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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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Tsangari: With my next film, White Knuckles, it comes with a budget — it’s going to be a huge new world for me. As always when I enter into a new thing, don’t you wonder how it’s going to be and how much of yourself you are going to have to sacrifice? The ballet of all of this. I’m already imaging the choreography — not of the camera, but the choreography of actually bringing it to life. It is as fascinating as the shooting itself. I find the producing as exciting as the directing. The one informs the other. There is this producer-director hat that I constantly wear. I’ve been thinking about these early auteurs, like Howard Hawks and John Ford and Preston Sturges—all of these guys basically were hired by the studio, and I doubt they had final cut, and somehow they had films that now we can say they had their signatures.  There are different ways of being creative within the parameters and limitations of production. The only thing you cannot negotiate is stupidity.
Filmmaker: And unfortunately, there is an abundance of that in the world.
Tsangari: This is the only big risk: stupidity. Everything else is completely worked out in the end.
~ Chevalier‘s Rachel Athina Tsangari

“The middle-range movies that I was doing have largely either stopped being made, or they’ve moved to television, now that television is a go-to medium for directors who can’t get work in theatricals, because there are so few theatricals being made. But also with the new miniseries concept, you can tell a long story in detail without having to cram it all into 90 minutes. You don’t have to cut the characters and take out the secondary people. You can actually put them all on a big canvas. And it is a big canvas, because people have bigger screens now, so there’s no aesthetic difference between the way you shoot a movie and the way you shoot a TV show.

“Which is all for the good. But what’s happened in the interim is that theatrical movies being a spectacle business are now either giant blockbuster movies that run three hours—even superhero movies run three hours, they used to run like 58 minutes!—and the others, which are dysfunctional family independent movies or the slob comedy or the kiddie movie, and those are all low-budget. So the middle ground of movies that were about things, they’re just gone. Or else they’re on HBO. Like the Bryan Cranston LBJ movie, which years ago would’ve been made for theaters.

“You’ve got people like Paul Schrader and Walter Hill who can’t get their movies theatrically distributed because there’s no market for it. So they end up going to VOD, and VOD is a model from which no one makes any money, because most of the time, as soon as they get on the site, they’re pirated. So the whole model of the system right now is completely broken. And whether or not anybody’s going to try to fix, or if it even can be fixed, I don’t know. But it’s certainly not the same business that I got into in the ’70s.”
~ Joe Dante

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