Time, Space & the Tenet Movie Sound Mix

Tenet Protagonist and Laura scene
Tenet screenplay Protagonist and Laura the detritus of a coming war

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    The Tenet Movie Sound Mix

    Yes, I had to look up detritus too!1Now I know that it is waste material or rubbish, especially left after a particular event, via the Cambridge Dictionary. As Laura said the word in the final trailer, I was paying attention, really paying attention because the music paused to allow this uncommon word full clarity.2TENET – Final Trailer

    All art forms communicate with languages developed out of the tools of the era and the personalities wielding them – film primarily with video and audio. These spoken lines in the trailer were quite clear – literally if not figuratively – but the film itself had a language all its own and one that has taken some self-conscious efforts to come to terms with – the cues, gestures, experiential devices and not to mention the often unintelligible dialogue.

    Now this is coming from a person who consumes the vast majority of his spoken word media via podcasts and audiobooks. I listen, a lot. I don’t own a TV. And yes, there’s the odd Youtube, Netflix and of course full on cinema experiences. I saw Tenet in IMAX, of course, and I came out frustrated that the second half of the film was ruined by me focussing so hard to get the plot. In the end I didn’t and I certainly didn’t take Laura’s advice not to try to understand it (but) feel it.

    I made up my mind though, that on first viewing, in some universe or at the very least to some form of initiated viewer, this would all make sense. I settled for the latter and decided to perform an initiation on myself. This is a summary of the process.

    Let me know if it works for you.

    Initiation

    Initiation of an apprentice Freemason
    Initiation of an apprentice Freemason

    There are two things that this process does not do:

    1. Spoilers – hopefully obviously. I won’t get into anything that you wouldn’t see in one of the trailers. Here in early October 2020 we are in a strange world where this film has made almost 6 times3$262M vs $45M via Box Office Mojo as much outside the US than ‘domestically’. New York State is closed for business and California barely open. No film is bigger than the pandemic and spoilers are bad form anyway.
    2. Discuss the Theme.4By theme we don’t mean ideas such as ‘time’ or ‘love’ but the values that the story conveys – as you might have read as a child “and the moral of the story is …” As fundamental to the storyline, characters and experience that this is, it would be the ultimate spoiler to get into Tenet’s theme here.

    Film As An Immersive Event

    It should be evident by now that Nolan invests 100% in film as an experience in and of itself. In other words, don’t hold out for Tenet the game or some Tenet Live immersive attraction. Tenet the film is it. As Nolan himself said of the IMAX qualities of Dunkirk “The immersive quality of the image is second to none, We really try and create the sensation of virtual reality without the goggles.”5To The Verge

    There are a few key differences between a Nolan immersive film and an immersive attraction of course. In spite of its ‘inverted’ storyline, Tenet the film still has a linear beginning and end that follow the arrow of time. An immersive attraction may allow its audience more agency to play with the sequence of events but what really distinguishes it from film is space. In a similarly linear storyshape6A storyshape is a visual outline that communicates the relationship between narrative elements in space and the visitor’s experience of them through time. For further background on story shapes see Narrative Environments and Experience Design by Tricia Austin your progress in time is accompanied by a corresponding transit through space.

    In addition and critically, at an immersive experience John David Washington is not The Protagonist, you the visitor are. You are the one with agency and you are the one with the character arc7Character arc through the space and time of the experience – meaning that you are the one that comes away the changed person as a result of the experience.

    To paraphrase the legendary game designer Dave Szulborski8Dave Szulborski specialised in Alternate Reality Games. Read on for the relevance of this kind of gaming., the goal is not to immerse the audience in the artificial world of the experience but to immerse the world of the experience into the everyday existence of the audience.9Alternate Reality Games and the Cusp of Digital Gameplay

    It may be that Nolan conceptualised the nameless “Protagnoist” with similar motivations for the audience10TENET – The Protagonist Is The Audience, but regardless of Nolan’s intentions, this is the approach being taken here.

    At an immersive experience John David Washington is not The Protagonist, you the visitor are.

    Act Zero: The Lobby

    Why Act Zero and what the hell is an act anyway?

    An act is a unit of story that ends when (The Protagonist) makes an irrevocable decision. This decision will set the tone for the next act and usually change the (Protagonist) in a significant way11From What Writers Should Learn From Batman Begins.

    Keep in mind that in an immersive experience you are The Protagonist.

    How many acts does the Tenet movie have?

    I’m going to think like an architect (yes, I forgot to mention that that is what I do for a living) and imagine the space of the IMAX theatre as the main event of an immersive experience. So regardless of how many acts Tenet has (it has 3 traditional ones by the way) my experience as The Protagonist begins in the Theatre lobby.

    Cinema lobby

    Now the IMAX space is where I got confused in the first place so the lobby is where my initiation has to happen – and let’s be clear – IMAX or no IMAX, the popcorn and pic’n’mix stand is nowhere to prepare yourself to be immersed in a mind bender like Tenet. Yes, before the film we get trailers, a reminder to turn off our phones and that brief and exciting moment when the lights go down, but these are not unique to the experience of Tenet or any other film.

    Decorex Design Encounter lobby proposal
    Decorex Design Encounter lobby proposal (Illustration by Shupin Liu for John Allsopp Studio)

    At an immersive experience you might find yourself in a dark lobby primed, reflective and prepared to suspend your disbelief in the experience to follow. This lobby works as the transition space between the ordinary outside world and the magical world of the experience.

    In a similar way, this specific initiation for Tenet is an imaginary substitute for the popcorn and pic’n’mix lobby – the transition for you, The Protagonist before the main event of the film – a spatial Act Zero.

    To keep track, let’s imagine this lobby with numbered doors like the flaps of an advent calendar – behind each door, an initiating reveal.

    Advent calendar

    Door No.1: The Sound Mix Is Part of Experience That Nolan Intended

    Tenet felt like a very long time coming and the excitement, from the first trailer almost a year ago, was palpable. 12Can’t top the Cyber Nerds reactionrun dat ting back!

    Cyber Nerds Tenet trailer reaction
    The Cyber Nerds watching the Tenet trailer

    A Feature Not A Bug

    On the surface Tenet is an ambitious, complicated film with a non-linear storyline that can leave us wondering what the hell happened? Exposition comes to the rescue though! The only problem is that in a typical theatre experience13There are only 64 IMAX screens in the USA – less than 2% of the 3,720 screens that Nolan’s last film Dunkirk opened with. and sometimes even in IMAX we’re missing lots of it.

    This, as they say, is not a bug but a feature. Nolan himself has confirmed as much. Among other things, Nolan remarked “I’ve always loved films that approach sound in an impressionistic way and that is an unusual approach for a mainstream blockbuster, but I feel it’s the right approach for this experiential film”14From the Hollywood Reporter So if we take him at his word, then why?

    Nolan’s impressionistic / experiential quote was in reference to Interstellar, where the Nolan sound became a hot topic15Christopher Nolan defends sound in Interstellar. However sound designer Richard King was nominated for an Academy Award for this film, and he was more revealing16‘Interstellar’ doesn’t have sound problems — Christopher Nolan wanted it that way than Nolan about their creative motivations: “It’s more about the experience. The visceral experience of the movie. Being with it. Allowing yourself to be carried along by it. Not grasping for every word, because some of the words are intentionally downplayed in favor of the emotion of that moment give(n) by the actors’ emotion and performances.”

    Interstellar Professor Brand Murph deathbed scene
    A scene with its very own Google "People also ask" result
    What does the professor say on his deathbed in Interstellar

    These are big statements from Nolan and King, enough it seems to satisfy both The Hollywood Reporter and The Verge. Congratulations to Warner marketing but rather than take them as definitive revelations, I see them only as clues, hidden behind one of the doors of our lobby. We are dealing with Christopher Nolan after all.

    The Creative Process

    The answer to why these huge films17Approximate budgets for Interstellar, Dunkirk and Tenet are $165M, $100M and $205M respectively have ’dodgy sound’, is an enigma almost as complicated as one of Nolan’s plots – with similar themes and a somewhat surprising ending. The journey into this auditory enigma is more a look at Nolan’s creative process in making Tenet than a review of the actual story.

    Here, we are working on the basic assumption that everything that we see and hear in Tenet is the result of very deliberate decision-making, auteur style – with little to nothing left to chance.

    I prefer to look at what Nolan has actually done rather than we he says, especially when said through the filter of a Warner marketing lens (machine) – so keep your grains of salt handy. After all, for a man who is clearly passionate about film-making, he doesn’t seem to be a fan of venturing out to personally promote the fruits of his labour18The Hollywood Reporter’s Full ‘Interstellar’ Discussion With Christopher Nolan & the Stars]: Stephen Galloway asks “What is the hardest part of film making for you?”.

    Nolan is a man of relatively few words so it is a bit ironic that he packed Tenet with so many of them while deliberately making a significant proportion difficult to understand.

    The Mask of Bane

    Dark Knight Rises - Bane with mask
    The 'Mask of Bane'

    This however this is Nolan 2.0 – the beginnings of which we saw (or heard) through Bane’s mask in the Dark Knight Rises19Notoriously yes, but his voice was even more obscured in the prologue than it was in the final film – listen here, began to bloom in Interstellar and achieved near perfection in Dunkirk. Even though Nolan himself spoke of a “big conceptual breakthrough”20 to the Hollywood Reporter relating to conveying the Dunkirk soldiers’ first person experience, my guess is that the real breakthrough was with Bane – by accident, and Nolan ran with it. He is still running. 

    To understand the sound mix of Tenet is to solve the puzzle that Nolan has created in the real world of our lives as we experience one of his recent films.

    Was Brian Tallerico right when he questioned whether the sound mix of Tenet would be less a talking point if Nolan had decided that ”… it would have been better to just leave more unsaid, and jump chaotically into the film’s mood and visuals”21Tenet review?

    … perhaps not because one of Nolan’s unlikely collaborators22Travis Scott – The Plan had already leaked the instructions – ”know the plan” (pun intended or not)!

    Didn’t ‘get’ the sound? Well you should expect more of the same and perhaps more intense examples of these experiential films to come.

    Door No.2: Christopher Nolan’s Personality Type

    For a while I imagined Christopher Nolan, the linen suited literature undergraduate in the 1990’s at my alma mater Univeristy College London, as a sort of romantic pseudo academic. The image was probably not on the mark but the subject of literature still nags me.

    Nolan is a throughly 21st century storyteller but with a reverence for the art form’s history and a relatively undeclared appreciation of his place in it. He is a film-maker, as distinct from a movie (entertainment)-maker – self-consciously treating his films as art and placing them within the realm of craft – the literary and experiential consequence of the collective hands of its creators.

    Nolan embraces his identity as a film maker wholeheartedly, and he has followed no other profession.

    It brings to mind the seriousness that the author V.S. Naipaul demanded in representations of his practice.

    V.S. Naipaul has followed no other profession
    From the front matter of a Naipaul novel

    Values

    To understand Nolan’s films requires that at least to some degree we understand him, his personal values and his motivations. We can go so far as to try to uncover the secret of his inner romantic values – his narrative idea of himself that propels him forward – his theme!

    Another Salman Rushdie, writing in memory of Herbert Read put it beautifully when he said that “Literature is made at the boundary between self and the world’, and during the creative act this borderline softens, turns penetrable and allows the world to flow into the artist and the artist flow into the world”23Salman Rushdie, ‘Eikö mikään ole phyla? (Isn’t anything sacred?), Parnasso 1: 1996. Helsinki, 1996, p. 8.

    To understand the artist is to understand his work and its effect on our personal character arc as The Protagonist in our life.

    So Mr. Nolan, who do you think you are?

    Impressionist Cinema

    Nolan’s identification with this school of film making is not a secret, as we have already pointed out. His oft quoted reference to an approach to sound in an impressionistic way doesn’t address what this actually means. What is impressionism? Who were the impressionist film makers? At the very least, since we don’t have the scope to go into a full history here, what about them matters in relation to Tenet and Nolan 2.0?

    To the wider public, and particularly from the perspective of history in our time, the impressionist filmmakers were much less celebrated than their cousins in the visual arts – but they had similar motivations – the representation and expression of feelings, perspectives and emotions (‘impressions’) from a subjective, personal point of view.

    Subjectivity

    Subjectivity is critical because the vocabulary employed through cinematography, editing and physical camera innovations emphasised this first person point of view. As with the filmic Impressionists, as with Nolan, the zoomed out god’s eye view of the world is subordinate.

    Coincidentally I mis-read Nolan’s quote the first time around – seeing experimental for experiential. However the impressionists of the early 20th century were themselves experimenting, in concert with the Dadaists, Surrealists and others. It is fundamentally an experimental approach.

    The impressionists claimed filmmaking as an art form in and of itself, in the manner of painting, poetry and music, rather than simply a by-product of another, or less, just a commercial trade. In this cauldron, film criticism came into its own via essays and manifestoes from the film makers themselves. One of the threads that we can trace backwards from Nolan’s use of IMAX and physical film leads us directly to these early motion picture artists.

    Frame from La dixième symphonie [The Tenth Symphony] (1918, Abel Gance)
    Frame from La dixième symphonie (The Tenth Symphony, 1918, Abel Gance)

    A Historical Take

    “To a degree unprecedented in international filmmaking, Impressionist films manipulate plot time and subjectivity. To depict memories, flashbacks are common; sometimes the bulk of a film will be one flashback or a series of them.”25Apart from the strong but superficial relationship to Memento or Tenet, read on for why this phenomenological approach is key

     

    Analysis by Christopher Nolan on the story structure of Memento
    Analysis by Christopher Nolan on the story structure of Memento
    • “The Impressionists also experimented with … editing to suggest the pace of an experience as a character feels it, moment by moment.”26Exemplified by Dunkirk but this also relates directly to Nolan’s controversial use of sound generally. Read on for more.

    • “The most influential Impressionist technological innovation was the development of new means of frame mobility. If the camera was to represent a character’s eyes, it should be able to move with the ease of a person.”27Chris Nolan: We treated the IMAX camera like a GoPro on Interstellar

    • “Perhaps the most famous artist to carry on the Impressionist tradition was the young designer and director Alfred Hitchcock …” – as Nolan who followed, British, successful in America, suited, booted and highly professional28Alfred Hitchcock’s Professionalism in Making Films. Let us not forget that the earliest but quickly withdrawn word on Tenet was that it might be (as Hitchcok’s) “North by Northwest in tone meets Inception”29So Christopher Nolan’s Next Movie Won’t Really Be Like North By Northwest Meets Inception?

        

      Alfred Hitchcock directing Tippi Hedren and Sean Connery on the set of Marnie
      Alfred Hitchcock directing Tippi Hedren and Sean Connery on the set of Marnie
      Christopher Nolan directing John David Washington on the set of Tenet
      Christopher Nolan directing John David Washington on the set of Tenet

    Missing from the relationship between Nolan and this past however is the Impressionists’ separation of commercial and artistic films. In our romanticism of the arts we tend to lean towards a combination of focusing on the beauty of the product rather than the realities of the process – but if the artist is dead, romanticising the struggle of their life. In Christopher Nolan we have a highly commercially successful filmmaker with an experimental approach to his craft. This is an extraordinarily underrated achievement in the 21st century.

    Café Life

    Missing also from the context of Nolan the pseudo Impressionist is the community element, as there was a tight knit group in 1910’s and 20’s Paris. This is not to say that Nolan doesn’t have any friends, but there is no defined School of film makers operating with similar artistic motivations at the scale that Nolan does. As for essays and pronouncements from director himself, well these are few and far between.30Christopher Nolan: Movie theaters are a vital part of American social life. They will need our help.

    This is 2020, everything is more fragmented, we have Youtube film school31How YouTube Became the World’s Best Film School and as for essays, well you’re already here …

    Door No.3: You Are Going To Be Lied To

    Time, yes, that element so often manipulated in a Christopher Nolan storyline and rightly demanding much attention in audience and press reviews – an overt narrative device that has become something of a Nolan hallmark and is at the very heart of the story of Tenet. Covertly however, and just as consistently, Nolan employs another device – lies.

    With so much of big studio Hollywood so formulaic, who can blame us the audience for approaching films with pre-conceived notions of how it will set up clear distinctions of right and wrong, truth and lies, good and bad – and a clear final victory for the good guy. It’s not just the black and white distinctions but the pacing and the filmic devices that carry you along to the conclusion.

    Nolan’s feature films typically use these audience pre-conceptions to deliver and increase the impact of twists and key moments. The unprepared viewer is shaken out of their comfort zone. For those who are coming back to see Nolan again, the shaking is part of the attraction. In fact it is often part of the marketing of the Nolan Cinematic Universe (I couldn’t resist).

    Don’t come to his films expecting grand universal truths, and certainly don’t try to play god by creating them yourself.

    Noir

    No, like a good film noir32Film Noir, the story is best understood as a tale of desire that animates the search for a truth that is revealed as a result of that search. With Nolan, this goes back to his first feature, Following but the idea of discovery through both deception and direct experience is front and centre in his latest.

    Put another way, the characters have to get into the thick of the lie to reveal what they are searching for – and it is only through the experience of this journey that some sort of truth is revealed. As Todd McGowan sees it “There is no position outside the distortion where the subject can have direct access to the truth … Rather than seeking a position outside, the subject must work through the distortions.”33From Todd Mc Gowan’s, The Fictional Christoper Nolan

    The stylistic murkiness of the (admittedly stereotypical) idea of film noir serves an atmospheric purpose to intensify the environment of deception. Tenet on the other hand takes place mostly in broad daylight. Here the murkiness is not visual but coming through the speakers.

    Following poster Christopher Nolan
    Following movie poster
    Film Noir: The Big Combo
    Film Noir: The Big Combo

    Nolan wants his characters along for the ride. He wants exactly the same from you, the audience.

    This ride for you, The Protagonist can be democratising, for what you may lack in agency, sitting there in the theatre you gain in imagination – to confront the murkiness of uncertainty head-on, confident in the expectation that the personal journey through that murkiness will reveal a truth that lies beyond and is unique to you.

    Fiction

    This is a gift of storytelling, that when an audience enters into an artistic fiction and believes in it, they enter into the possibilities of a genuine event34McGowan

    It brings to mind another flavour of storytelling that has this objective at its very heart, which played a part in the marketing of the Dark Knight and which I suspect has left its mark on Christopher Nolan’s creative subconscious.

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    Door No.4: This Is Not A Film

    Comic Con summer 2007 was the scene of a marketing event that brought the notoriety of the character of the Joker into the real world of the crowd in attendance35Why So Serious: How ‘The Dark Knight’ Alternate Reality Game Changed Fandom Forever. The experience came to life in the form of an Alternate Reality Game (ARG) – a form of collaborative play with a shared story invading the physical world36Alternate Reality Games and the Cusp of Digital Gameplay.

    Why were an in-the-know bunch of kids simultaneously dialing a number that was written in the sky by a plane? Why were they running around with Joker makeup on? What the hell was going on?

    The Dark Knight: Joker applauds in a jail cell
    The Dark Knight: Joker

    The traditional hallmark of an ARG is to deny its existence and declare that This is Not A Game – one of the devices to draw players into its magic circle37Salen & Zimmerman: “a special place in time and space created by a game” of play where the universe of the game exists as an invisible layer in the players’ everyday world.

    Believe

    The idea of suspension of disbelief38Suspension of disbelief is commonplace in film thinking, but an ARG gives the opportunity for a pro-active production of belief and often demands a more conscious performance of belief39 Alternate Reality Games and the Cusp of Digital Gameplay p.36, 112 & 135 in the game’s alternate take on everyday places and events.

    To paraphrase Priya from Tenet, ARG’s by their very nature demand that you look at the world in a new way .

    An ARG is more a pervasive experience than an immersive one but common ground exists in the identity of the characters, protagonist or otherwise – not third party but you. Not on screen nor in a defined space but in your everyday world.

    ARG’s take many forms but ultimately they exist to be solved and their collaborative nature emerges from the fact that they are typically too complex for any single person to get to the bottom of. ARG’s are ephemeral by nature and part of their appeal comes from the intensity of the community they create and the emergent media from the community itself. In the 21st century we don’t have the privilege of a tight knit group sharing coffees and creative ideas around tables of a Parisian cafe – but we still have community.

    Agency

    In a similar manner to the journey to find a truth through the noir-inspired lie, ARG’s integration of the players’ day-to-day life with the fictional world … opens the door to counterfactual thinking, allowing players to imagine new ways of looking at real problems.40Alternate Reality Games and the Cusp of Digital Gameplay

    The players’ investment in this fictional interpretation of everyday reality can provoke realisations of alternate opportunities and pathways in their lives that survive the ending of the game.

    Facilitating agency through storytelling expands on the gift of fiction and ultimately is a political act.

    Door No.5: It’s All About Your Point of View

    There is a secret recording of Christopher Nolan speaking to Warner executives after they told him that he had to give the press an explanation for why so many people were complaining about the sound in his recent films. “It’s all about existential phenomenology” Nolan replies. After two executives collapse on the floor Nolan backs down – “OK, we’ll go with the impressionist, experiential thing”41I had a little chuckle imagining this but no, it isn’t true

    Common sense seems to dictate that in order to convey an accurate account of events or a given context, we must stand back to have a clear, rational view of things that is not coloured by mis-perceptions – to uncover the universal truth of that event or context. As Maurice Merleau-Ponty put it ”… the philosopher believes that he knows what he sees better in reflection than he knows it in perception42Phenomenology of Perception p.302

    Phenomenology says otherwise. Our coloured, subjective, imperfect view of the world is part of what the world means. This interpretation is a truth that exists and in the case of Nolan’s recent films, a phenomenon to be interpreted and expressed in words and pictures on screen.

    You might not understand every word but if say you were in a group of screaming people or next to a loud machine, would you objectively understand everything?

    Maurice Merleau-|Ponty vs Christopher Nolan
    Philosopher vs Film Maker

    … and from Nolan himself: “I really wanted to stay in the point of view of these [soldiers] the whole way through the movie rather than having generals coming around a map explaining things. That was a big conceptual breakthrough for me.”43Making of ‘Dunkirk’: Christopher Nolan’s Obsessive $100M Re-creation of the Pivotal WWII Battle

    Taken from the point of view of an immersive experience, the highly subjective viewpoint adds a spatial dimension to our perception of events, that extends beyond the flat screen. The subjectivity also means that imperfection is a feature – another reason for the sound mix.

    Time Flies When …

    The phenomenon of perception that dilates and contracts depending on the context of your point of view applies equally to time.

    Dunkitk - Beach air attack scene
    Dunkitk - Beach air attack scene

    Dunkirk demonstrated three contrasting perceptions of a fixed time period from three groups of people that were experiencing related but vastly different moments in their lives. The manner and distance of travel and ‘captivity’ varied. The nature of peril varied and in the end what amounted to a long or short time was personal – as intended.

    As the objective clock ticked away steadily, the subjective experience was highly distorted.

    Philm

    Tenet’s Protagonist goes through an orientation with Laura to train towards a ‘second nature’ interaction with inverted objects and ultimately the inversion of himself (not a spoiler, it’s in the trailer).

    Tenet - Protagonist walking inverted in a puddle of water
    Tenet: The Protagonist walking inverted in a puddle of water

    Merleau-Ponty puts forward an interesting scenario showing how quickly and intuitively we can similarly achieve a state of feeling rather than trying to understand: “If the situation is constructed in which the subject only sees a room he is in through the intermediary of a mirror reflecting the room at a 45º angle from the vertical, then the subject at first sees the room as “oblique”. A man moving through the room seems to lean to the side as he walks. A piece of cardboard falling along the doorframe appears to fall diagonally. The whole thing is “strange”. After a few minutes, a sudden change takes place: the walls, the man moving through the room, and the direction of the falling cardboard all become vertical”44Phenomenology of Perception p.259

    Switch the 45º angle for inverted objects and we have The Protagonist in Tenet.

    Door No.6: Christopher Nolan’s Body Language​

    Juhani Pallasmaa wrote the compact and well received book, The Eyes of the Skin45The Eyes of the Skin by hand. He then went on to edit and revise it multiple times, also by hand. In his work, Pallasmaa opposes the hegemony of vision and celebrates the body and particularly the hand as a means towards a total experience of the world. He follows Merleau-Ponty who identifies the body as the first and primary object that places us in our environment.

    RoboCop 2 (1990) - Cain's Brain Out Scene
    RoboCop 2 (1990): Cain's Brain Out Scene

    Mind & Body

    The phenomenological approach holds that our mind and our body are not distinct entities in our perceptions and interactions but act together in situating us.

    Our handling of tools, be they pens or swords expand the confines of the body. In Merleau-Ponty’s famous example of the blind man with his cane ”… when the cane becomes a familiar instrument, the world of tactile objects expands, it no longer begins at the skin of the hand, but at the tip of the cane.46Phenomenology of Perception p.153 – to ”… participate in the voluminosity of one’s own body”47MP p.145.

    For Merleau-Ponty ”… we must not say that our body is in space, nor for that matter in time. It inhabits space and time”48p.140

    Practical Effects

    Christopher Nolan on the set of Dunkirk - IMAX camera on a Spitfire plane
    Christopher Nolan on the set of Dunkirk

    Christopher Nolan is well known for his use of practical effects and for intervening directly in the manipulation of props as part of his personal input into the communication of the film. He situates his body in his work, reducing the conceptual distance between his idea and you the viewer.

    He doesn’t just connect the camera body to his body but the props and set themselves. In this way the architectural setting, with all its filmic tools becomes a medium of communication, mitigated by the body of Christopher Nolan.

    Nolan situates his body in his work, reducing the conceptual distance between his idea and you the viewer.

    Christopher Nolan on the set of Interstellar - manipulating the Endurance spacecraft with hydraulic controls
    Christopher Nolan on the set of Interstellar - manipulating the Endurance spacecraft with hydraulic controls

    ”A great musician plays himself rather than the instrument”49Juhani Pallasmaa: The Thinking Hand

    We have already referenced Nolan’s manipulating the IMAX camera like a GoPro50(#)This is what they look like. In simpler times his job was made easier by the use of the much more portable 16mm Arriflex that was used on Following.

    Empathy

    Our bodies, having introduced us to the world, take part in another remarkable phenomenon – empathy! For example, through our day-to-day life experience we accumulate a feel for a material’s weight, sound, texture and so on. Perceiving the same on screen we have the capacity to simulate the feeling of the real-world experience in the overall experience of our perception.

    Tenet’s infamous scene with the 747 crashing into the building includes a distinctive clank of metal falling to the ground as the building collapses. This operates beyond our ears in conveying nature of the material in the scene (metal and flimsy) and contrasts with the multi sensory thud of falling concrete in the another (solid and heavy), as the images below. We see when we hear but we also feel, recalling analogous memories of what these materials feel like to our bodies.

    Merleau-Ponty again: “We see the elasticity of steel … the hardness of the blade in a plane … the form of objects is not the geometrical shapes: the form has a certain relation with their very nature and it speaks to all of our senses at the same time as it speaks to vision”51Phenomenology of Perception p.238

    Tenet - plane crashing into building
    Tenet: Plane crashing into building
    Tenet - Inverted explosion of a building
    Tenet: Inverted explosion of a building

    We have one more empathetic trick and that is in its relationship to other bodies.

    Familiarity with our own body provides the basis for affinity with another: ”There is … between this phenomenal body and the other persons phenomenal body such as I see it from the outside, and internal relation that makes the other person appear as the completion of the system.”52Phenomenology of Perception p.368

    Apart from any emotional connection the we establish to characters on screen, in the background we also establish a physical one.

    Door No.7: IMAX as a Theatrical Format

    BFI IMAX Building London
    BFI IMAX Building, London

    IMAX is rightly touted for its screen size and proportion however the format also includes a unique approach to sound, to its projectors and even to the angle of the seating in the theatre design. These relationships mean that as you focus visually, elements of the projected image are outside of your direct view and fall within your peripheral vision 53To enjoy the BIG screen – much as in our real-world context. This too adds to your sense of immersion.

    Without venturing into any theoretical realms, the technical specifications alone deliver a unique experience.

    Tenet in 35mm, 70mm and IMAX film
    A clue to what matters to the Director (Tenet)
    Dune Dolby Cinema and IMAX
    Clear but not as to the point on priority and sharing the limelight with a competing large format experience (Dune)

    Perhaps at least some of the preceding ideas behind the initiating doors are true. If that is the case surely there are very practical reasons for the film makers to want the best possible experience for you audience to bring you as close as possible to their creative intentions. If Nolan flies in Rajasthani extras to Mumbai to maintain authenticity54Christopher Nolan wraps up his ten-day Mumbai schedule in just five days; leaves for LA it may satisfy him internally but it definitely helps if the audience experience the film in a way that flatters his efforts.

    Scale

    With all that in mind, perhaps there is something further and more fundamental going on here. William Curtis, in reference to the 20th century’s most influential architect Le Corbusier remarked that “just as Michelangelo had discovered, in his largest schemes, that the Classical orders needed major modification, so Le Corbusier was discovering that a change in size required more than a change in dimension in the central element of his architectural system. The pilotis (columns) were therefore given a subtly modelled form which supplied simultaneously a stocky support for actual and visual stability, and a suitably attenuated and elegant profile to be seen close to”55Modern Architecture Since 1900, p.206.

    Le Corbusier pilotis Villa Savoye
    Slender pilotis (columns) of the earlier Villa Savoye
    Le Corbusier pilotis Unité d'Habitation
    More substantial and emotive pilotis of the later and signifcantly larger Unité d'Habitation

    More Than A Cinematic Format

    While the change in scale from say 35mm film to 70mm IMAX is geometric it is also philosophical. It is not just bigger but different.

    This idea came to me as I sat in the darkness watching another film maker, Sam Mendes directing for the stage at the National Theatre in London.56I was privileged to be a guest of Es Devlin, the set designer for this production of The Lehman Trilogy. It struck me that while his films might be projected at an infinite number of scales, this format was architectural and fixed, and that when the production moved to a new space (which it did to New York’s Park Avenue Armory and to Broadway) it might change its very nature. The play had an unbreakable link to the physical format.

    Sam Mendes directing The Lehman Trilogy at the National Theatre in London
    Sam Mendes directing The Lehman Trilogy at the National Theatre in London

    So then, can we claim for IMAX not just a cinematic format but a theatrical one? Pat Silver-Lasky breaks down stage, TV soaps, TV drama, and film into four distinct theatrical formats that each command a unique approach to the apportioning of dialogue versus action.57Screenwriting for the 21st Century

    IMAX, as a fifth format puts us in a frame in which the various initiating pieces fall into place.

    Critically, our dialogue/action proportion evolves further – with less (distinguishable) dialogue versus other activities on screen which take advantage of the IMAX theatre to communicate more bodily to the audience. The consequential phenomenon is a sensual synesthesia58Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenological Approach to Films. This approach to dialogue is analogous to conversing in a foreign langange that you are not quite fluent in. To some degree you can fill in the blanks and when you can’t you fall back on a heightened awareness of visual and other body language cues.

    With IMAX we cross a threshold into experiential film.

    And from this affirmation we can work backwards through all of the preceding reveals to arrive at the heart of the matter which is that you, the audience are The Protagonist.

    With IMAX we cross a threshold into experiential film.

    The Detritus of a Coming War

    From March 2021 until July the following year expect 12 ‘superhero’ movies from Marvel and DC59[Marvel and DC Movies Will Flood Theaters in 2021 and 2022 — If They Can All Be Made in Time. Let that sink in for a minute. I’ll wait.

    Twelve potentially sugar-high productions with all of the associated messaging, appearances, rumours, product tie-ins and on and on, to vie for our media attention.

    Twelve marketing calendars, overlapping and planned backwards, into our time.

    Marvel and DC are not dropping these releases. We’re catching them!

    Pandemic

    New York Governor Andrew Cuomo may have been right in closing cinemas but he was wrong in characterising them as the “least essential businesses”60NY Gov. Andrew Cuomo Calls Movie Theaters Riskier, Less Essential Than Other Businesses, No Word On Reopening.

    First and foremost, direct and indirect livelihoods depend on them.

    And it should not be forgotten that storytelling is not just about life – it is life.

    What’s In A Story?

    If nothing else, the reveals behind the doors should serve as evidence of the wealth that is embodied in a good story.

    Film is not just an art form. It does not just concretise ways of thinking. It is a way of thinking in its own right, which is why I, an architect on a journey that began with a few unintelligible words, get more out it than just entertainment. We are all richer for it.

    In these extraordinary times, Tenet was shouldered with the responsibility of re-opening and saving the cinema industry. Had it achieved that it would have gone down as one of the most consequential films in history. However, this bet has not paid off … so far. Hardly a flop overall, the film last week topped the US box office with a ridiculously low $2.7M haul – an indictment of domestic politics and its consequences rather than the industry itself.

    Nevertheless Tenet has still taken its place as the most unique cinema experience in contemporary film – a tent pole with no tarpaulin – all by itself, with our full attention if we give it!

    With its former competitors-to-be pushed back as far as 2022, the music has paused to allow this uncommon film full clarity.

    In spite of the naysayers, Tenet is still best placed to save the film industry.

    Community

    No film is bigger than the pandemic but here lies the opportunity.

    Film criticism was birthed out of the fertile environment of the Parisian Impressionist community. As all good criticism it fed back into the enthusiasm and creativity of its makers and precipitated the emergence of new practitioners.

    In this moment, what we can learn from them, from ARG players, from Redditors and others is that community can emerge out of stimulating experiences – in the case of Tenet, not just a film community but a community of film and of storytellers.

    The Decision

    An act is a unit of story that ends when (The Protagonist) makes an irrevocable decision. This decision will set the tone for the next act and usually change the (Protagonist) in a significant way.

    This initiation ends with you The Protagonist.

    Emerging out of it, the decisions are now yours …

    1. Warner Brothers, prove that Tenet will be a marathon rather than a sprint61Warner Chairman Toby Emmerich: “Given the unprecedented circumstances of this global release we know we’re running a marathon, not a sprint, and look forward to long playability for this film globally for many weeks to come.” via Tenet earns over $53 million in first weekend of international release. During this pause, build community!

    2. We already have a social community building a world around this film. Engage them, and when health risks permit, meet them!

    3. When New York and others are safe to open up, fill a few theatres with school children. Instead of popcorn give them an educational trailer for the film. After the credits roll send them out to libraries, workshops and wherever else they can fuel their enthusiasm in a social and hands-on way!

    4. Christopher Nolan, come out of your shell! Why don’t you have a chat with Architect Steven Holl62Questions of Perception: Phenomenology of Architecture, another practitioner navigating between deep thoughts and high commerce. You can discuss phenomenology all you like and I guarantee he won’t collapse on the floor.

    5. And you, we, the fans and audience, take this moment as an opportunity to consume your media holistically and in a more a discerning way. Think, imagine, dream, write, walk, run, share with your friends, be social with your media, in person when you can, in ways that thumbs on a screen can never match!

    Now go and enjoy the film!

    Let the impressionist world of Tenet immerse into the everyday life of you – until you don’t have to understand it, just feel it.

    Tenet wordcloud

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    Further Reading

    The Nolan Variations: The Movies, Marvels and Mysteries of Christopher Nolan

    The Secrets of Tenet: Inside Christopher Nolan's Quantum Cold War

    Phenomenology of Perception

    The Fictional Christopher Nolan

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