Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Finding Meaning in Discussion: On Linklater and the Before Duology

Yesterday I was talking about Before Sunset, and I feel the need to talk about it again, because it's both an amazing movie and a movie that means a lot to me personally. In 1995, a movie called Before Sunrise was released. It was about Jesse and Celine, two strangers who meet on a train, and spend a night wandering about Europe, talking about philosophy, society and many big issues. Nine years later, they meet again, and Before Sunset chronicles the eighty minute discussion they have after meeting each other.

The reason I saw Before Sunrise was because it was directed by Richard Linklater, who made School of Rock, but more importantly, he also made Waking Life, which is another of my favorite movies. Waking Life actually features an appearance from Jesse and Celine and their dialogue in the movie, about her idea that she is an old woman looking back on her life, is lifted from Before Sunrise. Waking Life had a nominal main character, but it was really, much like Linklater's debut film Slacker, a collection of short thoughts from a large variety of people. We don't stay on anyone too long, and each of them gets just enough time to give us a little speech on what they're interested in.

While it's tough to say which is the better film, because Waking Life has so much I love in it, the Before movies do something that no other Linklater movies does, and that's spend a lot of time developing the characters. I don't think either of the Before movies have the sheer variety of interesting concepts presented in Waking Life, but when the characters talk about something, it's a lot more interesting, because you know who these people are, and the experiences that they bring to the discussion.

The two most influential pieces of fiction I've ingested in the past couple of years, probably even since Star Wars, have been The Invisibles and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. What Before Sunset does is combine the intellectual questioning and exploration of ideas and thoughts of The Invisibles with the emotional drama of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In doing so, Before Sunset represents where I'd like to be, and in a lot of ways where I am now.

Waking Life, for all its passion, is ultimately a movie of the brain. You watch it and your mind is challenged, but emotionally, it doesn't really hit you. Before Sunset is emotionally overwhelming. One of my favorite moments in the movie is when Jesse is talking in the car, and we see Celine reach out to touch him, only to pull her hand back. We can see her longing, but she just can't quite make the connection.

The movie's primary emotional temperature is frustration. Both characters are frustrated with the fact that they want something more from life, they want to live out what their night in Vienna, in Sunrise, promised them, and no matter what they do, there'll always be the specter of that hanging over their heads, their younger, more romantic selves, the people they can never be again. Rewatching Sunrise after seeing Sunset, one exchange really stands out, and that's what Jesse says to get Celine off the train and into the city with him. He says "Alright, alright. Think of it like this. Um, uh, jump ahead, ten, twenty years, okay, and you're married. Only your marriage doesn't have that same energy that it used to have, you know. You start to blame your husband. You start to think about all those guys you've met in your life, and what might have happened if you'd picked up with one of them, right? Well, I'm one of those guys. That's me, you know. So think of this as time travel, from then, to now, uh, to find out what you're missing out on. See, what this really could be is a gigantic favor to both you and your future husband, to find out that you're not missing out on anything. I'm just as big a loser as he is, totally unmotivated, totally boring, and, uh, you made the right choice, and you're really happy"

So, in Sunset, it is the fact that they did go to Vienna that leaves them thinking. Jesse is married, and it's not going well, and a large part of that is probably due to the fact that he can not fully commit himself to his wife as long as the idea of Celine remains in his memory. The years of separation only build up this legend of her in his mind, and the night becomes legendary. It's like she was his true love, and to accept his marriage would be settling for something less than what he really wants.

The end of Sunset has a great emotional payoff, and I feel like the last half of the movie really appeals to my Buffy sense, the interest in seeing characters explore angst. Buffy's was always a bit more epic than the stuff that Jesse and Celine go through, but it's the same basic principles. These characters have issues that develop for a while under the surface and then finally break out and have to be explored. If I had to compare Before Sunset to one Buffy episode, it would be Entropy, where not too much happens, but the characters have fallings out and comings together just based on what has happened in previous episodes, and the revelation of things that they'd been feeling.

But, the thing that makes the Before movies unique from a more traditional romance movie is the high level of intellectual discussion that they engage in. Jesse and Celine, more notably in the first movie, engage in a lot of really interesting discussions on big issues. They talk about their place within the universe, within society and in relation to other people. I found the scenes in Sunset that focused on Jesse's feeling of inadaquecy because he's not out there changing the world very interesting. Jesse is the sort of person who clearly has all these grand notions, but finds it tough to put them into practice when he's stuck in the lifestyle neccesitated by his marriage. His interest in Buddhist concepts reminds me of discussions I've had with Jordan, and his feeling of wanting to do something huge and earth changing, but instead getting caught up in the frequently mundane nature of day to day life reminds me of myself sometimes. I love the contrast between Jesse of 1995, who holds all these romantic ideals, but keeps pushing them off, and the Jesse of 2004, who feels like time has past him by, and it's too late to change things. This contrast is made even more interesting at the end of Sunset, which is much more pure and romantic than the ending of Sunrise, despite the veneer of cynicism over the movie.

Richard Linklater is the most talky director of anyone working in film today, but his movies aren't talky in the same way that Kevin Smith's or Quentin Tarantino's are. His talk isn't about being cool, or dropping pop culture references it's truly about communication, the communication of ideas. Starting with Slacker, which is basically the camera following a bunch of people around, and listening to them tell someone what's important to them. In the very first scene of his filmmaking career, Linklater himself appears, talking about parallel universes, and the vast changes that little differences in someone's action could have on the universe. I've had the idea that a world exists for every single possible action we could take at any possible time, in which case there would be an infinite number of worlds, and it was really cool to hear a similar idea on screen with Linklater.

Waking Life makes explicit the thesis of all Linklater's work, which is that the most meaningful connection that people can make is in a discussion with someone else, when you reveal your ideas and inner self. The blond woman talks about it, how language can represent ideas and concepts that would have been impossible for primitive people to convey, and that it is in discussing indefinable concepts, like love, that we find meaning. In my own life, I've found this to be true. A lot of my best memories are just of talking, about the universe, anything, talking which wasn't about passing the time, but about really conveying some deeply held beliefs, and debating them with others.

That's one of the things that made The Invisibles so special to me. Not only did it create a bunch of new ideas in my head, but it also allowed me to discuss these new concepts with other people who had read the book. The Invisibles served as a base from which we could go off to discuss many other things.

When I first saw Waking Life, I loved it, but I saw it as a collection disparate scenes. On a second viewing, and after many great discussions, I realized that the film was about the act of communication through discussion, and thus, every single scene was in fact contributing to the central theme. Before Sunrise/Sunset takes this theme and plays it out on a more personal level. It's crucial to Linklater's world that Jesse and Celine's relationship is not based on the physical, that's not what made it special, it's the emotional connection that they cultivated through their discussion. They presented a deep part of themselves to each other, connecting in a way that just doesn't happen that much. Jesse says it in the coffee shop scene in Sunset, that you think you'll meet a lot of people you connect with it, but you only meet a couple, and that's why he regrets letting Celine go. Sunset is only talk, the setting doesn't matter, they barely even touch each other, it's all about meeting on a mental level, with real dialogue, rather than just waiting for your turn to speak. That's what this film is about and it's what all of Linklater's best films are about, the meeting of minds to convey ideas.

5 comments:

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Loz in Translation said...

Its funny how if we really think about it we connect with far less people than we imagine.

But what is most scary is that a self awareness of this could lead to us not properly appreciating the connections when they do come about. I've had moments where I've had meaningful conversations with former strangers and thought "this would be cooler if this person was the girl of my dreams instead of just some cool dude".

Art has a tendency of distorting our expectations of reality

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