Last of the Monster Kids

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Monday, July 2, 2012

Director Report Card: Christopher Nolan (1998)

Christopher Nolan is one of the those director who came out of nowhere with one indie kind-of-hit, one huge indie hit, and then somewhere along the way became one of the biggest directors in the world. I think some of his movies are, you know, pretty good.

1. Following

It’s sort of inspiring to see that Christopher Nolan, one of the biggest filmmakers in the world right now, started off his career with a barely-feature length film shot on weekends, over the course of the year, on a budget of pocket money. No professional crew or equipment, amateur actors, and all of it for around 6000 dollars. Considering these limitations, “Following” is actually a pretty decent, if minor, flick.

The movie caters in the same sort of themes and technique that would continue to fascinate the director: Deception, trickery, perception, and nonlinear story structure. There’s a twisting narrative here that keeps building. What the movie is about keeps shifting. At first, it appears to be a story about an unemployed, bored young man who likes to “follow” people for fun. Basically, stalk a random person for a few minutes every day. Despite the first rule he sets up for himself being “don’t follow the same person twice,” the young man finds himself fascinated with a mysterious guy in a suit. Soon, the man confronts him. The followed is a petty thief who calls himself “Cobb,” a name Nolan would use again. Cobb likes to break into people’s house more to invaded their privacy and mess with their stuff then to steal things. The Young Man is quickly drawn into his game. The Young Man gets romantically involved with one of the woman who’s apartment he burgled. Everyone is hiding secrets and looking to double-cross or screw over someone else.

There are three time lines going at the same time here. The Young Man, our protagonist has no other name, is telling his story to an older man. In the second timeline, the Young Man has ratty long hair and is just getting to know Cobb. In the third timeline, the main character has cut his hair short, is wearing nice suits, and deeply involved with the Blonde. The movie cuts back and forth between the three places in its narrative. Sometimes this is done mostly to disorient the viewers. Sometimes a seemingly senseless scene, such as one of the main character coughing up a pair of latex gloves, will flash by quickly. Other times it provides a nice bit of dramatic irony. In one scene, the Blonde is complaining about loosing an earring, while the Young Man wonders if it was just misplaced. The next scene shows Cobb and the Young Man hiding the earring right where he was sitting in the previous moment. I would have liked to have seen the nonlinear device used like that more often.

The performances are pretty good, considering all the actors are non-professional. Alex Haw is definitely the stand-out performance. As is usually the case with films of this style, the corrupter figure is almost always the most interesting character in the movie. It makes sense. In order for his corruption of the main character to be believable, he should appear just as charismatic to the audience as he does to the protagonist. Jeremy Theobald isn’t just an audience cipher, though he starts out that way. He slowly reveals depths to the audience. As will often be the case with Nolan’s films, the romantic subplot proves the least convincing aspect of the movie. Lucy Russell gives an okay performance, even if her affection for our main character never seems genuine.

Which proves to be foreshadowing. “Following,” like Nolan’s future films, takes place in a world of constant betrayal where trust is a fool’s errand. Being a neo-noir, that makes sense, of course. But the descent into double-crossing is honestly a little disappointing. The themes of voyeurism and casually invading people’s lives are the most interesting aspects of the film. Sadly, most of this is abandoned near the end. This becomes a typical story of someone being elaborately manipulating by someone, unknowingly jumping through hoops of betrayals and double-crosses. The eventual pay-off might be worth it, even if the movie becomes less interesting because of it.

“Following’ ends up being most impressive because of its indie roots. Nolan’s strength for plot mechanisms are all ready apparent. The film’s black and white photograph is unpolished but appropriately gritty. The performances are strong enough for the material. It’s not a great film by any means but worth seeking out never the less. [Grade: B]

1 comment:

Sean Catlett said...

Cool! I fucking love Nolan. I thought about doing a marathon of his films after the suddenly-hard-to-write-about Soderbergh was finished. We'll see.

I like Following. I think it's one of those that barely holds up on repeat viewings -- more that you can admire for its style, rather than its story. For a debut, it's incredible. On the grand unified movie scale, it's merely good. But good nonetheless.