How TENET Is Like A Zen Koan
I went into TENET not expecting to understand anything, and this was an entirely satisfying experience. As the Robert Pattinson character explains about the grandfather paradox, you’re not supposed to understand, it’s a paradox.
This I think is the intended meaning of the film. Lean into the confusion, because therein lies understanding.
A slight and wholly inadequate digression into BuddhismA Zen koan is a statement like "two hands clap and there is a sound, what is the sound of one hand?" This is understood as a meditation on meaninglessness, but it's more than that. It is, indeed, above conventional understanding.From the Buddhist perspective, dualistic reality itself is meaningless. Reality is the illusion, and the koan is reality.I have never practiced Zen but in vipassana meditation we try to tame the 'monkey mind' with something simpler. By just focusing on breath. When you first sit in meditation it's like entering a stream, a stream of your own consciousness. The voice in your head is constantly naming, judging, questioning. Your breath is like a rope in the water, you just hold onto it until the stream dies down. If you can hold focus then your internal stream of words slows down and, for very brief moments, completely disappears. Waters run clear. In those moments you can experience non-duality.In those moments you're technically thinking about nothing but also everything. You can feel a world where good and bad coexist, where zero and infinity are equal, where nothing is or is not but is both states at once. It is an experience of reality as it is (and is not).For me, this perception lasts maybe a few seconds. Then language claws everything back down to this dimension, naming, classifying, destroying meaning as much as it creates. The point is that there is a level of understanding which requires obliterating what our comfortable level of understanding is. You cannot do it with language. The master's tools will never dismantle the master's house. I think that Nolan is trying to do it with film.
Not your mama’s Matrix
TENET is comparable to mind-benders like The Matrix, but with one key difference. At the end of the Matrix you get it. And the end of TENET, you do not. I would argue that this is the point. I’ve heard it called a puzzle box with nothing inside. And yet, this is something.
Like a Zen koan, the wisdom is in the seeming meaninglessness. The real question is how much we should understand violations of our basic physics, like the idea that time flows forwards. Any premise like this, fully explored, should be confusing.
Take, for example, the experience of a Square living in Flatland. What they see is just a line — the blue line above. In this fiction, closeness is denoted by brightness. But all they experience is that thin blue line.
Hence when a Sphere comes to Flatland, all Square sees is a blue line as she passes through his plane of vision. His plane of existence. Any film about a Sphere would would, by definition, be confusing to a 2D square.
This is what understanding anything truly challenging to our physics is like. The reason most movies are not confusing is not necessarily because they’re better made, but because they’re not exploring truly confusing topics.
That said, Christopher Nolan does not make it easy. Understanding two cats flowing in two different time directions would be hard enough. He makes a story about arms dealers, the end of the world, some child custody drama, and lots of violence. It would be confusing in one time-dimension but is indecipherable in two.
Then there is the audio mix, which I think is done accurately, but when people are wearing masks during gun battles or screaming at each other on hydrofoils, you quite accurately cannot understand WTF is anyone is saying.
Chris Nolan’s thing is very much grand ideas as the backdrop for fist-fights, sort of meditation by automatic gunfire. Is this how I would explore the concepts? No, but it’s his art.
How to watch it
The film itself is full of literal direction on how to watch it. The first scientist literally doesn’t bother to explain stuff to the protagonist, and tells him to just feel it. Once you let go of the instinct to understand everything (which is impossible here), you can begin to understand something.
The basic premise behind the film is relatively simple. Time can flow backwards as well as forwards. In the future they have figured this out, with metal and then with human beings, and thus the future is pressing into the present. How this works is necessarily confusing.
I won’t even begin to explain it, any more than I can explain the experience of meditation. You can, but it’s like drawing a map. You necessarily lose either shape or size or something that makes it whole. You can just watch the movie yourself.
If you can relax into it you get a meditation by gunfire into what it would be like if the future and present collided, while remaining relentlessly militarized. The experience is like a Zen koan, what is the experience of time flowing backwards and forwards. I don’t know, it’s impossible, but through this film, you can feel it.