the Following poster
When exploring its twists and inspirations online after its release, I was quickly disabused of the notion that Inception that was Christopher Nolan's sixth feature. His career, early shorts aside, did not begin with Memento. It launched with the 70-minute, "no-budget" 1999 film Following.
I'm happy to report that Netflix has Following available in both streaming and DVD options. And while the film doesn't, to me, provide any of the clues to Inception's interpretation that certain sly comments about it suggested, it's definitely worth a look if you're a Nolan admirer. You can view it in the context of his oeuvre's ruminations on the nature of identity, unreliable narrators/narratives, and often idiosyncratic approaches to storytelling. Or you can just watch it as the work of a talented fledgling filmmaker making the most of his limited resources, a decade before The Dark Knight would become an international, big-budget franchise smash. Either way, the thing itself is compelling enough that it's hardly time wasted.
Following mostly follows Bill, who, unemployed and interested in becoming a writer, has taken up following people on the crowded London streets. The idea at first is to become intrigued by strangers' routines to the extent that it sparks his imagination, but Bill (if that is his real name) is soon deeper in at least one man's business than he intended.
Theobald as The Young Man, Haw as Cobb, and Russell as The Lady
"My name's Cobb," says the man, and, yes, Cobb is also the name of Leonardo DiCaprio's character in Inception, but I don't see evidence of any deeper meaning in that repetition than in Nolan favoring certain actors or themes — except perhaps as a wink to those in the know. Alex Haw, who plays Cobb, has both the looks and the rakish charm of a mashup between Peter Dinklage and Hugh Grant. Bill is portrayed by Jeremy Theobald, who once clean-shaven looks like a scrawnier, less confident Robert Mitchum with bits of David Bowie and Kevin Rahm. Lucy Russell, as The Lady, is unfortunately not as strong a screen presence as her co-stars, but don't let the generic name fool you as to her importance; Bill is referred to in the credits simply as The Young Man, and the main cast is rounded out by The Bald Man and The Policeman.
There are aspects of noir in all of Nolan's movies, if you care to apply that slippery label beyond its acknowledged origins in 1940s American cinematic stews of crime, sex, and psychodrama. In terms of its plot, Following echoes the neo-noir of 1997's The Spanish Prisoner as much as it does 1944's classic Double Indemnity, but its black-&-white, often chiaroscuro appearance — shot by Nolan, who wrote, directed, photographed, edited (with Gareth Heal), and co-produced the film — ultimately, after the thrust of the plot becomes clear, strengthens its classification as almost textbook noir.
Following's chronological intercutting isn't as profound or integral a part of the story as Memento's, although it certainly adds suspense to the conclusion. I suspect that it's an integral part of the storytelling as far as Nolan is concerned, but it also feels a bit like a gimmick designed to keep both Nolan and the audience interested in a scenario that might otherwise be lacking meat — one perhaps also strengthened by the taut running time and developments that are referenced or intuited but not actually seen. The jumps back and forth in time are potentially confusing at first if one doesn't know to expect them, but not nearly as distracting as the techno-synth soundtrack, which while blessedly intermittent still made me consider hitting mute and sticking to subtitles.
duality, shadows, and a surprisingly spot-on sign of other things to come
Like his namesake in Inception, Cobb is a thief, and it just occurred to me, as I prepared to point out that he merely enters people's homes rather than their dreams, that he does in fact get inside Bill's head. The Cobb of Following also makes his burglaries as intimate an act as Inception's subconscious invasions; he delights in not only taking random items in addition to valuables but sometimes planting new ones (shades of Inception) to create a chaos and unease in his victims (exactly what Inception's Cobb tries to avoid), which he says will lead to self-enlightenment.
"Everyone has a box," Cobb tells Bill of his favorite discovery at each address, an "unconscious collection" of, you'll pardon the term, mementos that define them even more truly than the display they put on for themselves and others through their intentional decor. And while standing by my earlier assertion that Following's Cobb is not some kind of explicit doppelganger of Inception's, I must admit that in thinking about the box and its keepsakes further parallels between Nolan's first and latest features become apparent. It's hardly a Rosetta Stone, but Following is clearly of a piece with the filmmaker's body of work, enjoyable in its own right and essential viewing in a comparative study.
Following is available on disc from Sony, presented by Next Wave and produced by Nolan with Jeremy Theobald and Emma Thomas. Special features include commentary from Nolan, the ability to view alternate camera angles with the shooting script, and an option to play scenes from the film in chronological order.
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