Mandatory Second Viewing
I emerged from my first viewing of Tenet puzzled, dazed, and with more gaps in my understanding of the story than I’d care to admit. Yet, even as I walked out of the theater (my first post-Covid trip to the cinema), I was already planning my next viewing. With the benefit of retrospect and hindsight, the second watch was a lot more fruitful and I was able to get a firm grip on the still awe inspiring and jaw-droppingly intricate storyline. So why is it then that I left the theater even more frustrated, tantalized, and feeling even more hollow than the first time around?
First off, it is worth noting that I’ve rarely come out of a second viewing of a Nolan film without having made an observation or revelation about it that completely eluded the first viewing and is more or less impossible to make without the benefit of a second viewing. Nolan’s films actually demand a second viewing as part of their constitution.
Nolan’s All Encompassing Narrative
Another general attribute of Nolan’s films is the ripple effect exercised by his narratives that seems to embed itself into the very fabric of the film’s storylines (whether major or minor), its form/style (visual and narrative), and even lend itself to the viewer’s perception of the film, by means of careful and emotionally triggering manipulation from the part of Nolan. The temporal pincer movement in Tenet, for example, presented at first as a minor trope in the story, is revealed at the conclusion of the film to be part of a much larger motif that defines the entire logic behind the actions that occur in the film. The dynamics behind the pincer movement will eventually define our own second viewing of the film, thus widening the circles of this all encompassing ripple effect.
The Prestige as Key to Nolan’s Cinematic Universe
Key to understanding Nolan’s approach to filmmaking, and his relationship with his oeuvre and its audience simultaneously, is The Prestige (2006). Presented as a sort of legend that allows us to read through Nolan’s cinematic Atlas, The Prestige is a cryptic manifesto in which he posits his personal theory of Cinema. The filmmaker as magician, cinema as magic. Naturally, magic is equal parts trickery and manipulation as well as dazzle and amazement. The filmmaker is therefore, by nature, a trickster and manipulator in Nolan’s book.
The Filmmaker as Manipulator
The main character in Tenet is one we never see. The Protagonist, from the comfort of the future (relative to the film’s timeline), seems to be manipulating his own self into becoming himself. Like some unseen god or video game player, he controls his real life avatar self down to the slightest detail. Of course, his present self is completely oblivious of this and goes through the forward-moving part of the film thinking he’s on a mission of unknown source, when actually he is the one who has recruited himself.
This is where Nolan’s projection of the film’s narrative form upon the audience becomes apparent, and where we start to feel manipulated by none other than Nolan himself. During the first viewing we are exactly where he wants us to be, in the present Protagonist’s shoes, unaware of the inner workings and mechanisms of the storyline. We are intently and passionately attempting to grapple with what is essentially an incomprehensible narrative that only slightly reveals itself as we go forward and will only make sense upon a second watch. As pointed out to Protagonist at the outset of the film we are “out of our depth”, and at this point I’m already thinking “I need to watch this again!”. Like the audience at the beginning of the film, we have been taken hostage and rendered defenseless. And, like Saito or Fischer in Inception, we are strapped into our seats on a flight (the film) and ready to be incepted.
In tandem with the characters in Tenet, the confusion and frustration we feel upon the end of the first viewing, automatically compel us to exercise our own form of inversion (the closest thing we have anyway). We re-enter the cinema to watch the film again (the inversion machine suddenly begins to resemble a metal curtain behind which lies the film screen and filmic universe, or the curtain at the entrance of the theater).
By watching Tenet for the second time we are actually applying the temporal pincer movement logic to our own viewing experience, benefitting from hindsight to fully understand the events that are unravelling before our eyes. The ripple effect widens even further and has now engulfed us, the audience, into its midst.
Now, logic would dictate that upon the second viewing and our significantly better understanding of the multilayered events that unfolded within Tenet, we have now graduated from being the equivalent of present Protagonist, to being the equivalent of the all knowing future Protagonist, thus strengthening our position of knowledge and confidence. However, the fact that we’ve yet to perceive or come into contact with future Protagonist and are oblivious of his exact coordinates, remains a tantalizing thorn in our side. Add to that, the realization that we have been played by Nolan, who has basically been acting out his own magic trick before our eyes, without us even realizing it, and that we have willingly come back for seconds. Nolan has exercised his own form of cinematic Inception upon us.
In magic terms, the prestige (the final reveal) is this intangible and dazzling twist that goes beyond the technical aspect of the trick and embeds it deep within the viewer’s perception. In cinematic terms, the prestige in Tenet is Nolan’s embedding of us, the audience, into the form and fabric of the film, through the subtle manipulation of several overlapping ripples of complex narrative that align to pack a deeply affective (and effective) cinematic punch. Well played sir!
*For a comparative look at Tenet and I’m Thinking of Ending Things, take a look at my story entitled “I’m Thinking of Stranger Things”.