Tenet, and admitting you haven’t a clue what’s happening in a film

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As more and more people find the narrative of Christopher Nolan’s Tenet near-impossible to follow, a few words about admitting you haven’t a bloody clue what’s going on.

This article contains no plot spoilers for Tenet.

I’m one of those people who, as a rule, tends to assume that I’m the problem. That if there’s a bit in a film or television show that I’m struggling to wrap my head around, there’s some part of the storytelling circuit that I feel I’m not completing.

I felt it when I lost track of who half of the characters were in the latter seasons of Game Of Thrones, for instance. I got it when I reached the end of mother! and felt that, whilst it was clearly distinctive, I should have liked it more than I actually did. And I’ve felt it again coming out of watching Tenet, the latest box of puzzles from Christopher Nolan.

I should declare up front: I’m a huge Christopher Nolan fan, and as better people than me have pointed out, his films routinely treat the audience as intelligent. He’s always got the balance pretty much spot on for me too, in terms of measuring that intelligence in tandem with outright accessibility. The closest he’s perhaps come to blurring that I’d suggest comes at a certain point in Interstellar, but crucially, by the time he starts throwing a few particular moments into that film that I have no intention of spoiling in this article, he’d got the vast majority of the audience utterly bought in. There were crumbs laid as to what he was up to, and I was keen to go back and have another run at the film. I’m glad I did.

In the case of Tenet, it straight away goes without saying what a pleasure it is to see such an ambitious film on a huge screen, made within the studio system by a man who I’d argue has long dispensed of any kind of focus group. The sheer spectacle of Tenet is really something, and I was constantly engaged by the visuals of the film, and the ambition on the screen. Heck, it was nice to be in a cinema, and it’d be remiss not to acknowledge the novelty of a new big blockbuster release.

Here’s the problem, though: for large parts, I couldn’t tell you what was actually going on in the film. Even now, two days later when I’ve had time to think about it, I’d struggle. It feels a bit like I’ve failed an exam. Genuinely, it quickly got to the stage where I’d have been guessing if someone had paused the film and set a test on what I’d seen thus far.

Thinking as usual that it was me, when I left the cinema I asked the two other people who I’d gone with – both of whom have active brains in their heads – about certain points in the film, and they were perplexed too. Between us, we barely had a Scooby Doo what had been happening. For all three of us to walk out of a film like that had never happened before.

I should declare that I’d avoided all reviews and trailers going into the film, so genuinely hadn’t read a synopsis or seen a frame of footage of the movie when I took my seat. I may have been at a disadvantage for that. Some foreknowledge, I’ve concluded, wouldn’t have hurt.

Still, I caught up on the reviews when I got home, and for once, I didn’t feel like I was entirely the problem. Writers I like and respect had posted their reviews and there was a consensus forming that you just have to go with the spectacle and audacity of it all, and not to try to actually wrap your head around it.

The terrific Robbie Collin, for instance, penned a review at The Telegraph entitled “don’t try to understand it – just rewind and enjoy the ride”. He loved the ride too, awarding the film top marks. The New Scientist – and the folks there are much cleverer than me – describe the film as “time twisting fun that is head-spinningly hard to grasp”. Empire throws in the word “baffling” into its summary. My colleague, Charlotte Harrison, said that she enjoyed it and truly appreciated it, but noted there were “extended periods of time where you have absolutely no idea what is happening”.

In fact, it’s a struggle to find any review that doesn’t make mention of just what a narratively tricky film to follow it is. Even from the people who really love the movie.

I’m, thus, going to be that guy. I think if a film is baffling large numbers of people, that there’s a sporting chance there’s something not quite right with it.

Furthermore, I’d also like to posit this: if Christopher Nolan hadn’t made the film, who we know to be brilliant, would it be getting the benefit of the doubt that the movie’s woven narrative is receiving?

I’ve no intention of spoiling the plot of the film, and not just because I forgot to get an MSc before I went to see it. But I do think this: a film, somewhere along the line, has to give you some way in for it to fully work. Tenet, understandably, features necessary explain-y scenes, and there are moments of exposition fired at you. Unfortunately, also fired at you is a continual grumble for me where Nolan’s films are concerned: a lot of loud noise at the same time. It’s sometimes very difficult to hear the dialogue. That in the case of Tenet, explanations are played out against roaring water, or the ultra-loud score, or a character wearing a mask. The bottom line is I and many others are struggling to hear what’s being said. In doing so, the film is putting obstacles in the way of following what’s going on.

The counter argument, that Nolan has said before, is that it’s deliberate. That the busy soundscape is part of the effect. I’ve never bought that explanation – what’s wrong with wanting to hear dialogue? – but I did want to put the alternate point of view.

Anyway, those without perfect hearing – and mine isn’t bad – are already at a disadvantage (and I do think that’s a broader issue here). Yet what ultimately doesn’t help is that Tenet like my old maths teacher.

I won’t name her, but she was brilliant, fascinating and distinctive. Still, that didn’t stop her tearing off making notes on the board, explaining stuff, and not giving you moments to stop and ask questions. If you told her you were struggling to keep up, she’d say ‘nonsense’ with a big grin on her face, and promptly add another paragraph of bumph on top. And you’d go along with it because she was brilliant, before realising you’d barely taken anything in at the end of the lesson.

Tenet, in its defence, does have moments when the characters stop to do a summary of sorts. Yet – outside of an initial explanation near the start of the film – it just baffled me. There’s something for me about the writing of the film that didn’t quite connect. I assumed, as always, that I was the problem.

But reading the plethora of reviews, of comments, and of articles already from people struggling with the film, maybe I’m not. I’d suggest that a sizeable number of people will be hunting for a plot explainer within 24 hours of seeing the film, and that the website that manages the best breakdown of it all – not this one, as you can tell – will be Google’s best friend for the next month.

I know I’m supposed to join the ‘just go with it’ argument, and I really see it. But conversely, why is the film getting what seems like a free pass for being so confusing for so many people?

I don’t think, after some thought, that it’s an unreasonable expectation of an audience member to be given a sporting chance of being able to follow a film. Sure, I’m already seeing messages from many saying that they followed it perfectly well and didn’t see what the problem is. Brilliant. I’m genuinely glad it’s working for some people. And I accept that many followed Game Of Thrones with ease, and plenty champion mother!

Yet every single Christopher Nolan movie to this point has made me feel included, has sometimes stretched my brain a bit, but crucially he’s never made me feel that I needed briefing notes on the way in.

With Tenet, I think for the first time the balance is off, and by some distance. I’m reading pieces now that suggest you need a second viewing to understand it, and I’m all for that. I love a second viewing of a film where you spot more things, get a deeper understanding of the movie, and get to enjoy it even more. Going back to Interstellar, a second watch really enriched that film for me. But crucially, I never felt a second viewing was vital to simply get a handle on the actual plot of the film.

In the case of Tenet, I’m almost feeling obliged and pressured to watch the film twice, as if it’s homework. I didn’t walk out thinking I actively want to see it again, I walked out thinking I should do, to fill in the gaps that silly old me missed. And I don’t think that’s the way it should be. As the UK reviewer Dave Roper noted on Twitter, “I think there’s a difference between a film that’s rich enough that you get new things out of repeat viewings and one that defies comprehension unless you watch it over and over”.

Because I can’t get away from this point: right now, if you ask me – and I suspect many others – to explain just what went on in Tenet, without cheating, we’d fall short. Way short. If you asked the same people how many of them heard all the dialogue – and I did a straw poll online on this – I’d reckon most people didn’t, and felt it hurt their understanding of the film. And I think these are bigger problems than are being recognised.

I liked good chunks of Tenet. I will watch it again. I love what Nolan does, the fact that he can get the film through the studio system, and make features like this exist in the first place. I hope I come to love the film.

At the moment though, I’m frustrated with it, fascinated as to the testing process for the movie (if there was one), and don’t believe the sizeable issues with it should be brushed aside.

Because as things stand, most people’s only chance of getting the most of out the movie’s narrative rest on the film getting a fairer fresh sound mix, and a print-off of the Wikipedia summary page being handed out by the exit. At the very least, the film surely needs to make an effort to meet you half-way in helping you wrap your heard around it.

Tenet, for me, doesn’t.


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