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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Willmington on DVDs: Following

FOLLOWING (Also Blu-ray) (Three Stars)
U.K.: Christopher Nolan, 1999 (Criterion Collection)

A black and white British neo-noir shot on the cheap, with unknown actors, by a then-unknown writer-director (Christopher Nolan), Following is the often fascinating tale of a thief and a voyeur playing dangerous games. Nolan likes games and tricks, and the Wellesian magicians who play them, and the whole movie is something of a conjuring act. Though obviously the work of gifted youngsters and amateurs or semi-amateurs, done with scant resources and slender means, it’s a show that grabs you and keeps you guessing and rewards your attention and casts its own little spell. It‘s a real underground movie from a moviemaker just about to make his break into the mainstream — with another, more expensive, and even trickier film called Memento.

You might say that this daring little precursor was a memento mori of sorts itself. What it reminds us is that, if you cross over the line too far, all kinds of unpleasantness, including death, may be just behind you, following. Here, we start with a nervous young man in trouble, relating his story to a policeman. (This nervous young man, who might be named Bill, is played by Jeremy Theobald, who also doubled as one of the producers with Nolan and his wife Emma Thomas). Bill is an impoverished writer of no obvious employment, who has, a while ago, begun to play detective and to follow strangers in the London Streets, seemingly unobserved, as research for his writings. When one of his “subjects,” a slick young operator named Cobb (Alex Thaw) , turns the tables and confronts his shadow in a coffeeshop, Bill is pulled into Cobb‘s game, the life of a professional burglar. (The team of Theobald and Thaw, by the way, reminded me for some reason of  the team of hapless-schmo-with the-women  Michael Crawford and and constant stud Ray Brooks in Richard Lester’s movie of The Knack…and How to Get It.)

Cobb’s shady world is one of breaking in or finding keys (under the mat, over the door), slipping into (and sometimes inhabiting ) strangers’ apartments, while relieving them of valuables. Bill slides into that world, even changing his persona into something slicker and more Cobb-like, with disturbing ease. Also part of the action is a mysterious nameless blonde (Lucy Russell), who has a very knowing half-smile, mingles with gangster types and may be involved with both Bill and Cobb. After Bill pursues the Blonde and catches her, bad things begin to happen, and out of chronological order. (Following, like Nolan’s later Memento and Inception, is told in a non-linear fractured-chronology sort of way). The ultimate questions are: Who’s following who? And why?

Since the writer-director, Christopher Nolan, is not unknown any more — nor forced to work with budgets like the paltry Following kitty of 2,000 pounds (or about $5,000 in 1998 coin) — it’s easy to follow his development, to look at this moody, brainy little thriller and see the seeds of Nolan‘s later films (Memento, The Prestige, Inception, even The Dark Knight Trilogy), poking through the gritty cheapo-thriller surfaces of Following. There’s everything Nolanesque: a game and alternate worlds, and a life out of joint, and time running backwards, and keys and locks, and deception and betrayal. The film teases, tricks and gratifies us, the way a good thriller is supposed to.

But in 1999, this movie, though well-reviewed, and distributed (by Zeitgeist), didn’t attract much of an audience. Even so, it’s an object lesson in how to wring cinema riches from practically nothing. Nolan, who also photographed Following, gets monochrome images worthy of both ‘50s American noirs and the ‘60s French New Wave. The writing is sharp, literate and good at double-shuffling us. The acting is super (though only Russell went on later to a busy career). Though the movie doesn’t really haunt your mind afterwards, and though the last slamming door of the plot, may feel too open-and-shut, Following is a game worth playing. And, if you think you’ve been cheated, Nolan has supplied a second version of the film here, which he has recut into chronological order. It’s worth watching. The original non-linear cut is worth watching twice.

Extras; Nolan‘s nifty1997 short Doodlebug (Three Stars), a Mélièsian-Kafkaesue trick film starring Theobald (Doodlebug is a definitive riposte to critics who think Nolan has no sense of humor); Commentary by Christopher Nolan; Interview with Nolan; The second, chronological edit (by Nolan) of Following; Side-by-side comparison of Nolan’s shooting script and film scenes; Trailers; Booklet with a nice essay by Scott Foundas.

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“To me, there was a deep confusion that still persists,” Morris told the crowd, “and I don’t know what you can do to disabuse people of this notion. I suppose you could hit them in the head with a large piece of lumber, but I’m not sure that would do the trick. It’s a simple rule: Style doesn’t guarantee truth. Truth is something far more elusive. Truth is a quest; you pursue truth. You go after it, you try to uncover it, because we all know that we live in a sea of falsehood. I mean, there shouldn’t be any tool that should be unavailable to you in the pursuit of truth.”
~ Errol Morris

“I hang out with highbrow people and I have on certain occasions earned my living with non-highbrow people. I don’t know what I am. A highbrow wannabe? I’m a groupie of intellectuals. I try to hang around them but maybe I am a clown who enjoys the company of intellectuals. Or maybe I’m a semi-intellectual who likes to hang out with clowns.”
~ Wallace Shawn