Friday, August 09, 2013

Another Helping of Talk


In 1995, my junior year of college, I was reading The New Yorker over lunch one day — undoubtedly an individual-size pizza in a cardboard box washed down with a Snapple, because health and adventurous eating have been my top two priorities from a young age — and for some reason I've never forgotten this particular issue's cover illustration: a simple glass of orange juice. (There was a murder trial of some type going on at the time.) In that issue, Anthony Lane reviewed "Before Sunrise." I already trusted his taste, but this review did a lot to solidify that. One weekend night, being the player that I was at the time, I enlisted my friend Deron to go see it with me. We drove to the only art-house theater in San Antonio, tucked into the corner of a giant mall. My reasons for liking the movie had a lot to do with what Lane gets at in this part of his review:
Think of the erotic clockwork that drives most Hollywood love stories: the initial meeting, maybe a couple more, then into the slushy kiss, the quick cut to discarded stockings lying on a bedroom floor, the camera traveling up to survey either the postcoital hug or the midcoital yelp. Now try the Linklater version: the long talk on a train, more talk in the city, another helping of talk, then a wonderful scene in the cramped listening booth of a record store, where both parties are aching to embrace but can't quite dredge up the courage, contenting themselves with looking terribly serious and swallowing hard, like fliers trying to adjust to high altitude — which, in a sense, is what they are. Still no kiss. 
Perhaps Deron's presence at the movie with me is all the proof you need that I wasn't doing an exorbitant amount of kissing at that time, and perhaps many of the previous entries in the life of this blog is all the proof you need that I'm susceptible to seeing talk and even un-dredged courage as more romantic than I should. I also sensed (OK, still sense) that talking, in addition to its own pleasures, was a parallel way of acting in the world, or even of building a simulacrum of the world, in which you could then live (this tends to work out increasingly less well over time; the world has a way of asserting itself). Lane again:
…what Linklater has managed to do is to pull us back into that wordy, pleasantly confused moment of youth when people have the nerve — the pretension, maybe, but also the wit — to envisage their lives as a kind of literature, to imagine themselves sauntering gaily, or grimly, through one short story after another.
Cut to about three years later (it felt more like 10), and I was on the couch watching "Before Sunrise" again, with a wordy girlfriend who hadn't seen it yet, and with whom I was living out a pretty good short story (a dramatic one, at least). It was my first time re-watching it, and though the pretensions of Jesse (Ethan Hawke) rankled a little more the second go-around, the girlfriend and I watched in silence throughout, both mesmerized, I felt sure, by the heady romance. The credits began to roll, and the girlfriend turned to me: "Now, why did you like that?" 

She was nearly 30 at the time, and I was 24 or 25. But in all the vital respects of human development, I was more like 13. Which is not to minimize my disappointment at her disappointment, but to partially explain it — there's no question I saw "Before Sunrise" at the right time; and though I'd like to think that an older me would have had the same reaction to it, a la Anthony Lane (all of 32 when he reviewed it), we'll never know. 

If nothing can ever recapture the charms of the first movie, this latest installment is probably the best of the three, because Julie Delpy and Hawke have both matured into better actors and have an ease around each other that perfectly mirrors the ease of the characters (the same way that the actors’ coltishness and unfamiliarity with each other in "Before Sunrise" served that movie's needs). "Before Midnight" keeps the trilogy firmly based in talk — four big, defined blocks of it: an opening drive in a car, an outdoor dinner scene with friends, a long walk to a hotel, and then a fight in the hotel room. 

Delpy is fantastic conveying Celine's nagging dissatisfaction, swinging easily between humor, tenderness and outrage, but I found Hawke's portrayal of Jesse even richer and more satisfying in the context of the earlier movies. In "Before Sunrise" and "Before Sunset," Jesse is in demand. His devil-may-care speech gets Celine off the train and into Vienna in the first movie. They may both be nervous, but it's his antics and charm that give them the opportunity to be. In the second movie, he's become a well-regarded novelist, and Celine tracks him down at a reading. He's married; she's doubtful of ever finding someone. In ways subtle and not, Jesse got to drive in the first two movies — and his blustery romantic shtick, even when it wore thin, got him through. The new movie makes fascinating use of that shtick. On the one hand, it's utilized much less frequently. Life's sediment has settled on Jesse, and it's hard to produce mushy verbal rhapsodies when you're busy helping your partner weigh the pros and cons of a job offer, or absorbing that same partner's uncomfortably pointed commentary about you in front of acquaintances. When he does resort to his old bag of tricks — most heartbreakingly and pathetically in the final scene — it's with the air of a creaky athlete trying to make it up and down the field. He gets more points for trying than for performing.

There's plenty to objectively dissect in these movies, but that's only after letting them wash over me. I've been roughly the same age as the characters in all three. I'm hoping they make another one every nine years, partly as a fan of movies and partly as someone who wants to keep these two as traveling partners.

3 Comments:

Anonymous Deron Lee said...

Great post, John. I do recall being your "date" for Before Sunrise. Of course the film was marketed as standard chick-flick fare and I had no interest until I discovered it was Linklater--probably by reading that same Anthony Lane piece. It turned out to be such an enthralling film that any youthful insecurities about going with a male friend to a "date movie" dissolved quickly.

I didn't see it again until just two months ago, when I introduced my wife to the series in anticipation of Before Midnight. I was pleased to find that it held up to memory after 18 years (yeesh!), although you're right that Hawke's character grates a bit the second time around.

Before Midnight might have been the best of the three, although I could make a case for the second one too. Either way, BEST TRILOGY EVER!

1:52 PM  
Blogger Dezmond said...

Even better than the "Mad Max" trilogy?

8:39 AM  
OpenID Mike Lindgren said...

Nice post, very insightful and thoughtful. I haven't seen any of the movies yet; I'm saving them up for a marathon session. In the meantime: let's go Detroit Tigers!

4:58 PM  

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