Sunday, February 13, 2011

Following. (1998) Christopher Nolan

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.

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