Christopher Nolan is among the world's most famous film directors, and for good measure. His work boasts a genre-bending complexity both in form and content as he picks up the most enigmatic subjects and weaves tangled storylines around them. His tendency to play with time adds a distinct appeal to most of his films, be it the backwards running plot of thriller Memento (2000), the subjective passing of time in his WW2 drama Dunkirk (2017), or the quite literal subversion of the forward passage of time in his latest spy thriller Tenet (2020).
Nolan's films have earned him a vast following of dedicated cinephiles who anticipate his every move and meticulously study his past work. Interestingly, a big portion of his fans obsess over his early days as a filmmaker, when he struggled through the slog of day jobs to find a platform for his unique voice. Nolan made three short films and a no-budget indie feature before hacking it in the film industry. These films, lost or not, have now gained an almost mythical quality for moviegoers, especially among those who hope to work in the industry one day. Out of these four fascinating projects, two – Following (1998) and Doodlebug (1997) – have been accessible for the public for several years now. Of course, Nolan completionists cannot bear the gaps in his filmography, and have been in pursuit of the remaining two famously lost titles Larceny (1996) and Tarantella (1990) since forever. One of these has finally been discovered through the unrelenting efforts of one super-fan, opening up a new window into the celebrated filmmaker's early days. This is a valuable addition to his previously available indie ventures, each of which has a lot to say about the gradual maturing of his visual style and thematic interests which we can see reflected in his current nonconformist blockbusters.
Stories surrounding Nolan's endeavours during the making of his first feature Following already enchant aspiring filmmakers from around the world. It is well known that the production of this ambitious neo-noir took place over a year, since the crew members worked full-time jobs and could only spare weekends to shoot. Nolan and his actors would extensively rehearse each scene before shooting in order to conserve the expensive film stock. Most of the film is shot on handheld camera, with virtually no artificial lights and subpar sound recording equipment, culminating in an extremely dingy and naturalistically grim aesthetic for the film. Ingeniously, Nolan uses this lowly atmosphere to great effect by choosing apt subjects for this gloomy backdrop: a shady thief and his voyeuristic apprentice living on the fringes of society. Following explores the nature of crime and obsession. Nolan goes on to portray obsessive characters delving into a world of crime in several of his later films: from a violent widower with short-term memory loss and a mission to kill tattooed on his body in Memento, to the compulsive rivals of Insomnia and The Prestige. Nolan also relies extensively on cleverly placed flashbacks here to reveal (and withhold) crucial information, a technique which will feature heavily in Inception and The Prestige to great effect. The film also has characteristic plot twists and a non-linear narrative, an infantile reflection of his now notoriously convoluted plots and narrative structures.
If we go further back, Nolan envisioned a Kafka-esque short film at University College London which he shot in 1997 with a negligible budget. Doodlebug follows a filthy man in an even filthier apartment who is consumed by his search for an elusive insect, which ultimately turns out to be a smaller version of himself. No sooner has he squashed the creature with his shoe, a much larger shoe comes down to squash him too. The downright poetic psychological thriller, shot in atmospheric black & white, is surprisingly distant from the plot-heavy narratives one is used to seeing in Nolan's films, despite having a characteristic twist at the end. Here, mood and metaphor are paramount. Once again, a sullen idea which fits the tenebrous look is used to compensate for the lack of resources. More importantly, Nolan has stripped away the decorations and depicted the story of a man living in darkness and driven by a psychologically self-contained obsession in its most bare form. In his own words, the film deals with paradoxes, and the concept of 'worlds within a world.' Nolan will revisit paradoxes as well as layered realms of a world in Inception, and the concept of multiple dimensions existing simultaneously will feature at key moments in Interstellar. However, the abstract narrative and strong style will be abandoned in favour of more grounded, formalist sensibilities in his later projects.
Earlier this year, internet user Henry Adams finally tracked down Tarantella, a coveted short film which Nolan made alongside fellow filmmaker Roko Belic in 1990, when he was about 19 years old. This project marks Nolan's debut as a filmmaker. On the 9th of December, 1990, this film was featured in an episode of Image Union, an independent filmmaking showcase television show that aired on Chicago's PBS station WTTW. The creator of this show, Tom Weinberg, eventually went on to run a website called Media Burn Archive. Adams' 4 month long journey to rediscover Tarantella entailed initiating contact with Mr. Weinberg, who connected him to Jamie Caeser, a producer of Image Union around the time Nolan's film was presented on the show. Eventually, Adams was able to contact the librarian for the television channel WTTW's video archives. From 'the deep tunnels where old videos live', a physical copy of Tarantella was secured in July 2021.
So what's it about?
So far, Nolan's films have become exceedingly dark in tone and unorthodox in style as we trace back his humble beginnings, very distant from the extravagant set-pieces he is used to working with now. As expected, Tarantella follows suit. However, what is surprising is just how incredibly different the film is from what his work has come to be. Perhaps best described as a Lynchian horror mood-piece, the film depicts a young man (Belic) in a dingy house yet again, except this time he is in a state of troubled slumber, haunted by nightmarish images of a tarantula and what seems to be a demon played by a young Nolan himself. The genesis of Nolan's obsession with breaking the bounds of metaphysical reality is clear when the film depicts its protagonist seemingly waking up in shock, but still remaining trapped in his mysterious nightmare. Nolan's first appearance is marked by a time-reversed shot of a falling glass which shoots up from the floor into his hand, a moment which practically screams Tenet! The darkness of this harrowing dream world is overbearing, and a distraught Belic runs around trying to make sense of things as a loud repetitive noise reminiscent of his blockbusters' pounding sound design rings in our ears. The film ends on a narratively inconclusive note, with no explanation given for the horrors. We are left with a final look at a comatose Belic, who no longer twitches and turns, before launching into a shocking montage of phantasmagorical terrors.
Despite its fleeting runtime of 4 minutes and 46 seconds, the short manages to profoundly unsettle the viewer with extreme close-ups of slimy eyes and mouths as well as hairy tarantulas with venomous pincers. The editing is jarring, often throwing these obscene images at the viewer with no warning. Belic and Nolan have constructed a high-contrast monstrous world with a dexterity which truly seems far beyond their years. As for the interpretations of the story or the meaning behind the tarantula motif, any theory on the table is valid.
Nolan's cleverness is observed in his ability to marry the structural aspects of his filmmaking with the themes of his stories through experimental means or motifs, a process which we can now confidently say he has been refining since the beginning of his career. Even though he has dissociated with the dreamlike visual style, he continues to make films exploring the same themes of obsession, distorted memories, the passage of time, and metafictional realities in greater depth.
Since the discovery, Nolan's production company Syncopy has started copyright striking uploaded versions of Tarantella, which is now quickly disappearing from web-pages. There is hope for an official release as bonus content with another film, just as Doodlebug was introduced to the public by the Criterion Channel. With the uncovering of Tarantella, only one piece of the puzzle remains unfound in Larceny, his sophomore effort which was last seen at Cambridge Film Festival in 1996. The good news is that Adams and other Nolan aficionados, no lesser than his characters, are closing in on the target with each passing day.