By Andrew J. Douglas. 

Anticipating an early effort by a respected filmmaker—let alone one known for work that is at once thoughtful, entertaining, acclaimed, and popular like Christopher Nolan—can be conflicting. There is the tantalizing allure of raw, unbridled talent on display, accompanied by the reticence ignited by the possibility that one’s conception of the director could very well be undermined, or, quite possibly, completely undone. The small budgets, skeleton crews, and often ‘green’ actors similarly have an equal chance of setting the stage for the nascent auteur to demonstrate his/her virtuosity, or burdening him/her with the insurmountable weight of their limitations and inexperience. Finally, there is the matter of consistency of theme and/or aesthetic, and whether its origination in an initial work is perceived as the hallmark of a profound creative force, or the hobgoblin of a little cinematic mind.

In the case of Nolan’s debut feature Following (1998), released on DVD and Blu-ray by the Criterion Collection, though the film has its shortcomings, the director’s enthusiasts have no cause for trepidation, and those not especially familiar with his work have, perhaps, even more to savor.

500fullThe film’s title refers, at least initially, to the protagonist’s pastime of choosing a random person on the street and, for literary inspiration—the Young Man (that’s the character’s name) claims to be an aspiring writer—as well as free entertainment, following him or her for the day. The Young Man has parameters for his odd hobby that keep it, to his mind, harmless, but he soon ignores them upon being intrigued by a particular subject, Cobb. Handsome, charming, and seemingly affluent, the Young Man, who is none of these things, is drawn to Cobb and soon follows him into his own unconventional existence where deception reigns, identities shift, and, as one should well expect from Nolan, the plot thickens.

If the name ‘Cobb’ and the presence of multiple, alternative existences sound familiar, these and other elements of Following suggest that in its making, Nolan was sketching the broad strokes of Inception (2010). Yet, this picture actually bares a stronger resemblance to, or perhaps more closely presages, Memento (2000). The movies share an episodic nature and nonlinear structure, punctuated by transitions to black, though these techniques are at once more sophisticated and less complex in the latter film. They are more stylish in Memento because Nolan has the resources to utilize multiple film stocks, orchestrated sound cues, and other methods of differentiating the story’s multiple timelines, yet the structure is also simpler in this film because of the clarity these techniques afford and the potential for murkiness their absence creates in Following. Furthermore, in both films, a scene is given context and clarity in the light of one or more subsequent scenes, and, as in all of his films, Nolan is quite comfortable to show the viewer something that seems incongruous until significantly later in the picture.

Thematically, the two films (and others in Nolan’s oeuvre) have in common a protagonist who is overconfident in the evidence of his personal truth, who thinks he can prove that the people around him are lying, and who is unwittingly transformed into someone resembling his antagonist. They both also explore a fascinating detachment between morality and culpability. In Memento, the two concepts are separated as a result of Leonard’s condition; in Following, the Young Man’s inherent weakness and naiveté are what keep these notions apart.

FollowingYet, as much as there is to appreciate and ponder in this film, it does have a few shortcomings that are, to be fair, largely functions of the time and conditions of production. Film programmer Scott Foundas, author of the essay that accompanies the disc, does a fine job of contextualizing Following in terms of its role in Nolan’s development as a filmmaker, and also of situating the film among similarly early and notable efforts by Robert Rodriquez (El Mariachi, 1992) and Kevin Smith (Clerks, 1994). These films, like Nolan’s first feature, were shot on 16 mm film, made on miniscule budgets, and, like Following, their grainy stock and unrefined, hand-held cinematography present a challenge to the viewer, especially with the added clarity that a Criterion Blu-ray affords.

Foundas sees these production conditions as ‘nearly all Nolan’s debut film can be said to have in common with the prevailing indie film scene of the late 1990s,’ but there are other connections. Particularly early on, Following bears a passing resemblance to Run Lola Run (1998) in its music, restiveness, at-times raw cinematography, and the (admittedly limited) way in which it revisits earlier followings. It is also possible to recognize the distant, lingering influence of Quentin Tarantino’s first two features in Nolan’s nonlinear tale of fast-and-smart-talking criminals who are more likable than they ought to be. Yet none of these points should detract from Following as a film, or as the starting point of a director’s cinematic journey, one that has arguably revealed far more depth, ambition, and consideration than those undertaken by any of Nolan’s peers.

Andrew J. Douglas, Ph.D., is the Director of Education at Bryn Mawr Film Institute, outside of Philadelphia, PA, and teaches film at Cabrini College and Ursinus College.

Following was released on Blu-ray and DVD by the Criterion Collection.

One thought on “Following (1998)”

  1. This is a sharp and perceptive review of one of Nolan’s best films; shot on 16mm on weekends over the course of several months with rented equipment for a miniscule budget, it was picked up by distribution impresario Peter Broderick, and I saw it first at what I believe was the film’s world premiere at the Nederlands Filmmuseum in Amsterdam in the Summer of 1999.

    Immediately, I recognized Nolan as a major talent, and in my next book, The Second Century of Cinema (SUNY UP, 2000), I devoted a large section of text and several fullpage photos to the film, which still holds up today.

    Since then, however, Nolan’s career path has become both more simplistic and more reactionary; The Dark Knight has power, as does The Prestige, but his remake of Insomnia is an embarrassment, and the Dark Knight Rises has already been suitably eviscerated for the elitist top-down tract that it is in these pages by Daniel Lindvall. But this film, pure and simple, made when Nolan had absolutely no money and nothing to lose, continues to resonate in my memory as one of his very strongest works.

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