Tenet (2020): the oldest special effect in the world

I think this blogpost contains spoilers, but it’s very hard to tell.

Christopher Nolan’s new film is notoriously complex, or perhaps just convoluted. I say that because although I wasn’t always ready to answer probing questions on either the plot or the physics that propelled it, I was fascinated by Tenet’s central use of the simplest, and most effective weapon in the filmmaker’s arsenal: the rewind.

Film is a time-based medium, which is always played forwards but can be recorded backwards. And at the heart of Tenet, this is all there is: film moving backwards and forwards. This being a Nolan blockbuster, we know it was actually shot on film, which makes it extra satisfying. Tenet calls the rewind “negative entropy” and so would you if you were making a multimillion-dollar movie.

Watching John David Washington “catching” bullets back into his gun is just like watching the Lumière brothers in the 1890s. Their Démolition d’un mur (1896) is a truly palindromic movie and a sublime combination of subject and medium. Any fool can watch a wall come down, but as Démolition d’un mur neatly illustrates, only on film can you see dust, debris and brick come together to form a perfect wall once more. Here’s a more elaborate example from 1901: Biograph’s Building Up and Demolishing the Star Theatre.

And you can trace a direct line from that to the T-1000 in Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), and the shape of a man reformed from what looks like liquid metal. But early filmmakers loved reverse motion, from this film by Segundo Chomón, The Spring Fairy (1902), to later avant-garde work such as Man With a Movie Camera (1929) and Entr’acte (1924).

As a visual effect, the power of the rewind, from Démolition d’un mur to Tenet, is twofold. It’s uncanny to see movements in reverse, the unexpected awkwardness of backwards motion brings the realisation that limbs move at odd angles, that objects break apart in surprising forms. It’s eerie. More recently Michael Mann filmed smoke bolliowing backwards in The Keep (1983). David Lynch had people speak backwards in the red room in Twin Peaks (1990-1991), a reminder of the pop-cultural urban legends about hidden messages in backward-vocals on vinyl records (which certainly scared me as a kid).

But the rewind is also deeply satisfying: we love to see chaos become order once more. Early trick films exploited the backwards crank to produce magic or comedy or simply a spectacle. Clothes are removed, and then flung smoothly back on to the body. Furniture and other objects materialise from dust and splinters. The locusts in Days of Heaven (1978) swarm in reverse, a blessed retreat.

But the rewind works on two deeper levels too. It can absolve guilt or invoke fate. As we grow up we learn that actions have consequences, that if we spill blackcurrant juice on the carpet it will stain, that if we don’t do our homework we’ll get detention. The rewind allows us a moment to imagine, in the split-second of mistake-making, that we can get away with it. That the blackcurrant juice will return to the glass, or in the case of a violent high-concept thriller such as Tenet, that the bullet will jump backwards into the gun, without any harm done.

Blockbuster movies do this all the time, actually. The 18-car collisions caused by a car chase on the highway, the goons left bleeding after a shootout all leave our mind as soon as the film cuts to another location. The best example is probably the use of the remote control in Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (1997). Film as film, with its tongue in its cheek, an arthouse film posing as a video nasty: violent clip here. Many film stunts are actually filmed backwards, impact first.

Tenet (2020)

Tenet uses the rewind for the latter reason though. Artefacts with “negative entropy” foretell the coming of a future apocalypse. If you count backwards you always get to zero eventually. Memento (2000), Nolan’s second film, told a story in reverse, counting down to an act of terrible violence, as did films such as The Sweet Hereafter (Atom Egoyan, 1997) and Irréversible (Gapasr Noé, 2002). Jane Campion’s Two Friends (1986), used reverse chronology to tell the story of a broken friendship backwards, like the romance in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004). If you rewind long enough you’ll get to the start, the primal scene of the narrative. The first pickaxe in the wall, the harrowing assault that prompts a revenge motive, or even the happy times.

Tenet avoids this neat narrative closure, employing something called a “temporal pincer movement” to ensure that actions, and the film, are running forwards and backwards at the same time. There’s a great special-effects moment in the violent climax of the film, when a tower is exploded by a shell, reforms, and then shattered by another bomb immediately: it’s being attacked in two temporal dimensions at once. But it also looks strangely like the Lumières’ wall.

• The Ritrovato blogposts will be back after the weekend, when I hope to see my most anticipated film of the online festival, among other things.

• Silent London will always be free to all readers. If you enjoy checking in with the site, including reports from silent film festivals, features and reviews, please consider shouting me a coffee on my Ko-Fi page

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