As one of very few directors billed above his stars, Christopher Nolan was almost in with a shout at reviving post-lockdown cinema. As it turned out, the late August release of Tenet was the last gasp off an overly-optimistic pandemic summer. Now, in December, with the next Bond movie delayed once more, the cinemas have hunkered down for the long winter.
Tenet might not have been the blockbuster we deserved, but it’s the one we needed: a smart, blowout action thriller that demanded to be seen in IMAX after audiences had been away from the cinema for months. Current box-office takings obviously aren’t what they would have been, but exceeded expectations and the film might reappear in cinemas in 2021.
As many anticipated though, Nolan “out-Nolaned” himself with Tenet, and not in a good way: “A James Bond film with added physics no one understands”, “a lot of flash and bang and very little depth”, “easy to admire… but impossible to love”. This is largely due to Tenet’s head-scratching, unique form of time-travel: “inversion”. I won’t try to explain it here (or anywhere, for that matter).
Tenet continues Nolan’s prolonged obsession with time. Among others, we’ve had the backwards narrative of Memento, the dream time of Inception, the relativity of Interstellar. Like a chef devoted to the endless possibilities of one ingredient, Nolan has spent twenty years experimenting with the flavours of time.
Yet now is a good time to ask: is there anything to it?
We’re rightly grateful for the “Event Cinema” Nolan provides, but what is the event about? Nolan has long insisted film is a medium for the movie theatre, but is there anything to chew on once the lights come up? Does the most popular director in the world actually have anything to say about time? Or is it all full of sound and fury, signifying nothing?
Time is Always Time
T.S. Eliot was obsessed with time. Near the start of his great conversion poem, “Ash Wednesday”, he writes:
Because I know that time is always time
And place is always and only place
And what is actual is actual only for one time
And only for one place
I rejoice that things are as they are and
I renounce the blessed face
And renounce the voice
Because I cannot hope to turn again
Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something
Upon which to rejoice
This is the resigned voice of a pre-conversion Eliot. For Eliot, time often seems a wretched constraint, and the tension at the heart of things is between the temporal and the eternal: how can the two ever truly encounter one another? At the outset of “Ash Wednesday”, they cannot. By its very nature, time cannot encounter “the blessed face” of timeless divinity. Time is an inescapable prison, and so man must make his own rejoicing.
Filmmakers are well acquainted with this prison of time. How can you make the most of the two hours traffic of your stage? This is made worse by the expectations of studios and audiences to hit the right beats across 120 minutes.
Nolan has spent his career playing with those expectations. And, at the very least, this makes his blockbusters wildly more entertaining than most. Rather than hiding in the background, or ticking it predictably away on a stick of dynamite (though he’s not beyond the latter), Nolan foregrounds time. He explains:
The films I’ve made, I’ve tried to grab a hold of what in most films is a subtlety. It’s there but the audience isn’t particularly conscious of it. I’ve tried to take it and use it for the tool that it is because I think it’s a tool that’s unique to cinema… Cinema has this amazing ability to change and manipulate people’s feelings about time while they’re watching a film.
So Nolan’s time-tinkering is at least for our entertainment. When watching a Nolan film, time, briefly, isn’t just time; it becomes the thing – examined, twisted, dissected. Of course, for all that, Humpty Dumpty is eventually put back together again, resulting in films which stands as classics of the genres which they deconstruct – whether murder mystery (Memento), heist movie (Inception), war movie (Dunkirk), or action thriller (Tenet).
But this doesn’t quite dispel the charge that Nolan lacks depth. Roger Ebert argued that a second-viewing of Memento added surprisingly little to one’s experience of the film: “Once is right for this movie. Confusion is the state we are intended to be in.” That confusion can be exhilarating, and makes for great conversation on the car-ride home (and maybe a few YouTube videos titled things like “Tenet Ending: EXPLAINED”). But are Nolan’s time-bending antics in service of anything more than excellent entertainment?
Time is perhaps the most creaturely of constraints – even an unfallen or redeemed humanity is not timeless. This may be why Eliot, like Nolan, foregrounds it. Yet, in “Ash Wednesday” Eliot places time closely alongside place, which similarly is “always and only place.” Time, then, may serve as shorthand, a synecdoche, for creatureliness in its entirety. Man is bound by time most of all, and therefore also by place, body, memory, and suchlike.
Elsewhere, in “Burnt Norton”, Eliot writes:
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable
For Eliot, to “redeem the time” (alluding to Ephesians 5:16) would not be to make the most of time, but to bring the temporal and the eternal, the creaturely and the divine, together without compromising either. Yet this seems impossible.
What, then, to do?
One option: reject creaturely limits, deny that “time is eternally present”, and strive to redeem the time, to obtain “the blessed face” for yourself.
Another option: resign yourself to your limits, renounce any hope of redemption, and make your own rejoicing.
Eliot was dissatisfied with both these courses and, in the end, found the only alternative. Douglas Murray describes Eliot’s solution:
a Christian metaphysics that justifies [Eliot’s] early intuition… about the potential recoverability of time: that all time might be eternally present, and redeemable (emphasis added).
The end of Eliot’s exploring was in neither rejection of, nor resignation to, creatureliness. It was in the creaturely and divine being miraculously united, such that, as his Four Quartets concludes, “the fire and the rose are one.”
Like Eliot, Nolan uses time as a shorthand for the broad struggle against creatureliness – a struggle which unites many of his protagonists.
This, I would argue, is where we find the depths in Nolan’s cinematic trickery: his directorial battle against time is the means by which he explores his characters’ struggles against creatureliness in its variegated forms. Some are crushed by the struggle. Others embrace it, with the resignation of the unconverted Eliot at the start of “Ash Wednesday”. More latterly, some have (allegedly) overcome it.
Consider Memento (2000), Nolan’s breakthrough film. His protagonist, Leonard, struggles against the fallibility of memory, manifest in his short-term memory loss. He is supposedly desperate to get around his own untrustworthy mind in order to access the naked facts of his life: “I have to believe in a world outside my own mind.”
Nolan illustrates Leonard’s struggle with the film’s two-way timeline (one half black-and-white in chronological order, one half colour in reverse). Witnessing both of these, the audience gradually knows the end from the beginning, and perceives the inescapable gulf between Leonard’s reality and perception. The film climaxes when these timelines converge and Leonard briefly comprehends the facts. However, he rejects them in favour of his own constructed reality. He has fought against the creaturely constraint of memory and finds it is a fight he cannot win – and nor does he want to.
In The Prestige (2006), magicians Borden and Angier struggle to create the appearance of magic in a world that is “simple and miserable, solid all the way through.” Both are forced to ask what price they are willing to pay in pursuit of the “The Transported Man”, the coveted illusion in which a magician seemingly teleports himself across the stage – for a moment defying the idea that “place is always and only place.”
Borden’s secret is that his identity is shared by identical twins; Angier’s that he has acquired a cloning device. Both attempt to overcome the creatureliness of place, but they (and those around them) are crushed by it. The Prestige overcomes Roger Ebert’s criticism of Memento and rewards repeat viewings; Nolan’s deftly woven non-linear plot and raft of closing revelations tragically reframe each scene once we know the futile and costly struggle in which each magician is engaged, unbeknownst to their loved ones.
In Inception (2010), at first glance the creaturely struggle is attempting to control the thoughts of another: Cobb pursues the allegedly impossible task of implanting an authentic idea in Robert Fischer’s via his dreams. Cobb’s answer is to go three levels deep in the dream-world, planting a simple idea based on positive emotion.
Within each dream, time passes differently; ten-hours in the real world buys many more hours within the dreams in which to accomplish their mission. Yet these time-bending antics are really just an entertaining way of presenting the film’s main interest: the power of an idea.
On one level, Cobb seems to overcome creaturely limits: the inception is successful. Yet our main interest isn’t Fischer’s mind, but Cobb’s: full of regret and doubting reality. The pressing question is whether any idea of peace will incept itself in Cobb’s mind. The film’s not-uncontroversial ending is not about Cobb’s overcoming of creaturely constraints in swindling Fischer, but his acceptance of creaturely constraints in his own search for certainty. He ceases struggling against what he cannot change or know, and embraces what he has. This is only possible because the relativity of dream-time has allowed him to plumb and dwell in the depths of his own mind. Eventually, he is able to “rejoice that things are as they are.”
Interstellar (2014) is our current theme writ large. In the near future, with climate change rendering the earth uninhabitable, Matthew McConaughey’s Coop undertakes a last-ditch NASA mission to find a new home for humanity on the far side of a wormhole. Dylan Thomas is taken up as humanity’s mantra: “Do not go gentle into that good night,/Old age should burn and rave at close of day;/Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
The bending of time is what makes man’s escape possible. Within the black hole, Coop enters a giant tesseract, constructed by super-evolved humans from the distant future, allowing him to move through time, influencing the events of his own past, and communicating data to his daughter which allows her to rescue humanity from earth with anti-gravity technology.
Although time itself is very literally overcome in Interstellar, it is not in itself the enemy. The enemy, rather, is humanity’s collective mortality. “Mankind was born on Earth, it was never meant to die here,” says Coop. This mortality is tied to the earth, itself an obstacle to overcome, with man literally returning to the dust as the film begins. It is anti-gravity technology, a literal refusal of the dust, which is humanity’s salvation. Through a series of time-bending escapades, the creaturely constraints of mortality and place are overcome, in a thinly veiled (if beautifully rendered) parable for evolution and humanistic progress.
Dunkirk (2017) is perhaps where time itself finally becomes the enemy for Nolan. With the German forces closing in, the race is on to evacuate 400,000 men. Famously, Hans Zimmer’s score incorporates the ticking of Nolan’s pocket watch.
Like Inception, Dunkirk juxtaposes multiple narratives occurring across different periods of time: a week on land, a day at sea, and an hour in the air. Despite these disparate lengths of time, all are imbued with the same sense of urgency, achieved by Nolan giving the whole film, from start to finish, the tense “snowballing” effect usually reserved for a third act.
Against all the odds, time is beaten in Dunkirk. Of course, being a true story, we can’t paint Dunkirk as a wishful humanistic fable like Interstellar, but it does continue what Interstellar seemed to begin: the suggestion that creaturely constraints (in this case time) can be overcome.
This brings us to Tenet (2020). In Dunkirk, the clock was simply beaten; in Interstellar, it was circumvented; in Tenet, it must be wound back.
When all is revealed in Tenet, we learn that The Protagonist is being influenced by his future self, who is at war with future villains trying to destroy our present (allegedly to stop global warming). Both parties attempt to head each off at different points in the past by “inverting” people and objects back into it. The global warming angle is given so little attention that it is clear time itself is the creaturely constraint most prevalent in Tenet. The mistakes of our ancestors and the victories of our enemies are things we are usually powerless to change, but not in Tenet. Time can be navigated and controlled. For The Protagonist, time is not always time.
You’ll have noticed no mention of the Dark Knight trilogy. I mention it last here because, although full of Nolan’s usual directorial tricks, the films don’t tinker with time, and so are slightly off topic.
However, we should note that they do revel in the overcoming of creaturely constraints. Nolan rescued the Batman brand from its camp 90s nadir, making him less cartoonish and more believable. Quoting Roger Ebert again, the franchise “is not realistic, because how could it be, but it acts as if it is.” Throughout, Nolan’s Bruce Wayne contends with his own weakness and limitations to become the Dark Knight. He says in Batman Begins: “As a man, I’m flesh and blood. I can be ignored. I can be destroyed. But as a symbol, as a symbol I can be incorruptible, I can be everlasting.” Helpfully, he is also aided by a ton of cash, powerful technology, and a resourceful Morgan Freeman.
Is there, then, substance to Nolan’s time-tinkering? It seems fair to conclude that it is neither pure spectacle nor self-indulgence. Rather, time is the principle means by which he explores his characters’ struggles against their creaturely constraints – whether that’s memory, perception, place, mortality, or even time itself.
As we have seen, in the first half of his output, Nolan’s protagonists were crushed by their creaturely constraints. Inception seemed to mark a peaceful resolution, with Cobb’s contented acceptance of his limits. Yet since then, Nolan’s protagonists have been overcoming their constraints. They rage, rage against the dying of the light – and somehow succeed. Time is, for some reason, no longer always time.
What changed? Why has Nolan started to suggest that creatureliness can be overcome?
Returning to T.S. Eliot, remember Douglas Murray’s description of how the problem of creatureliness was solved: a Christian metaphysics. This avoided both resigned despair and doomed Promethean attempts to rise above man’s station. Creatureliness was not overcome, but redeemed. Time is both eternally present and redeemable.
We are prompted then to ask: what is Christopher Nolan’s metaphysics? Although there is more depth to his work than is often suggested, this seems to be where he bottoms out. He has not given us a good reason to believe that time is anything other than always, and only, time.
Whatever the pandemic’s long-term effects on cinema, it’s unlikely Nolan will be going anywhere, so we can watch with interest as to whether he will develop his own satisfactory metaphysics in the future. Though if, as expected, 2021 sees the end of Daniel Craig’s stint as Bond and the beginning of Nolan’s long-rumoured takeover of the franchise, we might have to wait a few years for that. Metaphysics are not exactly 007’s forte.
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- “‘Tenet’ Triumphs With $53M Worldwide Launch From 40 Offshore Markets & Canada – International Box Office” by Nancy Tartaglione, Deadline, 30th August 2020,https://deadline.com/2020/08/tenet-christopher-nolan-the-eight-hundred-imax-china-international-box-office-1203024679/ ↑
- “Q&A: Christopher Nolan on the craft of Dunkirk”, The Associated Press, 2nd February 2018, https://apnews.com/f6d116000c6b4f26ade6a09771dbfdac/Q&A:-Christopher-Nolan-on-the-craft-of-‘Dunkirk’ ↑
- Roger Ebert, “Memento”, 13th April 2001, https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/memento-2001 ↑
- Douglas Murray, “Why T.S. Eliot Still Matters”, May 22 2020, https://standpointmag.co.uk/issues/may-june-2020/why-t-s-eliot-still-matters/ ↑
- “Tick-Tock: Christopher Nolan on the Rhythm of Dunkirk”, Jake Cole, ABC, July 14 2017, https://archive.vn/20170715064242/http://abcnews.go.com/Entertainment/wireStory/force-strong-director-christopher-nolan-48639705 ↑
- “At Last: Batman’s Real Story”, Roger Ebert, June 13 2005, https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/batman-begins-2005 ↑
- Douglas Murray, “Why T.S. Eliot Still Matters” ↑