Tenet and the Art of the Invisible

Tenet (2020, Christopher Nolan), despite its many flaws, is a highly polished piece of Hollywood blockbuster machinery that allows us to take a step back and consider what happens when a major cinematic gear isn’t working.

Plot

The plot of Tenet is a complex intellectual puzzle. If you are really interested in knowing more about it, I recommend the highly detailed Wikipedia article that explains the intricate machinations of the storyline:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tenet_(film)

Understanding the Plot

What was so disturbing about Tenet was not being able to unravel this piece of temporal Rubik’s Cube genius because I had no idea what anyone was saying.

This is because the soundtrack went something like this:

mumble, mumble, mumble.

Followed by:

BLAST of amazing heart thumping electronic soundtrack by Ludwig Goransson:

Followed by:

mumble, mumble, time travel but not time travel, mumble, mumble

Sound Design

To understand what is seriously wrong with Tenet is to know that a major part of the art of movie making is sound design.

Imagine a set of moving images, any set of moving images. Then imagine how you want your audience to feel watching those images, how you want your audience to move from dialogue to action to reflection. Then imagine a sound designer crafting and placing track after track on top of one another to make a kind of layered ‘sound cake’ to achieve this purpose.

Each track needs to be balanced perfectly so the audience can hear the dialogue and also the soundtrack, sound effect (bangs, etc), street sounds, wind – all the things that give depth and richness to a cinematic reality.

To get an idea of how this is done just close your eyes and think about all the different layers of sound that make up this moment right now. And that is the base of the glorious work of a sound designer.

Great Sound Design

Sound design is sometimes called the ‘art of the invisible’ because it should support the visuals to such a degree that it is not noticeable. It should not be jarring. We should not question why certain sounds or music are present in our experience of the film. That being said, great sound design has the power to move cinema to something that is beyond mere entertainment.

Take for example:

Star Wars:

https://www.slashfilm.com/star-wars-sound-design-documentary/

Eraserhead:

Fight Club:

Roma:

Sound Design in Tenet

In Tenet, we notice the sound design because it is not invisible. We notice that we can’t hear the actors speaking and that the music is too loud. We notice that there is no depth of experience beyond three tracks that don’t work together – dialogue, music and loud explosions.

Tenet though does teach us to appreciate those who craft soundscapes well. From Sergio Diez, sound designer for Roma:

‘Silence doesn’t exist as such, unless you know how to make it.’ 

This is because sound design in film is craft, not accident. It is the art of the invisible.

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