Directed by Christopher Nolan
September 14-18 at Film Society of Lincoln Center, in 35mm, part of its Christopher Nolan retrospective.
If diluted somewhat by the sunshiney J. Crew commercial at the end of The Dark Knight Rises, there is still no mistaking the lone idea surging through the still-young Christopher Nolan filmography: man’s tragic inability to improve his lot through brain power. You can see it in his student short Doodlebug, obviously in Memento, at its most flippant in The Prestige, blown up to operatic heights in Inception. The congenital flaw in the auteur’s Bat-trilogy, maybe, is its unwavering insistence on triumphalism, even when the villains are the only interesting characters: Nolan can’t help but seem a lot truer to himself when he’s splashing around in the muck. Following, his debut, is a morality tale: it posits theft as the only logical conclusion to an unchained curiosity.
A greasy-haired, shifty-eyed twentysomething named Bill (Jeremy Theobald), your protean writer-type with no day job, no friends, no family and apparently no ideas, gets one: he starts shadowing random streetwalkers to collect inspiration. His rules are meticulous: no women, and once they’ve arrived at their work or home, he has to abandon the pursuit. He crosses this line first for Cobb (Alex Haw), a stone-faced burglar who wears suits to blend into workaday society; Cobb calls out Bill immediately, and the two become a team. The script, cinematography, and the editing were all on Nolan, so half of the shots feel meticulously staged; the other half, totally loose. The actors have to squeeze in tight to share frames. Both of the actors are superb: the wounded-looking Theobald is a crackerjack choice for audience cipher. But as straightman, Haw gives the movie its real nastiness.
Cobb ransacks carefully chosen apartments just as much to freak out the (off-screen) victims as to make money; his honeyed philosophical words yield a good bit of chest hair missing from Bill’s entropy. When Bill leads Cobb to his own apartment as a test, Nolan winks at the audience: rifling through Bill’s cassette tapes, Cobb offhandedly says “Each to his own, but he’s a sad fucker with no social life.” He is, of course, right—and abandons the idea entirely when he realizes the apartment has nothing of value anyway. Bill’s apprenticeship sees him donning drab suits, mismatched collars, loud ties, spiking his hair, carrying himself for the first time like he’s somebody. Images, motifs and jokes are linked in ways that feel tidy but will keep viewers guessing: at 70 minutes long, Following's house of cards should feel a lot more precarious than it does.
Nolan—clearly looking to make a kind of new wave noir—entangles Bill with a saucy blonde, and the duo’s downfall gives the movie its three-tier plot structure; the antihero becomes obsessed with her after they break into her apartment and he steals a photo. The surface flatness of Cobb’s ethics—“You take it away... to show them what they had”— doesn’t concern itself with specifics of time or place, and that’s consistent with Nolan’s philosophical elementalism. Without being bombastic, Following takes itself damn seriously, and its relationship to Nolan's later movies is unmissable; it’s a real treat to see the biggest studio director of today whittled down to novella-size. The movie is less “claustrophobic” for its lo-fi synths and black-and-white 16mm than for the perverse thrill you get from knowing its conceptualizer-in-chief is the guy walking (often, running) with the camera.