Following

Director: Christopher Nolan
Screenplay: Christopher Nolan
Stars: Jeremy Theobald (The Young Man), Alex Haw (Cobb), Lucy Russell (The Blonde), John Nolan (The Policeman), Dick Bradsell (The Bald Guy), Gillian El-Kadi (Home Owner), Jennifer Angel (Waitress), Nicolas Carlotti (Barman), Darren Ormandy (Accountant), Guy Greenway (Heavy #1), Tassos Stevens (Heavy #2), Tristan Martin (Man at Bar), Rebecca James (Woman at Bar)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1998
Country: U.K.
Following Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
FollowingViewed in retrospect, one can easily recognize Christopher Nolan’s noiresque no-budget feature debut Following as a harbinger of things to come, an exercise in the kind of temporal gymnastics, sleight-of-hand shifts in perspective, and rigorous insights into the dark depths of human nature that have defined his later films, particularly Memento (2001), The Prestige (2006), and Inception (2010). Shot in 16mm black-and-white on a shoestring over a year’s worth of Saturdays when his amateur cast and crew, all of whom had other jobs, were available, Following is an intriguing example of how a naturally gifted filmmaker (Nolan never went to film school) can make something out of a virtually nothing.

In classic film noir fashion, the story opens with the doomed protagonist, an unnamed young man (Jeremy Theobald), narrating his story to an older man (the relationship between them is left purposefully vague). The young man explains how, in his pursuit of being a writer, he took to following random people on the streets of London just to see where they would go and what they would do. It’s voyeurism with the pretense of art as its defense, but voyeurism is voyeurism, all the same, thus establishing early on the potential for conflict between surfaces and what they might be hiding.

One day the young man is confronted in a coffee shop by one of his marks, a well-dressed and extremely confident man named Cobb (Alex Haw) who turns out to be a burglar. Again, surface and interior are in conflict, as Cobb’s refined external appearance belies the petty nature of his criminality. But, even that is not exactly what it seems, as we learn when he invites the young man to take part in one of his break-ins. It turns out that Cobb breaks and enters not for pure profit (although it does fund his lifestyle), but to explore the personal lives of the apartment’s dwellers via their belongings and, most importantly, a box, hidden somewhere inside, that contains their most personal and treasured—and therefore revealing—possessions. Using these items Cobb—who is part burglar, part psychological home invader—is able to piece together the apartment owner’s personality and station in life, often with striking accuracy, and he is always sure to leave traces of his intrusion, a natural extension of the philosophical justification of his criminal life: Show people what they have by taking it away.

Cobb’s material voyeurism and personal intrusion is a brilliantly unnerving concept—the idea that our lives can be assessed by the things we own—and the young man takes to it immediately. Regardless of whether the young man wants to become a writer (that is somewhat up for debate), he is clearly fascinated by human nature, although he is truly turned on by the ability to invade others’ lives and explore their personal space. The story becomes more complicated when the young man becomes involved with an icy blonde (Lucy Russell) who he meets at a bar that is owned by the woman’s ex-boyfriend (Dick Bradsell), a violent mobster. Not surprisingly, the woman was once one of the young man’s marks; thus, his voyeurism begins to compel actual interaction, merging his two worlds in ways that become markedly dangerous. As much as Following riffs on the familiar tone and ethos of film noir, the young man’s romance with an object of his gaze turns it into a variation on Hitchcock’s Vertigo, albeit with a twisty series of David Mamet-like revelations at the end that make it clear that Nolan is ultimately more interested in surprising us with plot developments, rather than unsettling us with philosophical ruminations.

Given its small scale, Following will always be viewed as something of a warm-up to Nolan’s subsequent career, which has exploded in the past decade, particularly with the gargantuan success of his brooding Dark Knight trilogy. Still, there are many small pleasures scattered throughout Following that are not necessarily related to his later work, or at least can be taken on their own merits. The performances, for example, by Theobald and Haw are surprisingly good, given that neither was a professional actor or pursued acting as a career. Theobald, with his scruffy hair and slouched demeanor, exudes that particular mix of curiosity and weakness that makes him a perfect victim-to-be, while Haw’s broad confidence, verbal dexterity, and seemingly unshakeable ability to read others marks him as an immensely appealing, but incredibly dangerous man. They are polar opposites who ultimately begin to blur as Theobald’s character begins emulating Haw’s.

Without a huge budget to rely on, Nolan (who acted as his own cinematographer) relies heavily on hand-held camerawork, actual locations, and the inherent moodiness of high-contrast black-and-white, all of which meld together quite nicely in sustaining a consistent tone of intrigue. From a visual standpoint, the film looks much more expensive than it was; as Scott Foundas points out in his essay accompanying the Criterion Collection release, Following cost less than both Robert Rodriguez’s El Mariachi (1992) and Kevin Smith’s Clerks (1994), both paramount examples of mid-’90s do-it-yourself indie ingenuity. Perhaps due to its material limitations, Following is arguably Nolan’s most subtle, nuanced film, lacking the visual firepower and operatic conflicts of his later works, and for that reason some have latched onto it, celebrating its clever mixing of noir tropes and European art film ambiguity.

However, I can’t quite escape the feeling that the film’s jumbled narrative structure isn’t anything more than a sleight of hand in and of itself, making a rather straightforward story seem unnecessarily complicated. Unlike the thematically crucial narrative layering and nonchronological ordering of his later films, particularly Memento, Following’s temporal playfulness feels like just that: playfulness. Thus, it is hard to see the film as anything more than a breezy and entertaining riff on familiar themes and plot devices that stick with us primarily because we now know where they’re leading.

Following Criterion Collection Director-Approved Blu-Ray
Following is also available from The Criterion Collection on DVD.
Aspect Ratio1.33:1
Audio
  • English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround
  • English Linear PCM 2.0 monaural
  • SubtitlesEnglish
    Supplements
  • Audio commentary by writer/director Christopher Nolan
  • Video interview with Nolan
  • Chronological edit of the film
  • Side-by-side comparison of the shooting script with three scenes from the film
  • Doodlebug (1997), a three-minute film by Nolan, starring Following’s Jeremy Theobald
  • Trailers
  • Essay by film critic and programmer Scott Foundas
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    SRP$39.95
    Release DateDecember 11, 2012

    VIDEO & AUDIO
    Criterion’s Blu-Ray of Following features a new, restored 4K digital transfer, supervised by director Christopher Nolan, taken from the original 16mm camera negative. Presented in its intended 1.33:1 aspect ratio, the image looks excellent—an absolutely gorgeous presentation of gritty 16mm celluloid, complete with plenty of dancing film grain. Contrast looks good, and blacks feature plenty of depth and richness. The disc also offers two soundtrack options: the original monaural soundtrack presented in an uncompressed Linear PCM transfer from a 16mm optical print, or a new DTS-HD 5.1-channel surround mix from the original mix masters by veteran rerecording mixer Gary Rizzo, who has worked with Nolan on all of his films since The Pretige. Purists will naturally gravitate toward the original monaural mix, but the new six-channel mix is worth checking out for the subtle ways in which Rizzo expands the ambiance and aural scope of the film without compromising the original intent.
    SUPPLEMENTS
    Thankfully, Christopher Nolan was heavily involved in the production of Criterion’s Blu-Ray, offering both an intriguing and informative audio commentary and a video interview. For those fascinated by the film’s structure, the disc offers a chronological edit of the film (which plays much, much differently than the original version) and a side-by-side comparison of the shooting script with three scenes from the film. Finally, the disc includes Doodlebug (1997), an experimental three-minute film by Nolan starring Jeremy Theobald, and several trailers.

    Copyright ©2012 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (3)



    James Kendrick

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