In this outing, my co-hosts Pippa Johnstone, Dominic Girard and I take a look at the question of what role design can—and should—play in the urgent fight for racial justice in American society. We shine the spotlight on the experience of Teddy Philips, A.K.A. Stat the Artist, who last year unexpectedly found his artwork resonating in the movement to recognize the senseless murders of so many Black people. We also talk to Ivy Climacosa, whose Design Action Collective worked on the first incarnation of the Black Lives Matter logo.
This episode also spends a lot of time with design anthropologist, researcher, academic leader, writer, and educator Dori Tunstall, the Dean of the Faculty of Design at OCAD University in Toronto, who offers frank words on the colonialist underpinnings of the design profession itself. Not only is Tunstall the very first Black and Black female dean of a design program anywhere in the world—a fact that by itself says so much about the industry—but she is incredibly incisive about how design functions in the social context of protest. In our discussion, she offers a framework for how design is valued in relation to craft and art that I found to be particularly enlightening.
Tunstall’s other work in this area is also deeply fascinating, especially her campaign to “de-colonize” design, a key component of which is to “liberate” the profession from “The Modernist Project.” It’s a provocative argument that is a direct challenge to many of the core tenets that undergird virtually the entire design industry. This keynote that she delivered in early 2020 to California College of the Arts’ “Decolonial Unconference” is a terrific introduction to her approach to thinking about design practice and education.
I’m fully vaccinated by now but I have yet to make it out to see a movie at the theater. I briefly considered doing that for “Nobody,” the latest action movie written by “John Wick” scribe Derek Kolstad and directed by Ilya Naishuller, which looked like it was going to be a lot of fun. I just couldn’t make it work with my schedule though so instead my wife and I rented it to watch at home. In retrospect, that was probably a better use of money.
“Nobody” is indeed fun in that it delivers on the dependably irresistible premise of an underestimated everyman exacting revenge on the worst of society. But it’s also a retread of similar themes we’ve seen many times in recent years in the various “Taken” installments and their many knockoffs, to say nothing of “John Wick” itself, which shares more than a little of the same DNA and even many of the same plot details. Hey, I’ve got a lizard brain that slurps this stuff up like a Big Gulp as much as the next person, but after a while the charm of excessively staged fight and gun choreography starts to fade amidst the poverty of truly original ideas. It’s too bad, too, because comedian-turned-dramatic actor-turned-action star Bob Odenkirk does a terrific job as the titular “Nobody,” investing the movie with impressive pathos as well as impressive punching. The movie just falls short of matching that commitment.
One film I watched that would’ve been much better served by a theater viewing was “Godzilla vs. Kong,” the latest installment in, heaven help us, the so-called “monsterverse.” If you haven’t been following along in this latest “shared cinematic universe” where Godzilla, King Kong and, for all I know, Barney the Dinosaur all co-exist, it’s now four movies strong and I have to assume that someone out there is interested in them more than me. On a whim, I decided to watch “Godzilla vs. Kong” via HBO MAX and I was pleasantly surprised that my very, very low expectations were surpassed in just the slightest way. This is a dumb-as-rocks movie, don’t get me wrong, but it’s relatively fleet of foot and the final act’s huge knock ’em down, drag ’em out, no holds barred, destruction-porn brawl between the two title monsters is actually kind of fun. I would’ve liked to have seen it on a big screen.
By the way, I’m trying something different for this movies roundup. You’ll notice an illustration at the top of this post, a photo collage with images from “Nobody” and “Godzilla vs. Kong,” obviously, but I also threw in some of the other films I watched last month that I thought were notable: “The Kid Detective,” “Midnight Run” and “The Big Gundown,” all of which were varying degrees of highly enjoyable. Making this collage is me putting some of the illustration ideas that I’ve been tinkering with for a while into play, to see what comes of them. I don’t get much opportunity to be visually expressive these days, and this was a way to burn off some of that creative energy. For those interested, it’s mostly all done in Photoshop with a smattering of Illustrator vectors. With luck, I’ll be doing a new one each month along with these roundup posts.
Here’s the full list of thirteen (it was a lean month) movies I watched in April.
“Zootopia” (2016) ★★½ Rewatched. A lot of moralizing, even for a kids movie.
“The Apple Dumpling Gang” (1975) ★★ Rewatched, I think? Completely forgettable except for the comedic eloquence of Mr. Don Knotts.
“Man of Steel” (2013) ★★ Rewatched. Zack Snyder is that kid from high school who couldn’t (or wouldn’t) stop drawing skulls and knives and demons.
“Flushed Away” (2006) ★★ Shockingly inert Aardman animation—computer-generated, this time—that suggests that the appeal of their stop-motion clay work might be solely in its manual execution.
“The Big Gundown” (1966) ★★★★ What looks like a merely serviceable, B-level spaghetti western is actually a politically complex, highly astute morality play. Superb.
“National Treasure” (2004) ★★ Seems quaint that it once used to be possible to create an action movie franchise out of little more than a bunch of visits to tourist traps.
“Nobody” (2021) ★★½ Everyman actioner that’s hard to resist except for how familiar and tired its tropes are.
“Midnight Run” (1988) ★★★★ Rewatched. Nearly flawlessly constructed Hollywood road movie with what might be DeNiro’s most convincingly inhabited role ever.
“Searching for Bobby Fischer” (1993) ★★★½ I saw all the maudlin story beats and the soaring climax coming a mile away, and yet I was defenseless against it all.
“Godzilla vs. Kong” (2021) ★★★ Dumb as heck, but fleet of foot, plus it has a giant ape and a giant lizard knocking the stuffing out of one another.
“The Kid Detective” (2020) ★★★ The premise of a grown up Encyclopedia Brown who refuses to really grow up is almost too cute by half, except it’s executed with just enough gentle humor to see it all the way through.
This is the latest roundup of my monthly movie consumption. You can also see what I watched in March, February, in January, and in 2020, 2019, in 2018, in 2017, and in 2016. Finally, you can always keep up with what I’m watching by following me on letterboxd.com—where I’m also writing tons of capsule reviews.
Here’s the second episode in our fourth season of “Wireframe.” This one is all about the user experience design of connected fitness devices like Peloton bikes, Tonal home gyms and Mirror, uh, mirrors. We talk to super smart folks on this subject like Jennifer Clinehens, a customer experience strategist who has written incisively about the intersection of UX, behavioral science and Peloton bikes and Kevin Twohy, designer for Mirror. You can listen below or find it in your favorite podcast player right now.
We’ve also got a couple of designers as guests who have contrasting takes on connected fitness: Ariel Norling is all in on it, and Gene Lu prefers running in the great outdoors, where he makes art from his routes using a GPS.
On that last point, you may be thinking to yourself, “With all of this leading edge technology that’s transforming the way people exercise at home, is there a turkey involved in some way, shape or fashion?” The answer, found on Gene’s Instagram, is yes, yes there is:
Part of the pleasure of watching “Raya and the Last Dragon,” which is by no means a terrible movie, is a thrill similar to the one many Asian Americans like myself felt when we watched “Crazy Rich Asians” a few short years ago: it’s just so great to see Asian faces on the screen in a legitimate Hollywood blockbuster. What’s more, it’s evident that the animators and character designers at Disney went through considerable pains to represent many different kinds of Asian faces. There are many facial designs in this movie that are so familiar and true to the diversity of Asian bone structure—many kinds of faces that I recognized from family, friends and a lifetime of exposure to Asian people that I never expected to see rendered by Disney animators at all—that it was a wonder to behold.
And yet, as with “Crazy Rich Asians” (which was a willfully dunderheaded attempt to subvert Asian stereotypes by creating new ones) the representational virtues of “Raya” ultimately feel somewhat hollow. That’s because in actuality the world of the movie is not very true to Asia at all. The movie is ostensibly about Southeast Asian culture but instead of setting it in a historical version of Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines or other, y’know, real places, Disney went another way. They ignored the rich, vibrant histories and mythologies of those lands and chose instead to invent a wholly new, fully fabricated kingdom, populated by new myths and legends that just happen to be owned and copyrighted by Mickey Mouse. Convenient, right? What results is a bloodless, corporatized melange of different ideas, religions, customs, ethnicities and even cuisines.
What’s really at stake here is not just the opportunity to see Asians on the big screen, but also to understand—to understand at least one aspect—of a diversity of cultures that Hollywood has historically lumped together as a generic “other.” It can’t be ignored that this movie’s release last month came in the midst of a rising tide of anti-Asian hatred in America. In fact, “Raya” debuted just eleven days before the Atlanta spa shootings took place on 16 March, which counted six Asian women among its eight deaths. It would be absurd to argue a causal relationship here, but I can’t help but think that “Raya” is symptomatic of the way Asians are understood in America. We all know the common racist refrain that all Asians look alike, but there’s also a common racist assumption that Asian ethnicities, cultures, countries and even regions are interchangeable. Even the majority of the reporting on the Atlanta spa shootings failed to identify the specific ethnicities of the gunman’s victims beyond simply citing them as “Asian” (four were of Korean descent, and two were of Chinese descent).
It probably seems unfair to expect “Raya,” as a kids movie, to resolve this longstanding cultural myopia. But what’s so frustrating about this film is that, while it may have been well intentioned, it’s a whiff on one of the few swings that Asians, to say nothing of Southeast Asians, get at the big screen. Unlike say, Victorian England, the many cultures of Asia do not have both a tremendous backlog of shows and movies behind us as well as an infinite roadmap of future entertainment projects ahead of us that will all tell the story of people who look like us, over and over again, ad nauseam. So when we get one like “Raya,” which in theory could have been a chance for children everywhere—not just Asian, but children of all ethnicities—to learn something actually tangible about other cultures that Americans, let’s face it, know very little about, that feels like malpractice.
An even less charitable part of me views this as a willful refusal on the part of the filmmakers, or the company behind them, to actually engage with the reality of non-Western cultures. In attempting to pay homage to the region only through the constraints of what the corporation can tolerate, “Raya” is really a kind of abnegation of all Asian cultures because it suggests that they’re all the same, interchangeable and indistinguishable from one another. Really, the movie is basically a P.F. Chang’s-style whitewashing of a vast region of the globe. It’s the cinematic equivalent of asking why you’d want to go to a “real” ethnic restaurant on the other side of town when instead you could go to a joint at your local mall, where you can get a half dozen Asian cultures thrown in a wok, stir fried together and presented in Americanese?
You could say that “Raya and the Last Dragon” exploits the low expectations that the American public has for Asian representation, but there was another movie that I watched last month that absolutely killed it in the low expectations game: “Zack Snyder’s Justice League.” This bizarrely elaborate (four hours long, US$70 million dollars just for reshoots and additional post-production) redo of a 2017 box office and critical flop is an incremental improvement over the original, it’s true. But that’s only if you’ve subjected yourself to the horrors of that original as well its franchise predecessors, and really to the entire past decade of meaninglessly convoluted super-hero nonsense at the cinema as well, which has lowered all of our expectations drastically. “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” posits: if you fail often and hard enough, and then you get tens of millions of dollars and the backing of a mob of entitled fan boys behind you, can you make something that’s only modestly redeeming in the smallest possible way, and then consider that a success? Apparently the answer, for some people, is yes.
Here’s the full list of all twenty-seven movies I watched last month.
This is the latest roundup of my monthly movie consumption. You can also see what I watched in February, in January, and in 2020, 2019, in 2018, in 2017, and in 2016. Finally, you can always keep up with what I’m watching by following me on letterboxd.com—where I’m also writing tons of capsule reviews.
It’s already Thursday and I haven’t gotten a chance to tell you yet about the fourth season of “Wireframe,” the design podcast hosted by yours truly. The first episode came out on Monday; you can listen to it above or find it in your favorite podcast player right now, where you’ll also see our spiffy new show art:
Yep, that’s me. If you’ve listened before, you know that this show digs deeply into all kinds of stories about how design impacts the world around us. This season we’re expanding the scope of the show beyond even UX/UI design to an even wider range of design and creativity, and our first episode dives into the world of branding—inspired, like much of the best investigative design journalism out there, by fast food.
When the creative agency Jones Knowles Ritchie launched this rebranding for Burger King earlier this year, it immediately caught my eye. First, because it’s so elegantly executed and entertaining; it’s a ton of fun. But I was also fascinated by its obvious retro vibes, and the slightly unnerving implications of design looking forward by looking backward. And that’s what this episode is about: what does it mean to design something that’s meant to evoke what is invariably an imagined past? Why do designers use this approach, and when does it go wrong? To find out, we talked to the team who worked on this Burger King project, as well as the team at Berlin’s Koto Studio who followed a similar approach under very different circumstances for a brand new company called Meatable. And finally, we got some time with Bobby Martin, Jr. from Champions Design, one of the coolest guys in the industry, to talk about the perils of nostalgic design.
The secret to using a task management system is to make it an everyday habit. My task manager of choice is Todoist and I put virtually everything I want to get done into it: work stuff, side projects, home repair tasks, kids’ school stuff, whatever. It all goes into Todoist, and I’m dipping in and out of that app to check off tasks and add new ones, every day, many, many times a day.
Creating new tasks quickly and easily is key, of course. I use virtually all of the many methods that Todoist offers for adding tasks, from Quick Add on my desktop (essential) to voice dictating tasks into Google Assistant (less essential). I’ve also created an iOS shortcut called “Todoist Task from Webpage” that has become an essential part of my productivity. I’m making it publicly available today and you can download it here for free and install it on your iPhone or iPad.
I made this shortcut because so many of the tasks I create in Todoist each day are based on what I come across in my web browser. On any given web page, I might find that I want to follow up on it at a later time, download something linked on the page, make a purchase, watch a video, or something similar. In fact, it used to be that a lot of the tabs I’d keep open in my browser were actually tasks in disguise: I’d want to keep them available so that I could take some action on them later. Obviously it’s more useful to turn these into tasks than to let them linger as tabs for days or weeks.
The key to translating a page you’re looking at into a task that you’ll actually take action on is quickly capturing the page’s URL. You can do this manually in Todoist by either adding the link as a comment on a task or, even better, embedding the link into the text of the task itself in Markdown form. This is straightforward, but of course the more quickly and easily you can create a task the better.
When you run this shortcut on iPhone or iPad by selecting it from the share menu in mobile Safari (sorry, Chrome on iOS doesn’t support the Shortcuts actions that make this possible) it grabs the URL and the title of the page and quickly formats them as a Markdown link. You can then choose from a list of actions with which to prepend that link, e.g., “Read,” “Follow up on,” “Purchase,” etc. to form the text of the new task. Another menu allows you to assign the task to one of your pre-existing Todoist projects, and the due date is automatically set as today. That’s it; with a few clicks, the page has been turned into a Todoist task.
Here’s what it looks like on an iPad:
Some other nifty details of this shortcut:
Tasks are assigned a due date of today unless you’re running the shortcut after 9:00p local time, in which case it automatically assigns the next day as the due date.
Turning a link on YouTube.com into a task is a little trickier, so the shortcut actually makes a quick call to the YouTube API to get the information necessary to create a new task. As a result, you can also use this shortcut from the the YouTube app. Tap on the share icon and then swipe over to the More action to find the shortcut.
In some cases where the preset actions don’t quite make sense to prepend to the page title, there’s a custom option to allow you to fully edit the text of the task on the fly.
I use this shortcut every day, multiple times a day, and it’s become an essential part of how I think about task management. I now stash all kinds of pages into tasks, from Adobe XD web prototypes that I want to review later, to YouTube videos that I come across during the workday, to Kickstarter campaigns I want to consider funding, and much more. If you’re using Todoist (and if you’re not, you should be) give this a try and let me know what you think.
This shortcut requires iOS or iPadOS 14.4 and the latest version of the Todoist app for iPhone or iPad. Note that if you’ve never run third-party shortcuts before, you’ll need to follow these steps. Also check out ExactPic my suite of image editing shortcuts
A brief note on home theater audio: news broke a few days ago that Apple’s HomePod has been discontinued in favor of its more affordable, younger sibling, the HomePod mini. The HomePod was never for everybody, but it’s an excellent product and it always struck me that it could have been for far a larger market than it ever won.
Rather than pitching it as a competitor to Amazon’s Echo and Google’s Nest lines of inexpensive, lower quality smart speakers, Apple might have had better success measuring it up to speakers from high-fidelity smart audio leaders Sonos—particularly that company’s home theater offerings. I’ll admit that I’m a longtime Sonos skeptic, but even an objective accounting of what it costs to add enhanced sound to a television setup shows that the HomePod offered great value.
As a baseline, consider what Sonos offers for this market. Its entry point product is the Beam compact soundbar for US$399, and its high end offering is the Arc, an enhanced sound bar for US$799. By all reports these are excellent products but the sound bar form factor, despite its popularity over the past decade, has never appealed to me. Sound bars demand to be placed front and center, they typically require wired connections, and despite all of the marketing, in my experience you just can’t replicate two stereo speakers strategically placed in opposite corners of the room with one sound bar sitting in front of your television.
To get that true surround sound experience with Sonos, you’d need to upgrade to a 5.1 surround sound set which includes a Beam, a subwoofer and two smaller speakers, pushing the price to US$1,359. A step-up Surround setup with the Arc instead of the Beam costs US$1,498. This is pretty rarefied air.
Meanwhile, you could get a pair of HomePods for US$299 each. Place those in any two opposite corners of your room and form a digitally linked stereo pair using Apple’s superb self-adjusting technology to fine tune the audio, and you’ve created an impressively immersive, wireless surround sound experience. Of course you’d also need an Apple TV 4K for them to work as the default audio output for your television. But even with the US$179 cost of that device, the whole setup totals just US$777.
If it wasn’t already obvious, this is what we’ve done in our home and it works great. Of course, the caveat is that a HomePod setup requires you to be committed to the Apple ecosystem while the Sonos is famously open and compatible with all sorts of other systems, a true advantage. But Apple’s approach is simpler, requires fewer wires and fewer boxes, no additional software, and is exceedingly easy for my whole family to use. There’s also no mussing with inputs and modes or, worst of all, juggling multiple remote controls, the typical banes of other “advanced” home theater setups. And it’s worth noting that the Apple TV, though much maligned for its pricing, is a truly excellent user experience. If Apple had bundled the Apple TV 4K with two HomePods and marketed them as an integrated home theater offering that offers significant value over similar Sonos offerings, I think it would’ve been a different ballgame.
Apple will continue to offer the smaller HomePod mini, which from reviews seems to be totally fine, but hopefully they’ll bring some of the same seamless integration with the Apple TV 4K to those devices too. Currently, you can’t set a HomePod mini stereo pair as the default audio output for the Apple TV, which is a big part of the seamlessness of the experience we enjoy so much in our setup. In the meantime, you can still find the original HomePods on sale while they last, or hunt ’em down on eBay. I wouldn’t hesitate to do that again if I needed to set up a new home theater today.
Writer and director Lee Isaac Chung’s “Minari” is among the most emotionally honest movies I’ve seen in recent memory. In telling its story of Korean immigrants settling in Arkansas in the 1980s, where the father starts a family farm at the expense of his relationship with his wife and children, the movie intently and elegantly sidesteps nearly every temptation to sink into sentimentality or histrionics, while never feeling anything less than warmly empathetic and dramatically riveting. It’s also one of the best movies about the immigrant experience ever made and almost certainly the most resonant Asian American immigration story to make it to film.
I’m pretty certain every assertion I’m making here is objectively true even though this movie fired off my subjective biases in a major way. So much of this movie felt familiar to me, from the experiences of growing up in Reagan-era America, to the family’s uneasy assimilation into local culture, to the younger characters’ unwitting estrangement from their own identities. It felt almost exactly like my story, except that in so many ways it’s not: my family emigrated from Asia at roughly the same time as the semi-fictional family in “Minari,” but we came from Vietnam and not South Korea; we settled not in rural Arkanasas but in emphatically suburban Maryland; and my parents weren’t farmers but office workers.
That’s the magic of this movie though; it accomplishes that amazing trick of taking something incredibly specific—a semi-autobiographical account of Chung’s own life—and making it relevant and emotionally real for many, many people. There’s a moment in the first half of the film when a character starts crying at just the scent of food—not even food, an ingredient for cooking—from her homeland, and I have no doubt that it’s elicited countless tears from countless viewers hailing from dozens of countries all over the world. This is a wonderful movie.
“Minari” (2020) ★★★★ Sidesteps just about every opportunity to indulge in melodrama or histrionics, and just focuses on its story with a clear-eyed emotional authenticity that’s deeply stirring.
“Inception” (2010) ★★★★ Rewatched, with my daughter. Despite all the criticisms of Nolan’s focus on structural highjinks, the emotional beats work every time.
“Support the Girls” (2018) ★★★½ Deeply compassionate story of dealing with the misery of being very good at a job you can’t stand.
“Faces Places” (2017) ★★ Despite Agnes Varda’s charms, this is a hugely overrated cross between a reality television show and an electronic press kit.
“Judas and the Black Messiah” (2021) ★★★ Electric performances from the two leads can’t quite give form to this frequently over-scoped historical drama.
“The Passion of Anna” (1969) ★★★★ Hauntingly photographed foray into typical Ingmar Bergman territory, where solitude is the only answer to humanity’s inherent awfulness.
“The Lego Batman Movie” (2017) ★★★ Rewatched. I didn’t like this much the first time but there’s so much packed in here that it rewards repeated viewings.
“The Sword in the Stone” (1963) ★★★ Little more than an excuse for a series of excessively playful animated excursions, but amply engaging nevertheless.
This is the latest roundup of my monthly movie consumption. You can also see what I watched in January, in all of 2020, in 2019, in 2018, in 2017, and in 2016. You can also always keep up with what I’m watching by following me on letterboxd.com—where I’m also writing tons of capsule reviews.
Last fall my eleven year-old daughter Thúy got the idea to solicit favorite recipes from family members and collect them into a family cookbook that she would gift at Christmas. She’s always been interested in cooking, and has great appreciation for the variety of food that she’s eaten throughout her young life from all over: Vietnam, France, Texas, Illinois and a random selection of cuisine enthusiasms that we’ve picked up as New Yorkers.
I was struck by the wide-eyed curiosity of the idea, and quickly offered to help her turn it into reality. Partly this was because I’m always eager to encourage her enterprising spirit, but I also saw the chance to put my design skills to use making something concrete and relevant to my family—and to Thúy, particularly.
Once she had all of the recipes collected and the copy ready (with invaluable editorial assistance from my wife), Thúy and I sat down with InDesign and basically designed it together. I handled the mechanical work of typesetting and layout, but she selected the various typefaces and effectively art directed the look and feel of the thing. Along the way I showed her the fundamentals of book design: chapter headers and sub-headers, page folios and how to make a table of contents. It was a blast talking about these fairly esoteric topics with my eleven year-old daughter and to have it come alive for her, demystifying the act of what it takes to create a “real” book.
For the cover, Thúy used a black Sharpie marker to draw a host of foods, ingredients and kitchen utensils on paper. We scanned those into Illustrator, converted them to paths, added color and then composed them together with the display type. The design is, stylistically, probably something that I never would have arrived at on my own. But I do adore it and of course it was a joy to discover the composition with her, as collaborators.
From the start, the whole book was designed to match the standard printing sizes over at Lulu, where you can print on-demand for relatively cheap. Our book was 6 x 9-inches, twenty-eight pages in length, with black and white interiors and a color hardcover with a matte finish. The printing cost for each came to about US$9 each. That’s a very reasonable price point for Christmas gifts, but Lulu was so inundated for the holidays that we had to pay for express shipping in order to get the copies out in time, raising the per unit cost to just under $15. Lesson learned for next year, when we plan to update the cookbook with new recipes and possibly color photos.
The whole project was well worth the effort and cost though, not just for the obvious sentimental value to our family, but also for the experience of having created an utterly unique gift that, well, you can’t order on Amazon. But for me it was even more meaningful because it allowed me to do what I love with someone I love. When we got the book in the mail from Lulu and held it in our hands, that was a good day to be a designer.
Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet,” which I finally got to see last month via on-demand streaming after its somewhat tortured, mid-pandemic theatrical release, did not make a lot of “best of” lists at the end of last year. I’m only guessing here but that was possibly due to the fact that as a film it’s so narratively intricate as to inspire—or necessitate—the making of charts like this one that I came across on Reddit:
The film’s ostentatious complexity seems to confuse audiences, not just in their attempts to follow along with the plot as it unfolds on screen, but also in the mental framework through which they try to understand just what kind of movie “Tenet” is. Even people who enjoy purposefully obscure cinematic storytelling tend to believe that a movie that looks and feels like a blockbuster (which “Tenet” does and, with a reported production cost of US$200 million, does so in spades) should also work like a blockbuster. These film fans also tend to believe that a movie that works like an art film should look and feel like an art film too. Frustratingly for many, “Tenet” flouts both ideas: it’s a movie that looks and feels like a blockbuster and yet works like an art film.
The traditional guideposts of popcorn flicks are all there in “Tenet”: staggering action set pieces, espionage on a fantastical scale, copious amounts of gunplay and explosions, a villain hellbent on destroying the world, and a beautiful, vaguely dimensional femme fatale at the heart of it all. The movie’s obvious template is the James Bond series, though its execution is considerably more impressive than anything that franchise has turned out for decades.
What’s confounding though is that “Tenet” offers up these wares but perversely denies its audience the opportunity to grab hold of them. Its plot is not just structurally complex but the advancement of the narrative is also awash in vague, nearly incomprehensible exposition, delivered with Nolan’s characteristic disinterest in intelligible dialogue. Watching it—and listening to it—you get the feeling of a plot but it’s nearly impossible to grasp the details as they flit by at a torrential, garbled pace.
Confounding audiences with directorial conceits is nothing new, but the army of art house directors who specialize in this modality don’t make movies that look or feel like “Tenet” at all. A film by David Lynch, Claire Denis or Terence Malick will insist on a certain distance from conventional storytelling, but they almost invariably frame those choices in comfortably recognizable cinematic constraints: you know you’re watching an art film because of the moodiness of the milieu, the painterliness of the cinematography, the spareness of the script or the idiosyncrasies of the performance. In each of these aspects “Tenet” is as stylistically opinionated as any art house film, but it’s starker and higher pitched and volumetrically brighter and much more explosive. There’s more guns, car crashes and things that go ka-boom! Hollywood stuff, basically.
All of which is why I find “Tenet” so absolutely thrilling. Here is a film that’s playing on another level. It hijacks exorbitant financing from a major studio and deploys it in service of a true auteurist vision. And it’s willing to make a demand on its audience that virtually no other film even attempts. As Nolan has repeatedly done in his career, “Tenet” takes our well-worn familiarity with genre filmmaking and pulls it inside out, slashes it to pieces, and reassembles it into something new and unfamiliar, and then asks us to enjoy it for its sheer sensation. Why settle for watching yet another hyperbolic spy actioner (I’m a huge fan of hyperbolic spy actioners, by the way) when you can use the genre to launch yourself into an experience of a kind you’ve never seen before?
“Experience” is the key term there—not “watch.” In a now famous (or infamous) line from the script, one of Nolan’s characters implores the film’s protagonist (archly unnamed and referred to only as “The protagonist”): “Don’t try to understand it. Feel it.” That specific feeling you should be feeling is the thrill of disorientation, the upending of your assumptions. This is the most expensive art film ever made.
I’ll be the first to admit that I can’t explain everything that happens in “Tenet,” and having seen it twice now I’m not even convinced that a hundred percent of its plot withstands close scrutiny. But that hardly seems to matter. Watching “Tenet,” what I appreciate is the extremely gifted moviemaking, the incredibly charming performances, the sublimely pristine cinematography, and the deftness with which Nolan has assembled them all into an intricate composition. It feels very close to the inexplicable logic of the best modern art; imagine a Bond film reconstituted as a Robert Rauschenberg canvas and you start to get some idea of what Nolan is trying to do here. And like Rauschenberg’s famous combine paintings, “Tenet” seems, so far anyway, endlessly viewable. The more you look at it, the more you see, though you may never understand everything.
Here’s the full list of twenty-two movies that I watched in January.
“Another Round” (2020) ★★★ A compelling performance by Mads Mikkelson elevates a fairly dopey premise that feels less and less convincing the more you think about it.
“Next Gen” (2018) ★★ I had low expectations for this Netflix back catalog kids film—and its story is forgettable—but the CG animation shows some real care and thought.
“The Cameraman” (1928) ★★★★ Unceasing physical comedy inventiveness from Buster Keaton, undergirded by deft pathos.
This is the latest roundup of my monthly movie consumption. You can also see what I watched in 2020, 2019, in 2018, in 2017, and in 2016. Finally, you can always keep up with what I’m watching by following me on letterboxd.com—where I’m also writing tons of capsule reviews.