Tenet up: listen, Christopher Nolan, we just can't hear a word you're saying

The Tenet director has dismissed critics of his poor sound mixing by blaming us for being too conservative. Why must he keep toying with our perception of sound?

We’re all aware of the impossible situation that film currently finds itself in. Screens started shutting in the summer. This is because the big new movies have all been postponed. This is because movie studios are nervous about losses. And this is because Tenet, the great bellwether of cinema in 2020, underperformed theatrically.

But perhaps an alternate dimension exists where cinema is still thriving. The Eternals is breaking box-office records. No Time to Die is still showing to packed houses. Pre-sales for Dune are through the roof. And it’s all because people flocked to Tenet in their droves. What separates that dimension from this? That version’s Tenet had a better sound mix. People saw it, they understood it, they didn’t immediately tell all their friends that it was frustrating and incomprehensible, and as a result it gave Hollywood the confidence to spring back into action.

It’s hard to be anything other than completely perplexed by Tenet’s sound mix, where almost every scrap of dialogue that isn’t being screamed by Kenneth Branagh is smothered under a thick blanket of soupy noise. Don’t get me wrong, it might still be a good film – I’m looking forward to watching it at home with the subtitles on to find out – but a movie where you have to try to lip-read several complicated theories about the nature of time isn’t exactly accessible to a mass audience.

Nevertheless, Christopher Nolan is bullish on the matter. The topic of his sound mixes comes up in the new book The Nolan Variations, and he claims that his peers have called him up to complain about it. “I actually got calls from other film-makers who would say, ‘I just saw your film, and the dialogue is inaudible.’ Some people thought maybe the music’s too loud, but the truth was it was kind of the whole enchilada of how we had chosen to mix it.”

Discussing Interstellar – another film that vacillates between quiet and loud so violently that you can only really watch it at home with one hand constantly adjusting the volume – he said: “It was a very, very radical mix. I was a little shocked to realise how conservative people are when it comes to sound. Because you can make a film that looks like anything, you can shoot on your iPhone, no one’s going to complain. But if you mix the sound a certain way, or if you use certain sub-frequencies, people get up in arms.”

Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway inInterstellar.
What are they saying? ... Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway in
Interstellar.
Photograph: Melinda Sue Gordon/Allstar Picture Library

Obviously this is nothing new with Nolan. As far back as The Dark Knight Rises in 2012, he has been toying with our perception of sound, then treating us to a Bane who initially sounded like a pirate choking on a ball gag. Back then he caved to pressure and cleaned up the mix a little – and a brief respite came in the form of Dunkirk, where none of the characters had anything of particular interest to say anyway – but it looks like those days are over.

In 2017, when the subject came up again as people realised that Dunkirk was quite loud, Nolan claimed that he only made films for perfect cinemas, telling IndieWire: “We made the decision a couple of films ago that we weren’t going to mix films for substandard theatres.”

It’s a decent enough notion and, as one of the few film-makers around who can balance arthouse tendencies with vast commercial appeal, Christopher Nolan should be commended for his desire to move the medium into new and unexpected places. But I’ve seen two films in cinemas since March. In one of them, I had to endure a scene where the sound of Michael Caine chewing a piece of meat was louder than the dialogue. Nolan is under no obligation to mix his films for substandard theatres. But if he ever fancies mixing them for human beings, we should welcome him back with open arms.

Contributor

Stuart Heritage

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Seat of the problem: why does Christopher Nolan hate chairs?
Still, stiff-legged, sat-upon … chairs set a bad, undynamic example, which is why the movie director won’t let his actors near one

Stuart Heritage

30, Jun, 2020 @1:02 PM

Article image
Warner Bros delays release of Christopher Nolan's Tenet again
The big budget sci-fi thriller, originally scheduled for July, has no new release date due to uncertainty over US cinemas reopening

Andrew Pulver

21, Jul, 2020 @12:15 PM

Article image
Christopher Nolan leads industry fury over Warner Bros' streaming move
Tenet director says studio’s decision to release its entire 2021 slate in the US simultaneously in cinemas and on HBO Max is ‘not how you treat film-makers’

Andrew Pulver

08, Dec, 2020 @1:10 PM

Article image
Christopher Nolan and Sofia Coppola urge fans to watch films in cinemas, not on Netflix
As studios reckon with the rise of streaming, the two directors ask audiences to watch their movies on the big screen, where they’re ‘meant to be seen’

Gwilym Mumford

30, Mar, 2017 @10:18 AM

Article image
Why Godzilla vs. Kong saved cinema, not Tenet
Christopher Nolan’s film baffled audiences – all they wanted in this most bewildering of years was to see a giant ape and a dinosaur going at it for 15 rounds

James Hanton

07, Apr, 2021 @5:12 AM

Article image
Why so serious? Tenet and the new wave of 'science-based' time travel movies
Films like Back to the Future and The Terminator never thought too deeply about time travel; so is Christopher Nolan draining all the fun out of it?

Alex Hess

09, Sep, 2020 @6:00 AM

Article image
Tenet makes healthy start in US with $20m opening weekend take
Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi blockbuster has had a relatively encouraging US box office debut, following a healthy fortnight on release internationally

Catherine Shoard

07, Sep, 2020 @10:31 AM

Article image
Tenet didn't just fail to save cinema – it may well have killed it for good
Branded the saviour of cinema, Christopher Nolan’s time-travelling sci-fi turned out more of a sacrificial lamb – and has totally spooked the industry

Guy Lodge

06, Oct, 2020 @7:00 AM

Article image
From Memento to Interstellar: our writers pick their favourite Christopher Nolan films
With the much-anticipated staggered release of Tenet, writers argue why each of Christopher Nolan’s 10 previous films should be seen as his best

Beatrice Loayza, Peter Bradshaw, Benjamin Lee, Wendy Ide, Charles Bramesco, Radheyan Simonpillai, Adrian Horton, Noah Gittell, Jordan Hoffman and Steve Rose

27, Aug, 2020 @6:24 AM

Article image
Christopher Nolan's Tenet to be released in August – but not in the US
The much-delayed thriller will launch in 70 countries worldwide before a limited release in the US on Labor Day weekend

Benjamin Lee

27, Jul, 2020 @5:43 PM