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Welcome to a World Without Rules

By Drew Morton | Underappreciated Gems | July 22, 2010 | Comments ()


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First off, to those of you expecting a review of Chinatown (1974) as promised in the hint that was contained in the Blue Velvet (1986) piece, I apologize. Chinatown will be the next film covered in the retrospective. I simply got sidetracked in the wake of Christopher Nolan's Inception (2010) by the auteur completest in me, demanding that I actually sit down and watch Following (1998). While it didn't reach the heights of Memento (2000) or Insomnia (2002), the latter of which is perhaps Nolan's most overlooked and underestimated film due to its remake status, I very much enjoyed his rough and ragged debut (which is allegedly up for both the Criterion treatment and a theatrical re-release thanks to his most recent success---in the meantime you can catch it on Netflix Watch Instantly).

The film is bare, cut and dry almost to the point of The Limey (1999), beginning with a young struggling writer (Jeremy Theobald) who has developed a strange habit in order to flesh out his literary creations. In order to indulge his creativity, or so he claims, the writer follows absolute strangers around London. Men, women, it doesn't matter, nor is it "a sex thing" he tells us. As his hobby becomes an obsession, the writer develops a set of rules. First, never seek out a subject; the person being followed should be selected at random. Second, do not tail women who walk into dark alleys. Finally, don't follow the subject for too long.

The writer informs us, via voice-over (we later find out there are three alternating timelines), that the rules quickly grew to his disliking. Breaking them, he tails a well-dressed man (Alex Haw) to a café. The man, who calls himself Cobb, quickly takes note of the writer's presence and sits down next to him, demanding to know why he has been followed. The writer, at a loss of words, learns that Cobb is a casual thief; he breaks into people's homes and focuses on taking their most personal items (photographs, letters) in order to make the victims realize how much they take their belongings for granted. As Cobb states, "You take it away and show them what they had." Soon, the writer finds himself as Cobb's accomplice and they break into a woman's (Lucy Russell) flat. Her flat is filled with photos of herself, causing both men to comment on her beauty and to ponder her lifestyle: She's vain or she's a model. Both men put their money on the latter and the writer decides, breaking his rule again, to follow her.

Soon after, the writer meets up with the woman in a bar and they develop a relationship. As the writer soon discovers, the woman is the moll to a gangster and pornographer (Dick Bradsell) who is blackmailing her with incriminating photos. She encourages the writer to break into the gangster's safe to retrieve the photos. This being both a neo-noir and a Christopher Nolan film, you can probably already guess that the characters' motivations aren't what they appear to be and that the juggling of timelines will climax in a reveal.

That said, one can clearly trace the seeds of Nolan's narrative and stylistic pre-occupations in Following. The film, as already mentioned, makes use of non-linear editing in order to produce the mystery that provides the driving force for the film. Yet, what struck me, no doubt aided by the fact that both Following and Inception feature a character named Cobb, is the role of rules in Nolan's films and how breaking them can have dire consequences. That said, for those of you who have not seen Following, Memento, The Prestige (2006) or Inception, I'd encourage you to ignore the next two paragraphs.

In Following, Memento, and Inception, the protagonists establish rules for themselves in order to function. While I've already described the writer's rules above, Leonard (Guy Pearce) in Memento can only function through the habits and routines outlined by his photographs and tattoos. Cobb (Leonard DiCaprio) of Inception requires a totem to determine his position in either the "real world" or a dream, encouraging Ariadne (Ellen Page) to produce her own (you can't use the totems of others) and to never disclose the design of the dream worlds to him, as it will compromise the operation. Yet, the protagonists of each film break the rules: The writer seeks out Cobb and deliberately follows the woman, Leonard manipulates the objective truth of the photographs and tattoos he surrounds himself with, and Cobb uses the totem of his dead wife and tells Ariadne the layout of the third dream level. These infractions often lead to the downfall of the protagonists. The writer positions himself as the sap in a murder plot, Leonard puts himself on the tracks of a murderous Möbius strip, and Cobb, well, we're never sure where the hell Cobb is.

For Nolan the filmmaker, having his characters break the rules sometimes adds characterization but, at its worst, it can also be illogical and frustrating. For instance, in Inception, the implications of Cobb's breaking of the rules would mean that he's been in a dream the entire film. So what are we to take away from the film if that's the meaning? (Note: I didn't hate Inception but a second viewing disclosed holes in the logic of the rules.) In The Prestige, Nolan establishes a world in which magicians repeatedly tell us that there's no such thing as actual magic and yet the climax proves otherwise, which feels like a bit of a cheat. Following is not without its Achilles's heel; the set-up is contingent on the writer following the woman and starting a relationship with her, begging the question "What if he hadn't?" In short, I'll allow Nolan's characters to break their own rules as long as their consequences do not infringe on the rules that have been established between the filmmaker and the audience. I don't mind to think or play the game; I just don't want to feel cheated afterward. For all the chatter about rules in his films, they often feel like a means of misdirection, which can be equally productive and infuriating. Sometimes, I wish Nolan would embrace the logic of his Joker: The only sensible way to live in this world is without rules.

This may sound like I'm bashing on Nolan. That, however, is not the case, as Memento, Insomnia, and his Batman films (look for a Batman logo buried in Following) are some of my favorite films of the past decade. I'm not even completely criticizing Nolan for using rules as a means of cinematic sleight of hand, which works amazingly in Memento. I just wish he would hand off his puzzles to a logician while they are in screenplay form in order to iron out all the kinks. Logical issues aside, Following exemplified a talent of Nolan's that I had previously been oblivious to: The man knows how to shoot a film. While Wally Pfister has since taken over for Nolan as a cinematographer and provided both the filmmaker and us as viewers with some stunning compositions, there's an intimate, poetic filth to the black and white compositions of Following. Acting as his own cinematographer, Nolan imbues the film with a minimalist grit, reminding me of Henri Decaë's work on Bob le Flambeur (1955), Elevator to the Gallows (1958), and The 400 Blows (1959). That's no small complement for a filmmaker who has, over the course of a decade, made us aware of his many other talents.

The Summer 2010 Neo-Noir Retrospective:
Blue Velvet
Bound
Devil in a Blue Dress
Hard Eight
The Hit
The Limey
The Long Goodbye
Memento
Yesterday Was a Lie

Drew Morton is a Ph.D. student in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of California-Los Angeles. His criticism and articles have previously appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the UWM Post, Flow, Senses of Cinema, and Mediascape. He is the 2008 and 2010 recipient of the Otis Ferguson Award for Critical Writing in Film Studies.



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