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Watching Tenet (2020) in the cinema during the late summer window between UK lockdowns was probably the most basic film-related activity I did this year. Yet in a way it also felt, perversely, like the definitive cinema experience of 2020. A small collection of people in Islington’s Everyman Screen on the Green, humid behind mandatory masks, desperately trying to convince themselves they’re having a good time is a pretty standard summary of what we’ve come to expect from this year.
Framing Tenet as the definitive cinematic experience of 2020 doesn’t necessarily mean it exists as a prime example of prestige or good filmmaking. Rather, in a summer of box office cancellations, the decision to go ahead with a cinematic release became an inadvertent parable for the fragility of profit-driven industries, and by extension exposed the fallibility of the blockbuster cinematic experience. If it hadn’t been for the sharp twist of fate that the pandemic now represents, Nolan’s decision to use blue-chip art as a plot device in this film might just have evaded any close scrutiny beyond the interest of art journalists and bloggers, if it weren’t for the way in which the commodification of cinema was flung into sharp relief by the unprecedented effects of the pandemic.
In his work Grundrisse (1939), Marx’s view on art as a product in consumerism is that “The need which consumption feels for the object is created by the perception of it.” The supposed need for the consumption of blockbuster entertainment is predicated on the billions of dollars it brings to the film industry. As such, the existence of big-budget cinema hinges on its financial success. The popularity of blockbusters also exists within a feedback loop, or as Marx describes it, “Production…not only creates an object for the subject, but also a subject for the object.” This is the logic behind the recent Disney live-action remakes: if the people want to see it and good money can be made, that is reason enough to remake every popular Disney film, regardless of whether they are ‘good’. The continued production of blockbusters is prioritised above other content through their streamlined ability to turn a profit. In that sense, box office entertainment has built up a reputation for being almost completely infallible. Sure, there are outliers, a great example being Tom Hooper’s Cats (2019), which was not only critically obliterated by audiences and journalists alike, but also reportedly cost Universal Pictures $114 million and failed to break even. However, that exists as an outlier by being so irredeemably bad it breaks the crucible of what the public will tolerate in their role as consumers during theatrical release. If that power is suddenly and dramatically shattered by a public health crisis, then what is to become of the need for consumption of big-budget movies in a cinema?
Blue chip art is art that is deemed “reliably profitable, and expected to hold or increase its economic value, regardless of the general economic ups and downs.” The phrase has its origins in financial jargon, with ‘blue chip stocks’ being shares in companies which are highly respected and reliable. In Tenet, blue chip art is used as a form of blackmail by the main antagonist, Russian oligarch Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh) against his estranged wife Kat (Elizabeth Debickie), an art appraiser who unwittingly authenticated a fake Goya painting owned by her lover at the time. Kat then sold it to Sator at auction for $9 million. Having discovered Kat’s affair and accidental complicity in this scam, Sator decided to keep the painting as a kind of Damoclesian threat over Kat’s head, storing it in a free port amongst other priceless artworks at Oslo Airport. This leads Protagonist (John David Washington) and his handler Neil (Robert Pattinson) to embark on a mission to steal said painting. The tension involving the threat to Kat’s welfare and a storage facility full to the rafters with precious artwork seem to exist as little more than bloated plot devices, embellishments to introduce a novel action sequence (fight scenes, but in reverse!) which culminates in a Boeing 747 crashing into said storage facility. Just as pieces of blue chip art are valued as commodified trinkets to boost the wealth of those who collect them, that same art now serves as a stomping ground for Nolan’s self-perceived storytelling prowess.
Blue chip art is rendered into existence by blue chip artists, i.e. masters of their craft whose work has consistently fetched high sales and retains value through recognisable technique, talent and cultural contribution. It wouldn’t be unreasonable therefore to suggest that historically Christopher Nolan’s reputation for creating cerebral cinema which produces iconic performances off the back of grandiose budgets would label him a blue chip artist in the film industry. Based on this reputation, the film was expected to bring in a reliable profit. In December 2019 IGN predicted that Tenet would take in $274.3 million at the domestic box office.
By June 2020 however, it had become clear that the pandemic would successfully eviscerate summer blockbuster season. That same month Nolan sent a recorded message to CineEurope 2020, the international cinema exhibitors convention, (relayed in the press by Deadline) where he urged people to see Tenet for the first time in a cinema, as had always been the intention:
This is a film whose image and sound really needs to be enjoyed in your theaters on the big screen…We’ve made big films in the past, but this is a film whose global reach and level of action is beyond anything we’ve ever attempted before.
The passion behind this plea belies the unavoidable economic factors which also contextualised his urgency for a theatrical release. The film’s budget was $205 million, his most expensive original project to date. Nolan also stood to receive 20% of first dollar gross for Tenet, meaning that percentage of box office revenue goes to him in the immediacy of the film’s release, as opposed to it going to him when, and if, the film eventually turned a profit. The pandemic massively weakened that likelihood. This makes the moment when the Protagonist (a hapless John David Washington) tells the art appraiser Kat (Elizabeth Debickie) that “people who’ve amassed fortunes like your husband generally are not OK with being cheated out of any of it,” suddenly feel like a tragicomic reference to Nolan’s predicament.
That desire to mop up profits wherever possible shifts into desperation when it trickles down into the comportment of the media circus: big-budget cinema is precious, and you must risk the plague to save it! Mark Daniell of the Toronto Sun described Tenet as “the cinematic equivalent of a Rubik’s Cube”. IndieWire told us we must “believe the hype” because the international box office had hit $53 million, and the article ended with reassurance that the response is good and therefore other theatrical releases can follow. You could almost taste the panic. On the subject of modern cultural criticism, Christian Lorentzen in his piece Like this or Die for Harpers magazine asserts that “Editors and critics belong to a profession with a duty of skepticism. Instead, we find a class of journalists drunk on the gush.” In the rush to extol the virtues of Tenet’s cinematic release, any reason for a collective effort to scrutinise Tenet meaningfully fell by the wayside and instead became a collective effort to herd people into cinemas to watch it and boost its earnings.
These media murmurations aren’t so far removed from the robust attempts at lockdown propaganda from the British government and establishment media this year. Clap for the NHS; Eat Out to Help Out; listen to Vera Lynn until your ears bleed; bellow praise at the centenarian perambulating his garden to raise money for a tax-funded institution. Go to the cinema to make sure this naked emperor of a film gets the money it deserves. Tenet even had its very own Captain Tom embarking on a one-man mission to save the summer blockbuster.
What links these events is the concern with profit and the exchange of capital at the expense of other factors such as welfare, public health, and latterly, art. The panic surrounding Tenet’s box office returns wasn’t borne of a feeling that good art was going to waste, but that the enormous production and marketing budget was. In a similar fashion, Sator wasn’t angry that he paid $9 million for a crap painting; he was angry that he’d been duped into paying that sum for a work that wasn’t Goya’s. In a socio-economic system where commodification is king, the value of art for the sake of its artistic merit falls by the wayside, and when a public health crisis skews the need for a specific mode of art consumption, a film like Tenet represents little more than a flaming Boeing 747 careening into a warehouse full of art.
At the time of writing, Warner Brothers has recently made its steroidal announcement that it will simultaneously release its entire 2021 slate on HBO Max as well as in cinemas. Nolan is apparently very pissed off about this. Regardless of his opinion, the well-oiled machines of marketing and distribution are using whatever vehicle necessary to re-establish high profit margins, regardless of artistic merit. In the spirit of this, I leave the reader with a quote from radical theorist Mark Fisher: “Capital is an abstract parasite, an insatiable vampire and zombie maker; but the living flesh it converts into dead labor is ours, and the zombies it makes are us.”
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