“Following” Christopher Nolan
Published on December 18th, 2012 | by Clayton Dillard0
When the “Syncopy” logo comes on the screen during the opening credits of “Following” (1999), one can’t help but think of later films made by the now prolific production company, founded by writer-director Christopher Nolan and producer Emma Thomas. Viewers have grown accustomed to seeing the logo in front of Nolan’s tentpole blockbusters, such as “The Dark Knight” (2008) and “Inception” (2010). In each of those films, Hans Zimmer’s score trickles in (or more often, blares), announcing a scope and scale that has become synonymous with “event” cinema. No such music accompanies the logo in Nolan’s directorial debut. Made for a mere $5,000 and shot over the course of a year, “Following” stands in opposition to the large scale, commercially focused direction Nolan’s career has taken. Thus, it is difficult to watch The Criterion Collection’s new Blu-ray release and imagine this filmmaker as the helmer of a $250 million picture like “The Dark Knight Rises” (2012).
That difficulty does not reside in theme, however, as “Following” finds Nolan making purchase of elements that will run throughout his filmography. The Young Man (Jeremy Theobald) has a curious predilection: He finds random strangers on the streets of London and follows them, hoping to discover something about their lives. His shadowing has one central principle: Never follow the same person twice. That is, until he is confronted by Cobb (Alex Haw), a philosophical thief who likes to enter random apartments, take a few things, rearrange others, and leave something new behind. Entangling matters is The Blonde (Lucy Russell), whose presence proves important to both men, as Nolan’s narrative weaves a non-chronological maze of doppleganging uncertainty, only to be ambivalently unwoven in an ending that predicts “Inception”’s “dream or reality?” coda.
“Following” provides the prototype for Nolan’s obsession with self-aware, often sociopathic masculinity. Cobb waxes poetic on materialism (“You can tell a lot about people from their stuff”) just as Ra’s al Ghul (Liam Neeson) professes pseudo-Nietzschean principles in “Batman Begins” (“If someone stands in the way of true justice, you simply walk up behind them and stab them in the heart”). What makes Nolan’s later films tolerable and, in several cases, superior is that his mantra-laden dialogue serves a spectacle-driven cinema more than it does an intimate, philosophical one. When it comes to ideas, Nolan has always been second-rate. “Memento” (2000) is a formal Rubik’s Cube masking empty existential postulations (and paper-thin allegory) on cinema as memory, and the same could be said for “Following,” a film that utilizes black and white photography and silly archetypes-as-character-names to evoke film noir, but only as aesthetic tropes. “Following” takes place in a movie world and has almost nothing to offer about urban life or social struggle.
The Blu-ray includes a new interview with Nolan, which is useful for understanding his developing craft in the years since. Nolan discusses how he essentially still takes the same approach to filmmaking and attempts to achieve “a heightened naturalism,” anchored by a single camera shoot, preference for cross-cutting, and the use of inserts to provide an instant jolt of visual panache. Nolan’s visual prowess and craftsmanship are what most positively define his later work—a more ecstatic, operatic, pulp-as-epic kind of filmmaking. “Following” lacks the visceral, affective charge of Nolan’s scale-oriented images. Ultimately, The Criterion Collection release (aligned with the Blu-ray release of “The Dark Knight Rises”) offers Nolanites and newcomers alike the chance to now screen all of Nolan’s films in 1080p HD and “follow” the pop cultural climate from drop-in-the-bucket to tidal wave.