“FOLLOWING”(1998): A daring debut in 16mm from Christopher Nolan

Film International
photo courtesy of Film International

Christopher Nolan is many things. A self made filmmaker who skipped film school to study English Literature. The creator of one of the most successful action franchises of all time. A Commander of the British Empire. A man who according to Steven Spielberg has managed to combine “art films” and “big studio blockbusters” with The Dark Knight trilogy. But more than anything else, Nolan is a masterful storyteller, maybe the best since his career started in the late 90’s with a little film called Following.

If you’re a fan of Christopher Nolan and you haven’t seen his debut film then make it the next film you see. It’s easy to watch Following more than two decades after it was made and say “yeah! That’s a Christopher Nolan film!” but it’s not a trite statement by any means. In fact I think it enhances the film knowing that the director, who only made two films before getting signed by Warner Brothers, has directed epics like The Dark Knight, Inception, and Interstellar, wrote, directed, and shot an outstanding neo-noir film in black and white for $6,000. This film dabbles in so many cinematic elements that it is staggering to think it’s not just a debut, but that Nolan pretty much did everything but act in it.

The film starts off with the introduction of the main character, “Bill”, explaining his “story” to a policeman. It appears Bill is a struggling writer who decides, out of pure boredom, to follow strangers around London. Nolan shows us Bill’s activities in a perfect guerilla shooting style as he wanders through busy streets, staying just out of reach of his subject. Nolan, shooting Bill through a store window with the “Dunkin Donuts” sign on the glass is an excellent scene steal. The grainy shots work in this sequence as it lends a ‘surveillance’ aspect to what starts out as a very mysterious hobby of our main character.

Several critics have designated this film as a “neo-noir” but I believe it can be considered just classic Film Noir. Nolan’s decision to shoot in black and white was a magnificent one and I do wish he would return to it someday. The lighting in some scenes is absolutely stunning, most especially in the house occupied by “The Blonde” played by Lucy Russell. When Bill begins to get closer to The Blonde, he spends an afternoon at her house where she tells him about her connection to her boyfriend “The Bald Guy.” The stories of the violence she experiences are underscored by the dark shadows on staircases and the characters walking in and out of the light and shadow. Without any spoilers, there is an excellent scene toward the end of the film that is straight out of 1940’s Hollywood Noir. When Bill gets suspicious of The Blonde he goes to her house and gets tough with her. Nolan has The Blonde, dressed in black, up against a white wall with a soft light illuminating her pretty face as she gets grilled by Bill. In this scene, Nolan has recreated the typical “femme-fatale”, immediately getting the viewer to think of Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity.

The film’s most important quality is its story. As mentioned earlier, while Christopher Nolan’s films have all been visually stunning, his greatest talent is in his story telling abilities. Following itself is not an easy film to follow. While I don’t intend to give away any spoilers, it would be difficult to do so with a story that, like Memento, snakes back and forth between present and flashback and a few surprises from the minor characters. The story will hook you from the beginning but you better not let up because Nolan doesn’t.

As we await the release of Nolan’s latest epic, Tenet, I encourage to go back and look at his body of work. From comic books, to outer space, to War epics, to the gritty streets of London. Christopher Nolan can truly do it all.

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