The other night the Cinemateque was showing all three of Richard Linklater’s Before films - Before Sunrise (1995), Before Sunset (2004) and Before Midnight (2013). I probably would have dismissed the first one entirely out of hand when it was released and never thought again about it, if not for the fact that my brother once asked if I had seen it and how much he had enjoyed it.
Indeed, if I had seen Before Sunrise at the time, I do not believe I would have enjoyed it then. I have neven been any kind of fan of Ethan Hawke, I was amused by Hamlet (2000) and I entirely despised Reality Bites (1994). The guy is my age and supposed represents everything that is Generation X but he always has always struck me as a much softer Matt Dillon, and that’s it.
Again, imagining watching the movie on first release, as a twenty-seven year-old, when he lays down the “jump ahead ten, twenty years, and you’re married” gambit to lure Celine (Julie Delpy) off the train to walk the streets of Vienna for one night, I would have bristled at its far-too cleverness. Don’t you wish you had the stones to say things like that to pretty girls? Of course, I know plenty of guys who do deliver monologues like that to pretty girls to try to get what they want.
You guys should know these pretty girls always tell me about your hilarious attempts over coffee, and the sprawling, defensive emails that come the morning after, and we laugh. It’s fun.
Actually, I am one of those guys, or I used to be, who say those things. Sometimes they worked, especially one night in July, 1994, a night without which I would not have ended up sitting next to my wife at the Cinemateque last Sunday night.
We had originally planned to see all three, but her work and my need to continue certain important house projects convinced us that we would see the first, on a big screen, and if we liked it, check out the other two at some future date.
Immediately following Sunrise I turned to my wife and said, we have to stay and watch the second one, right?
What seemed bizarre, and would have seemed almost certainly contrived about the “jump ahead ten, twenty years” speech is that we know now that there are now three films (to date) which chronicle a single relationship between two people which spans (to date) almost twenty years. They could not have known, making this inexpensive, independent romantic slacker flm that any or all of them would be available or interested in producing sequels (name another earnest, romantic, low-budget movie with a sequel) let alone whether there would even be an audience for one.
Nineteen years ago I couldn’t have imagined sitting where I was, either.
They said each film is really great, I ran into friends between the first and second movies who assured me the third one is actually the best of the three, which is incomprehnsible. My expectations for the second were high, if only because the first was a well-made film, one which -- surprisingly -- moved me. I was actually giddy with anticipation, but how could the second one be different?
The fact that it wasn’t planned in advance, that the director and actors came together to write another movie about the same characters at a different stage in their lives, made it about what is rather than what was. The fluid meandering of one long night, two twenty-somethings getting to know each other, and just go with whatever happened to them (palm readings, poetry for spare change) was suddenly the frantic, desperate chattering of two people in their thirties trying to recapture something they had, uncertain as to whether they could.
It wasn’t until Monday that it struck me that the entirety of Sunset is in real time. From the bookstore to a cafe to a boat to a car to home, without a break. An inexorable, 80-minute progression to where they wanted to be but could never have gotten to nine years earlier.
One of the traps the second film avoids entirely is any drama about Jesse (Hawke’s character) being married with children. I was wondering when he would bring it up, his wedding ring is conspicuous, but she already knows, she’s read about him, he’s a published author, that’s how she found him. It’s a fact, they’ve been apart nine years, what was supposed to happen?
But that walk up the staircase, and then settling into her apartment. Making tea, listening to music, slowing down, he knew he wasn't leaving. I was reminded of when my first marriage was falling apart, I was already seeing the woman I am now married to. We had fooled around, it was frantic, my wife knew about that, she hadn’t said no.
Then we began arranging visits. Because I wanted to know what it was like to be normal with this new person. I told me wife I was planning to get back to New York, to spend time there doing things with our mutual friend.
“You want to try it out,” she said. She knew. She was absolutely right.
We left after Sunset, we had to. A babysitter was watching our kids, my wife had papers to grade, I had grocery shopping to do. It felt like a such a betrayal, stopping here, when we knew there is more to the story, the hardest part -- the part where they are our ages. I mean, the ages we are right now.
We walked around the Case campus, trying to find a place to eat. We walked and talked. I was giddy after the first film, after the second I just ached.
But I was relieved. So much frantic longing, which I am glad to say is in my past. I hadn’t waited, I took the leap back then and while it wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t fair and it wasn’t nice, it is impossible to say that it was wrong.
Before Midnight arrives on DVD on October 22.