Tenet

Christopher Nolan constructs epic odes to human faith and its dangers. His cinematic worlds are spaces in which humanity only can surpass itself by taking a courageous leap out into the void. His vision of transcendence is powered by a reverence for human fortitude, bolstered by a sense that human destiny has a reciprocal relationship to the order of the universe. The deities guiding human progress are humanity’s future selves: by dreaming of becoming greater humanity achieves greatness. The villains of Nolan’s films are those who have lost faith and embed their cynicism into nihilistic crusades.

Nolan’s time-bending spy adventure, Tenet, embodies this all to a tee, making it one of Nolan’s most complete expressions of his ideology. It is also his most dispassionate work, a film so fatalistic that it loses interest in human agency. If Cameron’s Terminator films posed that there was “no fate but what we make,” Nolan’s Tenet posits a more complicated kind of determinism in which human beings are simultaneously the creators and the product of the past and future. It’s an idea so abstract it defies typical narrative momentum.

In plot architecture this story is essentially just a Mission: Impossible movie, but one that spirals off into ever-more existential territory. Nolan has always had a penchant for dry exposition. In Inception, Nolan gave us a film that endlessly explained its own intricate logic. Here, though, Nolan seems to want both the characters and the audience to feel somewhat lost. Early on, a character says that to understand a causality that is simultaneously backwards and forwards in time, you just have “feel” your way through it.

So, while in Tenet, characters opine endlessly about time and fate and entropy in that characteristically direct, dry, and stiff approach of Nolan’s, Nolan also oddly buries that exposition in the sound mix (and has claimed in interviews that this was intentional and he is unrepentant about this choice). You’ll have to have subtitles on if you want to be able to understand them. The sound mix here is bafflingly, stubbornly obtuse.

The film’s convoluted setpieces and heists flow past the audience and characters in blunt-force disorientation, which is mostly diverting up until the confusing and limp climax, which stages a military battle across two planes of time without much in the way imagination, going for prosaic “wartime” chaos and aesthetic austerity when it should be going for something either more precisely choreographed or something more genuinely awe-inducing.

Still, in the preceding hours, Tenet does develop an appealing tone and pace, a percussive parade of spy movie clichés and tropes presented in a way that is so dryly fatalistic and aloof, it’s almost pure. The parent-child relationships that served as the fulcrum of the existential shenanigans in Inception and Interstellar reappear here in an abstract, condensed form: narrative shorthand.

What propels Tenet is not love, or even revenge, but the idea that to accept one’s place as subservient to the universe is the ultimate self-actualization. Nolan seems to be fully aware of the way that embracing this concept bleeds out conventional blockbuster narrative. The lead character is simply known as the Protagonist: a human abstraction. (Nolan was once in talks to make a film adaptation of The Prisoner, and this seems like a nod to that famously philosophical spy series and its unnamed hero.)

In the role, John David Washington seems to lean into this sense of abstraction, giving us a chilly, distant, analytical hero. His cool-as-ice line delivery and physical swagger does have a unique appeal (even if Nolan’s attempt at James Bond-style banter is largely ineffectual; wit has never been Nolan’s strong suit).

The movie’s secondary protagonist, played by the unearthly Elizabeth Debicki, is similarly frosty, though she is permitted to manifest more sense of interior emotion and psychology as she inhabits the film’s fundamentally schematic scenes.

Only Robert Pattinson seems to be having fun, dressed up like a dandyish expat and dryly and smugly moving through each scene with a detached amusement that calls to mind the way Alec Guinness might have approached similar material. He should be commended for finding some humanity in the film’s portentous fatalism.

The same, unfortunately, can’t be said for composer Ludwig Göransson, whose deafening, percussive sonic landscape picks up from where Hand Zimmer’s deafenkng collaborations with Nolan left off, but lack Zimmer’s talent for mingling experimental sonic textures with emotionally resonant melodic and harmonic expressions. Nolan needs a composer who can embrace his aesthetics and themes while also expanding the film’s emotional palette.

In cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, though, Nolan has found a collaborator who has greatly enhanced the clarity and efficiency of his creations. Hoyte van Hoytema brings a style of composition to Nolan’s filmmaking that feels as structural as Nolan’s approach to storytelling, and Tenet feels intensely and enigmatically architectural in a way that the Escher-inspired Inception never did.

If the mysteries Tenet attempts to express in its images of monolithic stone and industrial machinery never achieve the resonance Nolan seeks, they are at least enough to engage on the level of a diverting curiosity. Take him or leave him, Nolan remains a singular authorial voice, and Tenet is something no other filmmaker would have made. That, in and of itself, is a kind of artistic accomplishment.

Johnny Guitar

Joan Crawford, like Marlene Dietrich, was almost too powerful a force to be contained by the boundaries of the film frame. Few films serve her quite as well as Johnny Guitar, which allows Crawford to dart between contemptuous courage and existential fragility within the space of seconds.

After a brief prelude, Johnny Guitar initially unfolds as a tense and invigorating one-room stageplay, expertly and precisely staged by director Nicholas Ray as a ballet of wills and longings and violence (both latent and expressed). A suicidal energy cuts through each interaction. Every character here stands poised on the brink of combustion.

That’s an excellent space for Crawford, in particular, whose Vienna has clawed her way up from the streets and hitched her dreams to the westward expansion of the railroad. She made her way through the seedy underbelly of the old America and dreams of building a new one.

Sterling Hayden, a master of wry delivery, appears in the title role as Vienna’s former lover. His Johnny, a self-destructive gunslinger who has come to the end of his tether after a history of wanton bloodshed, represents both the culmination of Vienna’s dreams and the threat of its collapse into the wreckage of the past. They carry their wounds with them, and each might find their own demise in their acquiescence to the other.

This ballet, always in danger of transforming into a death-dance, plays out against the backdrop of a frontier turf war. This war between old and new Americas eventually breaks out from Vienna’s would-be enclave, the casino she’s built beside the future path of the railroad, into the unforgiving terrain of that frontier.

As with nearly all of the great Westerns things come together in a tense shootout. If victory remains elusive for any of the film’s characters, the next best thing is remaining alive. If Vienna cannot build the new America, she might survive the pangs of its birth.

The Trouble with Harry

Unfairly dismissed as a film of minor pleasures, The Trouble with Harry is in reality far from minor. Coming from a director of ambitiously structured thrillers, it’s subtle and humble, but it’s also one of Alfred Hitchcock’s most assured, coherent pictures, and stands as his most full-bodied statement on the paradoxes of human nature.

Set in beatific, beautiful Vermont, Harry unfolds as a light comedy about how small-town charm can coexist with indifference towards violence. The charming and twisted opening scene, which stages the birth of a winter romance over a corpse (with one character casually stepping over the body as they go to make their exit) sets the tone.

Here, Hitchcock lavishes his attention on his characters’ idiosyncrasies (he may have famously referred to actors as cattle, but Hitchcock does love to revel in actorly mannerism as a cinematic effect unto itself). Every one of its protagonists are simultaneously sweet and mercenary: self-deprecating and generous and casually cruel and complicit in crime and its coverup.

The policeman is cast as the story’s antagonist (Hitchcock claimed to fear policemen above everything). He’s as uncompassionate and arrogant and unlikable as our complicit band of small-town maybe-murderers are charming. It’s the band of small-town, accidental crooks who have our sympathy. Therein lies the joke. Murder only troubles us when we dislike the murderers.

Alien Resurrection

The woefully misbegotten and mostly tedious Alien Resurrection has only one truly vivid, uncanny, destabilizing moment, and that is when Ellen Ripley (now resurrected as an alien-human hybrid clone from her sacrificial death at the end of Alien 3) encounters a room full of unsuccessful attempts at Ripley’s resurrection.

Ripley’s sacrificial death led not to some dreamy heaven, but once again to another layer of the nightmare. This hall of half-human, half-alien horrors extend neatly from the biomechanical nightmares of the original Alien, and this moment of confrontation dramatizes what the prior trilogy had already signified: the alien had eclipsed all of Ripley’s hopes and dreams, and now she has finally been remade in its terrifying image.

Neither director Jeunet (whose stylized, comic sensibilities jar with the material) nor the screenwriter, Whedon, properly capitalize on this profoundly unsettling turn for Ripley, which is a shame: it offered fertile ground for a series that had seemingly come full circle.

Weaver, constrained by the film, still finds the character within. She was and is, for all intents and purposes, the heart of the series because she can so uniquely express the bitter fortitude that can only come with great trauma. The first film may have been a haunted house movie driven by a sense of the ethereality of outer space, but both Aliens and Alien 3 found their momentum in Weaver’s face and the profound depths it suggests. No actress has ever recoiled in horror with more conviction.

The Big Lebowski

The Coens make better “termite” than “white elephant” pictures (to borrow Manny Farber’s useful, if nevertheless overworn and somewhat dubious, dichotomy). The Big Lebowski is the kind of peculiarly towering work that achieves greatness through its own effortless oddball-ness, the sort that can only emerges when an artist (or, in this case, artists) are motivated primarily by their own idiosyncratic amusement.

A Gen X Long Goodbye, this hazy, somewhat wistful take on American idiocy and confusion by way of the Bush Sr. era of politics, offers a farcical take on Chandler in which America just don’t make sense, man. (Burn After Reading is its acid-tongued cousin, a spiritual successor linked to the next clear phase of the Bush political dynasty.)

Its facetious, but nevertheless oddly resonant, thesis is that in stupid, cruel, criminal times, there needs to be a constant, something to stabilize the chaos: someone with little ambition who will kick back and bowl and drink a White Russian.

The brilliance of Lebowski lies less in what it says than in how it carries itself, which is with the same unimpeachable casual exuberance and weirdness that runs through Bridges’ central performance. It’s the equivalent of a night out at your favorite neighborhood dive bar (which is to say a night spent reveling while in the eye of the American storm).

The Big Sleep

No cinematic Chandler adaptation had successfully channeled the same psychic forces that propel his Marlowe novels (in my estimation, the Mitchum-starring Farewell My Lovely comes closest, even if it gives us Chandler by way of Nathanael West). The Hawks adaptation of The Big Sleep keeps the narrative outlines, but it’s a Hollywood glamour vehicle (even if it has a seedy side).

Bogart excelled at conveying self-destructive psychology, so it’s a shame that Marlowe’s essential cynical loserdom isn’t in evidence. Here, he’s in charismatic heartthrob mode, a kind of James Bond P.I. Still, you could do worse; Bogart is a joy to watch, especially when he shares the screen with Bacall.

Bacall comes from some other planet, a young dynamo that’s all desire and contempt and fortitude. If Gene Tierney was the ultimate self-destructive femme fatale, a woman who would inevitably combust in spectacular fashion, Bacall’s film noir women would survive everyone (including the men they loved).

A Touch of Zen

King Hu’s great wuxia feature, A Touch of Zen, may be cinema’s greatest expression of human spirituality. Certainly, no other film has so perfectly embodied the concept of “holiness” with such force and such effortlessness.

Hu presents transcendence as both tangible and ineffable, all the while suggesting that it is profoundly effortless: to live a holy life is to live the most natural and sensible life.

“The sea of suffering is boundless. Arise and come ashore.”

Showgirls

In Showgirls, some people become has-beens, some become grocery clerks, some become forgotten victims obscured by PR cover-ups, and some skip town and head for Los Angeles.

It’s a garish, vulgar, unsubtle epic, but it’s not senseless. It takes talent and chutzpah to make something this brazenly ridiculous, this unflinchingly earnest, and this strange. It’s a movie made for people who, like me, can laugh and cry at the same time.

The Swimmer

No film channels late-summer existential malaise quite like The Swimmer, one of the strangest and most arresting films to come out of late-1960s Hollywood.

Awash in high-art pretensions and tacky period affectations–literary pedigree, quasi-psychedelic transition montages, a heavy-handed Marvin Hamlisch score, unsubtle symbolism, untamed melodramatic gestures–The Swimmer somehow survived a troubled production (after clashing with Burt Lancaster, director Frank Perry was pushed off of the project after assembling his first cut, with Sydney Pollack reshooting portions of the film and assembling it into its finished form) to become a vessel for the failures of an American generation, or at least some of them. Set in the midst of wealthy Connecticut, The Swimmer offers a portrait of a masculine mind in crisis, disconnected from time and social structures, frantically tumbling into the liminal regions between hope and delusion and despair. Everything about The Swimmer could easily ring false if it all wasn’t so sincere.

That sincerity extends directly from Lancaster, who gives the greatest performance of his career as Ned Merrill, a proto-Don Draper without any of Draper’s cynicism. Lancaster’s Merrill wholly believes in his own mythology. Lancaster looks and speaks like a god from Olympus; if anyone might speak a daydream into existence, it would be him. But he’s more akin to Sisyphus than he is to one of the Olympians, trying to achieve the impossible through sheer will, only to find that his feats of strength and determination lead him right back to where he started.

But to analyze The Swimmer is considerably less interesting than actually watching it. Its observations about class and race and gender and generational shifts sit on the surface; what makes them powerful are the spiritual energies that flow beneath them. To describe The Swimmer‘s dramatic conceits would fail to capture anything of the film’s uncanniness, in the way it makes its own literariness fluid and vital, in the way it finds both hope and sadness in the promise of summer sunlight, in the way Lancaster’s blue eyes strain to see a world that does not and cannot exist.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

“Time is just memory mixed with desire…”
~ Tom Waits, “The Part You Throw Away”

Languorous and fluid, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood floats along currents of longing that seem to come to us straight from deep in Tarantino’s psyche, a place where the Los Angeles of 1969 is real and alive and appealing and sad. Broadly, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is about Hollywood the Dreamland and Hollywood the Reality and the impossibility of reconciling the two. Or, to take a different perspective, it’s about the impossibility of Tarantino reconciling himself to himself.

Much has been made of the film’s rewriting of history, but I think to receive the climax of this film in the way that you might receive the ending of Inglourious Basterds or Django Unchained completely misses the way this film, unlike those, goes to great pains to set-up its resolution differently; in Basterds and Django, their resolutions were the natural outgrowth of a clear build towards a narrative goal, an expression of catharsis that the entire film had been building toward. This film has no such clarity in trajectory; it ambles about from scene to scene, sequence to sequence, before the finale arrives. When it does arrive, it does so with a sharp tonal shift, and, unlike the prior films, goes out of its way to underline just where this film is breaking away from history. In case you missed his maneuvers before, Tarantino concludes his motion picture with the plaintive, ghostly strains of Maurice Jarre’s cue, “Miss Lily Langtry” (lifted from The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean), before “Once Upon a Time…” appears on the screen.

Some commentators have lamented that Tarantino isn’t interested in Sharon Tate as a person, but Sharon Tate the Human Being could never be reanimated by a filmmaker, and Tarantino himself is assuredly aware of that fact. One of the film’s most memorable scenes presents us with Margot Robbie-as-Sharon Tate watching the real Sharon Tate on-screen in a film, celebrating the real Sharon Tate while clarifying that whoever Margot Robbie is playing is very much not the real deal. He applies similar exaggeration to every other “real life” figure that appears in this movie (among them, Steve McQueen and Bruce Lee): these figures are the screen icons that live in Tarantino’s mind, not the persons who lived and breathed and died.

Protagonist Rick Dalton, a second-rate actor in the midst of a breakdown, is directly fictionalized, but he, too, is a creation drawn from the biographical details of real-world also-rans that filled Hollywood, as is his stuntman and best-friend, Cliff Booth. Theirs is a dysfunctional, broken bromance, a struggle to navigate a dysfunctional, evolving Hollywood by clinging on to each other. The Hollywood they navigate is Tarantino’s Hollywood: a place alive with the pop culture miscellany that Tarantino adores. Real life intrudes on the nostalgia: this is the home of alcoholics and maybe-murderers, haunted by the dark menace that lives in the abandoned film sets on the fringes of Los Angeles, but it’s also the place where people could drive in cars with the radio blaring and might end up at a theater or drive-in with a luminous marquee that happened to be showing a beat-up film print of a Spaghetti Western. The latter mightn’t balance out the former, but that doesn’t change the depth of love Tarantino has for it.

The fantasy of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a fantasy that the also-rans of culture that Tarantino cares about–not just the actors that nobody talks about anymore, but the shows and old theaters and even the radio commercials–actually matter. But in the end, it’s just a daydream, as flimsy as daydreams are. Reality is what it is, and no level of imagination can change it. That won’t stop Tarantino from trying.