Friday, December 13, 2013

Hawke-Delpy-Linklater's BEFORE Trilogy


Ethan Hawke on the Before movies: "
The first film is about what could be, the second is about what should have been. Before Midnight is about what it is."
 Last night I watched once again (with my wife cause that's how I roll) all three of the 'Before' movies (Sunrise, Sunset, Midnight) back to back. I was struck by how little things would come back here and there, like a mention of the little red hairs in Jesse's chin beard (a part of the attraction in Sunrise, a thing that Celine sees coming through in their daughter's hair now), the changing attitude to reincarnation (Believes in it in Sunrise, doesn't in Midnight), or just the simple "did we have sex" thing from 1 to 2. But those are just the little things. What makes this such a towering achievement in the past twenty years, and I use the word 'towering' as, for me, it kinda looms over all other intimate talky movies about a couple (and I'm sure there are others out there... I just can't think of one right now) SINCE Scenes from a Marriage.
That film, and of course trying to say that something trumps Bergman is like saying something trumps Mozart, you can't go over genius in that way (or even, as another connection, My Dinner with Andre which is just about two souls and the natural play with words). But, Linklater, while being a contemporary of Bergman, and Altman and Bunuel and Scorsese and Powell/Pressburger, he is his own artist and these films and some others prove that. He has cut a specific place for himself along with Hawke and Delpy that these films can communicate a lot of the "Big" ideas that just flow out in natural conversation.

In Sunrise - and this isn't a criticism as much as an observation - some of the points that Jesse and Celine talk about are not super 'deep' all the time, but they are poignant enough throughout and are always interesting, even (or because) they're 23 years old and we either saw these films when we were that age or, especially, Linklater strikes a chord with that time. Love, death, experience, politics (but not super deep, we know they're liberals and that's enough, especially Celine of course, daughter of Paris 68 parents), aging, intimacy - which I take different than love in a way, masculinity, femininity, so many ideas crammed into 291 minutes of narrative combined (don't know what that is minus credits, whatever). 
 In Sunset, which for me has probably the most 'best'dialog of the three films (which is a weird thing to say since Midnight is still my favorite, or the "best" or deepest or whatever), we're seeing the conflict always there, whether it's mentioned or not (it usually is) about the fact that these two souls have been away for so long, have changed as now Jesse has a wife and kid and Celine has a boyfriend but both have been transmogrified by that one night in Vienna, but they often bring up other things or still branch out into the conversation - these people have grown, but they're still sort of the same as they were. If there is a crutch against it, nothing major but you do notice it, you really MUST see the first film before the second one. Sunrise-sunset, cue the Fiddler on the Roof song.

Midnight is a different story. This, I think, *can* be enhanced by seeing the other two films, and when I first saw it back in the summer I had the memory of the two films but it had been a while, so it kind of worked like being revisited to two old smart, hyper-aware and, this is the key I'll expound upon in a moment, *funny* individuals. But it doesn't *have* to be seen with the other two films, and it actually works just great as a stand-alone movie about this married couple who the wife is a sometimes-political adviser of some sort or mostly a crusader for environmental issues (God bless her), and the husband is an author writing now about 'out-there' concepts (and keep in mind this is director of fucking Slacker and Waking Life so things can get weird in his films - which, for me, is catnip), like, say, a series of interconnected-but-not narratives like people all seeing On the Waterfront at different times in history but converging or other... but there was a time, in the books "This" and "That" (as they're titled) that are about the experiences in the first and second films, how this guy saw this woman, an experience that brought them back together in the second film and set this narrative up now. 
Yet what is Midnight "about" as they say in screenwriter-lingo: it's a "Can this marriage be saved" episode of Lady's Home Journal - don't ask how I know this title, okay, it was my wife she's talked about reading that section of the magazine years back- meets a Bergman-cum-Rohmer-cum-something-else sort of story of a couple, also surrounded by some others at a key point, realizing and knowing that things aren't the same as they were 18 years ago on a train in Vienna. "Would you still pick me up, the way I look now," Celine asks. Jesse's initial reply is more logical than what Celine wants to hear, which is straight romance. He counteracts her slight disappointment with a sex-like-billy-goat reference. "Billy goat?!" she exclaims.

But where am I getting at with this... yes, why this is the best, or my favorite or whatnot. Two major things, aside from the basic joy of watching these actors, who have matured and gotten, actually, more attractive and the chemistry on this other recognizable level (these could be my parents, or yours, or yours, or theirs, or.. us maybe, even now as we're younger): the dinner table scene with the other couples, and the 30 minute bedroom argument.

The dinner scene, where people ranging in age from 20 to 80 (give or take a few years) talk in direct, honest and often very amusing turns about relationships, intimacy, seeing how the other person sees you, and memory. It's what we'd (or maybe I'd) like to have at a good dinner conversation with some friends who are literate but feeling. There's even some hints at intimacy problems with Jesse and Celine during this conversation, or about the whole situation with Jesse's son which is another kettle of fish (and the bedroom fight starter), but it only comes up once or twice, yet hard to miss if you know these two. 
But watch that old woman, I forget her name, talking about her dead husband and how her memories of her are fading, yet somehow, sometimes, coming back to her "like a cloud". Another actress could have made this a little corny, the dialog could have wavered there, but Linklater gets the sadness but acceptance of how things have become from this woman, and its moving because of how she cares, or cared, and how, yes, life is fleeing and all we have is each other (though as the old man at the table mentions, and it smacks me upside the head with the truth, a good relationship works if the person takes care of themselves, makes sure the other is taking care of his/herself, and find space to meet in the middle).

But that hotel room scene... oh boy. Here's what is most striking to me - and this is from someone who, frankly, hasn't had a lot of major arguments in his relationships, but knows people who have had them and can see the patterns - Jesse AND Celine both find moments in the argument.. where things calm down, and you think that maybe the argument is over, they suddenly get down to the cold hard facts of things, like how Jesse feels about his son, or how Celine sees it with him and his ex-wife (the abstract "cold bitch" we will likely never see in these movies, even if they continue them I think, as we never say "Paula" from Bergman's 'Scenes').. and then one of them says something that sparks up the argument again.

This whole set piece, which is like a one-act "apartment play", is a marvel of comedy and tragedy, that they can waver between being quite funny in their barbed attacks at one another - my favorite is "You're the fucking mayor of crazy town", says Jesse, but Celine has some strong digs too in her "crazy" bits - and yet this conflict of this kinda-sorta problem of being close to the son is not so much the issue but the wedge in their own underlying problems. And on first watch, and I don't know if this was me reacting as some stupid pig man asshole, I thought Celine was more the one escalating it and Jesse trying to diffuse it with his common sense and humor. Seeing it again twice now, it's really a mutual thing, though Jesse clearly says more that he loves her than that she says she loves him (and it ends on that sour note of "I don't love you anymore". Ugh). As in other couples, they just *know* how to push their buttons, say the one thing that will get the fight going again intro Round 10, and we're just spectators of these two people who now, it can be no mistake, *are* a couple, not just some speculative people finding young and slightly older intimacy as in the other two stories. They are who they are, and they know it. "I accept the whole package," says Jesse, "the brilliant and the crazy." That is love. 
Also is the key line for me, possibly, fuck I'll say it, *ever* about romantic relationships as Jesse in the end tries his hardest to save their relationship by, maybe ironic for Linklater as a choice of location, at a table right by a lake as the light of the moon hits them - "I am TRYING to make you laugh." That's what comes down to a relationship with someone you love. You gotta make that person laugh, and they you. You're friends with someone, basically, on that level of amusement, being amused, finding new things to amuse. 
His tactic of being a "time traveler" when she is really, *really* not in the mood for games, is a risk, but it shows true love and she knows it too. There is a silence shared when he is about to give up, before she says something ("So what else about this time traveler," she finally asks) that is just as deep as, say, Solomon Northrup looking staring off into space and us in the audience at a key moment in 12 Years a Slave. A moment of silent doubt in cinema is an extremely powerful thing, because we can feel that doubt with them, or about something else entirely, or still seeing what they will do next. The actors' eyes and expression, or lack thereof as a resigned face, also helps too (Linklater was also a fan of Bresson so I have to wonder if that plays into it at all - I know this is a small point, but it comes right as the climax of the film so it's important to me).

It helps if you love these characters, what they have to say, how stupid and foolish they are *as much* as the profundities they roll out without it sound high-falutent or pretentious, without any narrator, just these two souls. Or even just the actors playing these parts, as Hawke, who looks more like he did in Sunrise in Midnight than he did in Sunset (skinnier in that film, like he just wandered off the set of Training Day) and Delpy (boy on a superficial level those breasts sure did fill out in the fifteen years between An American Werewolf in Paris and in Midnight, but I digress), are amazing together, and are amazed by each other in small ways that help underly how comfortable and charismatic they are just naturally. And since these are closer to plays on film than anything else, though still with moments of cinematic flair and attention to style like how Jesse looks around a room after the argument has ended (and the, yes, John Carpenter's Halloween-esque look back at the locales visited at the end of Sunrise), these actors better be on their fuckin marks. And they are! Always. For ten minutes or more at a stretch. You forget the camera is there. 
Hell, you can forget the *drama* is even there at certain points, although the writers and director are careful to bring things back to the characters' emotional states, past and present and possibly future. Hawke noted in an interview that Linklater once explained to him that in order for the film to appeal to a basic audience, whoever might find the film interesting, it should be taken to this other place past only just drama, into another realm of experience. This isn't a mumblecore movie but it's not Woody Allen either (I can't help but see some of the walk-and-talks Allen and Keaton had in Manhattan though at times in some of these films). It's a singular animal in contemporary American cinema with a strong dash of European flavor and I want to revisit these, together or separate, over the rest of my life. As I age, I hope Jesse and Celine age gracefully with me together.

Yeah, I went long. Maybe I will make this a blog post... haven't done that in a while....

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