Kirk A.C. Marshall

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Transient Love the Ticket to Ride

Transient Love the Ticket to Ride: why Richard Linklater's Before Sunset defines a culture
 
Published: 20/3/05 (c)

before-sunset.jpg

courtesy of Before Sunset, Richard Linklater, Anne Walker-McBay & John Sloss, Warner Independent Pictures 2004
 
FEATURE ARTICLE
 
 

My mother is celebrating the weekend before her forty-sixth birthday tonight. To this taxing end, she is sitting formlessly at the dining table whilst selectively devouring an orange; my father sits at the table’s end, tremulously bouncing his head about. As is called for in such nostalgic peripheral tableaux, they’re both listening to the postured melancholic twanging of Ronan Keating, who at twenty-six has seemingly endured a veritable vastness of self-perpetuated life gristle, allegedly having had his heart broken more regularly than a Winona Ryder shoplifting incident. Now my parents are dancing to the dubious music of this unjustly uncanonised suffragette of Ireland’s most-crippling woes (worldly valorisation; the detriment of having many millions in coins running through one’s voice); they’re dancing, and they’re so inextricably indifferent to the fact that they’re replicating all the best injured-dog-down-village-well stereotypes. Their son is scrutinising their saccharine moment of union with black guile and the rank aromas of cynicism, and they don’t give a fuck. And that’s what makes this moment inevitably elegant, perfumed with an autumnal glory: Twenty-four years of marriage, and they don’t want to gut each other.

                It’s not the mere pervasive ennui borne of youth that fuels my tenuous awe. It’s the fact that somehow beneath the vacuous veneer of that precious, fey, twee commercialist crap, people still and stalwartly buy into this amorphous concept of love. And with my mother and father dancing with erratic Asperger’s grace here, I must have been born in this moment. P.T. Barnum got that right. I’m a self-attentive sucker for that rarest of peacocks, the unconquerable forest creature that flitters through the dappled canopies of life’s relationships. Love, yeah. So: lest this reduce itself to a primer of many clasping extended metaphors fixated on ornithology, I’m going to move towards reviewing a film. I do this with empathy as I’m redolently aware that few people are endowed with my intrinsic immunity to Ronan Keating, a cultivated and prized virtue.

 

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Love Is A Fringe Thing

 

 

 

 


There existed a time in the apocryphal annals of yore when plucky men romanced women beneath wine-clear skies blanketed by diamond constellations, professing their unequivocal and moving pangs of adoration, sometimes occasioning these revelling midnight picnics with the whispered esoteric sobs of “oh happy dagger!” – before impaling themselves to death because of all that abominable, inexpressible and torturous Emotion. These were the historical salad days of street-witty, horribly romantic and existential youths; lads who advocated a life of glorying gutter-dwelling just to internalise that worldly variety of feeling, to learn new dialects of love so as to one day voice a bourgeois ode to the flax merchant’s virginal daughter. Because nothing says hangdog beauty like literature as fresh and visceral as manure from the excitable pen of a pallid kid with sclerosis, chronic amoebiasis, typhoid fever, the Black Death, and encephalopathy (in this case, no longer constrained just to cattle). Spake unto me thine sultry words, champion…

This ardent period was what classicist epistemologists clever with knowledge of the era referred to as “the age of chivalry”. What makes this such a punchy connoisseur neologism with endless potential of amusement for me is that the phrase promotes forth two dressed-up dinner-party theories: 1) chivalry is a school of thought, here borne of Arthurian dragonslayer dating policy, and 2) there resides the implication that like all eras, chivalry is anachronistic, of its time – a pixie-world beast catalogued fleetingly in some Gregorian bestiary; very much a dragon now, slain not by knights errant but by new century pragmatism. Chivalry, you see, is only a melancholy smoke on the heath of Avalon, to be memory, to be no more than a myth borne of Pendragon.

                But love ain’t dead, and neither is that most culpable criminal Chivalry: it’s still the practice of my parents, still the muse for Ronan Keating’s fifty-one ballads-to-soundtrack-bowel-movements. Love still has the facility to singe our retinas and transcend our temporal lobes. Most recently, though, the age of romance has seemingly fallen from the societal mainstream; or perhaps more comprehensively, it now appears best seen as manifest in the cultural fringe. It is here that I rediscovered what it meant to love by taking a gander at Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset (2004).

 

 

You Never Forget…

 

Love has always been popular. But now it’s also become edgy. When focusing with especial candour upon the industry of popular film, the independents and cinematic left have tapped a recent and untamed influx of love and relationship-fixated movies extolling the exalting virtues of that often sensationalised dilemma of the human heart, whilst all being backed by surprisingly canny, serious investors in hard-line suits and menacing wristwatches.  2004 spawned Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Garden State, Sideways and Closer in rapid succession: here were four critically-lauded, unashamedly level-headed and sometimes indicting representations of cinematic love, and each one seemed to profess that not only were impasses concerning kinship and chivalry contrived, but the concept of intimate union could be singularly defined as being, well, fucking cool. Paragon of savvy filmic criticism A.O. Scott propounds that when American reviewers elected Sideways as epitomising that almost ungraspable pinnacle of American cinema for 2004, there was a definitive reason: “Film critics, for our part, clearly have plenty of self love to go around.” With Before Sunset, he glibly backhands: “Groups that did not choose Sideways – the Village Voice Poll, and the Washington film critics selected Before Sunset… – [because it’s a] variation on this theme of a moody, cerebral fellow graced by the kind of romantic love he doesn’t believe in and can hardly be said to deserve.”

                However, Before Sunset penetrates this vapour of critical narcissism – certainly, in deference to Sideways, the film doesn’t ingratiate itself to a world familiar to reviewers (Scott alleges Sideways has been deified ostensibly because most reviewers suffer a complex to laud other critics, even if Paul Giamatti’s muse is specifically only wine). Sunset, succeeding Before Sunrise (1995), humanises romantic love without overt sentimentality; being the subsequent chronicle of Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) and their now veteran neuroses, Richard Linklater has crafted a film that stipulates one truism above all else: contemporary relationships defy the sophomoric, turgid nostalgia of some ungainly Wuthering Heights mentality, the antecedent generational belief that the boy can go to war, become decorated hero, and find once more the soft, supple arms of a girl whose expertise with wash basins is uncontested. Today, the film champions, finding someone isn’t about rewriting history with the venerable poetry of centuries past; today, finding someone is the poetry, and the elegiac bliss exacted from a flash-in-the-pan romance is equal to some unrealistic wartime-hero story. Linklater is saying that we’re no longer governed by the toffee apple-fake dream to maintain a nuclear family and the requisite picket fence. Linklater is saying: all that matters now is that you find one another, and the sweetness comes with and comes of that discovery alone.

                After a decade since first meeting so fleetingly, Celine finds Jesse being attended to by multiple members of the bibliophilic public as he hunches amongst the shelves with rueful grin in a quaint French bookshop, answering questions as to the subtext of his new novel. He sees her almost as immediately as she sees him, standing with postured nonchalance outside the store’s open-glass window; Jesse excuses himself from this small convention, and thus proceeds to walk around Paris with Celine, talking. And that’s it; therein lies the conceptual lynchpin of the premise. Two disparate once-time lovers, now self-consciously more cynical and articulate towards mid-life’s dispiriting procession, amble about alleys, street corners, botanical parks and the cobblestones skirting the Seine talking sex, talking family, talking politics, philosophy, history, the geography and architecture shimmering on the periphery of their walk – and perhaps most importantly, talking the regret and longing for a love lost.

                There exists no attempt upon Linklater’s part to project a non-pragmatic envisioning of this introspective journey of verbiage and sightseeing; his camera perfects an objective view on these monologues by offering non-judgemental eye-level shots occasioned by sweeping, panoramic high-angles of Jesse and Celine’s surroundings. From a reductionist viewpoint, Paris is contextually arbitrary; Linklater displaces Jesse and Celine here not to bathe in its cedar-fug sunlight and the river’s quieting whisper, but for poignantly self-mocking reasons. His Before Sunrise showcased the splendour of Vienna; the sequel needed to go one better. It adds to the intimacy and promise of the conversation being made, but insofar as filtering the dialogue through a sentimentalist lens, Paris is mere wallpaper for the fluid chemistry of both actors.

                But such chemistry!: Hawke is a more acerbic, witty and honest equivalent of his extrovert self in Before Sunrise, and Delpy is a combustible exemplar of hysterical, vintage surly femininity, appropriating her performance in Sunrise and encouraging it to mature without allowing it to lose a diamond of that original performance’s complexity. Before Sunset glories in its knowledge that if anything technically germane to the film were to fail, there would still be a humbling portrayal of two real people wishing that somehow the stardust transient relationship they once had could be willed again into life.

And that’s where Before Sunset consummates its finest achievement, and bestows the viewing audience with a document of love as true as can be expressed in this dark and doubtful new century: as Jesse and Celine grapple with their past betrayal and disappointment, they begin speaking no longer of memories but of futures not yet glimpsed. Linklater’s film knows well that the best one can do is to find someone; but it succeeds so wonderfully by suggesting that once that someone has been found, a blissful transient relationship reveals its own immortality, because such discoveries can be made again. Herein lies the dichotomy of this type of romantic beast: love isn’t just a smoke on the heath of Avalon, it is also the breath. All this past chivalric guff need not confine itself to stasis – because memories live, have not yet been lived, can be lived. This is the fragile possibility that Before Sunset speaks of, and I, though a jaded fuck of bad repute, at least pride myself in getting this much.

“They say that no memory truly dies as long as you’re alive to live it,” Jesse airily waxes philosophical as he and Celine make to board a gondola. So where, then, do we stand, people not fortunate enough to stumble across our prospective life partner in a cursory encounter on a train through Europe, nothing on us but a weathered copy of Hemingway’s Old Man and The Sea?

Perhaps Linklater has unknowingly answered this question, too. Watching Before Sunset, one experiences an on-screen relationship that is as true, unique and transient as any chanced on the surface of the Seine or the subway platforms of Vienna. Like all good contemporary love, it’s quicker than you want or need, but once experienced, it remains with you forever. And maybe you do see that as sappy or pretentious, but it satisfies me; and it’s better than taking dance lessons from my parents. ♦♦

 

 

 

 

 

 

approx. 1, 500 words.

Kirk Marshall.