Jul 8 2009


Film Duel is our written review format in which Benn and James each review a film, and then comment on each other’s reviews to give a proper balance and really fill out the commentary as well as possible. This week we approach Christopher Nolan’s first film, Following.

Year: 1998
Director: Christopher Nolan
Written by: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Jeremy Theobold, Alex Haw, Lucy Russell
Genre: Drama (Neo-Noir)

Benn and James’ reviews and rebuttals follow after the jump.

James says:

It’s often interesting to go back to an artist’s early work, if nothing else but to see the progression of how they reached the level that they’ve achieved down the line. That was the idea behind watching Christopher Nolan’s Following, a low budget first film that revels in the film-noir genre. And while this film is certainly rougher in every respect than any of the other films Nolan has made since, it still manages to be a fascinating and entertaining film despite its lacking production value.

In the film we see many of the standard Christopher Nolan tropes: most notably multiple timeline storytelling and a mysterious protagonist. The audience is forced to be active in the story, trying to put the pieces of the story together and attempting to jump ahead and figure out the mystery elements as well. This aspect of the plot is what most keeps the audience engaged.

But this is no Agatha Christie novel, as with any noir story we find a group of barely likable characters. But also as with any, we like them anyway and we root for them. It’s intriguing to see the story arc of the protagonist, especially since you experience out of order, and the growing involvement of the other characters keeps you intrigued with their minor parts as well. Dramatic irony is well used here, as the audience often knows more than the protagonist at any given time, and yet most likely doesn’t know enough to get the whole picture until the big reveal. The dialogue is serviceable and unflashy, and yet reveals quite a bit about the characters as well.

The cinematography is probably the aspect most lacking about the film. I love a good noir film, and they usually represent some of the most beautiful cinematography in film. The high-contrast shots and painting with light and shadows in black and white is usually incredible. Unfortunately with this film, Nolan must not have had access to the talent, cameras, or time to pull this off. Although the aspect ratio is interestingly chosen as 1.33, rare for a modern film but very common for old film noir, the compositions themselves are primarily uninteresting. I’ve heard this ratio referred to as the “god-given frame” because things fit so well in it, and apparently we dream in it, so I was excited to see its use. Nolan’s films have become increasingly beautiful since this point so it’s hard to look down on him for this, which is quite serviceable for the amount of money put into it.

Those with a little patience and even a modest flair for film noir will find this film to be extremely enjoyable and well put-together. If nothing else, it’s great to see the place where Nolan’s rising star shot out from.

Benn says:

Film noir often deals with a cast of exciting, extraordinary characters most people will never meet: crooked insurance agents, cold-hearted debutants, hardened private eyes, fedora-wearing mobsters, etc. Christopher Nolan’s Following, on the other hand, deals with a nameless, faceless man on the street known only has “The Young Man”.

Made on a six thousand dollar budget, Nolan’s mystery film tells the simple story of a young vagabond who enjoys following people around the streets of London in an attempt to experience the ordinary and mundane parts of other people’s lives that often go unsaid or unnoticed. Eventually, the casual stalker meets a young, dashing thief named Cobb who shares the Young Man’s fancy for watching others, yet prefers a more intimate approach; as he breaks into flats and steals various items, Cobb makes acute observations about his victims based on their possessions and photographs.

The plot is presented in a very non-linear structure, starting with the Young Man telling his story, then presenting his and Cobb’s introduction, then jumping to a few days later, and cutting to a few days after that. Slowly but surely, the pieces of Nolan’s jumbled puzzle come together and present a number of twists, turns and revelations. Nolan, who has made a career of writing and directing films with jumbled, non-linear plotlines, forces audience members into the Young Man’s game of watching bits and pieces of another individual’s life. We only get small segments of the Young Man’s life at a time, and it is up to us to figure out how everything fits into one another by the end.

Although the film itself runs very short (at a whopping 70 minutes), very little actually happens. There are multiple scenes in which very little is said between characters, leaving audience members watching the Young Man watching other people, which can get boring from time to time. However, the few interaction between the characters (most of which are only identified as “____ man” or “____ woman”) provide enticing hints as to what kind of movie Following is. Due to the tangled chronology of the film and the small, but crucial clues revealed here and there, the perception of the film’s exact genre and subject matter continue to change. Is it seedy morality tale? A caper? A Whodunit? Yes, no, all of the above; Nolan’s script contains so many twists and surprises that the audience cannot help but scrutinize the film’s characters in silence, almost as if they were peeping Toms themselves.

The film’s pace and subtle dialogue may leave some restless, but the story is so tightly articulated and short that viewers will leave satisfied in that it will make them think. Granted, there are no shootouts, no major heists or passionate romances; it’s a common man’s mystery involving those who go on unnoticed, shot in the most ordinary streets of London with the most modest of budgets and equipment. We see the characters come out from the crowd, watch them through an assortment of unorganized snapshots and actions, and then leave them fade back into the mundane, faceless crowds that we inhabit ourselves.

Benn’s rebuttal:

.It is interesting so see which strengths of Nolan’s were immediate and which were learned during his early film making.   Nolan clearly  had a knack for very concise storytelling, though I would argue that Nolan’s greatest weakness in this film are his characters, and not the cinematography.  As far as I’m concerned, the cinematography fits the gritty atmosphere of the film’s subject matter and location.  The characters, on the other hand, lack any real development or identity.

James’ rebuttal:

It’s true that without the fancy storytelling tricks there’s not a whole lot to the plot. Same would go for Memento, they wouldn’t be that interesting told in order. But the way it’s put together like a puzzle keeps us engaged and makes it feel more sophisticated than it is.

I’d also just like to add a parallel to another movie we’ve covered a bit. The framing of this movie is done by a confession, not unlike in Double Indemnity. The circumstances are slightly different, but I feel like the reference is there, and since we’re covering the noir genre here, it’s probably not altogether unintentional.

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