Christopher Nolan films should be seen in the movie theater. As serving suggestions go it’s hardly controversial. Nolan not only loves film as a medium, but its 70mm celluloid form in particular. The closing credits of his movies proudly state: “This film was shot and finished on film.”
So, if you see someone watching The Dark Knight Rises on plane, you should cover their screen with a complimentary blanket and mutter “how dare you?” as you shake your head in disgust. His films demand the sense of occasion that comes with a trip to the cinema. They require your undivided attention. It’s easier to keep your mobile phone on in the living room rather than Screen 10 at the local multiplex. He plays by the same rules himself. He doesn’t allow phones on set, or even own one himself.
The social restrictions of mid-2020 meant that his eleventh feature, Tenet, was delayed three times before its eventual cinematic release on August 12th. It was my first trip to the movies since seeing Bong Joon Ho’s Oscar winning Parasite with friends in early March. Walking into the foyer alone with my mask on in September, a lot had changed. Two and a half hours later, I was reassured that Nolan hadn’t.
In Tenet, he’s up to his old tricks – or perhaps it’s just one trick repeated time and again. It’s another beautifully rendered complex plot, driven by the twin forces of philosophical speculation and audacious action movie set-pieces. It’s a grand spectacle. But though his toy box is filled with all kinds of vehicles (a plane, a fire truck, and $100M Super yacht), Nolan’s real fascination is with time. Since Memento (2000) he’s been folding timelines like a grade schoolteacher removing a classroom display. He stretched time in Inception (2010), and did it again in Interstellar (2014). He split it three ways in Dunkirk (2017) and his Batman trilogy was haunted by the ticking clock. There’s always a heist and there’s always a countdown.
But what makes Tenet different? The titular palindrome marks the central premise: “inversion”. This is a film made of “temporal pincer movements”. Characters not only travel back to points in time but move backwards through them. The best way to illustrate this for the Westminster Seminary community is to call upon the chiastic structures of Hebrew literature. It’s basically that but done with time rather than text. If you’re confused, don’t worry. Nolan’s films demand multiple viewings. The question is whether the first pass inspired you to come back for more (and if you do whether you’re allowed to watch at home).
So, aside from his demand for considerable amounts of your time, and an appeal not to forsake analog technology, what is Nolan trying to say? At one level nothing really. He likes asking philosophical questions, he likes making complicated films, and he likes the way time and film work together. But he knows that this is your focus. He knows that you spend most of the movie asking, “What’s going on here then, Christopher?” He couldn’t develop Inception, Interstellar, and the idea of “inversion” without an awareness he’s puzzling his audience.
The arts have stealthy quality which allows them to get past our defenses. It was articulated by C.S. Lewis as “steal past watchful dragons”. Once you’ve seen it, it shows up everywhere. How do you pass a three-headed dog? Hercules and Harry Potter tell us “you sing him a song”. How do you convict a king of adultery? The prophet Nathan tells us “You tell him a story about sheep.” And Nolan is convinced by the principle too. In Inception he asks, “How do you put an idea into someone’s head?” He tells us “you do it in a dream inside a dream.” But while he’s used it as a plot device, Nolan doesn’t put it into practice at the macro level.
He’s not sneaking anything into your cereal. He’s just giving you something to read on the back of the box. Don’t misunderstand me. He’s not neutral. He has his own view of the world and it comes out through his films, but he’s not a message driven filmmaker. He’s more interested in what he can achieve. He wants to know what’s possible with filmmaking and then push to see if that boundary is real. Anne Hathaway reportedly said he doesn’t allow chairs on set. Believing instead that everyone should be working. In some ways, that’s part of his worldview. Work. Think. Build. Achieve. Find out what “temporal pincer movements” means.
The downside of such ambition and complex narrative engineering is that it can feel impersonal. There’s nothing to suggest he’s a difficult person to work with (his cast and crew regularly rejoin his projects) but his characters are often a means to an end. They aren’t especially important. The lead in Tenet is literally named “Protagonist.” They’re cogs in Nolan’s machine. They serve the plot, and this can restrict an actor’s opportunity to shine. It makes Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker in The Dark Knight all the more remarkable. To date he’s Nolan’s only onscreen Oscar winner.
So, is Nolan aloof? Is he too removed from the ordinary concerns of life? Too cerebral? Perhaps. But if we wanted to see the mundane challenges of the daily grind, we have Mike Leigh and Noah Baumbach. Nolan is more concerned with your mind than your heart (Leonardo DiCaprio’s marriage in Inception and Matthew McConaughey’s tear-jerking video messages in Interstellar notwithstanding). Tenet makes grab for the feelings lever right at the end, but the tears didn’t feel earned. I was too busy tracking the temporal pincers to give in.
I’ll continue to watch Nolan’s films in the cinema. They deserve the scale and sense of occasion. After watching the credits, I looked around to see that Screen 10 of The Regal Theater, Plymouth Meeting was completely empty. I looked up to the projection room. It was empty too. I walked along an empty corridor to an empty foyer. Mine was the only vehicle in the parking lot. It felt appropriate. A grand spectacle, a lot to think about but no one to talk to.