Have You Seen 'Tenet' Yet? Did You Have An Issue Hearing Anything?

A Christopher Nolan fan discusses the arc of the director's sound design choices. 

If you haven't seen Tenet, here's your spoiler alert. 

The Dark Knight may be looked at as the best superhero film ever made, but is it Nolan's best film? Fans of his work will note the character complexities of Memento, the puzzling layers of Inception, and even the magically crafted story behind The Prestige. With The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan starting experimenting in the way he approached sound. For some, it was downright hard to hear what was being said by the villain Bane. So before the final release, the film was remixed for clarity. 

But that didn't stop Nolan from continuing to try new things with the auditory palette of his movies. As storytellers ourselves, we don't blame him as it's important to grow and experiment in your craft. 

Richard King, the sound supervising editor for many of Nolan's films including The Dark Knight, The Dark Night Rises, Interstellar, Dunking, and Tenet, says, "Chris is trying to create a visceral emotional experience for the audience, beyond merely an intellectual one. Like punk rock music, it's a full body experience, and dialogue is only one facet of the sonic palette. He wants to grab the audience by the lapels and pull them toward the screen, and not allow the watching of his films to be a passive experience. If you can, my advice would be to let go of any preconceptions of what is appropriate and right and experience the film as it is, because a lot of hard intentional thought and work has gone into the mix."

The issue that can arise with such an approach is that our ears have been tuned for decades in a certain way while watching movies. Dialog has always been king. It has always been presented to us in a way that's easy to hear and understand. It's what our ears have been trained for when we go to the movies. In a way, as moviegoers, we've dumbed down our ability to listen. So when Nolan attempts to change what's been basically standard dating back to the talkies of the 1920s, it's going to rub some people the wrong way. Our ears are simply not used to low-hitting dialog that is surrounded by louder music and sound effects. 

While Nolan is trying to draw people into the story and make sure they pay attention to every moment, he might need to consider a learning curve with the general audience. Nolan is essentially throwing everyone into the deep end. And the ones who can swim, can hear the movie, while others say to themselves, "What the f--- is going on?"

And the latter has taken issue with Tenet. People are having a hard time understanding what's being said in the movie let alone grasping the complexities of time conversion and the film's connection to the Sator square

Ben over at Center Row and A.J. of Cult Popture dive into the topic of Nolan's sound choices in a recent video and discuss the issues they had with Tenet at length. Check it out below. 

You have to wonder how Nolan will approach sound going forward. As a filmmaker, you want to make sure the audience understands what the story is about, but when you have as much carte blanche as Nolan, you can do almost anything.

Have you seen Tenet? What did you think of its final mix? Let us know in the comments below.      

Your Comment

9 Comments

I saw 'TENET' at my local AMC Dolby Cinema. Normally, I'm pretty good at following complex plots and odd concepts. I noticed that the dialog was abnormally difficult to follow and became confused about the storyline as a result. My wife had the same experience. This article explains why and confirms my suspicions about the presentation. I have not been able to recommend seeing the movie in a commercial cinema as a result, and I'm a huge fan of Nolan's former body of work

September 16, 2020 at 12:08PM

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Alan Brown
President
1

And I thought I was alone in this. I immediately noticed the loud and bombastic soundtrack that often sounds like noise instead of music throughout the film and bring back memories of the Zimmer organs and braaams of Interstellar and Inception. Add to loud soundtrack the fact that half the time the actors are wearing masks during action scenes and with the loud score results in their dialogue being inaudible. Highly disappointed with this film.

September 16, 2020 at 5:39PM

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Michal Pfeil
Photographer
8

It’s a failed experiment. Nolan is so full of talent and he’s currently one of the best storytellers in the business, but if he wants to continue to put butts in seats he should fix his sound mixes. In my opinion it makes about as much sense as soft focus on all of his precious IMAX frames. Film is a visual medium, try new and exciting visuals, and yes keep the sound design interesting but leave the dialogue clear so we don’t completely check out if it all.

September 17, 2020 at 12:09AM

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Resonance
161

I have to say, this video made me laugh. Two guys puzzling over why a director they claim makes amazing films has made yet another film that is deliberately inaudible and almost impossible to follow.

Few directors seem to be able to consistently frustrate a large proportion of their audience and still command such reverent respect. I think often complexity is being mistaken for depth with the idea that if I have to struggle to understand something then it must be a thing worth understanding.

Although I completely understand why Nolan is praised so highly by many people and I enjoy his films for what they are, (cryptic crosswords not philosophical treaties), I have always found his convoluted plots, where new rules of the imaginary world are constantly injected to override previously invented rules, employed solely to shoehorn in a visually arresting sequence a sign of rather weak and lazy writing. I do it all the time in my own writing which is likely why it frustrates me when I see it on screen.

This use of escalating complexity creates a puzzle that, like a crossword gives us little new insight or meaning. They're fun to figure out but as a distraction not an examination of anything.

Purposefully inaudible dialogue, just feels like another attempt to obfuscate in the hopes of adding to this deliberate complexity but in the end there's a real danger that if you can't read the clues why bother spending two hours doing the crossword - unless of course Nolan just wants you to have to pay to watch his films twice to understand them!

September 17, 2020 at 5:11AM, Edited September 17, 5:16AM

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Paul fern
Film maker
344

The problem with Nolan is that he's perfectly capable of making good, and even great films. Inception, The Dark Knight, The Prestige and Memento weren't flukes.

However, at this point he's so surrounded by yes-men that his bad ideas on aspects he doesn't really understand, especially sound mixing, get pushed through even though SOMEONE at the studio should be reviewing this stuff and saying "Hey, Chris, I can't understand a damn word of this dialogue." He needs to be reined in a bit.

September 17, 2020 at 3:24PM

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Yes, it does seem as though ol Chris has gotten a bit big for his britches.

September 20, 2020 at 9:46PM, Edited September 20, 9:47PM

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Michael Winters
Writer / Director / Cinematographer
95

I want to see it but it's not a risk-my-life-and-newborn-child's-life kind of want so I'll have to wait to not hear it at home with subs.

September 17, 2020 at 12:26PM

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Stephen Herron
Writer/Director
1967

So not only is he too arrogant to release it anywhere but in theaters for "the experience", fans need to experience multiple viewings so they can get all the dialogue.

That's some experience Nolan's peddling.

September 19, 2020 at 9:45PM

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I'm sorry to break it to you all, but Tenet was pretty awful (in my opinion). if the purpose of going to see a film is to be told a story (which in some cases it is not, but that is not something Hollywood seems to have invested much), then the audience should be able to follow the story. I am very sure that unless you were Chris, watched the film with the screenplay, or analyzed every moment 'cause that was the only way to understand it, then you have failed.
Now I am sure that someone will point out things such as The Shining, or 2001 to counter act this point as both of those are not readily accessible a fist viewing for most; but one still "gets them."
I did not "get" Tenet.
the sound design was part, the drive-in-theatre was part, the 'it starting at 10 pm,' and the fact that everyone was wearing a mask or had a very think accent was another.
Also I could not give a shit about any of the characters.
Also the main character was gay, or at least not of world saving material; now these are not mutually exclusive as demonstrated (to a certain extent) by The Boondock Saints.
Also the novelty of watching things go backwards wore off after the second trailer so by the time stuffs really moving around it's just sorta happening.

September 19, 2020 at 10:27PM

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Leo E.
Writer
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