It's fascinating listening to Christopher Nolan talk about his first feature, 1999's Following, recently released on Blu-ray and DVD by the valuable folks at Criterion. It's fascinating not only because one realizes just how quickly Nolan went from being a self-taught weekend moviemaker equipped with a 16mm camera and some willing friends to one of the world's most successful filmmakers (Inception, The Dark Knight Rises), but also because he still practises much of the stuff he learned while working on the cheap.
He believes, for instance, that one should always shoot with a single camera if possible (it makes for more careful blocking), and that you should never alter a physical space – even if it's a set – to accommodate the camera. The space must be as real and organic as possible for the actors, because that's how make-believe acquires the ring of truth.
And working in black and white – which budgetary restrictions compelled him to do when making Following – cannot be beat when it comes to certain kinds of stories. (Just ask Woody Allen, Steven Spielberg, Michael Haneke, Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese – all of whom have gone monochromatic at least once.)
Take film noir, for instance, the genre that has provided Nolan's most fertile inspiration throughout his career. If Following works, which it does rather smashingly well, it does so because the story – of an underemployed writer who randomly follows strangers for literary inspiration, but who winds up being the victim of his own obsessions – is so ideally suited to the meagre circumstances of production: beaucoup shadows, cramped spaces, tight compositions and unnerving close-ups.
No wonder Nolan has been Batman's most effective big-screen interpreter: He gets the darkness and knows how to use it.
I'm betting Nolan has more than a passing acquaintance with Raw Deal, a mini-budget, poverty-row noir gem from 1948 being screened by the Toronto Film Noir Syndicate at 8 p.m. Friday at the Dominion at 500 Queen St. E.
Directed with brute efficiency by the brilliant Anthony Mann (later one of the greatest directors of 1950s westerns), Raw Deal stars the burly Dennis O'Keefe as a freshly escaped con who took the rap for an awesomely creepy Raymond Burr and who expects compensation for the hard time done. Not a chance of course, but that's the noir way: There's never any real escape, and fate always closes in as dark and heavy as the shadows cast by cop car headlights.
Shot by the masterful John Alton, Raw Deal is pure minimalist perfection: Every angle, composition and cut is calculated in the service of a grim story, and the sparseness of the production is perfectly harmonized with the bleakness of O'Keefe's situation. That's why I think Nolan must have seen it more than once: As a lesson in milking maximum impact from meagre means, Raw Deal is a master class.
When Greg Hanec decided to make one of the first feature films shot in Manitoba, he also turned to black and white, and the result was Downtime, a true testament to what can be done with 16,000 Canadian dollars, some helpful friends and a concept that begs for the barest minimalism. Contemporaneous to Jim Jarmusch's Stranger than Paradise and predating Kevin Smith's Clerks – both of which Hanec's 1985 movie intermittently resembles – Downtime is a deadpan, four-character account of twentysomething aimlessness that unfolds largely in long single shots in which the mere cleaning of a floor or emptying of a closet takes on the impact of high drama.
Echoing also the existential drifters of contemporary Atom Egoyan, Hanec's characters are terminally numb and chronically disconnected, and his Winnipeg is every bit as somnambulant and quietly sinister as Guy Maddin's. Forgotten for years after a brief release and successful showing at the Berlin Film Festival, Hanec's home-crafted exercise in prairie malaise is now available on DVD and is showing next Thursday at 9 p.m. at Videofag (187 Augusta Ave.). In glorious black and white, naturally.