Sunday, September 16, 2012

Following (1998)

When I started to follow people, specific people, when I selected a person to follow - that’s when the trouble started.
Before he became the director famous for remaking the Batman franchise into the most commercially and critically successful superhero trilogy of all time, before Inception (2010), The Prestige (2006), and Insomnia (2003), and before directing Memento (2000), the critically acclaimed neo-noir that shot him to prominence and gave him his reputation as a uniquely gifted storyteller, Christopher Nolan was an unknown British filmmaker with one feature film credit to his name: Following (1998).

While studying Literature at University College London in the 90s, Nolan started to develop a serious interest in film, making some friends in the college’s film society as well as a few 16mm shorts. After he wrote the screenplay for Following, he scraped together 3,000 pounds (about $6,000) for the film’s budget and cast one of his film society friends, Jeremy Theobald, in the lead role. Sticking closely to the film’s B noir influences, Nolan shot the film on 16mm black and white film stock and in a 1.37.1 aspect ratio (the standard aspect ratio of all noirs from the 40s and many from the 50s). It took him a year to make it, as he only had the free time to film it on the weekends.

While the film accurately retains the look of film noir, its noir roots work their way to the surface most forcefully through the actual story. The film follows in the weary, broken footsteps of many great noir protagonists from films such as Double Indemnity (1944), Detour (1945) and D.O.A. (1950), opening with a confession from the main character of the story’s events after the fact, allowing the film itself to play out in a series of flashbacks. It doesn't take long into his confession to realize that the nameless Young Man (Jeremy Theobald) in Following is a loner, a loser, an aimless drifter, a failure. He has no job, no prospects, and while he calls himself a writer, his empty bank account and decrepit flat say otherwise. His life is an empty shell, so he decides that he’s going to start following people to fill the void. Not for any malicious reason - not to rob them, steal from them, assault them. Nothing like that. He’s too boring for that. Just to watch what they do.

But as he confesses to the man taking his statement, he got addicted to it, and so he needed to put down some rules to keep himself under control. Don’t follow the same person twice. Don’t follow women down dark alleys at night. Keep it all as random as possible. But as he admits, he couldn’t help himself, and that’s when it all started to go so very, very wrong. As he tells it, the Young Man makes the mistake of following the same man more than once, and the man eventually confronts him in a restaurant, demanding to know what he’s doing. Having come face-to-face with one of the people he follows, the Young Man wilts under the pressure. Cobb (Alex Haw), the man he’s been following, is so self-assured, so in control. Cobb openly admits to the Young Man what he does - he’s a thief, and to the Young Man’s surprise, he offers him an opportunity to join him. What else does the Young Man have to do? Of course he accepts. This action sets off a series of events that Nolan relays in his trademark non-linear style. If you’ve seen any of Nolan’s films, you know that he favors cross-cutting his narrative events in such a way as to constantly keep the viewers off balance, questioning how all of the actions they’ve seen fit together. While he became famous for this technique in Memento, he first used it to great effect in Following. Nolan said of Following’s narrative structure, “I decided to structure my story in such a way as to emphasize the audience's incomplete understanding of each new scene as it is first presented.” The film is a series of puzzle pieces, and the audience must put them together as the tale unfolds.

If you’re wondering why this review hasn’t covered much of the plot, here’s why - you don’t want it to. To say any more than what’s already been revealed would be to say too much. The relationships between the Young Man, Cobb, and the nameless blonde femme fatale (Lucy Russell) are constantly shifting, the power dynamics changing with every twist of the plot. And just when you think you’ve got it all figured out, Nolan throws you another curveball and forces you to re-evaluate your assumptions about what’s really taking place. You’ll get near the end of the film and think the story has finally resolved itself, but the twists that come in the final five minutes will sucker punch you right in the gut. You’ll feel sick to your stomach, but don’t worry - it’s a satisfying kind of sick.

It’s rare that a contemporary film manages to so completely capture the essence of film noir in look, tone and plot, but Following does it all, and does it remarkably well. With its uniformly solid performances from its no-name actors, its ultra-low budget, and its running time of just over one hour, this nasty little noir is the type of film that would have played on the bottom half of a double bill sixty years ago. Some of the folks would have left after the A picture, thinking that the B picture wouldn’t be worth their time. It would have been their loss, because the audience members who would have stuck around for both films would have completely forgotten everything about the A picture by the time the credits for Following would have rolled.

 Written by Nighthawk

1 comment:

  1. You could see the ideas for Momento bubbling away here, not as well executed but still a great debut from Nolan.


Comment above or join the discussion at the Back Alley Noir review section. All comments at Noir of the Week are shared at Back Alley