Christopher Nolan, the British-American filmmaker mostly known for his Batman trilogy, is a filmmaker of spectacle and practicality. His films are associated with huge action sequences, IMAX theaters and film, and the limits of the human mind. Yesterday the teaser trailer trailer for his new film, Dunkirk (July 2017), hit the internet. This got me to thinking that should do a watch-through of his entire filmography in chronological order, much as I did with Hayao Miyazaki earlier this year. That review series has proved so popular, that I thought this might be a good follow-up. Plus, Christopher Nolan is probably my favorite working contemporary filmmaker. I simply enjoy his movies immensely. In the past I’ve reviewed two of his films, Following, the subject of this review, and The Prestige (2006). Starting today I will work my way through each film, including those I’ve already written about. The advantage of watching through a director’s films in order is that it gives you a lot of context for their films: you get to see themes and style emerge and develop, and you will also become more aware of the most common traits in their films. It’s really quite a bit of fun.
Doodlebug, (1997, dir. Christopher Nolan)
First things first. This entry has a bonus feature, and it’s because the Criterion Collection blu-ray of Following has a bonus feature: Nolan’s 1997 student film, Doodlebug. It’s right here that the accessible films of Christopher Nolan begin, and so it’s right here that we shall start. Doodlebug is only two minutes long, so I’ll do my best to avoid writing a simple description of the film and instead present some things I find interesting about it. Simply put the film features a man running around his apartment with a shoe trying to smash some unseen presence. Eventually we discover the identity of this presence: it is a small, almost microscopic, version of the man himself. Finally he clobbers the tiny man with a show, but only to have an even larger shoe stamp down on top of him. This little short seems a precursor to the psychological themes of Nolan’s breakout hit Memento (2000), and the multilayered storytelling of The Prestige (2006) and Inception (2010). Just as DiCaprio explores dreams-within-dreams, the character in Doodlebug explores versions of himself-within-himself. It’s hard to latch onto and explore any themes in a single two minute film, and I can only see much of what I do because I am already familiar with the context of where Nolan’s filmmaking is going: the psyche, perception, reality, and multiple layers of existence and reality. At the very heart of the majority of Nolan’s films is the question of: “is what I’m experiencing real?” But that’s something we will explore together and get to see the limitations of. Now onto the main feature.
Following (1999, dir. Christopher Nolan)
Nolan’s first film, Following, is a bit of a masterclass in making a low-budget film, largely on your own, and doing it very well. I would highly recommend anyone interested in micro-budget filmmaking check out the Criterion blu-ray which features a lot of very cool bonus features that contextualize the film and explain how Nolan got it made. In comparison to Doodlebug this film has a lot more meat to grab onto and digest, and yet very much shows the signs of a first film. When I last wrote about this film (six years ago), I spoke of the narrative structure (three timelines which intersect and keep the story narratively hidden but not confused) and had this to say: “The structure feels somewhat clumsy when compared to Nolan’s later films” and “the ‘trick’ editing feels unjustified by the film’s plot. In Memento and The Prestige the odd narrative structures are grounded in the way the plot functions.” Granted, I still hold to this somewhat, but I feel that the structure is far more justified in this film than I originally gave it credit for, and I feel that it all comes down to this little theme which is relevant throughout Nolan’s films: the fallible human memory.
You see, Following is told entirely through flashback. By the time we get to experience the story it has occurred and is over. The film begins with the main character, who is unnamed, telling his story to a police officer. He tries his best to tell it from the beginning, but seems to jumble up the details. I suppose the mixed and matched narrative is related to his telling of the story. It does still feel somewhat gimmicky, as it largely seems an excuse to keep information from the audience in a very complicated way, but I now see it as a bit more justified than I did originally. Something interesting which is of note, the Criterion release features an “linear cut” of the film, which presents the story in chronological order. I’ve never watched this particular cut, but I should as it might be very revealing of whether or not the odd intercutting story is totally necessary or not. But I digress.
Here Nolan delves into some Hitchcockian themes: particularly voyeurism and the ever dangerous platinum blonde as a foil for the hero. These two themes, from what I recall of his later work, disappear, and I think serve little purpose here beyond the noir-underpinnings of this particular film. Noir, by the way, being the main aesthetic Nolan goes to throughout his films (particularly in his Batman trilogy). Originally this was about all I saw of the film, but now I see one other thing that is so obvious I wonder how I missed it: this film ties wonderfully into two themes Nolan will develop throughout his career: our perception of reality, and our need to protect those we care about. The perception of reality theme is pretty obvious once you’ve seen the film: the main character has been fed a lie by his two “friends” and only upon speaking to the police investigator does he discover this fact. The need to protect those we care about is secondary and is the theme I had missed previously. Our main character makes the choices he does, and falls into the trap set for him, because of the beautiful blonde (a femme-fatale?) that needs his help.
Overall, Following is a fun film to watch, and it’s a really solid start to a very solid career. The 16mm, black and white photography is gorgeous in HD, and the story (even if presented in what I think to be a unnecessarily convoluted way) is engaging and leaves you wanting more. The film-noir underpinnings are great, and work well with the photography, chosen locations, and this particular story. The narrative structure (which I hate to keep harping on) does get a bit of a pass since it not only helps develop the theme of unreliable memory and perception, but also because of the film’s noir heritage. Classic film-noir liked to play with chronology and narrative. In particular I think Nolan’s use of non-chronological narrative structure might be influenced by The Killing (1956, dir. Stanley Kubrick), but I have no real proof of that. Nolan has gone on record saying he is a student of Kubrick’s work, so it would be unsurprising for me.