Part 1 in a series of essays on the films of director Christopher Nolan
Christopher Nolan’s debut feature film, 1998’s Following, is a story about the voyeuristic nature of moviegoing as much as it is about a lonely young man who follows people around the streets of London.
The unnamed protagonist, a struggling writer, begins following random strangers to gather material for his novel. Things take an odd turn when one of these strangers, a sharply dressed man named Cobb, notices him and takes an interest in the young man’s strange hobby, quickly pulling him into a life of petty burglary. The young man joins Cobb, as he is hurting for cash - and human interaction - and justifies his participation in the crimes as a way of accruing story ideas.
(warning: spoilers ahead)
Events become even more bizarre when the Young Man starts dating a women whose flat he and Cobb had burglarized some time before. Credited as simply “The Blonde”, she is as archetypal a femme fetale as Howard Hawks or John Houston ever put on screen. She smokes like a campfire and talks down to our protagonist like he’s a lapdog, regarding him with the sleepy, apathetic eyes of Marlene Dietrich.
As it turns out, The Blonde is in fact in collusion with Cobb, and has been since before The Young Man knew either of them. Our hapless protagonist learns this all to late for his own good, after being used for Cobb’s calculated criminal purposes and then tossed aside, as the elegant villain slips once more into the shadows.
The three central characters - the Young Man, Cobb, and the Blonde - function subtextually as surrogates for the audience, the director, and the actor(s), respectively. The way they behave and interact with each other, and the roles they play in the universe of the film, make these parallels obvious.
The Young Man begins by watching people who are unaware of his observations, much like characters in a film are unaware that an audience is seeing them go about their lives. He feels his actions are innocent; he’s not hurting these people by watching them, he doesn’t follow them into their homes. But then he meets Cobb, and pretty soon he is in strangers’ homes, also without their knowledge.
As the film unfolds, we learn that Cobb has crafted events to a degree we had not anticipated; the whole affair is really his show. He takes the Young Man on a journey, just as a film director takes us, the audience, on a journey. And, of course, the Young Man is unaware that the story he’s been dropped into is constructed. He is at Cobb’s mercy, just as a film audience is beholden to the cinematic decisions of the director.
Playing the part, as it were, of the actor in a film is the Blonde, who puts on a performance at Cobb’s instruction as part of his elaborate show for the Young Man. Only when the Young Man buys her a drink, thus breaking the fourth wall between audience and performer, do things start to go wrong and people start to die. Everyone was safe as long as they stayed on their own sides of the screen, played their parts. But as soon as the waters start to mix, so to speak, the order of this drama is thrown off and the dream begins to collapse. Almost as soon as the Young Man steps into the story he is at its mercy, murdering for the femme fatale before he knows what he's doing.
Perhaps it is going too far to suggest that Following is an indictment of the film viewer, on the same level as Michael Heneke’s Funny Games, but it certainly comes off as a cautionary tale about the hazards of watching, the hazards of observation. It is safe to say that Following is another solid entry in the sub-genre of observer cinema, alongside other thrillers such as Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation, and Florian Henckel von Donnersmark‘s The Lives of Others. All of these films play with a notion that has become more apt in our increasingly spectator-oriented society, yet less talked about as time goes on. We are now so acclimated to seeing other people on a screen of one kind or another, that when we observe strangers in real life, we still feel that same disconnect; we still feel insulated from what we are watching. As such, we must be careful that we are not so busy watching someone else that we fail to notice when someone is watching us.