Doodlebug, Following, and Nolan's Irreality
Doodlebug is a 3-minute short film written and directed by Christopher Nolan in 1997, the year before his debut feature, Following, was released. He produced it with his wife, Emma Thomas, who he married that year, and who would go on to produce his later films. His brother, Jonathan, served as grip. The film is an eerie, black-and-white depiction of a lone man’s attempts to squash a bug in his apartment, only to discover that the bug is a smaller version of himself, mimicking his actions. In the final seconds, the camera faces up at the man. We witness what he cannot: a larger version looming above him, dooming him to the same fate which he brings down on himself.
Hindsight is 20/20 for film critics, and it’s tempting to divine prophetic takeaways from successful filmmakers’ early work. Doodlebug has been listed as one of the best short films by a future big-shot director, compared favorably and generously to George Lucas’s THX 1138. Nolan has been called “one of the most intriguing and intelligent filmmakers working since the first frame of Doodlebug,” yet nobody was calling him one of the most intriguing young filmmakers in the wake of Doodlebug alone. Esquire noted it is “filled with Nolan's flair, from his gravitation toward black and white to his abstract imagery,” which is probably the closest to an honest, accurate evaluation of the director’s early work.
Rather than foreshadowing his grandest work, Doodlebug seems to presage one of Nolan’s simplest but most consistent preoccupations: our realities are rarely as they appear. It’s a maxim that has applied as much to the audiences watching Nolan’s movies as it has to the characters living in them. Do not, under any circumstances, believe what you see.
Beginning with his first feature, Following, Nolan has relied extensively on non-linear narrative throughout his career. Think you understand what’s going on in a Nolan film? Think again. And though Doodlebug isn’t long enough to carry the weight of such a non-traditional plot structure, the short film does accomplish a task similar to the one that such narratives do in The Prestige, Batman Begins, and Memento. Marlo Stanfield of The Wire famously put it best: “You want it to be one way...but it’s the other way.”
Or the Nolan version: “you want him to be one thing...but he’s the other thing.”
In Doodlebug, a simple reveal turns predator into prey, undermining the audience’s reality as the main (and only) character remains unaware of his eventual doom. In Following, featuring Doodlebug’s Jeremy Theobald in the lead, Nolan cross-cuts between multiple timelines to slowly reveal the trap that Theobald’s character, The Young Man, has walked into. Nolan uses editing tricks and simple relationship dynamics to establish both audience and character expectations, and in both films, punishes anyone too quick to believe what they see.
Nolan’s budgets quickly ballooned, and he was able to expand his arsenal while maintaining his use of shifting timelines as a method of disorientation. In Batman Begins and Memento, Nolan takes his inspiration from film noir — rather than using multiple timelines to better understand characters, he uses them to keep characters in the dark, and to throw audiences off-kilter. Speaking about Following two years after the release of Memento, Nolan discussed this technique, noting that the audience is “continually being asked to rethink our assessment of the relationship between the various characters, and I decided to structure my story in such a way as to emphasize the audience's incomplete understanding of each new scene…” Nolan’s reliance on black-and-white in his first three films, though certainly at least partly due to budget constraints, also reflects his obsession with film noir.
All of these early films — from the tiny Doodlebug to the big-budget superhero movie Batman Begins — rest on Nolan’s ability to pull off a logic-defying third act, pulling the rug out from underneath either his protagonist or his audience (preferably both). In other words, Doodlebug foretells Nolan’s commitment to the prestige. As John Cutter (Michael Caine) describes in The Prestige:
“Every great magic trick consists of three parts or acts. The first part is called "The Pledge". The magician shows you something ordinary: a deck of cards, a bird or a man. He shows you this object. Perhaps he asks you to inspect it to see if it is indeed real, unaltered, normal. But of course... it probably isn't. The second act is called "The Turn". The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. Now you're looking for the secret... but you won't find it, because of course you're not really looking. You don't really want to know. You want to be fooled. But you wouldn't clap yet. Because making something disappear isn't enough; you have to bring it back. That's why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part, the part we call "The Prestige"."
This, of course, is a description not just of magic tricks, but of Nolan’s filmmaking process. But there’s a reason the film is not called The Pledge or The Turn: for Nolan, all of it is a failure if he doesn’t leave you slack-jawed with the final reveal. In The Prestige, Nolan again uses multiple timelines, this time mastering the cliche of opening at the close, starting the film with a scene from the end, only to rewind and show us how his characters got to that point. He uses the technique better than most — I’d rank it slightly above Michael Clayton but below Carol — filling in the details, distracting and dissembling, and finally dragging us back to the finish line from a completely new angle. This is a culmination of that simple message he conveyed nearly a decade earlier in Doodlebug: please, no matter what happens, do not believe your eyes.
For audiences, this is a playful heads-up. Like a sign placed directly outside a magician’s show, it reminds us never to get too comfortable, simultaneously raising our expectations and increasing the challenge for Nolan. A magic trick is even more impressive when you know something is coming, but still can’t figure out how it’s done. For characters, though, it’s a dire warning. If the first rule in horror movies is never to have sex, then Nolan’s equivalent is this: never become complacent. Never think you have control over your own world.
And while Nolan would never abandon his interest in the mutability of time, he has sought out new ways to upset reality’s equilibrium. In The Dark Knight, he uses a Hitchcock-ian midpoint death to wrench his audience from their simple superhero movie assumptions. For Batman (Christian Bale), though, it’s more than a clever twist; Nolan seeks to destabilize his entire moral code. “You have all these rules, and you think they’ll save you,” the Joker (Heath Ledger) taunts Batman, setting up his diabolical choice. And when several police officers move to interrupt the interrogation, Chief Gordon (Gary Oldman) stops them: “He’s in control.” But Nolan has his own rules: none of his characters are permitted actual control over their realities.
In Inception, Nolan adopts the idea of fleeting reality as a central plot point, rather than just a plot device. Dom (Leonardo DiCaprio) explains that “only I know the balance and the weight of this particular loaded die. That way, when you look at your totem, you know beyond a doubt that you're not in someone else's dream.” It’s Ariadne’s (Ellen Page) response that gives Nolan’s game away: “an elegant solution for keeping track of reality.” If the totem truly represents Dom’s effort to fully understand the nature of his reality, it will surely represent his undoing — and, in the end, it famously symbolizes the audience’s undoing, our very persistent need for finality, for answers.
Doodlebug is an intriguing short about one man’s irreality. It’s rough around the edges — the work of a filmmaker feeling his way through a process he doesn’t fully grasp, but leading with his brain, with his ideas. More than anything, as we await Christopher Nolan’s eleventh feature, Tenet, it’s an important reminder. You’ve seen the trailers. You’ve watched the interviews. But please, whatever you do, do not believe your eyes. Because if Nolan has taught audiences anything, it’s that your last mistake will be thinking you understand what’s coming.