Tailing the Follower
On to the central character of this film, director Christopher Nolan has grafted his own obsessions. His film noir, the black-and-white 16mm Following, deals with a tortured young man's uncontrollable addiction to following people around the streets of London. Indeed the entire movie is in itself obsessive.
Supported by an upbeat soundtrack, the film opens with a close-up montage of a gloved hand, collecting objects. The frantic movement suddenly stops to present the melancholic and dark, literally and psychologically, story of a Young Man (Jeremy Theobald), who follows people to see what they do and what their lives are like. Neither a drug pusher, a serial killer, nor even an IRS agent, he is simply a writer in search of inspiration. One day, however, the Young Man follows the wrong guy, a smart fellow named Cobb (Alex Haw), who likes to break into people's homes and burglarize them. From that moment on, the Young Man's life takes a violent turn, and the traditional cat-and-mouse story becomes inverted, with the mouse stalking the cat. These unusual and tormented characters search for an answer to their existence, and their compulsions make them capable of accepting all sorts of risks and humiliations. In a sense the film bears remarkable resemblance to Robert Bresson's Pickpocket, a similar tale of anguish and nihilistic paranoia.
As a filmmaker Nolan, who wrote, directed, and edited Following, obviously loves film noir. The acute images, direct exposition, unconventional framing, and composition are neat and effective in accomplishing the feel of the genre; the sharp cuts, the complete absence of elaborate sets or costumes, and the use of minimal lighting only serve to further exacerbate the noirish atmosphere (as do the other abstract identities such as The Policeman, The Blonde, The Homeowner, et cetera). Nolan's use of a hand-held camera, however, gives Following a documentarylike sense that helps break into the intimate lives of the victims, thereby producing the unequivocal voyeurism of the film. By creating a natural relationship with the environment, the use of the hand-held also makes Following reminiscent of earlier British Free Cinema, of films such as Billy Liar.
The performances from the unknown actors also enhance the film. Theobald, for example, lets the plot draw and drive his character, creating the role of an obsessive maniac with natural rather than expressionist acting, not typical of film noir. Haw, the con/philosophical burglar, also presents a fleshy character, in this case one loaded with the mannerisms of a compulsive fiend. Although her role as the story's inevitable Blonde isn't completely necessary, Lucy Russell gives the best expressionistic performance in the film.
Nolan doesn't waste time on shallow situations. The film avoids unnecessary climactic points, making its pace steady. His characters are also more defined by action than by lines. Although there is a lot of Lady from Shanghai in its feel, Nolan's use of details and his particular taste for objects (a hammer, plastic gloves, a mysterious earring, and a wad of dollars taped to a body) places his film in a minimalist category. Sequence after sequence the plot offers unexpected situations -- making life seem a product of absurdity and the human capacity to accept it. Following invites viewers to share the characters' obsessions and follow the plot to a point of irrationality. In (de)constructing his story, however, Nolan uses a nonlinear narrative that, though unconventional in structure, sometimes abuses flashbacks and flashforwards so that the film becomes confusing and, at times, nonsensical.
Among indie films Following is, nonetheless, a fine example of discipline and imagination. Nolan financed the picture through his day job as a corporate video producer. He operated the camera himself, shooting the film on Saturdays for an entire year and, as a result, had to instruct his actors not to leave town or get their hair cut until the movie was completed. This guerrilla-filmmaking ordeal reminds us that good indie films are usually born out of sacrifice and obstinacy. But like many low-budget films, Following received limited U.S. distribution (its box-office proceeds came in at a measly $43,188 by early August). This is in marked contrast to the box-office phenomenon of The Blair Witch Project, which debuted on more than 800 screens and has to date grossed more than $100 million. The comparison is not meant as a judgment on quality, but as a sad comment on the unlevel playing field in alternative film.
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