Not just at the beginning of Nolan’s career, but at the presumption that Nolan’s is a career worth examining. Something that plenty of people dispute on its own. There are plenty who write off Nolan as a more graceful then average studio hack.
I of course, disagree or else I wouldn’t be hosting this blogothon. But it is a valid question. Because while he might not wear them as on his sleeve as say a Coppala, the filmmaker I think Nolan most resembles as a stylist, yet blessed free off Coppala’s self destructive streak. Nolan does have a few key obsessions and themes he keeps returning to giving his pictures the unifying thread necessary for some real artistic observation.
1. Nolan heroes are all defined by a trauma. What they do and who they are comes from a fundemental inability to move on with their lives from a defining incidents. Whether its death of Bruce Wayne’s parents, the “murder” of Leonard’s wife, Dormer’s trouble with Internal Affairs, The death of Angier’s wife. Every Nolan protagonist has a defining incident that pushes them past the point of sanity.
2. Nolan villains serve not just antagonists to the heroes, but to society at large. All are defined by the fact that they are breaking the social contract in a way that’s beyond the simple motives of greed, revenge, or whatever serves as fuel for most movie bad guys. Nice people do not use their friends as contract killers/ murder young girls in their home/ burn down major metropolian cities/ kill The police commissioner judges and DAs.
3. There is a complete Co Dependancy between the hero and villain. The entrapped cop and killer become “partners”. The Joker defines himself completely by Batman. Leonard depends on Teddy to help him navigate the world. Teddy depends on Leonard for something much darker. Ras Al Ghul sees in Batman an heir. The rivalry between Danton and Angier define every aspect of both their lives.
4. Nolan’s editing is slow and his eye for compostion nearly unrivaled. His films are made not for quick cuts, but to withstand long hard looks.
5. Each of his movies is Non Linear to at least some extent (Insomnia is almost an exception, but even it uses as its centeral image a flashback whose meaning doesn’t become clear until the end of the film). Most Nolan films take as one of its theme, the mind, and its fragility.
So there are at least five signatures that Nolan places in each film. And true to form, all five are present in Following.
Following isn’t a perfect film, but it is just about a perfect example of a talent in embryo. Every aspect of what makes Nolan Nolan is present, if not matured to its full potential.
The problem with Following is that its simply too clever for its own good. Unlike Nolan’s other films which are exactly clever enough for their own good.
Had it stuck to its initial premise Following might have been a truly great film. Our nameless protagonist starts following random people, out of sheer boredom and loneliness. Inevitably he’s caught in the act, unfortunately he’s done so by the Mephistophelian Cobb (The first of Nolan’s co dependant duos), who far from curtailing his urges, adds fuel to the fire and starts pushing him to take things further then he ever has before.
Now that’s some pretty potent stuff, unfortunately Following was made during that short window where The Usual Suspects was the most influential crime film. Which is the only reason I can think of as to why we’re treated to a tacked on plot involving a gangster and his girlfriend, that positively shreds suspension of disbelief. Hinging on so many coincidences and things happening just so that the mind reels.
Still if Nolan’s instincts as a storyteller where not yet fully developed, his instincts as one of the most confident stylists of his generation are fully formed from the beginning. Nolan’s instincts of compostion are nearly preternatural. I’m all for democratization, but I hate the lazieness of so much mumblecore, where composition and competence are tertiary concerns at best.
Looking at an independent film from a mere ten years ago, shows just how much that label has degraded in the ensuing decade. Call me a scrooge, but I miss the days when to achieve success as a director, an independent filmmaker like Richard Linklater, Jim Jaramusch, Sam Raimi, Peter Jackson, and yes even Kevin Smith, had to make something that actually looked like a film.
Visually speaking comparing something like Following where every shot had to count on its clearly limited budget, It’s barely seventy minutes long, shot on 16mm high contrast To the sloppy infinite video style of today, is like comparing the MLB to a bunch of preschooler’s playing T ball. There’s an economy and a precision here, that speaks to a true artistry. Nolan knew exactly how many frames he had, he couldn’t afford to waste a single one. It’s the discipline like this that a true filmmaker needs. I mean look, it makes the solipsistic wankfests that pass for independent cinema today just look ambitionless and embarrassing. Every shot in Following communicates something, and does so with grace and panache.
Following found Christopher Nolan in full possession of his talents. His next film would find a story worthy of them.