Let People Like What They Like

What happens when we start thinking of art as an investment

Disney CEO Bob Chapek during the “Investor Day” presentation

About a month ago, Disney hosted an event they called “Investor Day.” The event consisted, basically, of a slideshow presentation during which they talked about financial estimates, statements, expected growth, profitability, losses, all the boring stuff. They also revealed the many projects that will be released on their streaming platform Disney+ over the next several years, including multiple television series based on Marvel and Star Wars characters. Perhaps because of pandemic-induced restrictions on holding a TED talk-like event, Disney streamed the presentation live to the world; and the world tuned in. As someone who cringes any time someone wants to show me a slideshow, I find the tuning it itself odd but not necessarily shocking given Disney’s dominance over our declining culture. It was the way a lot of people commented on the events that I found particularly dispiriting. I saw one person fearing that Disney releasing so many Star Wars shows would “dilute the brand.” I saw another wonder if it made financial sense to abandon the theatrical experience to focus so much on streaming. The most depressing comment came from a person who listed “investor day” itself as one of the best “Disney moments of the year.” “Investor Day”? Sounds about right.

In my humble opinion, thoughts and comments like the ones I mentioned above belong only in the mind of Disney’s disgustingly rich board members. Instead, they all came from “regular” people who, as far as I know, don’t own any Disney stock. That doesn’t matter, of course. Disney – more so than any other conglomerate, although they would all love to be in its position – has turned us all into “investors.” The only difference is we don’t stand to make any money. Our reward for being loyal to the Disney brand, supposedly, is that we get to enjoy all the wonderful content (a more commercially appealing word than “art”, don’t you think?) they’ve created for us. I say supposedly because based on the way people talk about them, the experience of watching all these tv shows and movies is only secondary. The primary entertainment comes from debating whether or not a new entry is a step in the right direction for the series, the character, the intellectual property. It’s not about what you have in front of you but what you may have next, depending on whether the thing you just watched is successful. What you think about the show’s artistic qualities is not important. What’s important is if everyone else approves. If there is a consensus that the latest Star Wars shows was, indeed, good for the brand. People who complain about Disney’s dominance are usually labelled as contrarians or retrogrades who simply won’t let people like what the like. Is there a possibility, however, that it’s not the critics but Disney itself who won’t let you like what you like?

I’m not immune when it comes to Disney. The reason I feel distressed enough to write this is because I’ve been in similar situations in the past, speculating about box office and the studio’s finances. I grew up with Disney. I have deep affection for many of their movies. I think Pinocchio is a masterpiece of animation. I’ve seen The Lion King more than any other movie. Every couple months I have a dream – fueled by childhood memories no doubt – where I find myself at Disneyland and go on all the rides (The Big Thunder Mountain Railroad is my favorite). One of the first things I did when I started this blog was write about all the animated Disney movies! This is, of course, because Disney (both man and company) were always extremely effective at marketing themselves as the top provider of children’s entertainment. To put it into perspective, when I was growing up not a single television channel showed Mickey Mouse cartoons. Not even the Disney Channel. And yet, every single kid knew who Mickey Mouse was. It’s a cunning strategy, getting there early, creating warm and fuzzy memories that can be exploited later. Here are a couple other things that I loved as a kid: the X-Men, Star Wars, Spider-Man, and the Muppets. They’re all owned by Disney now. Next time one of these characters is dangled in front of you it might be worth asking whether you’re experiencing your own thoughts or merely having a pavlovian reaction.

Disney is neither the beginning or the end of this conversation. They are simply the best at taking advantage of a larger problem. Something I find infuriating about the contemporary art world is that its existence is predicated on curators telling the people what art is and isn’t valuable. The aesthetic qualities of the object are beyond the point, all that matters is how much a painting costs, or how much someone would pay for it. As a result, contemporary visual art has become irrelevant to almost everyone who isn’t a rich collector. I’d wager that most people in the world couldn’t name a living painter, but most people would be able to name at least one painter from the past. Da Vinci, Van Gogh, Picasso. At least one. The same is happening with “film” (or whatever you wanna call the movies and t.v. installments that make up these franchises.) What happens If all that matters about movies is their role in a continuum of endless content? If all they are are cogs in machine designed to make money? If they become “investments”? It’s not surprising, since our system of government puts economics above everything else, that we’ve become unable to see art as anything but a product. It’s heartbreaking nonetheless.

Criterion Project: Days of Heaven

It has to happen some time. This week, The Criterion Project has finally arrived at Terrence Malick. Rachel and I have disagreed about the man in the past – particularly about his Palme D’Or-winning magnum opus The Tree of Life.

Days of Heaven is one of his early movies – his second, in fact. It presents a deadly love triangle set in the Texan prairie. Two elements stand out immediately: incredible visuals that capture the majesty of nature, and thematically illuminating narration. Both have become staples of Malick’s cinema, but they haven’t always worked as effectively as they do here.

You can listen to our conversation below.

Sundays with Cate: The Lord of the Rings

“What do you do on Sundays” asks Carol. Murtada Elfadl spends his talking about her, or rather, about the woman who portrayed her. Cate Blanchett is the subject of Sundays with Cate, and this week, I’m the guest.

I chose to talk about Galadriel, Cate’s elven queen from the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Her screen time is limited, so I figured I’d prepare by only re-watching her scenes. I was sucked in immediately, and encouraged by my wife’s enthusiasm, we ended up watching the whole trilogy. You’ll hear me praise Cate’s attitude-forward performance in the podcast – available below.

Since recording, I’ve noticed many people on social media who also spent the holidays rewatching these movies. Maybe the nostalgia cycle has reached the point. I was certainly transported to my childhood. I’ve been thinking about these movies a lot since. More on that soon…

The Best Movies of 2020

An image from ‘First Cow,’ a beautiful movie that has been praised enough already.

Here we go again. More than ever, it feels like making a “best movies of the year” post is simply inadequate. Movies, which were already on the decline as far as their centrality to cultural life was concerned, declined even further and sharper than ever this pandemic year. To some, this very fact has provided even more reason to put out a list that champions movies that would’ve gotten a better chance at connecting had they been released in a “regular” year. I felt similarly until I started reading the lists and top tens that have already been published and saw the same movies mentioned over and over again. Boring, overwhelming critical consensus is nothing new, but it seems to have gotten even more obvious this year (maybe it’s just me?) And let’s face it, nobody cares if you put Nomadland at number 3 or number 7. Lists of this kind are only valuable in as far as they recommend movies that you might not have watched otherwise.

So, what to do if everyone is recommending the same movies as me? I toyed with the idea of making a list with only movies that I felt had been overlooked by other lists, considered giving up and simply conforming to the year-end list tradition, and even thought of not publishing a list at all. Ultimately, I decided to embrace the big movie-watching lesson of the year. Ever since the pandemic flattened time into my computer screen, I’ve been watching many, many more older movies than I would have otherwise. Some of them – if not most – made a bigger impact on me than even 2020’s best new releases. At this point, I assume we’re all in agreement that “best of” lists are recommendation machines, so here comes the most honest and truthful list of recommendations I could write after a long year of staying home, making a brilliant web series, and watching movies. I’ve identified four main themes in my movie-watching this year and written a bit about them and how they affected me. I hope you read them because they’re far more interesting than just a dumb list, but if you’re the kind of person who simply wants to get the list and get it over with, I’ve posted that at the end.

The Motern Media Universe
The biggest cinematic event of my year was, without any doubt, the discovery of Matt Farley, Charles Roxburgh and their Motern Media empire. I was first introduced to Farley through the Important Cinema Club podcast, which I began listening in late 2019. I learned that Farley was a prolific musician who has written more than 20,000 songs and lives off the royalties created by his massive output being played on Spotify and Apple Music. More importantly, I learned that he and his friend Charles Roxburgh had been making self-financed horror comedies in their small town of Manchester, New Hampshire for years. The hosts of the podcast spoke so enthusiastically about these movies that I tuned in to a Twitch screening of some of their output and have been obsessed ever since. The key Motern movie is probably Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You! a horror comedy about a disgraced tutor and a town terrorized by a mysterious monster that encapsulates everything great about the Farley-Roxburgh collaboration: It might seem like a “so bad it’s good” movie at first, but it is actually one of the most perfectly calibrated, inventive, and absolutely hilarious movies ever made. As much as I love Riverbeast, however, the movie that spoke the most to me is Local Legends, an autobiography of sorts directed by Farley in which he explains his life and his art. The movie is as funny as it is touching, and I am not ashamed to admit that I found an enormous amount of inspiration in seeing not only the way Farley has built a creative life for himself, but in how great these movies are. In fact, the web-series I worked on for most of this year, Wormholes, is deeply indebted to my discovery of Motern Media. Most of their movies are available on Amazon Prime, but you can also get them on blu-ray. If that weren’t enough, the co-hosts of the Important Cinema Club have written a whole book about them.

Racial Justice
There is no question that the most important piece of cinema produced this year wasn’t anything we would traditionally call “a movie” but the video, recorded by Daniella Frazier, that documented the murder of George Floyd, followed by the flood of images that documented the violence and repression of protestors at the hands of police. During the summer, it became impossible for anyone living in the United States to not consider the extent to which racism and white supremacy still dictates life in this country. The intense grief and anger of the moment also awakened an unexpected willingness by non-black people to self-reflect and consider how they had contributed to America’s racists systems. At the expense of sounding like some poser “ally” trying to get extra points, I include myself in that group and want to highlight some of the most illuminating movies about the black experience I watched this year. The Killing Floor was the directorial debut of actor Bill Duke. Initially produced for television, the movie has been recently restored and through the story of an integrated union in early 20th century Chicago, provides a clear-eyed view at the way racism and capitalism feed off each other. The short documentary Black Panthers, directed by the late Agnès Varda, documents a 1968 protest rally after the incarceration of Huey P. Newton. Seeing this historic footage at the height of the protests, hearing the interviews featured in the documentary (including ones with Kathleen Cleaver and Newton himself) had a deeply bittersweet effect: realizing how much hasn’t changed, and hoping that the spirit of these activist had been reignited for good. As far as more recent released, Garrett Bradley’s Time is a deeply moving glimpse at the life of a family divided by America’s system of mass incarceration.

On a lighter note, Cheryl Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman is a mockumentary in which an aspiring filmmaker named Cheryl (and played by Dunye) investigates the history of a forgotten silent film star known only as “the watermelon woman.” The result is an incisive and delightful romantic comedy about black, queer, and female representation on screen. Equally delightful is the much celebrated Lovers Rock – a chapter in Steve McQueen’s five part Small Axe series – that chronicles a house party in 1980s London. In a year where we were all stuck inside, it was particularly moving to see young lovers falling in love on the dance floor during a moving sing-along to Janet Kay’s “Silly Games,” a scene that will surely be remembered as one of the year’s best.

Charlie Chaplin
I picked The Kid for an episode of Criterion Project and was surprised by how much I loved it. I had tried and shrugged at Charlie Chaplin back in my teenage years (like all teen hipsters, I preferred Buster Keaton, who is admittedly great) but 2020 brought a newfound fascination with the Chapmeister. It’s unquestionable that the man had his issues (both as an artist and as a person), but it’s also undeniable that he was a genius. I was thrilled by the action climax of The Gold Rush in a way that most recent blockbusters don’t even come close to matching. I delighted at the incredible precision and social commentary of Modern Times. I sobbed like a baby at the end of City Lights. And I was fascinated by Monsieur Verdoux, one of Chaplin’s least talked-about movies – an anti-capitalist talkie where the beloved comedian plays a serial killer. I will even stick up for A King in New York, a messy late entry in Chaplin’s filmography that is nevertheless one of his most fascinating movies. Even though his later work can be deeply ego-centric, Chaplin was sharply attuned to politics, especially early in his career. He didn’t forget what it was like to grow up in abject poverty, and even his most heart-warming comedies show a society that is deeply indifferent to the working class, where cops exist only to harass the poor, and where happy endings are only achieved through Deus Ex Machini that highlight the bleakness of the situation. It only felt appropriate to be drawn to such a vision of the world this year. Speaking of which…

Looney Tunes
Somehow I convinced the great folks at Alternate Ending to let me write a long article about Looney Tunes that was really an excuse for me to watch A LOT of cartoon shorts without feeling like I was doing nothing with my life. I am very proud of that article, which is a beginner’s guide to the world of Looney Tunes shorts. Beyond these animated classics, I found myself craving zany, violent comedy throughout the year – and it’s not because “comedy is the escape we need right now.” Quite the opposite, actually. These chaotic movies were the most accurate depiction of what it felt like to live through this wretched year. How else could you respond after being confronted with the utter failure of our current existence but with nonsensical amounts of extreme comic violence? I found real anger bubbling under the slapstick of The Three Stooges. I saw dystopian premonitions of greed and fame in Albert Brooks’s Real Life. I connected deeply with the absolute anarchy of Duck Soup and Hellzapoppin.’ I laughed and cringed equally hard during Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, even though I was deeply disappointed by its deeply naive “now vote” conclusion (more on that here.) Among 2020 releases, I was most surprised by Bad Trip, a hidden-camera gross-out comedy starring Eric Andre, Lil Rel Howery and Tiffany Haddish that presents a truly deranged and chaotic world of mean-spirited practical jokes. Seeing the way “normal people” react to these truly insane pranks with humanity and kindness ended up giving me more hope than anything else I saw this year.

“Alright, but get on with it already” I hear you say. Fine, here it is…

The Best New Movies I Saw in 2020

  1. First Cow (dir. Kelly Reichardt)
  2. Kajillionaire (dir. Miranda July)
  3. The Twentieth Century (dir. Matthew Rankin)
  4. Time (dir. Garrett Bradley)
  5. Martin Eden (dir. Pietro Marcello)
  6. Lovers Rock (dir. Steve McQueen)
  7. Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets (dir. Turner Ross, Bill Ross IV)
  8. Bad Trip (dir. Kitao Sakurai)
  9. Gunda (dir. Viktor Kossakovsky)
  10. Hubie Halloween (dir. Steven Brill)

The Best Older Movies I Saw for the First Time in 2020
(in no particular order)

The Criterion Project: Citizen Kane (and Mank)

The great Abie Sidell joins us on The Criterion Project to talk about The Greatest Movie of All Time Citizen Kane. The curious (and frustrating) thing about Kane is that it has been canonized as the best movie ever made in such a way that it’s almost impossible for people to approach it at face value. It’s tempting to dismiss this as a movie about a “great man” that was canonized by other men, but it’s also worth remembering that the process through which it became so beloved was organic and slow. After a pretty successful release in America, the movie was forgotten and only revived after the War, when young European cinephiles caught up with it and were marveled by the incredible filmmaking. On this last watch, I found the movie to be incredibly prescient for our times (it’s the movie about why millionaires are horribly equipped to be political leaders) and an incredible unique artifact (the rare truly leftist Hollywood movie.)

To hear more of these thoughts, you can listen to the episode, in which we also talk extensively about David Fincher’s Mank, which I’ve written about, but was very happy to have Abie provide a very interesting, more positive take on the movie than my own. He also brings Christopher Nolan’s Tenet to the table, and we have a very spirited discussion about that movie and its merits (or lack thereof!) Listen below, or wherever you get your podcasts.

The Well-Made Film

Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You! is a million times better than 1917.

With the end of the year upon me, I googled the movies touted for awards consideration and found myself deeply disappointed. Now, I haven’t seen most of these movies – they might all be very good – but for the first time I can remember I didn’t feel excited at all. “Awards season” used to be my favorite time of the year, a time where we are all watching the same movies and having interesting conversations about them. But not this year. The pandemic has closed movie theaters, the Oscars have been pushed back to April, release dates are being shuffled constantly and from one digital platform to another, making it very difficult to know which movies are available to watch and which aren’t. But even when I know that a critically lauded awards contender has become available, I feel no compulsion to catch up with it. It’s not that the pandemic has momentarily paused my enthusiasm; there’s something bigger at play. Something has changed within me,* and I don’t know if I can ever go back.

I’ve been thinking about the Well-Made Play, a style of writing developed by French playwrights of the 19th century who opposed melodrama. Melodrama, which was incredibly popular in France as well as the United States, relied on formulaic plots, Christian values, and most importantly, spectacle. Melodramas would use elaborate special effects to create pretty astonishing moments such as trains rolling through the stage, people falling off a cliff, or exploding riverboats. The Well-Made Play emerged as a reaction to this trend, choosing to prioritize “good writing” over spectacle. These playwrights developed an alternative method of creating plays. They relied on techniques such as “overheard conversations, mistaken identities […] and other forms of confusion that culminated in the main scene of the play – the confrontation of the main antagonist.**” This structure became a blueprint for anyone who wanted to write a Well Made Play – the big irony being that by trying to counteract the stale predictability of melodrama, they developed a genre that was just as formulaic, if not more.

I see something similar going on with movies today. The spectacle of the Marvel, DC, and Star Wars movies can be compared to melodrama (incredibly popular stories of good versus evil full of spectacular sequences achieved through visual effects.) The equivalent to the Well-Made Play would be the Well-Made Movie, the one that sets itself apart from the blockbusters by prioritizing writing, acting, Important Themes – and still falls prey to a formula of its own. I first noticed this with movies based on “real events,” which feature actors in made up to play historical figures and hit the same story beats over and over again. I wrote recently about the disappointingly generic Mank (a top awards contender this year), but you find similarly uninspired filmmaking in recent awards contenders such as Judy, Bohemian Rhapsody, Green Book, Vice, I, Tonya, The Disaster Artist, The Two Popes, Darkest Hour and Bombshell. As a general rule, if a movie ends with a picture of the actor next to a picture of the person they play in the movie, or if it contains a scene in which the main character receives a standing ovation, it fits on this list.

This generic sameness applies to other prestige genres as well. Literary adaptations and costume dramas, for example, present themselves as artistic endeavors (“arthouse films”) but are often as predictable as any superhero movie. There are exceptions, of course. Greta Gerwig’s Little Women and Marielle Heller’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (the not-quite biopic about Mr. Rogers) come to mind as particularly creative movies in this genre. What sets them apart from the rest of the pack is that they bring an unexpected, personal perspective to the material. Gerwig’s movie, for example, is as much an exploration of her own relationship to Louisa May Alcott’s book than an adaptation of the novel, as she turns the climax of the story into an interrogation of the book’s limitations. Meanwhile, Heller’s movie is structured as an episode of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood and asks us to reconsider the lessons of our childhood. It is not about how great Mr. Rogers was, but about how hard (and ultimately rewarding) it can be to live life according to his principles. Crucially, Tom Hanks doesn’t “transform” into Fred Rogers. In an alienating but successful bit of casting, he is deployed as Tom Hanks to remind us what Rogers represents.

I hear the objection. Isn’t this just the nature of genre? Aren’t the prestige movies you hate any more generic than the westerns, comedies, and horrors you praise? This is true, to a degree. Yes, there are good and bad movies of any genre (it all depends on if the filmmakers use the conventions of the genre to their advantage,) but there is something different about the Well-Made Movie. It’s not just the fact that they’re so easily celebrated, that they present themselves as serious movies and win awards when they’re routinely far less serious or meaningful than your average horror or action movie. It’s the guiding principles behind the genre. An action movie is striving to thrill, a comedy to make you laugh, and horror to make you scared. A Well-Made Movie doesn’t strive for a particular emotion or experience, it strives for “goodness.” For respectability. You might shed a few tears, but the main takeaway is always “that movie was so good.” And so, choosing the right subject matter (hence so many “based on a true story” movies) or the right aesthetic (moody cinematography, makeup transformations), allows impersonal, empty husks to pass themselves off as serious art.

I am no longer interested in movies that are interested in being “good.” Maybe the pandemic is to blame after all. Without the ability to go out to the movie theatre, I’ve been watching older (frankly better) movies than I would have any other year. The ones that have lingered with me have little to do with “goodness,” prestige, or respectability. I’ve fallen in love with Matt Farley and Charles Roxburgh – the king of backyard cinema. Their Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You! is one of the funniest movies I’ve ever seen, and they made it for no money with their friends. I found similar pleasures in Adam Sandler’s Hubie Halloween, a big Hollywood movie that nevertheless brims with the energy of good friends trying to make an enjoyable romp. Both these movies don’t mind being incredibly silly and are the better for it. They don’t care about being “good,” they care about making you laugh. I’ve rediscovered the work of Charlie Chaplin – a massively celebrated director no doubt, but one that tends to dismiss the technical aspect of his movies to prioritize emotion.*** And then you have something like Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, a movie that simply defies all genre barriers. This is a slow, meditative arthouse movie about Thailand’s darkest past where a bigfoot-type monster comes over to dinner and a mythical princess fucks a fish. It is hilarious and profound, often at the same time.

We’ll see if my disenchantment lasts. For all I know, I might get swooped up into the frenzy of “awards season” once things kick into high gear, but I doubt it. To be honest, I don’t really miss it. If 2020 has taught me anything about cinema is that movies that don’t care about being good are the only ones that can be truly great.

* Something is not the same?

** This quote, as well as my overall description of the Well-Made Play is taken from The Norton Anthology of Drama, second edition.

*** It’s pretty easy to find “mistakes” in Chaplin’s movies. Moments when the continuity editing makes no sense, or you can see something in the background that’s not supposed to be there, but only an idiot would think such “mistakes” make City Lights any less of a masterpiece.

The Keys to the Castle

Gary Oldman as Herman J. Mankiewicz in David Fincher’s ‘Mank’

Mank
dir. David Fincher

Tenet
dir. Christopher Nolan

You’d think being a Hollywood director of the stature of David Fincher and Christopher Nolan would let you get away with making whatever passion project you wanted. If their latest movies are any indication, that might not be the case.

David Fincher’s Mank had amassed a small army of detractors before it even came out. One would have expected cinema history buffs to be ecstatic about a movie dealing with the making of Citizen Kane, and that might have been true if Fincher hadn’t chosen screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz as his protagonist. The animosity starts with the theory put forth by Pauline Kael in the pages of the New Yorker that Mankiewicz had written the screenplay for Kane on his own and it should be him, not Orson Welles, that should be credited as the main creative force behind the movie. Kael’s theory was iffy from the start and has been pretty much completely debunked. Still, the notion of taking down one of the most celebrated auteurs of all time is too great for some people to resist – including, apparently, David Fincher and his late father Jack (who wrote Mank.) You can see why so many people were ready to throw the movie to the dogs.

The movie turned out to be far less incendiary on this front. y all accounts, the original draft for Mank took its cues from Kael’s article and focused far more on the controversy over Kane’s authorship. Further revisions to the script must have moved that plot toward the background as Orson Welles barely appears in the movie, and the question of who should be credited for writing Kane doesn’t come up until the last ten minutes. Instead, Mank focuses on Mankiewicz’s disillusionment as he learns the disgusting extent of Hollywood’s corruption. The key event of the plot is the gubernatorial election of 1934, for which studio mogul Louis B. Mayer and more importantly media magnate William Randolph Hearst conspire to sabotage Socialist candidate Upton Sinclair. This defeat turns the already alcoholic Mank even more dependent on the bottle, but it also inspires him to write Kane as a way to get back at Hearst.

The movie still found plenty of detractors, though, mainly those who complained about its digital cinematography. The main gripe is with Fincher’s attempt, and failure, to capture the texture of 1940s black and white film stock using digital technology – a fact that is amplified by the fact that Mank is produced by digital giant Netflix. I, for one, find that Mank looks noticeably different from any movie from the ’30s and ’40s. The blacks aren’t nearly dark enough to compare to the proto-noir aesthetic of Citizen Kane, and a noticeably lower contrast makes the images feel much flatter, especially in comparison to Kane‘s revolutionary depth-of-field. I would go as far as to claim this was a purposeful aesthetic if Fincher hadn’t also made a bunch of visual choices meant to evoke that classic Hollywood look. He overexposes and diffuses the whites of the actors’ faces in order to simulate that old movie star glow, and he inserts cigarette burns to mark reel changes that are obviously unnecessary in a streaming film.

Still, Mank looks like no other movie I’ve ever seen and that’s not nothing. Its biggest isn’t its visual aesthetic, but its dullness. In dialogue, structure, and writing, Mank is as bland as any other cliche-ridden biopic. The biggest offender is a scene near the end where Orson Welles finally shares the screen with Mankiewicz, and becomes furious after the writer demands to be given proper credit. Welles goes on a rampage, throwing insults and hurling a case full of bottles across the room. Mank, meanwhile, runs to his typewriter and starts clacking. He’s been inspired to write Kane‘s famous tirade scene, saying something like “that’s exactly what this picture needs for when Susan leaves Kane!” Scenes like this are so laughably bad it makes you wonder if Fincher was ever actually a great director, or if we were just projecting.

John David Washington is the “protagonist” of Christopher Nolan’s ‘Tenet’

The word “tenet” is a palindrome, it reads the same backwards and forwards. In his latest, appropriately titled Tenet, Christopher Nolan tries to make the movie equivalent of a palindrome. Of course, making a truly palindromic movie (one that can have the same effect viewed backward as forward) is, at least as far as sound film is concerned, impossible. Plus, it would result in a completely dull experience, in which the second half of the movie is made up of all the same scenes as the first part, just arranged in the opposite order. Unsurprisingly, Nolan goes with a much more commercial tactic: he crafts a story in which the future wages war on the past by inventing a technology that allows them to move backwards in time. The result are some pretty spectacular action sequences in which half the people move forward and the other half backwards. If you can’t quite grasp the logic of how such a scene would work, don’t worry, pretty early on a scientist character tells the protagonist (who is literally called “the protagonist”) to not try to understand how this whole thing works, to simply “feel it.”

The people who most enjoy Tenet seem to have taken this recommendation to heart. Pretty much everyone I’ve read agrees that the movie’s logic isn’t entirely clear, they just disagree on the reason why: the “rotten” camp claims that Nolan’s conceit is unnecessarily convoluted and exhausting to follow, while the “fresh” camp argues that obscurity is part of the point, and that through deliberate technical choices such as lowering the dialogue in the sound mix, Nolan is purposely obscuring the rules of his game in order to get us to stop thinking so much and “just feel it.” It’s an interesting argument, but not a fully convincing one. I mean, if the exposition is a necessary but unimportant step to make an action extravaganza, why make a 150 minute movie 80% of which is made up of said worthless exposition? The generous answer is that it’s a necessary evil; that the first half of the movie (the first two thirds, if we’re being honest) needs to make no sense so that the second half allows us to re-live the same scenes in a way that clears up the narrative. Like a palindrome, I suppose.

If nothing else, one has to admire Nolan’s decision to take Warner Bros’s millions in order to test an experiment. It might be a flawed, unsuccessful experiment, but how many experiments come in the form of a tentpole studio movie? Even then, formal experimentation might not even be the most ambitious aspect of this movie. Back in the summer, Tenet was given the modest task of saving cinema as we know it. While most would-be blockbusters got pushed back or off the schedule due to pandemic-related restrictions on public gatherings Nolan, fearing the end of the theatrical movie-going experience, decided to stick it out. Tenet came out in July to a decimated market, got lackluster reviews, and made less money than any Nolan movie in more than a decade. Whether or not this should be considered a failure was unclear until a couple weeks ago, when Warner Bros. announced it will release the rest of its 2020 slate (as well as its whole 2021 slate) in whatever theaters are open and its streaming service hbomax simultaneously.

* * *

I feel deeply conflicted about these movies. The state of cinema as I know and love it was already in jeopardy before the pandemic. Studios had turned their attention exclusively to tentpole franchises (a word that used to describe fast food restaurants, now applied to art.) They had discovered that a well-managed risk-averse brand is far more lucrative in the long run than an artistic vision. And yet, not everything was lost. Along the Marvel, DC, and Star Wars product, there are a few directors famous enough to get their passion projects off the ground. And even though some of them had to go to Netflix to make it happen, at least they were being made. Fincher and Nolan are two of these directors, so I look at their most recent movies and wonder: is this all they can get away with?

Perhaps I’m getting this all wrong. Perhaps these movies are the most pure and unfiltered manifestation of these director’s personal vision and I’m simply not that interested in what they have to say. They both have been commercial directors, after all, who have prided themselves in being able to work with major studios. Nolan became Warner’s darling by spear-heading the Dark Knight trilogy – a franchise sold on its artistic merits – and has been able to turn his original ideas into big hits since. Fincher, meanwhile, has worked in highly commercial, seemingly impersonal projects for a long time – including adaptations of best-selling novels Gone Girl and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, as well as being attached for a while to direct the sequel to World War Z. It’s also worth remembering that before it became his most celebrated movie, The Social Network was dismissed as a quick way to cash in on Facebook’s then unprecedented popularity. Perhaps Fincher and Nolan are content with bringing some style to commercial movies and call it a day, even if their reputation as obsessive, perfectionist directors would suggest otherwise.

Such a conclusion might seem uncharitable toward these men’s artistic visions, but the alternative is even more depressing. If these top filmmakers have to be forced to tame and dilute their art for the corporate machine, then there’s simply no hope for anyone else. I suppose you need to know how to compromise in order to be successful in Hollywood, as long as we understand “successful” as an economic term, and not an artistic one. It’s very telling that one can’t quite figure out if we are supposed to interpret Mank as a tale of a righteous man standing up for what’s right or the tale of a poor sap who didn’t know better than to be principled in a merciless town. I recommend Will Sloan’s article about Orson Welles, which does a great job of tracking the many ups and downs of Welles’s relationship to the American media, and gets at something really truthful about how accustomed we’ve become to understanding art through economic terms. The short version can be paraphrased like this: Orson Welles was given creative freedom to do whatever he wanted and made the best movie ever made, Hollywood still hasn’t forgiven him.