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“Are you watching closely?” So intones our narrator at the start of Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige, his 2006 tale of rival stage illusionists pursuing a vendetta across decades and continents. But it is a warning that could preface any of Nolan’s eight feature films to date, not least his 1999 Following, a most auspicious debut still little known outside of a small cult of admirers. For Nolan’s work is a reminder that movies evolved not just from photography but also from the world of vaudeville and prestidigitation, where some of the earliest moving-image devices were presented as instruments of magic, and where that “cinemagician” Georges Méliès first honed his craft. Watch closely, for appearances can be—and usually are—deceiving in Nolan’s world, just as time tends to be slippery and narrators less than fully reliable. Watch closely, for Nolan is a master at pulling the rug out from under us, no matter the urgency of our gaze.
There is a wonderful saying, often attributed to that other cinemagician Orson Welles, that the enemy of art is the absence of limitations—and Following is nothing if not an object lesson in this. Shot piecemeal over the course of a year, on black-and-white 16 mm film stock purchased by the twenty-eight-year-old Nolan (who also served as the movie’s cameraman) one roll at a time, Following was produced—by Nolan; his future wife, Emma Thomas; and the film’s star, Jeremy Theobald—for a purported grand total of three thousand pounds, or (by 1998 exchange rates) roughly five thousand dollars, two thousand dollars less than Robert Rodriguez’s El Mariachi (1992) and about twenty thousand less than Kevin Smith’s Clerks (1994). But hey, who’s counting? That thrift is nearly all Nolan’s debut film can be said to have in common with the prevailing indie film scene of the late 1990s, still very much under the influence of the video-store wunderkinder—chiefly Smith and Quentin Tarantino—who infused American movies with a vibrant new strain of pop expressiveness rooted in comic books, seventies exploitation movies, and other assorted “low” art.
Following, by contrast, is a throwback, but decidedly not a pastiche, calling to mind the industrious poverty-row film noirs of the 1940s and ’50s—a movie that might have been exhumed from the vaults of Monogram Pictures (with a lean, seventy-minute running time to boot), or shown on a double bill with another shoestring thriller made by a gifted young director, Stanley Kubrick’s Killer’s Kiss (1955). The primary difference from the latter: whereas Kubrick’s second professional feature (and the first he owned up to) shows flashes of inspiration, compromised by technical problems and a studio-imposed happy ending, Following is that rare debut in which a formidable creative personality seems to have sprung upon the scene fully developed. All of Nolan’s abiding obsessions are in evidence: the boldly nonlinear chronology, the liquid sense of identity, the involuntary spasms of memory. Which, it must be noted, did the film relatively few favors when it was new. Discovered in rough-cut form by the producer and indie-film guru Peter Broderick (who would give Nolan much-needed finishing funds), Following premiered at the 1998 San Francisco Film Festival, went on to screen at Toronto and Slamdance (having been rejected by Sundance), and finally earned a small theatrical release from Zeitgeist Films, during which, despite enthusiastic reviews, it brought in all of fifty thousand dollars. (Fortunately, by then Nolan’s script for Memento had already been optioned, and the rest is history.)
Seen today, Following resembles nothing so much as a first draft of what would eventually become Nolan’s Inception (2010), which is to say, a psychological heist movie in which the most valuable loot exists in the lockbox of the subconscious. In a classic noir setup, the movie begins with our ostensible hero (played by Theobald) in police custody, recounting his lurid tale of woe to an inquisitive detective. The young man, whose name may or may not be Bill (he is credited only as “Young Man”), is an unemployed aspiring writer who has recently taken to “shadowing” random strangers on the streets of London, sampling their lives for a while, searching for inspiration. On one such occasion, he follows his subject long enough to be noticed by him, and the followed man confronts the follower. His name, he says, is Cobb (Alex Haw), and he’s a kind of gentleman burglar—another experiential voyeur, who claims to rob people less for his own benefit than to shake his victims from their complacent consumerism. “You take it away, you show them what they had,” he says, before going on to regale the Young Man with his affinity for the small boxes in which people store not their most valuable possessions but their most personal ones. We are not far here from Inception and its notion that by invading someone’s dreams, one can steal his or her innermost thoughts—a slumbering espionage practiced by another gentleman thief (Leonardo DiCaprio) whose name happens to be Cobb.
The Cobb of Following turns out not to mind being followed, and even entreats the Young Man to continue doing it, to enter into his world—to which the Young Man happily agrees. That is how the Young Man finds himself aiding Cobb in one of his burglaries, of an apartment littered with photographs of a seductive blonde—a Hitchcock blonde—with whom the Young Man becomes smitten. Already a trap has been sprung, but much like the Young Man himself, we are at a loss to say how, why, or to whose ultimate gain. Later, he will seek out this woman (credited as “Blonde” and played by Lucy Russell, the sole member of the primary cast to go on to a sustained acting career), not letting on that they have, in effect, met before. By the time he does this, the Young Man has significantly altered his appearance, not just trimming his straggly hair but trading his threadbare, starving-artist wardrobe for a natty dark suit—a suit rather like the ones favored by Nolan, that rare filmmaker who dresses for the set like a businessman going to the office. And as he changes his clothes, the Young Man changes his demeanor too, becomes surer of himself, becomes almost a different person. It is the first but hardly the last suggestion in Nolan’s work that the clothes really do make the man, whether Batsuit or merely Savile Row.
Few things fascinate Nolan more than the myriad ways in which a given story might be told—the least of them being a straight line. (He has cited the parallel time structures of Graham Swift’s remarkable novel Waterland, read at an impressionable age, as a chief influence in this regard.) In Memento (2000), the action unfolds along two ingeniously reverse-engineered tracks—one moving forward in time and the other backward—all seen through the eyes of a man who has lost the ability to produce new memories. In The Prestige, the shared lives of the two antagonists play out in flashbacks triggered by entries in each man’s diary—diaries written with the full intention of misleading the reader. In Following, Nolan experiments with an even more complex and fragmented structure, dividing the action into four distinct temporalities, circumscribed by a fifth (the police interview), and differentiated by the Young Man’s changing visage: with long hair and short, before and after a violent confrontation that leaves him with a badly swollen eye. Gradually, one strain of the story catches up to another, and the movie’s full jigsaw image begins to take shape. This is how Nolan invades our heads, how he steals our attention.
In lesser hands, such narrative gamesmanship might seem—and often has—little more than elaborate trickery, designed to generate cheap suspense or deflect attention from shortcomings in the script. This may explain why Nolan created an alternate version of the film, reedited in chronological order, as a bonus for an earlier DVD edition (it’s offered on this one as well)—his way of saying to the skeptics in the house, “See, nothing up my sleeves!” In fact, Following works nearly as well played straight as it does all knotted up, perhaps seems even richer in its doomed romanticism. But what that version of Following lacks is its creator’s beautifully articulated feel for the subconscious. Nolan films stories the way we often tell them to one another but rarely see them in the movies—beginning one way, then remembering some crucial omitted detail, doubling back, progressing again, trailing off down a tangential path. And while he is certainly not the only contemporary filmmaker to have sought a cinematic analogue for the workings of the mind—others include David Lynch and the late Raúl Ruiz—few if any have pushed as far in this direction within the parameters of mainstream commercial cinema. When I asked Nolan about this in a 2010 interview pegged to the release of Inception, the biggest-budget head-trip movie ever made in Hollywood, his response was typically coy: “I made a slightly smart-ass crack at somebody the other day because they asked me, ‘What’s your interest in the mind?’ And I said, ‘Well, I’ve lived in one my whole life.’”
To revisit—or discover—Following today is, at least in part, to marvel at how rapidly Nolan has ascended from these humble beginnings to the very top of the big-studio food chain, and how he has managed to do so without compromising his vision. Indeed, he is an anomalous figure: the creator of cerebral blockbusters that make big demands on audiences’ supposedly modest intelligence and ever-dwindling attention span; a stalwart proponent of celluloid in the digital era; and a rather private figure who keeps the precise details of his biography close to the vest. On that last count, it is irresistible to ponder Following as a snapshot of who Nolan himself may have been at that particular moment in his life—perhaps an impressionable young artist seeking experience, perhaps an already keen student of human behavior whose well-laid plans allowed no margin for error. Perhaps a bit of both. Similarly, as Following arrives at its final image, of a scot-free Cobb disappearing into the blur of a crowd, it is tempting to wonder if, perchance, he is vanishing into the recesses of the Young Man’s imagination, from whence he might well have come.
Scott Foundas is associate program director for the Film Society of Lincoln Center, where he also serves as a member of the New York Film Festival Selection Committee and a contributing editor to Film Comment magazine.