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Following (1998)


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Nolan links: Insomnia (2002), Batman Begins (2005), The Prestige (2006), Inception (2010), The Dark Knight Rises (2012).

Black & White February Filmsweep Reaction:

Like Europa, blogged only a few days ago Here, Christopher Nolan's Following has all the main ingredients for the making of a modern film noir: a down and out writer, an investigating cop, a sassy blond dame, a gangster, a blackmailing, and a few double-crosses where characters are as quickly and easily betrayed as they are discarded. Shot in black and white on a shoestring UK budget, the writer/director's debut deals in what would later become standard in his stories: time-shifting mazes, non-sequitur paradoxes, and the schemes of powerfully weak characters voyaging to a certain elusive section in the dark corridors of the human psyche.

Nolan likes puzzles. There's no doubt about that. His films are like navigating that old brain boggler, the Rubik's Cube -- it can be done, but it's never easy, and you might have to twist and turn along the way. Even Nolan's 2010 blockbuster Inception gave us a summer popcorn movie plugged with references to Escher, lost labyrinthian corridors and the architecture of a dreaming mind in disarray. The Maze is a regular character that turns up in Nolan's stories; it's one of the reasons we look forward to new projects that bear his name.

The stories are always different; there's no regurgitation from film to film. But The Maze is always involved, one that characters endlessly grapple with and stumble around in. There are many different ways to put it on display, and Nolan always has a knack for a new entrance into it. Where Inception and The Dark Knight challenged the popcorn crowd with layered dreams, higher moralities and paradoxes -- and earlier films like Memento and Insomnia dealt with memory and its survival in time -- Following is the film that set these circular themes in motion. It's the smallest of Nolan's films, but feels unmistakeably Nolanesque, launching the vibe he would be known for: the weaving of layered schemes and stories together.

An unemployed and somewhat bored twenty-something, who fancies himself a writer, takes to the streets to find subjects for his own interests, and maybe he'll get some some writing done, too. He, who the script calls "The Young Man," and maybe lies about his name when he says it is Bill, becomes addicted to "Shadowing," his own term, which is following different people around. Any age, race or gender, he just wants to see who they are, where they're going and why. He makes rules to keep himself safe in the daily hobby, like never following a woman down a dark alley, or never shadowing the same person twice. It's when he breaks these codes of conduct that the hobby becomes more of a burden than he intended.

He's cornered and confronted by a man that he's followed into a diner -- Cobb, also the name of DiCaprio's thief-character in Inception. Cobb has noticed the fellow shadowing him, but he's been up to an interesting hobby himself -- he's taken The Young Man's idea of following strangers to an even higher level of danger. He quickly takes The Young Man under his wing.

Cobb isn't interested in simply following people around or guessing what they're like. He knows how to find out everything about them without ever saying a word. The answer, he says, is in home invasion. He teaches "Bill" that sneaking into someone's flat can provide an adrenaline rush like one has never felt before, and as a bonus you can steal things if you want to. Burglary isn't really the point though. The point, says Cobb, isn't found in any valuables within the house. The point is to see into their consumerist lives, and to take, so that they realize what they had.

When they end up thieving together, they aren't interested in jewels or gold or cash that might be hidden under a pillow. They're more interested in CDs from the family room stereo, or digging through a resident's underwear to leave at another victim's place. They're into mementos and family pictures, diaries and books with personal notes in them. "Stuff" is not the ultimate goal of these robbers -- it's privacy, and the knowledge that they've been there. They'll take only one of the two earrings in a woman's jewel box -- leaving just one behind only adds to the mystery.

At one residence they pop the cork from a bottle of wine, but barely drink a drop before being caught in the act of drinking it. They've got to act on their feet quickly to get out, but the couple in that place will remember them forever.

I've heard of people that need to break out of the structure of their isolationism, but this is ridiculous.

The idea of a burglar that isn't interested in material possessions almost sounds Robin Hood-ish, like stealing from the rich to give to the poor. I'm unconvinced of Robin Hood's nobility in the first place, but I can see the parallels in such a tale (depending on which version of the legend). However, there's nothing noble about these robbers and their habit of breaking into flats, even if only for a peak. It's voyeurism gone extreme -- social studies for the socially maladjusted, on an urban sprawling scale.

"You take it away to show them what they had," says Cobb -- but it's unconvincing when he speaks, like someone talking to a cop about a speeding ticket. Cobb's real motives remain elusive even at the end of Following, but Bill is just pathetic, useless, bored, and slightly dangerous in his boredom. He's an un-magnificent man in an un-magnificent life. He's going nowhere fast, following nothing that nourishes him, so why not follow the first thing that comes by on the street or in the local mall? The idea that people so easily fall into traps like Jonestown or Heaven's Gate is more understandable when considering a man that blindly follows.

There's a noted difference between Following and Nolan's, um, following films in the way-too-indie feel of the production. The first film from a debut director is obviously not going to have the production values of something like The Dark Knight or Inception, but it's the music in Following that bugged me most. It's lifted from public samples of some amateur software like Sonic Foundry, and in many scenes it sounds generic, or sometimes grating, or just filler. I imagine this is where most new filmmakers have to begin -- they don't any money so there's no orchestral composer on hand. Still, the samples aim for a Trent Reznor industrial-type background, and as easily seen in The Social Network, only Trent Reznor can be Trent Reznor. I don't think this film would have worked with more silence, so I don't have any answer to this, just an opinion of what didn't work as well.

The black and white visuals are edited tightly in and rather save the film from its audio implosion. There are a few holes in the story itself, a plot that doesn't hold up when fully thought through, but you don't necessarily think about it while you're caught up in the back and forth time shifts of the events. It is, in a way, like dealing with a less humorous black and white Pulp Fiction. You don't worry about missing holes, because you're being tossed back and forth in so many.

The ending is rushed -- I do think this 70 minute film would have worked a bit better at 80 minutes -- but it leaves its central character "The Young Man" grasping at straws, reminiscent of classic noir. It's not a perfect film by any means, but remains an interesting look into the beginnings of Nolan's universe -- where chaos and collision and moral mazes and memories, and even where the name "Cobb" comes from.

In an interstellar burst, I am back to save the Universe.

Filmsweep by Persona. 2013 Film Journal. IlPersona.

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An idea for a Criterion cover I posted over at Mubi about a year ago. Chosen mainly for the early inclusion of a certain frachise Nolan would become kinda associated with.

followingFINALcopy.jpg

Formerly Baal_T'shuvah

"Everyone has the right to make an ass out of themselves. You just can't let the world judge you too much." - Maude 
Harold and Maude
 

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Persona wrote:

: Nolan links: Insomnia (2002), Batman Begins (2005), The Prestige (2006), Inception (2010), The Dark Knight Rises (2012).

You missed The Dark Knight (2008)!

Do we really not have a thread on Memento (2000)? Huh.

Oh, and just for the record, the A&F search engine doesn't turn up ANYTHING for the word "following" -- not even this thread. But the first ten pages of Google results for "following" at A&F doesn't turn up any other threads for this film, so, whew.

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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You missed The Dark Knight (2008)!

Oh, good catch! I think that was the main one I was working out of, so it makes sense I'd forget that one, right?

Do we really not have a thread on Memento (2000)? Huh.

I was actually thinking you'd tell me we did. But we don't. Not even in the Novogate archives, as far as I can tell.

In an interstellar burst, I am back to save the Universe.

Filmsweep by Persona. 2013 Film Journal. IlPersona.

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FOLLOWING is a neat enough indie film. It has its issues, but I kinda like Nolan in the more low-key mode of storytelling represented by his first three films. It forces him to focus. The bigger the budget he's been given, the messier his stories have gotten. Hopefully when THE DARK KNIGHT RISES wraps up the Batman trilogy--which promises to be the biggest film Nolan has done to date--we'll get something smaller. Maybe not super-small. But something that doesn't have as much room for indulgent storytelling.

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I take it by "indulgent" you are talking about Inception. I don't find an ounce of indulgence in The Dark Knight. It's not only non-indulgent as an economic story, it is easily the greatest of the super-hero movies, and it is packed like a pipe bomb.

Having said that, I can see someone making the case that Memento is still Nolan's best film. It's been too long since I've seen it to weigh in, but I think that might have to do with Peter's and my own disbelief that there's no thread on it.

In an interstellar burst, I am back to save the Universe.

Filmsweep by Persona. 2013 Film Journal. IlPersona.

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I take it by "indulgent" you are talking about Inception. I don't find an ounce of indulgence in The Dark Knight. It's not only non-indulgent as an economic story, it is easily the greatest of the super-hero movies, and it is packed like a pipe bomb.

Oh, THE DARK KNIGHT has oodles of indulgence. In terms of story structure, it's much, much more indulgent than INCEPTION. That's not to say it's not awesome, 'cause I dig it. Greatest superhero movie to date? Sure. But Nolan spends time on some admittedly neat but nevertheless tangential subplots at the expense of some more essential narrative ingredients. If Nolan had pared down some of the epic side stories and really built up some of the character arcs, then THE DARK KNIGHT would be that much more awesome. Particularly if he'd given key scenes some room to breathe, to settle. Many key moments flit by too quickly, just so we can get to the next jam-packed sequence.

Edited by Ryan H.
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Well, this is one we'll probably just disagree on then, because I'm not buying it. I wouldn't let go of a second in The Dark Knight and think it's got plenty of room to breathe -- but find the argument tangential to the fact that we'd both name it "Greatest Super Hero Movie. Ever."

In an interstellar burst, I am back to save the Universe.

Filmsweep by Persona. 2013 Film Journal. IlPersona.

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Well, this is one we'll probably just disagree on then, because I'm not buying it. I wouldn't let go of a second in The Dark Knight and think it's got plenty of room to breathe -- but find the argument tangential to the fact that we'd both name it "Greatest Super Hero Movie. Ever."

I think Harvey Dent's character arc doesn't work, despite Aaron Eckhart delivering a strong performance. His turn from good guy to so-nasty-he'd-kill-an-innocent-child-out-of-spite is simply not credible the way the film establishes and develops his character. I'd willingly give up Batman's excursion to Hong Kong, which, while pushing the actual plot mechanics forward, doesn't really push the characters or the drama much further, for some more time spent with Harvey Dent and his inner demons.

And no way does that movie have room to breathe. It's edited in a super-tight, claustrophobic fashion, like the film is running the gauntlet. Films gain momentum and power from a kind of give-and-take rhythm, luxuriating in a moment here, speeding through a moment here (RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, one of the most beautifully paced films in the action genre, entirely understands how this is done, not just alternating the rhythm of the film's narrative from one sequence to another, but alternating the tempo of its action sequences within the action sequences themselves). Nolan seems to think that he should just play everything at the same speed, making every scene as brief as he can possibly make it before we push on to the next. As I said in the INCEPTION thread, instead of a roller coaster, with its dips and inclines, Nolan gives us one, long rushing descent.

While I think this is a problem with both THE DARK KNIGHT and INCEPTION, I don't think it's as much a problem with the preceding films, and I suspect that's because on films of the size of THE DARK KNIGHT and INCEPTION, one of Nolan's priorities is squeezing as many of his ideas that he possibly can within two hours and thirty minutes.

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No, no, I get what you're saying. I just don't agree. And even if what you're saying is true the way you see it, even you know The Dark Knight has more room to breathe than Inception.

In an interstellar burst, I am back to save the Universe.

Filmsweep by Persona. 2013 Film Journal. IlPersona.

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Persona wrote:

: I was actually thinking you'd tell me we did. But we don't. Not even in the Novogate archives, as far as I can tell.

I remember debating that one with Doug C in the OnFilm discussion group, back when it was brand new. But I can't recall whether we ever discussed it on any of the subsequent message boards (Chiafilm, Novogate, Promontory, A&F).

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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I know we did, because I've reviewed Following once before -- it was the first online film review I ever did, IIRC, and I never saw it until after I saw Memento, by Doug's recommendation. I think the discussion that followed may have been of the chia sort.

Edited by Persona

In an interstellar burst, I am back to save the Universe.

Filmsweep by Persona. 2013 Film Journal. IlPersona.

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