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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington Wilmington@moviecitynews.com

Willmington on DVDs: Following

PICK OF THE WEEK: CLASSIC
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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“Yes, good movies sprout up, inevitably, in the cracks and seams between the tectonic plates on which all of these franchises stay balanced, and we are reassured of their hardiness. But we don’t see what we don’t see; we don’t see the effort, or the cost of the effort, or the movies of which we’re deprived because of the cost of the effort. Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice may have come from a studio, but it still required a substantial chunk of outside financing, and at $35 million, it’s not even that expensive. No studio could find the $8.5 million it cost Dan Gilroy to make Nightcrawler. Birdman cost a mere $18 million and still had to scrape that together at the last minute. Imagine American movie culture for the last few years without Her or Foxcatcher or American Hustle or The Master or Zero Dark Thirty and it suddenly looks markedly more frail—and those movies exist only because of the fairy godmothership of independent producer Megan Ellison. The grace of billionaires is not a great business model on which to hang the hopes of an art form.”
~ Mark Harris On The State Of The Movies

How do you make a Top Ten list? For tax and organizational purposes, I keep a log of every movie I see (Title, year, director, exhibition format, and location the film was viewed in). Anything with an asterisk to the left of its title means it’s a 2014 release (or something I saw at a festival which is somehow in play for the year). If there’s a performance, or sequence, or line of dialogue, even, that strikes me in a certain way, I’ll make a note of it. So when year end consideration time (that is, the month and change out of the year where I feel valued) rolls around, it’s a little easier to go through and pull some contenders for categories. For 2014, I’m voting in three polls: Indiewire, SEFCA (my critics’ guild), and the Muriels. Since Indiewire was first, it required the most consternation. There were lots of films that I simply never had a chance to see, so I just went with my gut. SEFCA requires a lot of hemming and hawing and trying to be strategic, even though there’s none of the in-person skullduggery that I hear of from folk whose critics’ guild is all in the same city. The Muriels is the most fun to contribute to because it’s after the meat market phase of awards season. Also, because it’s at the beginning of next year, I’ll generally have been able to see everything I wanted to by then. I love making hierarchical lists, partially because they are so subjective and mercurial. Every critical proclamation is based on who you are at that moment and what experiences you’ve had up until that point. So they change, and that’s okay. It’s all a weird game of timing and emotional waveforms, and I’m sure a scientist could do an in-depth dissection of the process that leads to the discovery of shocking trends in collective evaluation. But I love the year end awards crush, because I feel somewhat respected and because I have a wild-and-wooly work schedule that has me bouncing around the city to screenings, or power viewing the screeners I get sent.
Jason Shawhan of Nashville Scene Answers CriticWire