With Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar” on the horizon, I’ve decided to take a retrospective look at his work. Nolan has arguably seen more success this century than any other director, both critically and at the box office (maybe you could make a case for Peter Jackson, but that’s about all). Nolan got an interesting start in the film world releasing “Memento” to critical acclaim and “Insomnia,” which wasn’t quite as universally accepted, but still generally viewed positively. Then, he would make the leap from big potential up-and-comer to a somewhat enigmatic challenge with “Batman Begins.” That was the make or break film for Nolan, as he took on a franchise that was in dire need of a change. But with such a high-profile property, success was bound to propel Nolan into the stratosphere, but failure may have relegated him to the art house theaters for life, where only those that “really understood” his work would still claim him as a hero. Well, with “Interstellar” not far off now, and with the Dark Knight trilogy behind him, it’s obvious which result he got.
But Nolan has become a somewhat polarizing name recently, as his popularity has earned him a backlash of naysayers in the film community. So it seems like a good time to take a look back at what he’s accomplished in the past, and work our way up to the present culminating with his new film’s release in November.
In 1998, “Following,” both directed and written by Nolan was released, and is by far the least visible film he’s done. Let’s take a look…
Looking at “Following” now, it does seem a little strange that Christopher Nolan has become a major player in Hollywood. There’s no denying the talent on display in his first film, but there’s nothing to indicate he would attain the level of success he’s had since 2000. That’s not to say the film is bad, it’s just kind of small compared to his other work. That’s probably true of any director’s first movie, but Nolan made quite a leap in every possible way going from this to “Memento.”
“Following” employs many themes people familiar with his later work would recognize. The most common of those would be that appearances are deceiving. He uses that idea to great effect in this effort.
The film follows a man who calls himself “Bill,” but is listed in the credits as “the young man.” In turn Bill follows others. He’s not so much of a creeper as he is just has a strange curiosity of trying to figure out who people are by following them around for a day. Of course, he doesn’t tell them he’s following them, so that might cause some issues. He sets some rules for himself, like not following women down an alley, and not following anyone twice in order to keep himself from getting into trouble. But for a guy whose hobby is basically stalking random strangers, it seems to be in his nature to break those flimsy rules.
Things change when “Bill” (Jeremy Theobald) gets caught in his spying by a man who identifies himself as Cobb (Alex Haw). Cobb immediately comes off as a highly intelligent individual, and by comparison, “Bill” is not too bright. Cobb informs Bill that he is actually a petty burglar, which is surprising to Bill because Cobb is a well-dressed man whom Bill had followed into an upscale cafe. So, immediately the audience knows that appearance doesn’t mean anything.
As Cobb takes Bill out for an outing of thieving, Cobb displays his intuition for understanding other people by looking through their stuff. He makes a good observation that when the people he’s stolen from get their insurance check, they’ll have to think about everything that was stolen before they rebuy it, to ponder if it was something they really cared about enough that they’d miss it or if it was something they realize they didn’t want anymore.
Of course, it’s not certain whether Cobb is really making good observations or just spouting intelligent-sounding ideas to lull Bill into trusting him. Perhaps it’s a bit of both. That’s more for the viewer to decide for themselves.
That concept of giving audiences something to watch and then decide on their own what they just saw and what it means is one of the hallmarks of thoughtful, artistic films in this postmodern world. That Nolan was able to eventually work his way up to making blockbuster, big-budget films is somewhat of a marvel, especially considering he’s continued to use the same technique in all of his movies, just applying it to different worlds and different stories.
In “Following,” Nolan tells the story uniquely through his editing. Though he’s certainly not the first to do it, the events of the story are shown out of chronological order, but as a master editor, he is able to manipulate the viewer’s assumptions and ideas the viewer might hold about what they are actually experiencing, forcing the viewer to continually shift their thinking throughout the film.
For instance, Nolan throughout the movie repeatedly shows the same shot of Bill with a bruised lip, as he surveils a club across the street. Every time the audience sees this shot, more pieces of the story have been revealed, so the viewer might find later that the assumptions they had about why Bill has a busted lip have changed over the course of the movie. At the beginning, one would assume someone whom Bill was following might have understandably become upset about it and roughed him up. After more of the story unfolds, you might find that your assumption was correct in a way, but the circumstances are not at all what you’d expected previously. This makes for a much more involved viewing experience. This sort of editing can sometimes be used to make up for a story that is lacking, but here it only adds to the rather original premise.
Throughout the film, Cobb’s scheme reveals itself, as Bill, assuming he’s in control of the situation (again not too bright), just stumbles through it oblivious that he’s being played. Oddly, it turns out Bill has a Batman sticker on his apartment door. It makes you wonder if Nolan had an idea of where his career was headed.
Unfortunately, a common problem in Nolan’s canon peeks up its head in his very first movie. There’s only one woman in the film, played by Lucy Russell, who is basically expendable. She’s really only there as a pawn in the strange game between Cobb and Bill, and she’s more of a love interest/sex object than a full-fledged character. This isn’t the only film of Nolan’s where this is the case. It’s obvious that he doesn’t really understand how to write women or simply doesn’t care about writing good women in his films. The film is still quite interesting, but throwing a woman in there basically as an object is lazy writing.
The open ending will leave viewers wondering what they just experienced, and leave them trying to unravel its mysteries for a while. It’s the mark of a good director when you’re left wanting more at the end of the movie, and this one definitely whets the appetite for more. I don’t want to reveal too much, because the movie is certainly better knowing as little as possible going into it. A second watch would still be great since the finish might leave people turning it over in their heads trying to make sense of it, but a first viewing without any preconceptions of what’s going on is recommended for the full experience.
At a mere 70 minutes, “Following” is a tightly made film, where Nolan has the opportunity to tease his talent a bit and gain his footing before really getting the chance to show off what he can do with a real budget and a real cast. That’s not a dismissal of the movie, as it is worth a watch on its own merits, as it’s very entertaining to try and keep up with the film’s twists and turns. It will be interesting to watch the director’s development over the decade in which Hollywood arguably belonged to him.
Next time, I’ll take a look at the film that would be Nolan’s first real break in Hollywood, in which Guy Pearce stars as a man who tries to unravel a personal mystery while dealing with short-term memory loss, “Memento.”