' ' Cinema Romantico: Mind Playing Tricks On Me

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Mind Playing Tricks On Me

The legendarily perturbable Richard Brody of The New Yorker is one of the few film critics not simply un-smitten with Richard Linklater's Jesse & Celine Trilogy - "Before Sunrise" (1995), "Before Sunset" (2004) and "Before Midnight" (2013) - but outright hostile toward them. In a typically breathless whoosh of writing he smacks the films around ceaselessly. "I knew that 'Before Sunset' was a cheat from the mishmash of Paris geography that the action is based on." That is not a misplaced criticism, however, in the vein of the annoying moviegoer who feels he or she deserves a merit badge for picking out continuity errors but a more choice observation of how that “mishmash of Paris geography” speaks to the film’s overall intentions. "The lack of respect for Paris geography in the interest of the picturesque," he writes, "goes along with the actors’ chatty smiliness and the script’s foregrounded intentions." In other words, a film so determined to present "naturalism" (Brody's word) is cheating that naturalism by quite obviously over-staging everything. He's right, I suppose, though I suspect there is more improv going on moment-to-moment then he probably wishes to give credit for, but I also don't find fault with Linklater's approach. Isn't that, like, you know, filmmaking? Formally creating something to feel spontaneous? Still, despite my disagreement with Brody's stance, I found myself returning to it in the wake of my long-awaited long-feared re-watching of "Before Midnight" as I thought about how we see what we see - or, perhaps I should say, what we think we see.

One detail of the film I had forgotten involves Jesse and Celine, on vacation in Greece, taking a detour to the shrine of St. Odilia, the Patron Saint of Eyesight. People pray to her to restore eyesight but I couldn't help thinking of it in the more metaphorical context of Mr. Brody's musings. Not for nothing is this the place where the screenplay deems it time to inform the audience that despite having twin daughters, Jesse and Celine are not married. "The girls asked me again," Celine says, "what our wedding was like." And so she told them a story. She continues: "It's just all those fairy tales they like so much, you know? Remember when they were little, at the end of every cartoon they watched, they'd be all 'Oh they're getting married!' Even if it's Pinocchio and his dad, or Donald Duck and his nephews." Fairy tales. Not unlike, say, "Before Sunrise", the first film in the (so far) trilogy of Jesse and Celine, where they meet for one night in Vienna and fall in love, never to see each other again (until the next film nine years later).

Kismet, as it so often does, came calling the day after my long-awaited long-feared re-watching of "Before Midnight" when I listened to the previous evening's airing of "A Prairie Home Companion" which was a re-broadcast of an episode from nearly thirty years ago, November 23rd, 1985 in Claremont, California. In it, Garrison Keillor, in a moment that becomes supremely meta (albeit in a very Midwestern way), wonders if all these people he discusses back in Lake Wobegon might not be real. That leads him to wondering if other momentous memories he retains might not be real. As if they are so momentous in his imagination, so consequential to the person he thinks he is or has become or once was, that the only possible explanation is he made it up, projected it into his imagination to work as some sort of cosmic explanation. This leads to him wondering if a particular girl from his past and the moment that he chased after her and took her hand might very well merely be a story he made up. "I hope not," he says in a placid voice that is nonetheless haunting.

A movie exists and so that movie is what it is, and "Before Sunrise" exists and so it is the story of how and Jesse and Celine met and yet......what if it's just their imagination? What if it's just a fairy tale? What if it's just a story they made up to tell their daughters, to tell their friends, to tell themselves? What if “Before Midnight” is “The Bob Newhart Show” and “Before Sunrise” is “Newhart”? I hope not.

Several years ago I watched a film called “Free Enterprise” in which a couple Trekkies meet their idol, William Shatner, who immediately pitches them a Shatner-ish idea. Long after the fact, I recounted to my friend Daryl, a Trekkie, how this scene involved Shatner yearning to perform a one-man version of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” in which he’d, as the term one-man version implies, play all the parts. “Even Ophelia?” I said just as the Trekkies said to Shatner. “Yes,” I replied in my best (worst) Shatner impression. At some point in the wake of telling him this, we both happened to catch “Free Enterprise” showing on TV, and when the aforementioned sequence arrived, I was stunned to discover that Shatner was not pitching “Hamlet” but “Julius Ceasar.” The Trekkies point out that to play all the parts in “Julius Ceasar” means Shatner would have to stab himself in the back. “I’ve done it before,” says Shatner.

I was flummoxed. How was my remembrance of the sequence so spectacularly incorrect? I mean, I even imagined dialogue that hadn’t happened! I submit this story because this is a movie blog and I’m attempting to keep it relevant but also to demonstrate how so many stories of our past, even the most inane, can in the melodramatic recesses of our mind be re-shaped. Maybe I changed it to “Hamlet” because I know “Hamlet” so much better than “Julius Ceasar.” Maybe I said Ophelia because sub-consciously any time I think of “Hamlet” I think of Kate Winslet playing Ophelia. The “Why?” of the reconstruction of this specific memory is in the context of this piece irrelevant compared to the broader question of “How Many Other Memories Have I Reconstructed?”

“People have these romantic projections they put on everything that’s not based on any kind of reality.” This is what Jesse says to Celine in “Before Sunrise” and in a way “Before Midnight” (as well as “Before Sunset”) works as a realistic deconstruction of the romantic projection of the first film. At the same time, “Before Sunrise” itself is a romantic projection that’s not based on any kind of reality, and that’s what I did do and why it still speaks so strongly to me and why “Before Midnight’s” subtle questioning of that romantic projection tears my soul in two.

Twenty years ago this summer one of the most momentous events of my life took place, and I’m not entirely being hyperbolic. It was back in high school during my churchgoing days and my Lutheran youth group was striking out for the ELCA Youth Gathering in Atlanta, and being an epic introvert, I declined to go because, my apologies, Jesus, but Jesus, all the people. My parents and friends ultimately convinced me otherwise and I went. But because I chose to sign up after my own collective already had, I was forced to enroll with another collective from a different church in a different town. This meant upon arrival in Atlanta, I had to separate from my friends at our hotel to go check in with the other group at their hotel halfway across town. In other words, as someone who was wholly uncomfortable with people I didn’t know, I was suddenly with a whole group of people I didn’t know in a city I’d never been to.

I still have nightmares about being at parties where I don’t know anyone, yet as I’ve grown, I’ve learned better how to quell my anxieties. At the age of 16, however, I was helpless, and inwardly I was having a panic attack. And there was one girl (who shall remain nameless to protect her from the ravings of some moron with a blog who hasn’t seen her in, like, 18 years) who recognized, without explicitly ever saying so, that I was having a panic attack and, for lack of a better phrase, took care of me. It was so sweet and so wonderful. She was so sweet and so wonderful. This was in advance of my junior year and so nearly 12 months later, when I went to my first prom, even though she went to another school, she went as my date.

Later that same day, as we gallivanted in the deep south, it started to rain, prompting us to veer for cover in a nearby shopping mall, and as we did, I sped up too fast and got ahead of this girl, with whom I had been walking and talking, and so she grasped the back of my shirt and pulled me back toward her. It’s a split-second that’s never left me and that I can still feel when I really think about it, and I realize that taken in conjunction with that entire day and the events it led to correlates directly to my propensity for putting romantic projections on everything. Every one of the twelve million references I've made to “Serendipity” can be traced directly to that pull on my shirt, a moment that still seems to me like the most emblematic in a gargantuan Georgian fairytale.

There seems to be consensus - at least among the populace that treats every life circumstance like an ongoing Slate “You're Doing It Wrong” article - that once you leave your twenties it's time to retire romanticism and idealism and nostalgia. I think instead of Bruce Springsteen hoarsely exhorting that “Someday these childish dreams must end / to become a man and grow up to dream again.” Every time I’ve heard him sing those lines live is one of the moments I sing along the loudest because it understands that as you get older, yes, you must set aside a certain set of romantic ideals, but that doesn't mean you have to set aside all your romantic ideals. And I haven't. And I won't. And yet.

The older and wearier I get, the deeper my problems and the world's problems become, the more society kvetches about every little thing, the more I feel my soul grumbling in the mornings and getting sleepy earlier than ever in the evenings, the more I begin to question that line and those romantic projections, the less I can feel that pull on my shirt, and the more terrified I am. And I start to worry. Did she really pull on my shirt? Was that real? Was that just a story I made up? I hope not.

1 comment:

Derek Armstrong said...

I hope not, too.

(But am also dying to know how the revisit of Midnight went.)