This month sees the DVD releases of Christopher Nolan’s first and most recent movies. “Following” from 1998, out last week from the Criterion Collection, was made on a shoestring budget of 3,000 pounds (about $5,000 at the time).
Shot on weekends over a year by a 28-year-old with a day job making corporate videos and a cast and crew that consisted largely of friends, it’s calling-card filmmaking at its most efficient, a savvy neo-noir from a young Turk with plenty of tricks up his sleeve.
This year’s “The Dark Knight Rises” from Warner Home Video is, in the current Hollywood context, about as far as a calling card can take you: a superhero blockbuster that inspires cultish obsession and cost 50,000 times as much as “Following.”
More than franchise movies, Nolan’s Batman films have become, for better or worse, cultural events, passionately defended by their fans and — certainly in the case of the last two — endlessly dissected by pundits for their alleged political subtexts.
To watch these two films in succession is to pick up on intriguing through lines — Nolan’s flair for montage and interest in process are there from the start, and there is even a Batman logo prophetically plastered on someone’s door in “Following.”
As lithe and brisk as “The Dark Knight Rises” is grandiose and bombastic, “Following” barely made a dent in the pop-cultural consciousness. So under-the-radar that even Sundance rejected it, the film is a British variant on that fabled staple of the 1990s American independent film scene, the credit-card labor of love.
Like the American upstarts who preceded him — Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, Kevin Smith — Nolan launched his career with a film that refers primarily to other films, but “Following,” which exists in a hermetic universe of archetypes, is less a winking postmodern pastiche than a supremely confident genre homage.
The protagonist, who calls himself Bill and is identified in the credits as the Young Man (Jeremy Theobald), is a classic film-noir patsy: an unemployed would-be writer who, out of boredom and curiosity, decides to shadow random strangers around London. The compulsive voyeur is noticed by one of his marks, a professional burglar, Cobb (Alex Haw), who invites him to tag along.
The trouble begins when they rob an apartment strewn with photographs of an alluring femme fatale (Lucy Russell, credited as the Blonde), who will soon cross paths with the Young Man.
The setup is instantly familiar: a triangle ripe for multiple double crosses. But the most interesting complications come from the film’s tricky structure, which leaps back and forth in time, withholding information and dropping clues, requiring viewers to determine the time frame based on Bill’s appearance (before and after a haircut, before and after a facial injury).
The Criterion release includes a “chronological edit” that flattens out the temporal kinks. “Following” plays almost as well as a linear thriller but the use of parallel time lines, more than a gimmick, heightens the suspense by more closely mirroring the way our brains construct stories from piecemeal information.
Nolan’s second film, “Memento,” would prove to be an even niftier exercise in narrative gamesmanship: an ingenious meta-thriller with an amnesiac hero that unfolds in reverse, all the while toying with the memory of the audience. But the Nolan film that “Following” most obviously prefigures is “Inception.”
Leonardo DiCaprio’s “dream thief” in the later movie, who performs corporate espionage by entering the sleeping minds of tycoons, is also named Cobb, and the Cobb of “Following” describes home invasion as an erotic violation, an act of perverse intimacy.
As it happens, Haw is now an architect with avant-garde leanings, and his sculptural designs are not far from the origami dreamscapes in “Inception.”
While they remain in their way complex stories, Nolan’s later films lack the satisfying intricacy of his early films. Convoluted as it is, “Inception” subscribes to a literal-minded notion of dream logic. Whatever the virtues of the Batman films, narrative elegance is not among them.
Nolan is one of Hollywood’s most powerful players with good reason: Few blockbuster auteurs today are as ambitious, as determined to infuse their action spectacles with topical resonance. But a double bill of “Following,” an object lesson in wily resourcefulness, and “The Dark Knight Rises,” a demonstration of what money looks like on screen, cannot help revealing the benefits of limitations.
– Dennis Lim
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