The Corona Diaries: When the pictures got big again

For some cinema lovers it seems that Christopher Nolan’s Tenet is something of a beacon in these times of pandemic, a multi-million-dollar signpost saying “Blockbuster cinema isn’t dead!” Would it have been a proper summer without big explosions, loud Hans Zimmer-adjacent BRAAAAP!s and overpriced ice cream?

While I have had the privilege of being able to see Tenet – we’ve been reasonably lucky in Switzerland with respect to COVID-19 and the resulting measures – I cannot really claim that I had been waiting for the film. Perhaps the year rewired my movie tastebuds, or maybe they are still numb from the MCU double-whammy that was Infinity War and Endgame. When my favourite local cinema reopened its doors – while enforcing sensible social distancing rules – I got excited about its Marilyn Monroe series in August and its packed Ennio Morricone programme in September. Time-bending shenanigans, on the other hand, especially those delivered with the poest of faces? Sure, I was mildly curious, but compared to getting to see Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly on the big screen, I just couldn’t work up much excitement for Nolan supposedly saving blockbuster cinema.

Perhaps Nolan is wrong for the role as saviour of anything, at least for me. I’ve liked many of his films a lot, but on the whole I’ve preferred his smaller, more intimate earlier works. As big-budget blockbusters, I’ve found many of his latter films to be somewhat bloodless, his characters not altogether engaging to the point of being emotionally constipated – except when they went all out with the emotions (Interstellar, I’m looking at you), at which point I found them mawkish.

So, Tenet. It is a technical marvel, certainly. It is cleverly constructed, though perhaps less cleverly than it hopes to appear due to needlessly complicated exposition. However, I can’t say I liked it. What I can say is that I believe Tenet to be Nolan’s worst-written film by far. It made me long for Looper’s diner scene with its talk of time travel, straws and diagrams. Its big action, explosions and people running back and forth in more than one sense? By the end I found them tiresome.

Looking ahead at other upcoming blockbusters, rare as they may be in 2020, I have to admit to similar misgivings. Black Widow, No Time to Die and even Dune look big and impressive, but they make me long for something smaller, something with more charm and wit. COVID-19 has given me all the BRAAAAP! I need, it has bent time enough for my tastes (is it spring? summer? autumn? is it today, tomorrow or still yesterday?), and 2020’s disaster movie cameo appearances by world leaders out of their depth have rarely wowed me either. 2020 already seems to gear up for an ending much like its beginning, making it unnecessarily palindromic. All in all, I find that what I’m looking for from cinema isn’t the illusion that all blockbusters strive for: that I am sharing a big, bombastic event with millions across the world. 2020 has already more than scratched that particular itch.

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