Me and my shadow
Filmmaker Christopher Nolan loves to toy with the way we watch and react to movies. Before he adapted his brother’s short story into the deconstructed murder mystery Memento he made a lean, low-budget British suspense yarn called Following. This clammy, noirish thriller time-hops with a vengeance, flashing backward and forward between tight clusters of information that require constant reprocessing, and churning the waters of voyeurism with morsels of a dark puzzle.
The making of Following is a textbook lesson in perseverance and economy. It was reportedly shot over a one-year period on weekends. The budget was meager at best, the actors were unknown, and Nolan used a held standard black and white 16mm film stock while holding down hyphenated chores of writer, director, cinematographer, co-editor and co-producer. The film’s running time of 70 minutes may smack of a production running on cash and creative fumes but shortchanges neither its characters nor audience as it slithers through a crimescape littered with deception, violations of privacy, mind games and violence.
The film begins as a voice-over narration introduces us to an unemployed twenty-something writer (played by co-producer Jeremy Theobald). The seedy young man has developed a habit of shadowing people on the street under the guise of gathering material (where they went, what they did, where they come from) for a book. At first he randomly picks people out of the crowd and has rules to keep his surveillance under control. The thin wall between observation and interaction soon crumbles when another young man he is following confronts him, questions his motives and introduces him to the world of burglary.
Our wannabe writer reluctantly introduces himself as Bill to the rather imposing Cobb (Alex Haw). They are physical opposites. Bill is oily, dressed in cheap street clothes and sports a goatee. Cobb is impeccably groomed and dressed in natty suit and tie. As they chat over coffee, they discover a common ground: they are both self-anointed philosophers who get off on rummaging through people’s lives. Bill has done his rummaging from afar. Cobb is now going to give him some hands-on experience. The plot thickens as Bill evolves from lonely stalker to dapper burglar and meets a blond femme fatale (Lucy Russell, straight from a 1940s gangland melodrama) who’s “seen it all” (including a brutal hammer murder by her crime boss boyfriend).
Nolan’s script is very creepy: a sort of Sundance version of Alfred Hitchcock themes. It points out the casual vulnerability of our privacy and possessions, and reminds us that many predators in this world look not like mutant monsters but rather exactly like you and me. These issues become more disturbing as the two misanthropes here break into homes through front doors in broad daylight and linger to analyze their victims’ lives through their most intimate belongings. In their wake they take items that interrupt their victim’s daily routines and leave behind previous plunder (panties, a lone earring) that can disrupt personal relationships. The final insult is that these guys sugar-coat their invasions as a social service for those people who take life for granted: “You take it away to show them what they had.”
If Following sounds familiar, it may be because it played here last year for two days only as a benefit screening for the Sacramento FilmArts Festival. It may also be because Bill is similar to the writer-turned-casino employee in Mike Hodge’s Croupier, who allows a woman to crawl under his skin and becomes a direct participant in a world he first sets out to only observe. Whereas Croupier depicted writing as a speculative gamble, this film refers to it as a leap into the unknown.
Years ago I read a staggering statistic that said professional burglars like Cobb commit many more break-ins than make their rap sheet. The larger number had been established through interviews with incarcerated thieves. After viewing the well-oiled deceit of the burglars in Following, it seems clear why the larger number must be the correct one.