Directed, written and photographed by Christopher Nolan. Produced by Christopher Nolan, Jeremy Theobald, Emma Thomas. Music by David Julyan. Edited by Gareth Heal, Christopher Nolan. Production designed by Tristan Martin. Starring Jeremy Theobald, Alex Haw, Lucy Russell, John Nolan.
In the past decade, few filmmakers have so successfully staked out such a creative and financially viable body of work as Christopher Nolan. Nolan who made the indie breakthrough Memento, and then toggled between increasingly ambitious projects (Insomnia, The Prestige, Inception) and controlling interest in the lucrative Batman franchise (Batman Begins, The Dark Knight and the forthcoming The Dark Knight Rises), is the rare example of a Hollywood filmmaker who became an A-lister without ever, really, selling out. I can think of a short list of other directors that share this same quality. Names like Stanley Kubrick, Woody Allen, Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson, or even (God love him) Steven Spielberg. If there is a thrill in watching an artist operate at the top of his form, then there is an extra special charge present when that artist so successfully plots his career without any overly demonstrative gestures towards marketability. In other words, Nolan is one of the few examples of a filmmaker who every few years, makes exactly the project that he wants to make, and is rewarded for it.
If I were to pin down one underlying element to Nolan’s movies, I would say that he invariably tells stories about outsiders who, through their attempts to achieve closure, become trapped within their own twisted code. In Memento, our protagonist Leonard Shelby falls into a endless cycle of meaningless revenge. In his remake of Insomnia, a flawed detective becomes consumed by guilt and mistakes, and essentially becomes a confidant of the murderer he is supposed to stop. The Prestige focused on magicians who have a rivalry inflamed by jealousy and revenge, leading to what can only be called poignant sci-fi tragedy. Inception showed us a man who feared at every moment he was trapped in a psychic purgatory of his own making. And, yes, Nolan’s Batman films, while existing as studio tentpole pictures, are also crime stories that meditate on both the necessity and heavy toll of moral compromise, and are actually really, truly, about that theme (The Dark Knight’s conclusion may well be the darkest ending for a studio popcorn picture since The Empire Strikes Back). All of these elements are phrases from the language of film noir, which is a genre that I suspect is burned into Nolan’s blood.
For further proof, I recently visited Nolan’s very first feature, Following, and was struck by how cleanly it fits into the Nolan repertoire. This low-budget, 69 minute film, shot in London on grainy B&W 16mm film stock, is billed as a film noir, and it is, but at the outset we don’t realize how much of one it will be. Noirs thrive on guilt, loneliness, and depression, and Following has this in spades: its hero, a morose young man (Jeremy Theobald, who is simply called “The Young Man”) is a writer who is in between projects and in between jobs, and has nothing to do all day but to indulge his interest in people. So he does, by following them. Not to mug them, or assault them, or even to talk to them, but simply to follow them, watch them, and see where they go. He has his rules (Nolan’s heroes always have rules), but eventually he breaks them, and then one day he follows the wrong man into a diner, gets noticed, and soon is drawn into a labyrinthine crime plot.
There are echoes here of a key noir theme, one beloved by Nolan, in which crime is not so much an event as it is an entity that possesses its own energy, intellect and even a gravity that will suck in anyone unfortunate enough to peer too long over the edge (Or, as the Joker says, “All it takes is a little push”). The Young Man, simply by getting a little too close while doing something he shouldn’t have been doing (but maybe we’ve all done once, we admit) falls into the hands of Cobb (Alex Haw), a professional burglar who is as direct and unromantic as the Young Man is wishy-washy and evasive. Cobb, due to his line of work, has good instincts for identifying people, and in a short few minutes he confirms that he has the Young Man pretty much well thought out. The dialogue is crucial here, because as much as Cobb eventually hints at blackmail as the reason for why the Young Man will now be his partner, there is also implications of guilt within the Young Man, and an unmistakable homoerotic charge between the two of them (hardly dismissed by evidence later that shows both men treat themselves like they are straight). Within minutes, the Young Man becomes a part of Cobb’s crime simply by feeling weak and guilty. Classic noir. (Also, Nolan reuses the name “Cobb” again in Inception. Just saying.)
I said before that Nolan’s heroes always have codes. Frequently his villains do as well, even if that code is the idea that codes are useless (again, see The Joker). Cobb himself has a code, one that values great planning in the heists while also downplaying the prospective gain. He sees himself not as a common thief but a slick professional who provides a type of service: by disturbing a person’s life artifacts, stealing items that were prized and also by planting seeds of distrust within people, he allows them to for once treasure and miss the thing they no longer have. The Young Man, who is smart enough to sense this as BS and bewildered enough to doubt his senses, watches and even participates as Cobb uses smooth techniques to break into apartments and measure up the occupants even while they absent. In one nifty moment, they are caught in a couple’s apartment when someone comes home early, but they excuse themselves with mutterings about the landlord showing the room. It’s a poor lie, but also one that won’t be challenged, as Cobb recognizes immediately that the man the apartment’s occupant brought home was not her boyfriend. What was she doing home in the middle of the day, anyway? Again, a classic noir note where crime thrives due to dirty secrets.
Like many of Nolan’s films, the story is told in nonlinear fashion, essentially unspooling three parallel timelines that link together. While Nolan certainly did not pioneer the concept of noir told in flashback (they very often are, as a destroyed hero recounts his sorry tale to a cop, or a typewriter, or to himself), he certainly ups the ante by playing with time here, and then topped himself with his fractured chronology in Memento. The inspiration, whether acknowledged or not, obviously comes in part from Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, but in Pulp Fiction I’ve never been fully convinced that his nonlinear structure isn’t a bit of stunt. An effective stunt to be sure, but I think it’s relationship to the actual content is minimal at best. With Nolan, his nonlinear structure frequently works so well because it enforces empathy with a claustrophobic and confused worldview and evokes a maze-like quality as certain elements are circled again and again.
More plot elements come into play, and it wouldn’t be fair to explain some of them. Let it be said that a blonde, known as The Blonde (Lucy Russell) enters the picture, and we could learn much about her from her very first scene. In a bar she is approached by a man and is offered a drink. She turns down his unspoken offer of sleeping with him, then discreetly reconsiders without much effective persuasion coming from the man. She is as cold and frightened as any Hitchcock blonde, but eventually shows a scary edge. Nolan sometimes comes under a bit of criticism for his treatment of women—they are almost exclusively cast as femme fatales or overly wholesome moral consciences. That is probably fair. But it doesn’t cripple his work, because Nolan chooses genres and plots that perfectly compliment this approach. Like here, for example…up till the moment where…oh, that would be telling.
Following has small but definite pleasures, especially in the way it is put together (directed, written and edited by Nolan). The production, which took a year to complete due to the cast having full-time jobs, was also partially financed by the filmmaker—he purchased the expensive film stock himself, which payed back in spades since 16mm is relatively low maintence, and could allow natural light to be used. At times it is a little rough around the edges. The fight sequences, in particular, are unconvincing–casualties of the limited rehearsal schedule, no doubt. But it hums with the passion of a storyteller who is confident he has a strong one.
Nolan’s films are frequently called “puzzle-like,” by which people mean they are cold and deviously designed. This is always true, and yet I dislike the notion that he makes exercises and not movies, because his characters are as real and put-upon as any noir heros, and they face difficult choices that are informed by real emotions. Nolan’s additional attention to puzzles and gamesmanship is welcome, because with all of his films he is committed to surprising savvy audiences with revelations that were always there, and are now obvious, but we missed the first time through. As a storyteller, he does not cheat. He simply lines up the pieces so that, all of a sudden, they all make shocking sense. The noose is now tightened, and a character finally realizes that he is thoroughly screwed. Not just because he made the wrong choices, but because others knew he would make the wrong choices, and depended upon it. He is guilty. Maybe not of the legally correct thing, but of something. He is weak. And has lost everything. And he made it happen to himself. And in a moment of dark clarity, he realizes that he deserves to be screwed, all along.
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