As Tenet begins its release in international markets, we’re taking a look back at filmmaker Christopher Nolan’s entire feature-length filmography, exploring each of his films one day at a time. Today we begin with his debut feature, Following (with the short “Doodlebug” thrown in for good measure).
Full spoilers for Following and “Doodlebug” follow.
Over the last 15 years, Christopher Nolan has become synonymous with major blockbusters. He’s also one of the last remaining Hollywood directors with anything resembling major pull; these days, everyone from Michael Bay to Martin Scorsese has trouble securing studio budgets (both men recently made their way to Netflix, with 6 Underground and The Irishman). Meanwhile, Nolan and his inner circle have found uncharacteristic freedom to experiment with non-linear narratives on the largest possible scale.
As someone who reveres the silver screen, it’s hard to imagine Nolan as anything but a big-canvas filmmaker; his first outing with 70mm IMAX cameras was The Dark Knight back in 2008 (the first narrative feature to ever use the format). This year’s Tenet, also partially shot in 70mm, is Nolan’s tenth feature film to cost multiple millions, but it’s his eleventh feature film overall. Back in 1998, Nolan wrote, shot and edited a tiny neo-noir crime caper on a shoestring budget of just $6000.
From a distance, Following feels like a radical departure from the Nolan we know today. It was filmed in black & white, used mostly natural light, and has a freewheeling, documentary feel. However, when paired with his eerie 1997 short “Doodlebug” (the two are packaged together by Criterion), a blueprint for Nolan’s entire career begins to emerge. His 20-plus year journey is built on a fixation with time, an anxiety he explores as everything from psychological construct to race against the clock, often in the body of familiar, mainstream genres. In this multi-part series, we’re going to dive in film-by-film as his latest, Tenet — in which he appears to turn back the clock entirely — begins its release.
Laying the Groundwork
Like several of Nolan’s later works, Following unfolds in three distinct timelines — four if you count the framing device, in which the anonymous main character (Jeremy Theobald) is interviewed by a cop (John Nolan, the director’s uncle). “The Young Man” as Theobald is credited, or “Bill” as he later calls himself, is a writer. He’s disheveled, unemployed, and has a writer’s curiosity, one that compels him to tail random strangers in public (which, he claims, makes him feel like a secret agent). One of these strangers, the sharply dressed Cobb (Alex Haw), catches on to Bill’s scheme and ropes him into a curious game of breaking-and-entering for the sheer thrill of violating people’s privacy.
Bill eventually falls for one of their victims, “The Blonde” (Lucy Russell), and tumbles down an ever-deepening rabbit hole of blackmail and revenge until, eventually, the tables are turned. Bill is revealed to have been the target of a double- (and then triple-) cross all along. The story bears thematic resemblance to Nolan’s now-unavailable 1996 short “Larceny,” in which “The Man” (also played by Theobald) breaks into a flat in order to burgle it, but ends up being chased through the woods by its occupants. The lurid atmosphere of Nolan’s early black & white films — his unsettling, hand-held voyeurism — lends itself perfectly to a young body of work which viewers enter through a specific POV, only to have the rug pulled out from under them.
Following, which Nolan filmed on Saturdays in London for several months, was inherently voyeuristic in its creation. Without the budget for monitors or a camera operator, Nolan shot the film himself (on Arri BL and Bolex cameras), blocking and lighting each shot through the camera’s viewfinder as he followed his actors through real locations. The technique bleeds into the film’s visual fabric, as the camera lurks around corners and peers into secret boxes alongside its characters. It exudes a forbidden sensation, a feeling of privacy violated — a suggestion that whatever we’re watching, we shouldn’t be.
The movie was initially cut on tape, and then digitally on AVID by editor Gareth Heal, though once it was accepted to its first festival, Heal and Nolan sought financial help to reassemble it on a negative film print, struck from the grain-heavy 16mm film stock Nolan shot with. Following, therefore, retains a tactile, tangible feel despite belonging to a period of cinematic transition. At the time, video was becoming the lingua franca of indie filmmaking, while Hollywood was moving further towards the realm of digital effects. And while Nolan’s future productions would be made with massive budgets, one gets the impression that he has tried to retain — through celluloid, practical stunts and lived-ins sets — that same sense of grounded tactility. Whatever fantastical directions his career would take, films like Following and “Doodlebug” would remain in his creative DNA.
A Non-Linear Mystery
On paper, the mystery in Following is simple, even amusing. Its characters fill the shoes of film noir stock types, from anti-hero to femme fatale, but its disorienting narrative sets it apart. Its structure seems almost random at times, for good and for ill; the jumbled-ness undoubtedly creates intrigue, but occasionally, it also obfuscates motivation. The framing scene, in which Bill speaks to the police officer, is shot on a slowly-moving dolly and has a feeling of stability and control, which the rest of the film lacks — albeit intentionally in parts. Bill’s understanding of Cobb, and of the world around him, feels destabilized.
Bill’s crisscrossing stories feel like the recollections of a man trying to piece together a puzzle — a puzzle in which he himself is an ever-changing piece. As Bill gets to know Cobb, he’s still long-haired and disheveled, wearing baggy clothes that hide him from the outside world. As he gets involved with The Blonde, his hair is crew-cut and he’s dressed to the nines (not unlike Cobb); an air of confidence begins to surround him. And as he engages in increasingly dangerous crimes, his face has been beaten to a pulp; he bears the scars of a life to which he doesn’t belong.
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Each timeline is separated not only by Bill’s appearance — by each new identity he takes on — but by the way he interacts with the spaces around him: with apprehension, then with curiosity and, eventually, with reckless abandon. The three-pronged structure is an investigation, inasmuch as Bill is being interrogated and recalls all three timelines. But it’s also self-interrogation, as he pores over details that seemed insignificant at first, but have become suspicious in retrospect.
These details are often captured as insert shots of mundane personal objects, which Nolan uses to create emotional connections to his characters — connections usually revealed after the fact (your mileage may vary). The film even begins with extreme closeups of The Blonde’s belongings, being scrutinized by hands wrapped in clinical gloves. This act of personal invasion is investigative at first, but the longer one looks at these objects — and the more Bill, and the camera, stare at The Blonde’s possessions as the film goes on — the more it feels like piecing together another person without their permission. From the very first scene, the act of constructing an identity feels taboo.
Bill, the writer, begins the film on a similar quest, hoping to gather pieces and glimpses of people’s lives to work them into a story. But as he’s lured in and seduced by Cobb, he turns this process inward, crafting for himself an alter ego both modeled after his criminal pal and ripped right from old crime and spy movies, from his fancy suits to his brand-new hairdo.
Prior to adopting Cobb’s appearance and M.O., Bill’s defining characteristic is that he wears his heart on his sleeve. He’s terrible at hiding his motivations when first confronted by Cobb, and he reacts with everything from fear to anger to empathy to excitement during each new situation he’s dragged through. He also questions Cobb’s motivations, which are better hidden than his own, as if gathering material for his work; an artistic process. But the further Bill slips into his mentor’s shadow, the more he adopts his cold, clinical and removed demeanor — one that proves too constricting, too repressive for Bill’s curious nature.
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The score by David Julyan, with whom Nolan would collaborate three more times (on Memento, Insomnia and The Prestige), is uncharacteristic of heist films, and speaks to Bill’s curiosity. The break-ins feel confusing — the soundtrack is like a bag of hammers being violently shaken — but the music reaches a point of emotional clarity when Bill inevitably returns to the scene of the crime (namely, to The Blonde’s apartment). When spending time with The Blonde, Bill revels in his thievery — his dirty little secret — accompanied by Julyan’s drawn-out strings, like a symphony composed for classical Hollywood romance now reduced to its barest elements. Bill, undoubtedly, feels connected to the places and people he burgles. His heists are intimate.
When The Blonde tells Bill she was robbed, he doesn’t ask what was taken, but rather, how it felt to be violated — by him, although he doesn’t admit to it. There’s a psychosexual layer to Bill’s obsessions; Following is Nolan’s most (and perhaps only) sexually charged film, between The Blonde being modeled off femme fatales of the past, and the unsettling imagery of her open-eyed kiss, hinting at hidden motivations Bill isn’t yet aware of, as she stares off-screen, the wheels turning silently in her head.
Whatever trepidations Nolan has with portraying sexuality are on full display. He conflates intimacy with danger, as if poisoned by one too many crime films about duplicitous women. The Blonde appears to resemble Ann Savage’s Vera from the 1945 film noir Detour, while the aforementioned kiss is reminiscent of 1964 Bond movie Goldfinger, in which Bonita (Nadja Regin) kisses 007, but opens her eyes to check up on her co-conspirator, who attacks Bond from behind.
Both Bill’s eyes and Nolan’s camera approach The Blonde with hesitation. They’re embarrassed to be seen gawking at her underwear, and they look away from her when she wears nothing but a bathrobe. Yet there exists a constant sense that all they want to do is look. When The Blonde first lays on her couch, the edit catches glimpses of her bare legs in wide shots before cutting to her close up, as Bill either diverts his gaze off-screen or forces himself to maintain eye contact, rather than letting his gaze drift towards her body. She brings up the voyeuristic perversions of the man who went through her belongings, knowing full well that it was Bill, and attempting to seduce him. But he denies and deflects, despite being presented with the opportunity to reveal his true self.
The more Bill internalizes his professional new appearance, the more procedural his approach becomes. And yet, the stronger and more obsessive his desire to invade people’s lives. The battle between these two identities — the young writer, and his debonair “Bill” persona — forms the emotional crux of much of Nolan’s work.
The friction between emotion and professionalism — the artistic and the technical, so to speak; two halves of the creative mind — re-appears throughout Nolan’s output. From an astronaut torn between his love for his daughter and a pragmatic duty to humanity in Interstellar, to a superhero forced to choose between emotional ties and his greater mission in The Dark Knight, to magicians on self-destructive paths, balancing theatrical showmanship and vengeful obsession in The Prestige, much of Nolan’s filmography is about the tug-of-war between left-brained logic and right-brained impulse. One might even break it down to a traditionally masculine outlook of stoic professionalism off-set by intrusive emotions, a theme literalized in his 2010 film Inception, in which another suited professional named Cobb — whose appearance many have likened to Nolan himself — embarks on a heist that requires keeping his emotions at bay, as their intrusions manifest as an antagonistic femme fatale.
In Following, the character of Cobb is aspirational to the writer. Where Bill gets too involved, Cobb is aloof. Where Bill gets flustered, Cobb remains composed. Where Bill stammers and avoids eye contact, Cobb carries himself with square-jawed panache. However, a twist goes on to reveal that even Cobb’s seemingly rugged identity may have been tailor-fitted to Bill’s desires.
Nolan has often been called cold and clinical, given how many of his male characters eschew emotions in favour of unflappable resolve. But in Following (and in Nolan’s other aforementioned works), masculine frigidity isn’t merely a default setting. Rather, it’s a web the characters must untangle. Not by breaking free of it, but by confronting the entanglements head-on, and unknotting — intentionally or inadvertently — all that they’ve repressed for the sake of their missions.
Should the characters succeed, like in Interstellar or Inception, they’re rewarded with seeing their children again. But should they fail, as Bill does in Following, that failure proves to be lethal (for The Blonde, if not for Bill himself). Bill’s journey toward a more stoic, more utilitarian façade precipitates his downfall, since he can’t keep his emotional entanglements at bay. His obsession with The Blonde is creepy, but it becomes downright dangerous when he gets too attached, treating her involvement with criminality as a mission to be won. He soon starts following a bar owner who, according to The Blonde, has been blackmailing her with compromising photos. As Bill goes from following Cobb to following The Blonde to following this supposed predator, his involvement with each new subject grows more emotionally complicated, eventually placing him in a Bond-like predicament — another key influence for Nolan — caught between a violent covert mission and a two-faced seductress.
Bill’s transformation, into a seemingly sophisticated criminal, was part of Cobb’s grand plan (Cobb needed the police to suspect someone who looked and operated like he did). Notably, it was Bill breaking his own rule of never following someone twice — choosing emotional intrigue over the professional code he’d set — that led Cobb to approach him in the first place. In the end, Bill’s emotional involvement is what made him the perfect target. Like the audience, he’s drawn in and manipulated by a good story; on some level, he wants to be.
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Bill’s descent into secret-identity vigilantism is an important precursor to Nolan’s work on Batman (Bill’s apartment even bears a Batman sticker!). But the relationship of Following’s various timelines to one another is just as vital to understanding Nolan’s output. The connections between these three “layers” are, admittedly, flimsier than in Nolan’s more polished films. The intent is clear, but several scenes can be placed in any order to achieve the same effect. However, the temporal relationships between Nolan’s timelines snap into focus when one watches his preceding short film, “Doodlebug.”
“Doodlebug” and a Time-Slipped Reality
In Nolan’s three-minute short “Doodlebug,” Theobald plays a similarly disheveled, similarly obsessed young man, though the target of his obsession is invisible at first. He chases… something, around his tiny apartment, as a clock ticks louder and louder, impressing upon the young man (and us) the urgency of his mission. Eventually, boot in hand, the young man uncovers the mysterious “doodlebug” and finds a smaller version of himself, chasing an even smaller invisible doodlebug, performing the very same actions he performs, a few seconds in advance. A time-slipped reality, in which the very concept of “the present” is irrelevant.
No moment is presented in isolation in Nolan’s films. No change in identity in Following exists without what came before it, and what it eventually led to. Each moment is a falling domino, and while the story could’ve just as easily been laid out in linear form, these moments become super-charged when placed in close proximity. In Following, we feel the dangerous static radiating off The Blonde’s photograph the first time Bill lays eyes on it, because we’ve already seen him using it as a map to stalk her earlier in the film, but later in the timeline.
In the climax of “Doodlebug,” the smaller man lunges forward. The man in the apartment, similarly, lunges forward as well, and finally smashes the “bug” with his shoe. Moments later, an enormous man appears behind him in the apartment, also played by Theobald, and smashes our protagonist with a giant boot, as if the film were folding in on itself, growing larger and more imposing with each iteration. It’s terrifying to think of this character, and of ourselves, as being at the mercy of cosmic forces beyond our control. But at the same time, it was the man in the apartment who, in essence, wrote his own demise through his unrelenting obsession; were he not in pursuit of the doodlebug, he would not have been pursued. And yet, for him to not have been in pursuit, the doodlebug — a manifestation of himself — would need to not have been in pursuit of something even smaller in the first place, and the premise itself would cease to exist.
And so, Nolan creates a closed causal loop — the first of many in his career — in which obsessive fixation is an integral part of human nature, and in which the effects of these multiple “timelines” ripple outward, impacting (and being impacted by) one another, in a carefully constructed, Rube Goldberg machine-like narrative. But what stops “Doodlebug,” Following, and all of Nolan’s meticulous plots from feeling mechanical is the man at each one’s center — a man undone by his obsessions.
In Following, Bill’s obsession — watching, following, investigating and learning about people — is a sort of sickness. But it’s not unlike watching and learning about characters onscreen, as the camera rummages through their most private thoughts and desires in an attempt to reach their core. It’s a sickness we’re made privy to, perhaps even complicit in, as we follow people alongside Bill and invade their lives. But Bill’s obsession doesn’t stop at invading others.
In an especially unsettling scene, Bill invites Cobb into his home. He pretends it’s someone else’s apartment so that Cobb can invade his own privacy and poke and prod at his private life, revealing things about Bill’s nature which he may not want to confront. He reacts aggressively to Cobb’s assertions about him — does Cobb know the apartment is Bill’s? It’s unclear in the moment — but the scene turns Bill’s voyeurism inward, like a form of cinematic self-harm. It’s not unlike our own attraction to the medium of cinema, which we allow to reflect our inner truths, like turning the camera’s gaze onto some secret part of ourselves.
In a 2010 LA Times interview, Nolan used the analogy of a labyrinth to describe his use of point-of-view; a key to unlocking the way he uses non-linear timelines. “If you picture the story as a maze,” he said, “you don’t want to be hanging above the maze watching the characters make the wrong choices because it’s frustrating. You actually want to be in the maze with them, making the turns at their side.”
In Greek mythology, a labyrinth represents a journey into the self, a journey from which one emerges changed. A maze, like a story, reveals character as people pass through it. But if our desire is to walk through the maze alongside these characters, taking the very same turns as them, then our desire to watch cinema, and to see characters’ truest selves revealed, is just as much about being seen. It’s about having our own selves reflected back to us, revealing things about our natures which we may not otherwise confront.
And so, Bill follows — and we follow him to figure out why.
Siddhant Adlakha is a filmmaker and film critic based in Mumbai and New York. You can follow him on Twitter at @SiddhantAdlakha.