“The following is my explanation.”
In retrospect, it’s difficult not to think of the first spoken line of Christopher Nolan’s first feature film as a promise of everything that was to come, or perhaps a warning depending on your point of view. If there’s anything Nolan has proven to like more than a convoluted narrative, it’s convoluted exposition, and while I am definitely not a fan I swear I’m not being sarcastic when I say I think there’s something impressive about a director who can spend so much time filming his characters talking about what they’re doing and why they’re doing it, often in grueling detail, and still leave audiences wondering what the heck is actually going on. I remember watching “Inception” (2010) and thinking that the DVD could not possibly come with a commentary track (it didn’t) since the commentary was embedded within the movie itself… in every single scene.
Incessant exposition had not yet become Nolan’s dominant style in “Following” (1999), perhaps because of the film’s admirably lean running time, a mere seventy minutes. Still, the seeds of future Nolan are at least incepted in a scene when Cobb (Alex Haw) explains to Bill (Jeremy Theobald) that he is not just a run-of-the-mill burglar, but only ransacks people’s flats to turn their lives upside down, to make them think twice about their lives: “You take it away, show them what they had.” He says it a few other ways too. Come to think of it, there’s a heck of a lot of exposition in “Following,” just not as much as “Inception” which is surely a modern mainstream landmark.
I suppose I should backtrack. Bill is actually our main character, though his name might not really be Bill (he is credited simply as The Young Man). Bill is an unemployed Londoner who spends his days following people just… to follow them. Bill’s only apparent motivation is that he has nothing else to do, though he might be looking for material for his next story… though he only sort of, kind of thinks of himself as a writer. Of course, apparent motivation is called “apparent” for a reason in a Nolan movie.
Bill always wants to maintain his distance from his subjects, but one of his marks turns the tables. This is Cobb and it turns out that Cobb is an amateur burglar who just happens to be looking for an accomplice. Cobb never steals anything of real value, only CDs and other trinkets that can be sold by untraceable avenues, but he likes to leave a little healthy disruption in his wake (misplacing an earring or tucking an incriminating pair of panties into a husband’s jacket) in the hopes that it will jolt the complacent apartment dwellers to reconsider their world views.
The first rule of burglary club is not to get involved with any of your marks, but after they pull off a job in the apartment of a particularly attractive young woman (Lucy Russell), Bill can’t help but break the rules. And in the grand noir tradition of Nolan’s paranoid black-and-white vision, he pays the price for his transgression almost immediately.
Actually, he pays the price even before his misstep (talk about being an ill-fated noir protagonist!) because Nolan constantly jumps back and forth in time. We see Bill with a bloody face, but don’t find out until alter (or earlier) how it happened; he hooks up with the woman before we see him and Cobb robbing her place, and so on. It was the first example of Nolan’s fondness for twisted narrative structures, though here the time-jumping seems to be little more than an indulgence. Indeed, Nolan has also provided a Linear Edit of the film with the events in chronological order and it doesn’t lose much in the re-ordering, which I suppose is both a compliment and a shortcoming.
The film teases with themes about voyeurism and modern alienation, but that’s all a distraction to Nolan’s primary interest which is the serial rug-pulling that has become a standard feature in much of his work. Bill might not be who he claims he is, the woman might be running a con on Bill, and Cobb might be pulling a scam on both of them. Then you have to add in the fact that the whole movie is framed as Bill’s confession to an unidentified interrogator, which brings up that whole unreliable narrator thing, and layer on the fact that Bill is at least ostensibly a writer which raises the possibility that, well, y’know.
It’s the kind of gotcha storytelling that drives fans to exclaim “My mind is blown!” and drives me to boredom. What’s real? Can we believe anybody? You know what you thought you were just watching? Well, you were wrong, man! Nolan is very good at this style, but my reaction to the “big reveal” is usually “So there was no reason for me to have watched any of that other stuff in the first place.” For others, it produces the tingly wonderment of a stage trick pulled off by an expert, and Nolan has parlayed that magical appeal into a remarkably successful career;, becoming so influential both as an indie filmmaker and a studio helmsman that it’s hard to believe he’s barely been in the business for a decade.
Nolan shot “The Following” on a micro-budget in piecemeal fashion over the course of a year, and the final product is remarkably polished considering the limitations. Any rough patches are consonant with the gritty neo-noir mood he maintains throughout. His obsessions do not jibe with mine, and I find the ending as irritating as I always find the endings of these kinds of movies, but I admire the technical accomplishment by a first-time feature filmmaker.
The film is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. “Following” was shot on 16 mm and this restored digital transfer was created from the original 16 mm camera negative. Black-and-white 16 mm film, I will always love you! The movie, of course, has a grainy, slightly washed-out look and the restoration does not appear to have artificially sweetened the image simply for the sake of eliminating some of the grubbier patches. The image detail is not razor sharp and shouldn’t be, but what we do get is just perfect for this no-budget noir. This restored transfer might not win any awards, but I simply love the look.
Listeners can choose either the original mono mix (LPCM) or a new DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround mix. I didn’t notice any major difference between the two options, both of which are free of any noteworthy distortions. Dialogue is clearly mixed. Optional English subtitles support the English dialogue.
Sony released “The Following” on DVD in 2001 and Criterion’s edition repeats most of those extas, including Nolan’s 2001 audio commentary. We also get the Linear Edit from that first release which plays the film with events arranged in chronological order.
The Criterion Blu-ray includes a new interview (2010, 26 min.) with Nolan. The disc also includes a “Script to Film” feature which plays three scene from the film side-by-side with pages from the shooting script to show how closely Nolan adhered to his plans: this might be the same feature included on the 2001 DVD but I can’t confirm that for certain (EDIT: A young reader named Eddie confirms that this is indeed the same feature – nice work, Eddie, and keep on readin’!)
We also get Nolan’s 1997 short film “Doodlebug” (3 min.) This was shot while he was at University College London and stars Jeremy Theobald, also the main character in “Following.” Like many short-short films, it is more a clever idea than a fleshed-out premise, but it’s easily my favorite Nolan work, and its nested structure is a clear precursor of “Inception.”
The collection rounds out with a Theatrical Trailer and a Re-release Trailer, each about a minute and a half.
The slim fold-out insert booklet includes an essay by critic Scott Foundas.
No doubt most Nolan fans already own the old Sony SD release, and Criterion’s Blu-ray upgrade doesn’t offer enough additional extras to justify a double dip. However, the restored high-def transfer renders the black-and-white 16 mm image in all its glory, and this is the obvious option for those who do not yet own the film on DVD.