In the late summer of 2020, the world enjoyed a brief period of normalization before lockdowns were reimplemented and things turned dark, and during that period, Christopher Nolan's “Tenet” hit theaters. I, like many, rejoiced and went to see the first major release in ages.
In "Tenet," the protagonist is told: “Don't try to understand it, feel it.” But as the credits rolled and many months passed without a major motion picture being released in cinemas, one thing became clear: We should try to understand a little.
Well, not “Tenet,” that's a hopeless case, but we should try to understand Nolan and his cinematic philosophy – a dying breed among filmmakers – and why it should be preserved and cherished in 21st-century cinema.
Nolan has received his fair share of both praise and criticism from the general movie-watching public and film critics. However, what I feel is not being discussed is his filmmaking perspective, which is rooted in art history, and how it contributes to the cinema of today. In order to appreciate the director's outlook, it is imperative we take a rather long detour delving into the history to gain an understanding of his influences.
Just as literature has romantics, paintings have modernists and music has classicists, there are movements and philosophies in cinema. So, which branch of cinema does Nolan belong to – and how did this branch take shape in what is a fairly young art form? The answers to these keys questions prove why Nolan is one of the cinematic heavyweights of our day. Looking back, you can spot a wisp of Kubrick, a trace of Chaplin's stick and elements of Neoclassicism and the ancients.
“First follow NATURE, and your judgment frame
By her just standard, which is still the same:
Unerring Nature, still divinely bright,
One clear, unchang'd, and universal light,
Life, force, and beauty, must to all impart,
At once the source, and end, and test of art.” (Alexander Pope, An Essay on Criticism)
This is the message preached by Alexander Pope, one of the greatest British poets, in the early 18th century, which is, essentially, that the best poetry, or criticism, should, above all, be true to nature. Pope thought this could be achieved by following in the footsteps of classical authors, the ancient Greeks who were the original artists who tried to reflect nature in their work.
Fast-forward a couple of centuries, French inventor Louis Daguerre expands on the work of his late partner Nicephore Niepce, and in 1838 takes the earliest confirmed photograph of a person while capturing a view of a Paris street. A man who was having his boots polished stands relatively still enough to appear in the photograph whereas other pedestrians and horse carriages are nowhere to be seen due to the long exposure time.
Photography is born, although several others come forward to claim that they had beaten Daguerre to the invention, and thus a new art form also finds life, and what can be more representative of Pope's ideal literary works than a photograph, though it is quite a different median of art? After all, what is a photograph? Nature unfiltered, untouched, true and pure.
France declares the technique invented by Daguerre the country's gift to the world. Photography advances and becomes more and more popular around the globe over the next couple of decades. The art is particularly impacted by one character, Leland Standford, a California businessperson looking to settle a bet over whether or not a galloping horse at any point has all four hooves off the ground.
Standford hired English photographer Eadweard Muybridge to settle the wager, paving the way for an even newer form of art. Muybridge captured 12 pictures of a horse's hooves in rapid succession. Stanford won the bet, and the men inadvertently played a role in the advent of motion pictures.
A couple of techniques toying with this new form are invented across the world, independent of each other. Noted physiologist Etienne-Jules Marey, creates a camera that can take 12 pictures per second. Thomas Edison, and his British assistant, William Dickson, jump in the race and fashion a primitive motion camera and a machine that can project those images onto a screen.
Finally, in 1895, Auguste and Louis Lumière introduce the “Cinematographe,” a projector that could show 16 frames per second. The audience is enchanted by simple gestures and actions being played out on the big screen, captured by the camera, reflecting nature better than a photograph.
A train approaches the screen; it may be a grainy image, it may skip, or rather lack a couple of frames every second, but the viewing public, enthralled by something so revolutionary, so unique, shriek with fear that the train will hit them. The new art form opens up so many different opportunities for previous arts and philosophies to take advantage of, reincarnating on a new platform.
Thus the groundwork for cinema has been laid, and soon filmmakers begin to add storylines and music to their film projects. Thousands of silent films are produced before 1927 with a rising level of sophistication of storytelling and technical craftsmanship.
So, how does all this history tie into Nolan? Well, cinema, as we mentioned above, allowed people to capture nature as humanity had never seen before. That was, and is, the single most important aspect of cinema: frames of shots in motion. That alone created a distinct art form.
It was the epitome of what Pope called the “unerring nature,” more than any other art form. It was truly Charlie Chaplin moving around on the screen waving his iconic stick. It was Buster Keaton who sat in the front of a moving train.
Why is that important? Well, most art can be described as the struggle to replicate the perfection of nature, or if nothing else, playing with the rules of nature, while providing entertainment and delight. That principle is more observable in cinema than it is in any other art form because as humans we are first and foremost visual beings.
However, as this new art of cinema evolved, it started to increasingly manipulate the original image that the camera captured; that is, it steered more and more away from the natural. The new century brought with it even more devastating blows as the business grew to new heights and the essence of cinema started to fade.
The computer technology boom dealt another blow to that essence, as filmmakers employed more computer-generated images (CGI) rather than using what their cameras had shot on location. This is no criticism of CGI, as we have said earlier there are different branches of cinema, but rather a criticism of CGI's role in the death of unique cinematic experiences.
“(They) seem to me to be closer to theme parks than they are to movies as I’ve known and loved them throughout my life, and that in the end, I don’t think they’re cinema,” wrote esteemed filmmaker Martin Scorsese in an opinion piece for The New York Times in 2019. He was talking about the Marvel superhero franchise but also the industry at large.
“Cinema was about revelation: aesthetic, emotional and spiritual revelation,” Scorsese said. “It was about confronting the unexpected on the screen, and in the life it dramatized and interpreted and enlarging the sense of what was possible in the art form,” he stated and added, “And that was the key for us: it was an art form.”
He perhaps summed it up best when he called them sequels in name but remakes in spirit. That is where Nolan comes in. In the age of CGI, Nolan gradually shifted his filmmaking philosophy back to the first principle of cinema, nature.
An important point in capturing nature is that it does not mean conforming to realism, in terms of the visual language. It is not a documentary, but it means pushing as far as preternatural and stopping short of unnatural or supernatural, which Nolan achieved through becoming one of the most adamant directors in the business to capture as much on camera as possible of what the audience will see on screen.
The semitruck flipping and landing upside down and the hospital building exploding in “The Dark Knight,” the surreal fistfight in the rotating rooms of “Inception,” and people wrestling with people who are going backward in time, not to mention a full-size aircraft crashing into a hangar in “Tenet,” all spring to mind.
These may be preternatural; they certainly are not visuals that you see every day in real life, but we know that they are not supernatural as they happened in reality on the set of those films. They were all practical effects, what you see is what you get, which is the most prominent reason why they will be remembered, rejoiced and rewatched for years, maybe decades.
Apart from his philosophy of capturing nature as we discussed, another of Nolan's important aspects is his passion for cinema and idiosyncratic originality that provides the audience a unique experience in the theater. Quoting the master, Scorsese once more, who says modern cinema is in its current predicament because of the steady elimination of risk, what he thought essential to film was “the unifying vision of an individual artist,” which is the greatest risk of all.
Scorsese divided the landscape into two sections which were worldwide audiovisual entertainment, and cinema, which perfectly sums up the point. There are movies, and then there's cinema, which is something else entirely. Movies were the target of his infamous “theme park rides” comment.
Although Nolan's films are very much separate from that of Scorsese's, when describing his concept of cinema, Scorsese did perfectly summarize what Nolan is trying to achieve. A filmmaker shows the audience something new, gives them an unexpected, unique experience, and most importantly their “sense of what is possible in telling stories with moving images and sounds” is expanded.
Nolan's philosophy may be straightforward, but it is rare and hard to execute. It is not a simple question of wowing the audience with visuals, which could be easily facilitated with CGI, but it has everything to do with the potential of the camera and the visuals that it can capture. It is about embracing the natural and utilizing the fundamental aspects of filmmaking, the dialogue of theater, the music of orchestras and the stories of literature, synthesizing them in the live picture, creating an experience that you did not think was possible.
It can also be argued that it is his fixation with the art of cinema, and the cinematic, that causes him to lack in strength in more traditional, what could be called literary, aspects of film, such as dialogue and plot. But to add an annotation, it can be argued that he makes up for literary ground lost with more cinematic facets: what he lacks in dialogue he makes up for with the performance he gets out of his actors.
Cinema has a rich history characterized by cinematic directors from Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock to the possible king Stanley Kubrick, Francis F. Coppola and Scorsese. However, today there are few directors still in the business of making films for cinema. Denis Villeneuve and Wes Anderson come to mind straight away, and Nolan is one of the most popular members of that endangered species. Though they should be criticized for where they lack, they should not be shunned.
Their films should be watched in cinemas, celebrated, cherished and preserved if we ever want to maintain the unique but fleeting experience that can only be found in films that do the big screen justice. As streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Prime and HBO Max continue to rise, “theme park” movies continue to dominate popular culture and CGI continues to distract from what is actually important, the art of cinema, these are the directors we need to support. The tongue-in-cheek saying on this occasion seems prophetic: “In Nolan we trust.”