he basically had to do the same. And that should give us pause. And Topher Grace gets to play David Duke because Armie Hammer’s perfect Aryan face was presumably busy playing a slave owner in some other movie.

Ron spends the movie trying to prove to himself, to his potential girlfriend, and to his superior officers, that you can work from the inside to tear something down. His lady, the president of the black student union, is a proud agitator who doesn’t believe you should belong to the system you’re trying to destroy. “Black liberation!” she shouts at him. And we clearly see his own internal struggle because on the one hand he’s a first hand witness to the system being broken, and stacked against him, but he also believes he can be an agent for change. It takes guts to be the guy on the inside. I guess after being that guy for his whole life, joining the klan maybe didn’t seem so scary.

In fact, Lee does well subtly highlight the similarities between the two groups: kops and klan. Both seemed nearly identically racist in the 70s. But what got me is that in the film, both groups refer to themselves as “family.” Very recently I was telling Sean this theory of mine that any non-family member who refers to themselves as “family” is doing it for nefarious reasons. Work “families” tend to be abusive. It means, sure they’re internal fighting. It’s fine. It’s family. In the police department it means we don’t rat on each other. If some officers are abusing their position to harass people (spoiler alert: black people!) we turn a blind eye. There are so many clever, subversive little elements that they get under your skin incredibly effectively.

And just when you’re starting to feel cutesey about all the Nazi-salute foreplay and lynching pillow talk, Lee flips the script and reminds us of our present-day truth, where we cannot hide behind our smug sense of superiority. We are not better, and there’s no better way to remind us of that than with footage from last year’s white superemacist, neo-nazi, ‘white civil rights’ rally inĀ Charlottesville. This weekend is actually the one-year anniversary, and tensions are high. This movie will likely never reach the hearts and minds of those who could really use it, but let it be both a balm and a rallying cry for the rest of us, perhaps even an emergency flare. We need movies like this to get us through these dark days.