Directed by: Christopher Nolan
Written by: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Jeremy Theobald, Alex Haw, Lucy Russell
Christopher Nolan’s brand of high brow blockbuster filmmaking has certainly shaped the landscape of quality populist cinema. He single handedly revived the Batman franchise and in the process, formed a style guide which is regularly referenced by his peers in an attempt to emulate his successful recipe. Years before the BWWWOOOOMMMMM Inception sound rewrote modern day marketing, Nolan wrote and directed ‘Following’, filmed in black and white and shot on weekends with his film school friends. It’s an impressive first feature that isn’t without its problems.
The film stars Jeremy Theobald as an unemployed, unnamed writer who follows strangers in hopes to find inspiration for his first novel. One of his targets, a young man in a dark suit, calls him out on his unusual brand of research and a strange relationship is formed. The man goes by the name ‘Cobb’ and invites the writer on a series of burglaries with the goal to unsettle the residents of various targeted homes by rummaging through their personal items and in the process, giving them the opportunity to re-examine their lives. The writer immediately adopts an interest in this strange lifestyle and attempts a few break in’s of his own under Cobb’s tutelage. By chance, he meets a blonde woman at a bar who’s ex boyfriend — called simply “The Bald Guy” — is introduced as some sort of crime boss. She confides in the writer, revealing she was a witness to one of the bald guy’s murders, for which he has since attempted to silence her by blackmailing her with a series of risque photographs. The writer immediately takes action and breaks into the crime boss’s apartment, looking to steal the photos. What follows is a series of twists and turns that I would imagine might fall into spoiler territory, so we’ll just leave it at that.
Nolan has always been somewhat dependent upon high concepts. Even Batman could be lumped into this idea of taking an otherwise straight forward crime drama and applying a high concept twist to the formula. His breakout film, Memento, blew audiences minds by telling a mystery in reverse. Following is similarly ambitious in its narrative and concept, but mostly in contrast to its low budget roots. It’s one of those films, like Darren Aronofsky’s ‘Pi’, that makes waves as an accomplished first feature by a first time director who shows a great deal of promise. Having said that, Following is in no way a great film. It’s quite obviously the work of a young filmmaker who’s desperate attempt at being clever feels somewhat naive and maybe even a little arrogant. My main issue with Following is the use of its characters as simple pawns to support its high concept. I never really felt like I was watching real people, which is only worsened by the fact that the performances aren’t the greatest. Some of the philosophical observations on the effects of the robberies are sort of cringe worthy. Nolan spends too much time micromanaging plot in an attempt to line up his twists and turns, which never really feel as revelatory as intended. As I’d mentioned, the performances are okay at best, especially if you resists granting them a special pass due to the film’s low budget roots. Probably the best aspect of Following is the black and white photography, which gives us an early look at the heightened naturalism that Wally Pfister and Christopher Nolan would bring to their big budget action films. We also see early evidence of Nolan’s obsession with non-linear storytelling, which in this case feels a bit forced. It all feels like a dry run for Memento, which probably isn’t far off from the truth.
I’m guessing there are many who would cite Following as an example of Nolan’s best work simply due to its relative obscurity when considered against his bigger films. I certainly don’t hate the film but there’s no question that Nolan, along with his various collaborators whom he continues to work with to this day, have grown immensely as storytellers. I would expect nothing less. Following plays more like a curiosity that has gained a reputation due to Nolan’s success rather than the quality of the film itself. People always question some of Criterion’s choices in regards to the more accessible titles it chooses to include in the collection. The Rock and Armageddon are probably the most controversial, but Bay’s influence on action cinema — particularly that of the 90’s — is unquestionable. Following is an unusual choice simply because of the reasoning behind it. There are higher quality films in Nolan’s body of work that are probably more deserving of a spot in the Criterion Collection (The Prestige immediately comes to mind), but I guess Following feels the most like an ‘art film’, even if it’s due to surface observations (the black and white photography). The film seems to be more of a footnote in Nolan’s career, but I suppose that’s part of the reason Criterion has gone out of its way to highlight and preserve the film. It may not be Nolan’s best work, but it’s a unique look at the building blocks of a filmmaker whose influence would shape this generation of blockbuster action cinema.
There’s no doubt that Criterion’s blu ray release of Following is the best the film has ever looked. Some might ask why an independently produced black and white film shot on 16mm would ever need a high definition upgrade but I think fans of the film will be pleased. The picture is appropriately sharp with a natural layer of 16mm grain, giving the photography a beautiful texture that never feels digital. As for supplements, the disc features a commentary track by Nolan, which I believe was carried over from the original DVD release. Seeing as Nolan has seemingly stopped recording commentary tracks, it’s interesting to hear him reflect on the making of his very first feature. Criterion also shot a brand new interview with the director in which he discusses the various limitations and low budget shooting techniques used in the making of Following. Much like the Memento DVD and blu ray, Following features a chronological edit of the film, which I personally would never have any interest in watching. These are topped off by a side-by-side comparison of the script with scenes in the film and a three minute short film called Doodlebug, which Nolan made only a year before Following. Overall it’s a great package. — Jay C.