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Can Christopher Nolan save the cinema-going experience?

It is not just Nolan’s reputation that is on the line if Tenet is released in July

In 2000, I went along to my local arthouse cinema to see a small independent film that had been released to a great deal of acclaim. It was called Memento, and starred the Australian actor Guy Pearce, who had been so brilliant in LA Confidential a few years before, alongside two stars of The Matrix, Joe Pantoliano and Carrie-Anne Moss. The film was a brilliant delight from start to finish, combining sophisticated backwards chronology with a great deal of wit and invention, and not a little heart, too. I remember noting its young writer-director’s name. Christopher Nolan will go far, I thought.

Twenty years later, Nolan has now found himself in a role that, in its own way, could be even more heroic than the protagonists of his Batman trilogy. At a time when virtually every mainstream film has had its release date postponed or cancelled altogether, with studios preferring to release their pictures directly to audiences on Netflix or other streaming services, Nolan, a passionate proponent of the cinema experience, has insisted that his new film, Tenet, continues to be released to picture theatres worldwide on 17 July. At the time of writing, that is less than two months away, and most cinemas are closed. Those that are not are reporting extremely limited box office receipts. As one exhibitor put it, glumly, ‘Frightened people don’t want to go to the movies any more.’

It would take a spectacular must-see film to revitalise the cinemagoing experience for audiences, and Warner Bros, the studio behind Tenet, are hoping that Nolan’s latest will be it. One of the side-effects of the global situation is that conventional marketing for films has all but ended, meaning that the film’s promotion has been limited to a single and enigmatic trailer released last December. Usually, the publicity department would be inundating audiences with clips, posters, interviews and other promotional tools, designed to engender interest, but they have been all but silent, as they await the nod from the studio to start spending the tens of millions that publicising a blockbuster like this usually costs.

And Tenet, far more than a James Bond or Avengers film, will need publicising. Virtually nothing is known about its storyline, which reportedly concerns a group of secret agents attempting to frustrate the outbreak of WWIII, and its lead actor John David Washington, award-nominated for his role in BlacKkKlansmaan, is an emerging talent rather than a household name (the better-known supporting cast includes the likes of Kenneth Branagh, Nolan regular Michael Caine and Robert Pattinson, who publicised the film recently with an entertainingly off-the-wall interview with GQ). Instead, the true star of the film is Nolan himself, who has become that rare thing, a Hollywood director who attracts a large and fervent following based on the quality of his previous work. It is Nolan whose reputation will lure cinemagoers back into screens, studios and exhibitors hope, and restore some hope to a battered and weary industry.

While I have little hope that theatres and concert halls can reopen in any normal fashion while social distancing has to continue, cinemas do at least stand a chance of being able to accommodate audiences. It has been suggested that, if Tenet does open on 17 July, it will be able to occupy every single screen in cinemas that do show it, allowing exhibitors to stagger socially distanced screenings of it every 20 or 30 minutes: an unprecedented situation, but one that could work to its financial advantage, if patrons actually show up. And that remains the greatest concern of all.

Poll after poll in Britain and America suggests scepticism that it will be safe to go to cinemas again or any other large-scale public gathering in the next few months, no matter how much hand sanitiser is pressed into service or how much social distancing is enforced. At best, it means that audiences will be sitting in quarter-full auditoria in a state of low-level worry, braving the risks to be able to do something relatively normal in their lives again. At worst, Nolan’s film will either be postponed until some distant point in the future, or will be a notable box-office flop for reasons entirely unrelated to its quality.

It has been suggested that Nolan, who was said to be worth £170 million in last weekend’s Sunday Times Rich List, is less concerned about his film matching the enormous box office receipts of his previous pictures than he is about ensuring his place in history as the saviour of the film industry. This is undoubtedly a hubristic aim, but just as Steven Spielberg and George Lucas managed to divert American cinema in the Seventies from being the preserve of the aesthete to the mass-market enthusiast, ensuring its survival if not its critical acclaim, Nolan is now faced with the all-too-tempting possibility that his film could lure audiences back into cinemas, providing some much-needed escapism at a time when the world could desperately do with some.

He is an unlikely figure to be in such an elevated position. A graduate of English from UCL, he was active in the film society there, using its facilities to make short pictures. As he said in a 2016 interview with UCL’s alumni magazine, “I’m unusual in that I decided I wanted to make films at a very young age. And once I’d done that first walk along the side of the cafeteria of the Bloomsbury Theatre and climbed further and further down the staircase and into [the theatre’s] dark basement, I spent most of my time there.” As president of the Film Society, he and his wife, the producer Emma Thomas, would screen Hollywood blockbusters, and use the funds from entry admission to finance his short films, something that he continued for several years after he graduated. He later repaid the favour both by using UCL as a location in his films Batman Begins and Inception, and by acting as a high-profile ambassador for his old university, singing its praises in interviews and hosting fundraising dinners.

His first feature, Following, would epitomise his later career in miniature. Made on a tiny budget of a few thousand dollars, it utilised a time-shifting structure that owed debts to the novelist Jorge Luis Borges and the cult film director Nicolas Roeg, as well as a visual aesthetic that took delight in its gritty urban landscapes. It made a considerable amount of money proportionate to its budget, and allowed Nolan to make Memento, which established him as a notable and interesting filmmaker. His clever screenplay was nominated for an Oscar, and his next film, a remake of the Norwegian picture Insomnia, was a hugely accomplished and successful film noir that elicited superb performances from Al Pacino as a compromised policeman and a chilling Robin Williams as his crime novelist nemesis. And then he was asked to participate in that ritual so beloved of emerging young filmmakers: to direct a superhero film.

Many directors have fallen foul of the studio system when it comes to bringing a comic book creation to life, producing either an anonymous piece of work that does a workmanlike job and little more, or finding themselves hopelessly out of their depth and being elbowed aside by the studio in post-production. Nolan’s trilogy of Batman films was something else, however. He approached them with the mentality of an auteur, combining a David Lean-esque visual style, complete with thousands of extras and grand, sweeping vistas, with a carefully nuanced psychological narrative style. His second film in the trilogy, The Dark Knight, became legendary for featuring Heath Ledger’s final (and Oscar-winning) performance, but also remains a highlight of mainstream filmmaking from this millennium, featuring endless narrative coups de théâtre that leave audiences breathless with surprise and admiration.

Nolan, alone of his peers, regarded the future of large-scale filmmaking as innately bound up with the cinema-going experience.

After his successful tussle with superheroes, Nolan has specialised in films that have something of the intellectual assurance of his hero Stanley Kubrick, along with his fascination with detail. One thinks of the breathtaking hallway fight from Inception, in which the characters are thrown about in mid-air, or the time-shifting structure of Dunkirk, in which events unfold simultaneously from the perspectives of land, sea and air over different lengths of time. Even his most problematic film, Interstellar, has a breath-taking grandeur and sweep that few other filmmakers have ever come close to. The late Observer film critic Philip French, an admirer, said of Nolan that he was “the first great talent to emerge in the twenty-first century”, having championed him since the release of Following. French also made the astute comment that Nolan, alone of his peers, regarded the future of large-scale filmmaking as innately bound up with the cinema-going experience. Not for him the headache-inducing gimmickry of 3D, but instead he embraced the IMAX format of filmmaking, allowing his visions to be seen in staggering size and grandeur, and with similarly gargantuan box office receipts.

Yet every filmmaker (save Kubrick) at some point faces their Waterloo, and Nolan may have finally reached his, after a career blessed with both critical acclaim and financial success. His determination to release his latest film on a date that has traditionally been a lucky one for him (Dunkirk, Inception and the second and third of his Batman films were all released on the third Friday in July, too) has meant that he runs the risk of either being disappointed by his film’s lack of commercial success or seeing it postponed by a nervous studio unable to afford the financial disappointment that an unsuccessful attempt at luring audiences into cinemas would lead to.

There is also a third, and more hopeful, possibility. Most people enjoy seeing films on the big screen, both for the escapism that it offers and to marvel at the vicarious opportunities for seeing exotic locations and countries that many boast. Tenet, which has been filmed in seven different countries, promises Nolan’s usual majestic and sweeping vision, but audiences sick of not being able to travel more than a few miles from their home might well lap up the opportunity to disappear into this complex and surprising world. It has always been a highly anticipated film, long before the unfortunate advent of coronavirus, but it now stands in symbolic relations to the world’s leisure activities.

If it is released, and is a success, then more films will come out, and at least one sector of the economy will begin the path back to normality. If a fearful studio boots its release back to winter, or even to next year, many cinemas will find themselves going the same way as other hospitality venues, and even Nolan’s much-valued Midas touch will not have been enough to save the industry. If that happens, then streaming will be the order of the day from now on, meaning that the kind of large-scale, intensely cinematic experiences that he has built his career on will be an endangered art form.

This would be a tragedy for cinema and its aficionados. One can only hope that Tenet is released, and is the success that it undoubtedly deserves to be (although one waggish friend commented “What if it’s just ‘meh’”?) because that will be little less than the salvation of cinema. Nolan, and his film, are thus faced with a responsibility that would terrify most people. One can only hope that it is a case of “Cometh the hour, cometh the man”, and, with any luck, cometh the Tenet, as well.

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