As of this weekend, I can now say I’ve seen every full-length motion picture directed to date by Christoper Nolan. In December 2012 his debut, Following, earned a Criterion Collection re-release. Shot in 1998 in 16mm black-and-white, it was minimally restored for this edition, with the original aspect ratio and much of the old-media grittiness retained for historical verisimilitude. Its seventy speedy minutes contain an amateur no-star cast (as well as crowds of unwitting “extras” captured on the fly) and were shot for just five thousand dollars, a bargain compared to other self-financed B&W debut films from the same decade (e.g., Kevin Smith’s Clerks, Robert Rodriguez’ El Mariachi). With such budgetary constraints and no established names involved in the creative process, a casual browser would expect Following to feel like a young-adult vanity project fit only for YouTube.
Shame on that casual browser, then, with so little faith in the Nolan brand name. The film follows a slacker calling himself Bill (Jeremy Theobald) who fuels his unrequited novelist dreams by shadowing random people on the streets and learning about them in what he convinces himself is a non-creepy non-stalker way. (Helpful intervention here for anyone who sees Bill as a role model: unless you’re on assignment for your law-enforcement job, following someone is creepy-stalker-ish by definition.) Bill’s hobby disturbing goes awry when one of his subjects, an impeccably dressed fellow named Cobb (Alex Haw), confronts Bill and invites him to ride along as he indulges in his own hobby: sneaking into people’s homes while they’re out, stealing little things, and violating their privacy.
Cobb’s fashion sense confirms he doesn’t need the money. Quite the contrary, he’s learning about his victims through burglary, and in his warped mind teaching them just how important (or unimportant) their possessions truly were to them after they’ve been removed. Cobb sums up this ostensible public service: “You take it away from them, then show them what they had.” From there, the game shared between Bill and Cobb naturally turns messy, particularly when a mysterious blonde woman (Lucy Russell) enters the picture. Part victim, part flirt, the blonde complicates matters just as you’d expect any film noir lady would.
Even as a first-time filmmaker, writer/director/cinematographer/co-editor Nolan refused to play it simple. With a straightforward approach, Following might have made an above-average, extended episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Instead the film juggles its three acts, ping-ponging the narrative from one to the other as we take turns watching Bill’s progress at different points in time, each one linear within its own act, but spliced between the other acts. All of that, then, is couched within a framing device that renders them all as simultaneous flashbacks. Tracking each act isn’t difficult if you pay attention to Bill’s physical state. Then again, if Memento, The Prestige, or Inception gave you migraines, you might consider keeping a legal notepad by your side, drawing columns, and jotting down the clues as you go. Pretend it’s a film adaptation of one of those old Dell Pencil Puzzles and Word Games challenges.
(Alternatively, the Criterion extras include a reedited, 100% linear version of the entire film, but that removes a lot of nuance and dampens the joy of piecing the puzzle together. That’s like cheating.)
Fans who’ve seen Nolan’s other films will have fun creating their own list of similarities and flash-forward callbacks to his subsequent works, including but not limited to:
* The theme of identities defined by choice and sometimes imposed by circumstance (see also: Memento)
* The disregard for ordinary nonlinear narratives (obviously)
* A manipulative character named Cobb (see: Inception)
* Creative use of lighting (see: Insomnia)
* Unnecessary R-rated profanity (see again: Memento, Insomnia)
* The idea of taking from others for reasons beyond mere wealth accumulation (see: The Dark Knight Rises)
* Working with other members of the Nolan family (uncle John Nolan plays a policeman in the framing sequence)
* A Batman sticker on a door (wishful foreshadowing?)
…and more, more, more, no doubt. Following is no mere college project, no home movie for relatives’ eyes only, but a surprisingly cogent, cogently surprising crime drama with aspirations to something greater. Though the resources weren’t quite there for Christopher Nolan to live out his intellectual pursuit to its fullest at the time, he did quite well with what he had. With that potential having been borne out, thus has he been entrusted with even more ever since.
Enclosed below is one of the Criterion disc’s extras: one of Nolan’s shorts from his college years — a cheap, three-minute mind-bender called Doodlebug, starring Following‘s Jeremy Theobald. It’s cute and inessential, and the Blu-ray transfer reveals the seams and makes it look like a workprint. The moral of the story seems to be, “There’s always a bigger fish.”