I have previously analysed the film Tenet, written and directed by Christopher Nolan to lukewarm reviews, from the perspective of political economy. I would like to now approach the art film from the perspective of philosophy.
Much has been written about the theme of time in Tenet, a theme which animates Christopher Nolan’s whole corpus, including in this late-stage magnum opus. I would like to consider here the theme of being, or the raw phenomenal experience which the film, notoriously light on narrative intelligibility or character background (the main character being known simply as ‘the Protagonist’), presents to the dazzled and dazed viewer. I echo the magnum opus of philosopher Martin Heidegger, Being and Time.
Nolan doesn’t like CGI. Compare with George Lucas’ Star Wars prequel trilogy, which uses green screen in every scene to computer-generate entire alien landscapes. Lucas juxtaposes John Williams’ conventional romantic film score with unconventional visuals. Nolan, meanwhile, employs a highly contemporary and electronic score to accompany a wholly real-world visual landscape of motorways, aeroplanes, and million-dollar boats.
Both worlds seem isolated from working people’s concerns and livelihoods, but in fact frequently note the oppression of de facto slaves by their oligarchic slavers. Professional soldier-spies, the this-wordly equivalent of the Jedi, confront their counterparts with almost as much confusion and incredulity as Hayden Christensen’s Anakin Skywalker.
The basic portrait of Tenet is of the everydayness of even extraordinary sequences of events. The inversion of time itself has the being of banality. ‘Where did he go?’ ‘The past.’
The tragic element in Revenge of the Sith is overplayed beyond proportion, while the obvious tragedy of Tenet is suppressed. If Lucas’s masterpiece is akin in feeling to Beethoven, Nietzsche, and Kanye West, then Nolan’s tapestry is akin in reason to Bach, Heidegger, and Kendrick Lamar.
Critics like a mix of baroque reason and romantic passion, and rightly so. But Mozart’s classical mean is sustained by the extremes which it integrates — deep and shallow, passional and rational, artistic and technical. For the keys to balanced unity are found in the doors of divided extremes. Then, a true mean can be rediscovered, from the vices of excess and deficiency. True balance is found in the realisation that nothing is as it seems. Once again, we are faced with the realisation that this world is a tragedy, but it is also our reality. Posterity depends on our confronting fantasy and realising it. Time is short and being is long. It is time for new tenets. What say you?