Saturday 17 July 2010

Obscurity Files #16 - Following

SLACKER Obscurity Files aims to put the spotlight onto a series of films that time and audiences have otherwise forgotten. With Inception in cinemas this weekend, we thought it might be time to look up Christopher Nolan's first film, Following.
More after the jump...

Wanting to start a career as a writer, Bill (Jeremy Theobald) starts to feed his voyeuristic tendencies and follow people in search of inspiration. There's nothing sinister about it, he just wants to learn more about the fellow inhabitants of his city. When he gets spotted following Cobb (Alex Haw), Bill finds himself pulled towards a dark underworld of burglary and crime.

This was Christopher Nolan's first film, made just after his graduation from University College London. He had a miniscule budget and was forced to film on weekends around his cast members regular jobs, meaning that filming lasted close to a year. Ostensibly this is a student film, but a really successful one. The lead role was played by Jeremy Theobald, a friend of Nolan's who had previously appeared in his short film Doodlebug and who also acted as executive producer here. Alex Haw played Cobb, the man who pulls Bill into his dysfunctional lifestyle, and Lucy Russell played the femme fatale figure of the film, known here only as The Blonde.

This film was shot on 16mm black and white, largely due to the budgetry constraints. Given the structure of this film, I'm sure that Nolan would have loved to use a combination of black and white and colour stock like he did with Memento, but that would have never really been an option for him here due to monetary factors.

Following contains all of the things you would consider to be Christopher Nolan hallmarks. Most obviously it features a disjointed narrative structure, showing you a clear differentiation in Bill's appearance and manner over the course of time. It also has duplicitous self-serving characters and plays with the theme of questioning identity, whether it be that of others or your own.

The story expands beyond the simple 'shadowing' that Bill was doing quite quickly, taking a turn towards the dark when Cobb is introduced. He seems like the average man on the street wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase, but when he confronts Bill about his motives for following him we soon see a dark, secretive and manipulative man. Cobb is a burglar and quickly brings Bill into his world, showing him how burgling a flat can offer a more rewarding opportunity to be a voyeur. You can rifle through peoples things, you can steal their underwear and you can leave behind clues that may send them looking in the wrong direction. There's a definite rush that Bill feels from this, and comes up with the idea of getting Cobb to unknowingly burgle his flat to see what conclusions he would come to about him.

After they burgle the flat belonging to The Blonde, Bill starts to feel an obsession about this woman's life. He changes his appearance and approaches her at a bar, and soon she has pulled him further into a web of lies. When she asks him to steal the contents of a safe belonging to a local gangster, Bill complies. However, Cobb starts to disapprove of Bill's attitude and the safe may be holding more than Bill bargained for.

This is a classic noir tale but put through the warped but brilliant mind of Christopher Nolan, adding the modern fractured structure that he has popularised. Of course his most infamous use of this technique was in his second film Memento, which used a hairpin narrative to play with the audiences expectations about story and character. In many ways Following could be seen as a trial run for that film and it's an interesting companion piece that shares some thematic elements. This was also the first feature score for composer David Julyan who has since worked with Nolan numerous times. Restricted by the budget this score was largely a collection of dark and ominous tones, at times remininscent of Angelo Badalamenti's synth score for Twin Peaks. Here's Christopher Nolan's short film Doodlebug which features music by David Julyan.

To add to the noir elements we also have Lucy Russell as The Blonde. Essentially a gangster's moll, she treats Bill with contempt and uses him for her own benefit, and in many respects shares similarities with Natalie, the barmaid from Memento. This film also shows Bill recounting his story to an unnamed man, once again sharing a similarity with Memento's Leonard. The person listening to the story obviously knows more than they're letting on, and it's through this promise of revelations that your anticipation builds.

Regarding the character of Cobb, it's interesting that Nolan would choose to use the same name for Leonardo DiCaprio's character in Inception. Both men are well dressed, highly intelligent thieves able of manipulating situations to their advantage. To embelish further would offer spoilers for two films, so I'm certainly not going to do that. I'll just say that it may not be pure coincidence that this character's name has been revisited.

Following is a clever noir thriller that reaches further than you'd expect for a film with such a low budget. It manages to pull you in and keep you guessing for its short running time and works as a modern noir. As part of the Christopher Nolan filmography, it's fascinating to see what he achieved from such a meager beginning. Following would have been his calling card when he was trying to get Memento made, and the studios obviously saw the promise he showed in this.

Christopher Nolan has of course gone on to have an extremely successful career in Hollywood, but has managed to retain the stylistic elements that single him out as an auteur. There are narrative twists and character traits that can be seen in all of his films, and you well aware when you're watching a Nolan film. He operates within the Hollywood system but offers films of an intelligence that is rarely seen elsewhere, and it's very interesting to see how much his style was in place from his first film.

Save from obscurity? Yes.


  1. I would agree he is an auteur but think I need to watch the Batman films again as I always think they are the most un-Nolan of his career. I'm trying to think what touches he puts in them, there must be some I just can't think of any!

  2. There was a slight change of pace when he started the Batman films, but there's enough of his trademarks in there. The first hour of Batman Begins has got an interesting structure, but The Dark Knight is a more conventional narrative. Both the Batman films are loaded with duplicitous characters though. The obvious one is Bruce Wayne/Batman, but there's the Joker and Scarecrow too. Obviously they're all pre established characters, but they fit perfectly with Nolan's own creations.