This is the fourth in a series of columns on political life by James Duesterberg; read more here.
The good thing about movies is that they have a beginning and an end. You walk into the theater, and afterwards you walk out. For a few hours in between you watch a story unfold in the dark, giving yourself over to emotions and events that are not yours and over which you have no control. When it is finished it becomes part of your day. This is a ritual we perform together to manage the unfolding of time, to produce islands of collective meaning and visions of shared purpose in a life whose ultimate rhythms no one of us can ever control. It is a kind of training for life, specifically life with others, and it is no accident that the birth of the theater, in ancient Athens, coincides with the origins of democratic politics. But the theater is also an escape from life, a temporary shelter in which the flow of images stems reality’s stronger tide. And it is no accident, either, that we have long been trying, through technology, to indefinitely extend it.
When Christopher Nolan’s film Tenet came out in September, the first major film to play in theaters since the start of the pandemic, I was eager to see it. Life in the past few months has been a strange synthesis of isolation and hyper-connection, and one effect of this is that we, or I should say I, find it harder to know how my thoughts and feelings match up with those of others, even as, plugged in ever more tightly to the matrix, we can say less and less what is proper to us as individuals. The image-world has more power than ever, but without our social rituals, we cannot see it for what it is, and these reflections of our lives begin to feel like life itself. I wanted to get out of my apartment, and to see whether other people did too, to find some hint of a life returned to normal. So I drove to a strip mall in New Jersey, paid $25 for an assigned and socially-distanced seat, and settled in to wait.
Tenet is Nolan’s attempt at a Bond-style spy film, and as such it makes for timely escapism. A trustworthy and charismatic government agent in well-tailored clothes must jet around the world to stop an evil genius, save the world and rescue a mysterious woman. On the surface Tenet’s thrills are familiar and comforting ones: a scene in a packed concert hall is scary, but only because terrorists are attacking; we wonder if the villain is really an evil Russian, but that’s because Kenneth Branagh’s accent seems deliberately hammy. The plot is pure candy, but Nolan—one of the most profitable filmmakers of all time, a man whose career arc suggests a synthesis of Lucas-style commercialism with Kubrick-level pretension—has grander ambitions.
The threat Tenet’s hero, known only as the Protagonist, must head off is not nuclear holocaust but something at once more abstract and much worse: the destruction of time itself. A scientist in the future has invented a machine that allows entropy to be reversed; time would flow backward, and Armageddon would ensue. The initial goal, we are told, was to reverse climate change, but once the scientist realized the disastrous consequences, she sent her own invention—“the Algorithm”—back in time, in order to hide it from those who would try to use it and end up destroying the world.
The broad outline is familiar from a genre that emerged in the last decades of the twentieth century: call it the time-war film. Terminator is perhaps the best of these (though comedies like Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure and Back to the Future make a case for seeing the battle for the future as a kind of farce). The future invents time travel, and in doing so introduces, via the “grandfather paradox,” an existential threat to its own existence. It must then send combatants back into the past, paradoxically to prevent some action from taking place, in order to protect the future. This Möbius-strip plot, in which the future intervenes in the past to bootstrap itself into existence, proves rich in narrative pleasure. Ordinary action scenes take on a metaphysical thrill: what they are fighting for is not a specific goal or principle but the very possibility of a future at all.
What’s strange about these films is that the plot’s inevitability, its circular structure, generates its pleasure as opposed to detracting from it. Logically, the fact that Arnold Schwarzenegger has successfully arrived from the future is a sure sign that the fight to preserve it will have been won. Once we have been warned about a world-ending judgment day, it is guaranteed to be averted. But the fight must still be joined, and as the action heats up, the forward motion of the narrative accrues a metaphysical momentum, a synthesis of fate and freedom akin to what Calvinists called grace. These are end-of-history plots, and they reflect the deepest fantasies of their era, a fantasy of digital utopias and U.S. hegemony whose primary selling point was the promise of permanent vacation: a virtual future, unfolding statically, like the gridded, endlessly-receding frontier of a nineties video game.
We are now in a different era, and Tenet is a very different kind of film. Though time-travel plots are by their nature hard to get straight, Tenet’s is less like a loop than a knot; try to pull on it and it only gets worse. Suffice it to say that the crucial difference lies in its main technological conceit, which is not time travel but time “inversion.” Instead of looping around time’s arrow, inversion reverses it. But time cannot run backwards; if entropy were to be reversed, the universe—such as we know it—would be no longer. “Inversion” breaks down the very idea of the future and the past, and so of narrative as well. We can conceive of this happening, but we cannot make sense of it. It’s the difference between skipping around in a book and trying to read sentences backwards; or more to the point, between rewatching a movie and watching it in reverse.
But Tenet, armed with unholy amounts of Hollywood capital and technê, proposes to do just this, and to show it to us. “Don’t try to understand it—feel it,” one of the Protagonist’s handlers tells him, and this advice is directed at the viewer as well. Inversion becomes less a narrative premise than a filmmaking marvel: without ever being able to grasp it, we nevertheless see it. We watch waves receding from a ship’s prow; a building assembles itself out of rubble; a bullet is sucked back into a gun. In one scene, the Protagonist and his team go inverted in order to stop their past selves from accomplishing what, in a previous scene, we had seen them try to do. We watch as they charge forward, passing a 747 jet as it un-explodes, un-scattering its cargo of gold bars and un-breaching the hole in a fortified airplane hangar that the team themselves, in their “uninverted” form, are at the same moment blowing open.
Like all good action scenes, this one is overwhelming and propulsive, but here, and throughout Tenet, the excitement is tinged with a deep uncanniness. The pleasure of an action scene lies in how it compels us forward. When you’re sitting in the theater, it’s as if the force of the explosion, the torque of the car, the laws of physics themselves are driving the narrative forward; there is no time to think. These are cheap thrills, perhaps, but they are special to the movies: to this environment in which, enveloped by the kinetic movement of the film, we feel ourselves get wrapped up in the passage of time itself. Tenet has these pleasures in spades, but “inverted”; here is not action but inaction. The propulsiveness does not push forward, and, for creatures that live along time’s arrow, it cannot go backward. So it hangs, atmospheric, atomized.
Visually it is sublime: I can’t remember the last time I felt images as viscerally as these. It’s as if the film is showing us not just things and people but time itself displayed, framed, stilled; one has the feeling that images like these are what cinema was invented for. But technology can be misused, even perverted. Visual pleasure is not enough: because it cannot integrate into the narrative, it corrodes it, and as these action scenes pile up the film becomes progressively less satisfying. Entropy has to go somewhere, and as we watch chaos assemble itself into order, contrary to the order of things, we realize that Tenet has transferred it to us.
The narrative “point” of the scene in the hangar is that the people who foiled the Protagonist and his team in the earlier scene were the Protagonist and his team themselves. So who are we rooting for, exactly? The effect is to make us go back and question our previous identification with the characters in that scene, and to wonder if we will do the same in the future for this one. As the narrative advances the Protagonist can only zigzag, moving back and forth, tinkering endlessly with his own plot to save the world. By the end we realize that the only hope for resolution the film offers—the only way that the Protagonist can save the world from complete “inversion” and thus destruction—is for the events of the film to repeat in endless eccentric loops, trapping the Algorithm in an entropic decay of its own making. Watching the film, stuck in this loop, one is left to wonder if the Algorithm hasn’t already won, after all.
If I try to step back to look at these turbulent last few months and note what has changed, the starkest shift, though one long in preparation, seems to be the extent to which we have truly fallen into the world of screens. Thirty-second TikTok videos, two-sentence Twitter posts, hour-long Netflix episodes, each autoplaying endlessly into an infinite narrative mesh: these encounters no longer seem to punctuate the day but rather to constitute the medium through which the day unfolds. As 2020 dragged on—the pandemic, the primaries, the protests, the fires, the conventions, the debates—it became clear that these seemingly extraordinary events had become a single non-event, unraveling without a thread. The specter of mind-numbing entertainment is of course nothing new; before Fortnite and TikTok there was the Dead and the Beatles, Plato’s poets and Goethe’s Werther, to lead the youth astray. What has changed is that this dark and torpid realm has acquired official status: no longer an underworld, now it is the only world. We can neither leave nor enter, only play. What we lose is the sense of an ending, and thus of the capacity to begin again.
It’s tempting to see the presidential election as 2020’s real center of gravity, the moment of truth where all of the noise will cut out and the future finally come into focus. “Decision time”: this is certainly how the media and the political parties are describing it. One can understand the hope, but wishing does not make it so. The desire seems to be somehow to go back and undo 2016 (or for Trumpists, to do it for real this time), and in this sense it has the air of a bad rerun. 2020’s last-ditch “fight for democracy” sounds like what the 2016 Trumpists called the Flight 93 election. As then, the atmosphere is one of crisis; institutions seemed to be malfunctioning, and people too. But in 2016 the sense of pathology and breakdown hinted at a possible breakthrough. Precisely because no one really expected it to happen, it was still possible then to imagine the Trump and Sanders campaigns as genuine threats to the establishment. “Taking the red pill” sounded dangerous, powerful. What if the “end of history” ended differently? What if the future could be reset?
Such a fantasy is the vanishing point where art and politics intersect. But after four years of actually-existing Trumpism, the exits are blocked and the thrill is gone. The stakes, we keep being told, have never been higher: both Biden and Trump claim to be fighting for the very possibility of our way of life, indeed of the possibility of saying “us” at all. That is not a vision of the future; it is a kind of defense against it. And our anxiety, this time, circles around not a specific outcome, but the possibility of a contested election, indeed the breakdown of the political process itself—a fear, in other words, of never arriving at an ending at all.