The 1990s were quite a fertile period for shoestring budget, independent filmmakers. Those were the years immediately preceding the widespread and relatively inexpensive availability of professional high definition video gear. Back then, the only way to make an indie film with a prayer of being distributed was to shoot it on film. The Brothers McMullen, Clerks, and El Mariachi are just a few of the better known examples of 16mm no-budget films that launched productive careers (for Edward Burns, Kevin Smith, and Robert Rodriguez, respectively).
The Criterion Collection has just issued the ultra-low budget debut of another auteur who would go on to receive massive acclaim after starting his career as a guerrilla filmmaker. Christopher Nolan’s feature-length debut, Following, first appeared at various film festivals in 1998. Two years later, Nolan would take the art-house world by storm with Memento. The non-linear storytelling exhibited in that film is also the technique employed to keep viewers guessing throughout Following. The film was shot in black-and-white with handheld 16mm film cameras (operated by Nolan himself), resulting in a gritty, grainy, authentically noir-ish look.
The unnamed main character is a twentysomething aspiring writer (Jeremy Theobald) who has developed the habit of literally following strangers around, observing their behavior. Ostensibly he’s gathering material for the characters in his stories. But considering the young man is an isolated loner, his voyeuristic tendencies seem to also stem from a desire to make connections with people. One such person he follows, a rather smooth fellow by the name of Cobb (Alex Haw), confronts him in a diner after noticing he’s being watched. Nolan’s dialogue is razor sharp as the uncomfortable meeting unfolds. It turns out Cobb is a burglar, a philosophical one at that. Sure he steals things from people’s homes, but his stated reasons go beyond material gain. He aims to make these victims appreciate what they once had by taking it from away from them.
After the young man accompanies Cobb on a home invasion, he develops a taste for the lifestyle. After all, this is even more intimate than merely following people from afar. He can get right in and rummage through people’s stuff. He cleans up his scruffy image and begins pretending he’s someone else, someone closer in persona to his new mentor. But he’s out of his depth, especially when he becomes involved with a blonde woman (Lucy Russell) whose apartment he has robbed. Her ex-boyfriend, a local organized crime figure (Dick Bradsell), is threatening to go public with her explicit modeling photos in order to keep her quiet about his criminal activities. She wants the young man to secure the photos and return them to her.
How the young man, the blonde, Cobb, and everyone else in the film relate to each other is all part of the mystery. Nolan slices and dices the narrative, guiding us along the way based on the young man’s changing appearance. Sometimes he’s disheveled and other times he’s clean cut. The physical appearance of the central character is our primary cue to where we are in the chronology of the story. It’s brilliantly executed and entirely justified. The jumbled narrative manages to remain logical, giving Nolan an alternate way to reveal plot points that pack a bigger punch than they normally would if told in order.
Some have damned Following with faint praise by referring to it as a dry run for Memento. Don’t listen to that nonsense. Following is a terrific piece of filmmaking in its own right. Nolan’s style and sure sense of storytelling had crystallized by the time he made this first feature. It absolutely deserves to be seen, not as an academic “introduction” to a future great director, but as a fascinating, complex suspense film.
While the supplemental materials included by Criterion are not terribly extensive, they are entirely worthwhile. The most indispensable is the “linear cut” of Following. Apparently there was also a chronological version of Memento found on a special edition DVD, though I’ve never seen it. In this case, straightening out Following really puts its story to the test. Does it work even when ditching the non-linear structure? Absolutely, though it presents a much more conventional experience. After watching the linear cut, I immediately felt the need to go back and rewatch the original cut. Additionally the DVD contains a stellar commentary track by Nolan. Along with a 25-minute interview with the director, these pieces offer a comprehensive look at the making of this film.
Following is not just a film for Christopher Nolan completists. Suggestions to the contrary should be ignored. The non-linear structure can be disorienting, but if you pay attention not only does it make sense, it rewards repeat viewings. Nolan explains in the supplements that he doesn’t think it’s wise to approach any film merely as a stepping stone to the next. While Following quite obviously helped prepare Nolan to scale greater heights, it stands firmly on its own sturdy legs.