The “avant-garde lite” films of Christopher Nolan and Charlie Kaufman

Kaufman's I'm Thinking of Ending Things is a philosophical comedy-horror available on Netflix; while Nolan's Tenet is an action spectacular only showing in theatres. 

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“Don’t compete with me, Christopher Nolan,” says the film-maker Charlie Kaufman in his recent debut novel Antkind. “I know who you are, and I am the smarter of us.” Fighting talk indeed. The author has the excuse that these are not his words at all but those of his fictional narrator, though they still carry the sting of truth. “Starbucks is the smart coffee for dumb people,” he declares. “It’s the Christopher Nolan of coffee.”

Kaufman and Nolan have spent their separate careers making “avant-garde lite”, as the late Gilbert Adair put it in his review of the Kaufman-scripted Being John Malkovich – occasionally even treading on one another’s toes. When Nolan’s amnesia thriller Memento opened in 2000, Kaufman considered abandoning Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the similarly themed screenplay he was working on. Now both have new films out in which a nameless protagonist wrestles with the malleability of time. Nolan’s movie is like a Patek Philippe wristwatch, Kaufman’s a melted Dali clock face.

I’m Thinking of Ending Things, which Kaufman adapted from the novel by Iain Reid, is a philosophical comedy-horror confined largely to the inside of a car during a blizzard, while Nolan’s Tenet is an action spectacular shot in opulent locations in seven countries. Kaufman’s film is available only on Netflix; Nolan, who has called that platform’s release strategies “mindless”, refused to allow Tenet to be streamed or to delay its theatrical debut beyond the summer. Any cinemas currently open are using the film to gauge whether public appetite for the big screen has survived the pandemic.

The first voice we hear in I’m Thinking of Ending Things belongs to an unnamed woman (Jessie Buckley) on a road trip with her boyfriend Jake (Jesse Plemons) to meet his parents in Oklahoma. Her sanity feels as slippery as the icy tarmac. First, she confides that she has never felt so connected to another person, then that she would break it off if only she could be bothered. Her biography alters line by line. She is unfamiliar with Wordsworth, then she is a poet, then a medical student. Once the pair sit down with Jake’s parents for a fraught and grimly funny dinner, she has become a landscape painter. It’s as though we are seeing every possible incarnation of her.

If anyone is up to the task of playing this infinite-sided enigma, it is Buckley. She was hired as a replacement for Brie Larson, but Kaufman must have jumped for joy, not only at her mutable performance, with its mysterious unpeeling layers of delight, dread, anger and yearning, but also at the homophonic coincidence of casting a Jessie and a Jesse, both redheads at that, to play a couple whose identities are at risk of merging.

Ageing, here, is as provisional as personality. Jake’s twitchy middle-aged mother (Toni Collette) goes from serving dinner to lying desiccated on her deathbed, where she is watched over by a husband (David Thewlis) who is no longer stooped and senile but magically revitalised. Far from being linear, time rushes in every direction at once.

Something similar is afoot in Tenet. To cut an incomprehensible story short, the film stars John David Washington, dapper son of Denzel, as a CIA agent known as The Protagonist. This nominative determinism doesn’t extend to the other characters. If it did, Elizabeth Debicki would be called The Damsel in Distress and Kenneth Branagh The Pantomime Villain. Robert Pattinson, rakish with his blond highlights and scarves, would go by Light Relief, rather than the infinitely more disappointing Neil.

The Protagonist is trying to thwart a plan, hatched in the future, to destroy the world in the present, but the more everyone explains the plot, the more needlessly complicated it becomes. The “grandfather paradox” is mentioned – if you go back in time to kill Grandpa, will you still exist? – but Back to the Future and The Terminator handled the same idea with less heavy lifting. Proceedings become distinctly underwhelming when the portal between timelines is revealed to be a large revolving door of the kind found at high street department stores.

Action set-pieces, including a non-CGI plane crash, are staged at tremendous expense, and several combat sequences feature some of the cast moving in reverse like an experimental dance troupe. But a routine military battle and the hokey device of a bomb timer counting down to destruction still add up to a dismal excuse for a climax, regardless of whether half the actors appear to be doing the moonwalk or not.

I’m Thinking of Ending Things presents its share of frustrations, too. Reality finally becomes so unstable that it breaks apart before our eyes, fracturing into excerpts of ballet, musical theatre, even animation – each one loosening the film’s emotional tension. At least the movie has a pulse, as well as performances rich in complexity, whereas Tenet is powered by a mechanism and acted by suits. “Wake up the Americans,” is the first line heard in the film. Waking up the audience would be a start.

“Tenet” is in cinemas now. “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” is on Netflix from 4 September

I’m Thinking of Ending Things (15) 
dir: Charlie Kaufman

Tenet (12A) 
dir: Christopher Nolan

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 04 September 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Britain isn't working

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