Blu-ray Review: Criterion Packages Love and Time in Linklater's BEFORE TRILOGY
The years shall run like rabbits…
From the start, before Richard Linklater conducted his grand experiment on the nature of time - Boyhood - he was out to capture the great container of all experience: time - good times / bad times, we’ve all had our fill. Sometimes, time passes without a shred of significant activity.
Other moments contain a heart full of emotion that can make time feel as though it’s stopped. Some things last a long time. Some things last a lifetime… as Austin’s own Daniel Johnston once said. A moment can feel like nothing and everything and it's one of life’s great tragedies that even the most significant times of our lives will too pass and fade as more time replaces and diminishes memory with aging fargone perspective.
Linklater is that special type of filmmaker who really has proven capable of touching life’s deepest truths by embracing its day to day simplicity. He sees clearly and simply the simultaneous beauty and bitterness that is the tragedy of ephemerality, and has managed to celebrate the existential experience of choosing your own meaning in life since day one of his artistry. It’s difficult to even discuss the themes he effortlessly touches on without me or anyone else sounding pretentious, but that is exactly what he’s always achieved.
Nowhere is life’s day to day more fragmentally explored than in Linklater’s first official feature, Slacker. His sophomore effort one ups the joie de vivre with Dazed and Confused, another story contained within a set amount of time - American Graffiti’s single day in the life of youth in a bygone time and place.
Like so many greats explored the nature of time and being, Truffaut, Rohmer, Rossellini, Heidegger, Linklater shoots for the stars of existence and hits a bullseye every time, by being fully authentic to his voice. It’s no wonder The Criterion Collection has released three of his film in impeccable packages and it's even less wonder that the Before Trilogy should now also join the collection, as of last Tuesday, when the most beautiful set I have ever seen hit shelves for our thinking/feeling pleasure.
I’m coming at this “review” from the perspective of a fan who’s seen these films many times over time and I’m writing with the assumption that the reader will, too, have more than a little familiarity. If you have yet to see these films, you can buy them here, and I suggest you do so immediately. Come back when you’re changed.
Before I was able to acquire the new Criterion package, I’d say it had been about three to six years since I had last seen all three films, so I thought it would be fun and interesting to marathon them in a row, which I have never done before. I highly recommend this experience. Afterwards, I ingested the plethora of supplements to be found within, and am here now to provide something of a review.
At a glance, I’ll tell you that features are worth the purchase alone in terms of the value they offer the complete works. There will be more detail further below, but first I’ll be meditating on the films themselves and my experience of watching them for the umpteenth, only now in a wholly new phase of life than I was when I first set out on this romantic journey, in the truest sense of the word.
When I look at my own life, you know, I have to admit I've never been around a bunch of guns, or violence.No political intrigue or helicopter crash, right? But my life, from my own point of view, has been full of drama, right? And, so, I thought that if I could write a book that could capture what it's like to really meet somebody - I mean the most exciting thing that's ever happened to me is to really meet somebody, make that connection - and if I could make that valuable, you know, to capture that, that would be the attempt or… -Jesse (Before Sunset)
Before Sunrise opens on train tracks, which immediately evokes Linklater’s longtime passion for trains and, particularly, thinking on trains.. looking out the window at the passing past and meditating. In the words of Robyn Hitchcock, “I always dream on trains” and it’s fun to imagine a 28 year old Linklater sitting on one while playing the “protagonist” (which I use lightly) of his first feature effort, It's Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books, gazing out the window and essentially dreaming up his entire career.
You cannot learn from reading, you must do! and Jesse is a character who does. Like a born-accident who crashed a giant party, Jesse engages in the world. Endlessly fascinated by the countless ideas that come with being alive, which he’ll later-in-life consider to be a youthful endeavor, he explores humbly, open to possibility.
Currently, he’s sitting on a train, watching the tracks, reading Klaus Kinski’s autobiography, All I Need is Love, occasionally glancing at the pretty young lady sitting across from him - she’s reading Story Of The Eye - all the while, trying to avoid distraction by the older couple (of Before Midnight age) arguing behind them. He works up the nerve to talk to the girl. She is Celine. Jesse and Celine walk to the dining car. They’re screwed.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of revisiting this trilogy with the benefit of hindsight is being able to put it in the context of the ideas that Linklater ruminates throughout his entire career’s worth of films, many of which, as I’ve said, are also available from the Criterion Collection in perfect form (although we’re still waiting on Waking Life - cough cough). Once seated in the dining car, Jesse and Celine begin a fluid conversation that will continue over the course of an actual lifetime. For the first time, Jesse offers an idea - a harebrained concept for a 24/7 public access television show.
His idea is to film several different people around the world over the course of their entire day, so to capture a sort of National Geographic approach to humanity. Like Linklater, Jesse strives to reflect life by honoring its banality. “You mean all those boring, mundane things everyone has to do every day of their life?”, Celine asks. Jesse responds, “I was going to say the poetry of day-to-day life, but yeah…”
Jesse will tell a few narrative ideas like this over the course of the trilogy and each one seems to in some ways predict the next, as Linklater’s National Geographic look at life, love and hanging out continues. The real time aspect of Jesse’s concept predicts Linklater’s foray into the literally 80 minute, Before Sunset, whereas the banality of Jesse’s premise points to the gloriously unspectacular, Boyhood.
When Jesse tells Celine about the first time he understood the meaning of death, I couldn’t help but flash to Mason gazing at a dead bird on his lawn. Once they’re off the train and on Vienna’s public transport, Jesse offers his theory on the mathematical impossibility of reincarnation considering population growth. Celine mulls this over and then in 2001, offers her response in Waking Life: “I’ve been thinking about something you said… Just about reincarnation and where all the new souls come from over time. Everybody always says that they've been the reincarnation of Cleopatra or Alexander the Great. I always want to tell them they were probably some dumb fuck like everybody else. I mean, it's impossible.” It is my fun theory that this alternate reality of Celine and Jesse’s life, presented fleetingly in Waking Life, is a dream Jesse will be having later in his life, around 2001; one of the ones that make him wake up with the sweats.
It’s a really beautiful thing the way Linklater romanticizes quality conversation as something otherworldly that takes you out of real time. After Celine and Jesse spend a night rapping and walking the streets of Vienna, the hour occurs to them and they are brought back to earth.
What is being young if not living outside of time; having those connections that elevate mundane existence into something akin to real magic - or at least the most magic this life is capable of offering? Sometimes, in his films, this takes the form of high-schoolers elated by high jinks. In Before Sunrise it is the excitement of stumbling upon real love and falling into it through an exchange of ideas.
It’s enough to bring out the romantic side of the most cynical moviegoer, as only a pure, young-in-spirit, high-on-intellect, film could, but there is an ominous cloud that comes with the terrain, which is the lurking sadness that good days end. Considering how few times in one’s life can compete with the hours/days spent growing love for another person, Before Sunrise is by far the most romantic entry in the trilogy. But even Sunrise is not free from the stomach-punching reality check that all three films bring, which is that time is waiting around the corner and you can fuck it all up if you’re not careful.
The next day, Jesse and Celine fuck it up. In a romantic salute to reality, they attempt to give time the finger by not allowing it to make ashes of their romance, as it surely inevitably would. They see that bored couple down the line, the one from the train, and they recognize in their youth, that their blossoming love is too beautiful to degrade with an unpromising future.
At the last minute they make an ill-conceived plan to meet six months later, and as we omnipotent viewers know from the vantage point of retrospect, their relationship will be a purely mental one for the next nine years. It is beautiful the way the film ends with slides of the locations that housed their precious hours, now in broad daylight and looking empty without them. The streets will remain long past Jesse and Celine’s lifespans and house many different people’s varying times, yet for one blip in time, it housed Celine and Jesse’s and it meant something… but that’s all over now.
Before you came my time was running low
I was lost the losing dice were tossed
Just in time, you've found me just in time
And changed my lonely nights that lucky day
-Nina Simone (Just in Time)
Like Sunrise, Sunset conveys how little time it takes to change the course of one’s life - it could take a night of profound human connection or it could take a mere 80 minutes. It’s funny how one can spend nine years thinking about a single night from one’s past - or even longer if you think of that 80 year old woman looking back at her life and asking ‘what if?’ - and, in this light, we see how fickle time is and how painfully easy it is to screw up, which is something you have to learn over time. As Celine tells Jesse in a car during one of the great scenes of the trilogy, “I guess when you're young you just believe there'll be many people with whom you'll connect with. Later in life you realize it only happens a few times.”
Our characters have learned over time. They’ve lived, they’ve loved, they’ve respectively gotten over the concept of romantic love without even realizing how similarly affected they each were by the same one night, which Celine refers to in her song as “...everything I always hoped for in life” and Jesse spent years attempting to cement into art - the joy of connection regardless of its outcome.
Jesse has basically become a full fledged Linklater surrogate by this point. Now that he’s successfully immortalized into literature the “most exciting thing that's ever happened to him - to really meet somebody, to make that connection”, Jesse is on the last leg of his book tour, describing his mission to the press as exactly what Linklater sought to do in making Before Sunrise, to ”...make that valuable, you know, to capture that… would be the attempt”.
It’s what Linklater always sought to capture; the things that are actually valuable in one’s ordinary, sometimes suburban life. In 2003, the life he was reflecting, was one of an aging romantic coming to terms with the constant epilogue of life. Connections occur in what feels like an eternal moment in time, but at the expense of romanticism, life keeps going. You do the best you can to go with the tide of life even if it floats you further from things that were supposed to happen; dreams that were meant to come true.
With a little distance, nine years of growth to be exact, the benefit of hindsight and retrospect have offered our idealized couple a bittersweet reality check. The disappointments of yesterday have shaped the fortitude of their respective presents. They’re not so old that the romantic feelings that come with being young are totally removed, but they’re old enough to have learned that feeling to such an intense romantic degree is a young person's game; that all the possibility that lies ahead in life has gradually been diminished to specifics.
Like Jesse’s book, This Time captured and evoked moments wherein everything one ever hoped for in life seems possible, Before Sunrise is by far the most romantic film of the trilogy and Before Sunset is the most grounded - not quite the most “real” per say, but certainly as true to the reality of their moments as each entry into the trilogy.
Jesse’s book reminded Celine of “how genuinely romantic (she) was” and it only makes her sad, because at 32 she’s understanding better how all things, even the profound beauty of the best of your past, must fade. “It's not even about you anymore, it's about that time, that moment in time, that is forever gone.” Meanwhile, Jesse has given up on the whole idea of romantic love. “I might have put it to bed that day when you weren't there.”
Thankfully, Before Sunset offers not only the trilogy’s happiest ending, but one of the happiest endings I’ve ever seen, in its reflection of the rare times when things genuinely work out in life - not at all to be confused with the perfunctory happy endings that connect movies with fantasy. It’s a fairytale ending that comes with the reality of life’s consequences.
Jesse will have to break up his family and hurt his wife’s heart, but we applaud it because love has indeed won. For another moment, everything they always dreamed of in life has come to fruition. Even if life has many more moments in store for the couple, many of which will certainly be less joyous than this one, for one moment in time, two people were as happy as two people can be.
As far as the structure itself, the filmmaking, again, stays out of its characters’ way, allowing them to just live in the anticipated moment of seeing the first person on their minds, all the time for the first time after a long time. The films mirror each other in subtle ways, much in the same fashion that the present occasionally reminds us of fragments from the past - conversations that have been had before, ideas exchanged, ways of behaving that are faithfully in keeping with one’s past character.
It also reprises the vignette of empty locations that once housed their Vienna night with a sort of Paris overture that treats the audience to the streets that will soon set the backdrop for new memories to come. While the vignette of Sunrise looks back at the passed night as Jesse and Celine look out the windows of their separate futures, the establishing montage of Sunset evokes the feeling of anticipation for the long awaited reunion. In nine years we’ll see one last vignette unique to the present of a far away blip of time in a never-ending epilogue.. Or is it a never-ending present. Is my life really happening right NOW?
In headaches and in worry
Vaguely life leaks away
And Time will have his fancy
To-morrow or to-day.
Jesse’s book from Before Sunset, In Time, ends in the same way as Before Sunrise does, with an Affair to Remember-like challenge to see one another in six months time. Whether or not the ending is a happy one is a good test, as Jesse says, “..If you're a romantic or a cynic.”. When Celine asks Jesse why he didn’t just end it with “the French bitch stood me up”?, he replies. “Ah, but I did - sort of”. In his original draft, Jesse does have Celine show up on track nine in December of 1994.
With all the pent up longing that comes with distance, the two make passionate love for 10 days straight and then they become a couple. Over time, life sucks the joy from a once beaming passion, replacing old memories of fresh love with the onslaught of everyday banality that is reality. In essence, they become the exact couple that motivated them to never see one another again in the first place, when they couldn’t bare for time to cheapen their love and taint their holy night. Jesse’s publishers pushed for an open ending.
As Before Midnight begins, Celine and Jesse have now been living in their happy ever after for nine years. For all the time we've spent with them so far, this is the first time we’re seeing them as a living, breathing couple who have long since settled into the ordinary. At this point, their much celebrated meeting story is more useful to outsiders than its subjects. The story of their lives has become fodder for dinner party anecdotes.
With further aging comes a pressure to live up to hopes from the past, while embracing the present, even if nine years of their happy ending has culminated in a familiarity that breeds contempt. Some days it feels like they’re living in the rejected ending of In Time. But such is being a parent. When they’re able to slip away on their vacation and find themselves conversing like old times, Celine asks, “How long’s it been since we started bullshitting?”. They’re seemingly the same people, but life has become something else.
To love this couple and watch Before Midnight for the first time is to feel like a child of divorce. We’re not used to seeing our favorite people fighting and it hurts to watch. For millions, Celine and Jesse represent the idyllic image of real love. They’re stand ins for how many consider ourselves at our best, so what would it say about love and happy endings if our most beloved couple can’t even hack it?
Like Sunset takes meta delights in having Jesse’s book, This Time, act as a metaphor within a parable, it is not lost on Before Midnight that these films have come to mean a great romantic deal to their fans. But where in 2004, Celine was saddened by This Time’s reminder of how romantic she used to be at this one faraway point of her life (1994), she flat out detests her role in Jesse’s romanticization of life in 2013. It feels foreign to her and functions as a sick indication of how things change. They’ve changed quite a bit.
Having survived the messy consequences of their happy ending, Celine and Jesse are now the parents of beautiful twin daughters. Looking into their car through the driver’s window, with their little ones asleep in the back, though they bicker, it at first feels like they’re living the perfect ending to this story.
But once the film reveals how far life and parenting have removed them from the flame that initially ignited the course of the rest of their lives, we get an idea of what Auden means when he says, “Time will have his fancy tomorrow or today.” In order to give themselves over to what they’re supposed to mean to one another, they have to carve out time and forcefully incite their love - how far we’ve come from the most organic on-screen connection to be set to celluloid. For a couple that once conquered time, there's no room for spontaneity, and one way or another this darkness has got to give. One night on their Greek vacation, it finally does.
In ‘94 they only had one short time allotment to participate in everything they always dreamed of in life. In ‘04 they had 80 short minutes to rescue each other from the misery of settling for disappointment - they found each other ‘just in time’. Now in ‘13, their reputations precede them and everyone including themselves, is gunning for them to have yet another special night. They make arrangements.
With all the spontaneity sucked from life, instead of seeing one another and communicating, they have the big fight, the one that’s so pedestrian, so unremarkable, that we think, maybe we can fathom a divorce in this situation after all. Maybe settling for disappointment is real. Then she says it, maybe to hear how it sounds, maybe to cut him, maybe because it’s true, “I don’t think I love you anymore.” Celine has left the building.
At this halting moment, the kind that can also stop time, the filmmaking shows itself again with its trilogy trademark vignette of significant space, only they’ve been cooped up into one space this time and nothing positive came from it. Instead we’re shown the stillness of the empty wine glasses that were never enjoyed, the tea cups that mirror the calming tea at the end of Before Sunset with wholly new meaning, the door that Celine kept storming out of and then instantly returning through, baby-stepping her way into giving up on Jesse and devastating our collective notions of love and happy endings. We glance at all good times that should’ve been had but never were. The door is closed. She’s not coming back.
The Before series masters the bittersweet ending. They all come with happy endings, if you consider the happiness of Sunrise’s endnote not to be a question of whether or not they meet again, but a celebration of the simple fact that they met and it was everything. It’s an anti-ending that insists there is no ending as happy or more happy than the transient happiness felt in the moment itself. Happiness comes, but it doesn’t last. Maybe they will meet again. Maybe they won't. Maybe they will meet and it will be worse than if they didn’t. They could’ve lived “happily ever after” only to be profoundly let down by what dreams may come in the living of the happy ever after.
But future be damned, the present happened and it was beautiful and just as quickly it became the past. The characters just prior to Before Sunset have been dwelling on that past for nine years, longing to make it the present. Sunset offers the series happiest ending, because it is anticipation satisfied. You want their relationship to succeed as badly as you want relationships to succeed as a concept. And it does. We know people will be hurt in the process and that it will cause problems in the future, but this time, the heart wins; the romantics are saved.
Midnight’s couple has been living in the consequence of their brave choice to bite their thumbs at time and dare to try to be happy together, the best they can. They’ve tried rational reality and by choosing each other instead, they chose magic; but over the last nine years, reality has been getting the best of them.
After the worst fight of their relationship - the one that could tear it all apart and certainly cause them to abandon hope all together - Jesse finds Celine folding her arms on a lovely patio. Like a long lost stranger, he approaches. He attempts magic. But Celine, who has gravitated back towards reality, resists. She’s not the naive romantic of his book. He tries time travel, playing to the grand scheme of things, appealing to the girl inside from Before Sunrise who once imagined herself looking back on her life as an 80 year old. He explains that he’s from the future, but he’s still the “guy you vaguely remember, the sweet romantic one who you met on a train - that is me.” “Guess I didn't recognize you…”, Celine retorts, “...you look like shit." He replies, ”What can I say? I mean, it's tough out there in time and space.”
Jesse continues with his romantic attempt to homage their romance, he insists that as a professional time traveler, he can say with authority that this is just yet another fleeting moment in their life that will wash away with the happiest of their memories, but she’s not having it. She rejects Jesse’s fictionalizing. She refuses to be a character in his romantic notions.
She wants reality, which lately, she associates with heartache, so he complies: “You're just like the little girls and everybody else - you want to live in some fairy tale. I'm just trying to make things better here. I tell you I love you unconditionally, I tell you that you're beautiful, I tell you that your ass looks great when you're 80. I'm trying to make you laugh. I put up with plenty of your shit, and if you think I'm just some dog who's gonna keep coming back, then, you're wrong. But if you want true love - this is it. This is real life. It's not perfect, but it's real. And if you can't see it, then you're blind, alright?”
For a moment that feels like an eternity, they trade glances, echoing so many quiet moments shared between them, and time once again folds in on itself and becomes a lie. She has questions, “So what about this time machine? How does it work? Am I going to have to get naked to operate it?” As Dennis Lim says in his essay, “Time Regained”, “Love is an ongoing negotiation between fantasy and reality.”
There’s really nothing I can add to that film’s ending except to remind you that this too shall pass. It’s another momentary victory for the heart, but as moments go, it was worth a thousand spent with anyone else. If that’s not love, nothing is.
The Criterion package, as per usual, provides the most definitive experience fans could hope for, full to the brim with dream supplements and a booklet featuring an eloquent essay on the trilogy by critic Dennis Lim. The transfers and soundtrack productions are excelsior and the discs are stacked with quality extras.
First up on disc one: Sunrise is a new discussion featuring Linklater and actors Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, moderated by critic Kent Jones. Delpy joins Hawke, Linklater, and New York critic/NYFF director, Kent Jones, via satellite - or skype - for an overview conversation. Jones has a comically chill demeanor to him which compliments the trio’s unassuming yet highly intelligent natures. Some of the tidbits revealed within are so incredibly revelatory to fans, that I’m actually not sure if I should reveal them here.
I feel sort of duty bound to let the news come from the horse’s mouth on this one, so to speak, but suffice it to say, the question that Jesse so often received on his book tour of, “Was this book autobiographical?”, which Jesse and Linklater simultaneously answer.“Well, I mean, isn’t everything autobiographical? We all see the world through our own tiny keyhole, right? I mean, I always think of Thomas Wolfe, you know, have you ever seen that little one page note to reader in the front of "Look Homeward, Angel"... he says that we are the sum of all the moments of our lives, and that anybody who sits down to write is gonna use the clay of their own mind, that they can’t avoid that.” The reporter persists, “I'll try to be more specific. Was there ever a French young woman on the train you met, and spent an evening with?”.
After trying to shrug off the question, he answers truthfully. It’s been 13 years since we first saw that scene see the light of day and now, thanks to the Criterion Collection, Linklater answers to the cloud of mystery that surrounds its origin-story. There are plenty more tidbits almost as good as this one, like memories of Hawke in ‘94 on-set looking through pages of dialogue and asking, “Hey Rick, how did you get this thing financed?”. Throughout the disc, the trio also often joke how Before Sunrise is ”the lowest grossing film to spawn a sequel”. In a featurette for Before Sunset, someone calls the film mid-production, “the sequel no one asked for.”
There are production featurettes for each film and there’s something so great about this dated method of behind the scenes promotion. While featurettes of this ilk are typically forced, the featurettes of Sunrise and Sunset are unsurprisingly sincere and insightful due to the gold our creators offer the promotional production team in their interviews. As for After Before, the documentary by Athina Rachel Tsangari about the making of Before Midnight in Greece that can be found on disc three, it's the gem of this perfect collection.
Tsangari, a director in her own right, having oferred films like Attenberg and Chevalier, in addition to acting in Midnight as a guest in Jesse’s writers retreat, proves herself the ideal filmmaker for the job of documenting this production. The beauty of her film, besides the fact that her subjects are so incredibly comfortable with her, is that it takes for its present the day after Before Midnight wraps - the day after Before ends. Julie, Ethan, and Richard, kick it on the sofa, and reflect on the production, breaking to occasionally discuss the prospect of jumping into the ocean - dinner also has to happen at some point. As they laughingly shoot the shit about their recent achievement, Tsangari cuts back to rare on set footage. The doc’s finest moments occur around the team decompressing as the sun sets on 18 years of good work.
There’s only one audio commentary and in it’s on Before Midnight with Delpy, Linklater, and Hawke. It’s the same one you may have heard on the DVD release back in 2013, but I can say having listened to it twice now, it’s always a pleasure hanging out with the three of them and hearing whatever insights or tidbits they feel like offering on any detail they feel like. You can also hear the three of them speaking to a radio program on an episode of Fresh Air, featuring host Terry Gross. Often the banter in which they engage or offer their interviewer, results in dialogue worthy of any Linklater film.
Another gem in this collection is the feature-length 2016 documentary on the man of the hour by Austin friends, Louis Black and Karen Bernstein. It’s called, Richard Linklater: Dream Is Destiny, and some of you may remember that back in January of 2016, when the film premiered at Sundance, I had the great pleasure of discussing it with Black, Bernstein, and Richard Linklater himself. In the article’s intro, I called the documentary, “ an unpretentious look at the most down-to-earth filmmaker I can think of“. You can read the full interview here.
The last two features will hit close to home for fans, considering they revolve around outsiders attempting to engage in Linklater’s conversation. First, on disc one, there is a new 40 minute conversation between scholars Dave Johnson and Rob Stone, two authors who have both written books on Linklater’s career. The pair enthusiastically bond over each other’s favorite topic by touching on many of the themes that are discussed throughout the trilogy, some of which I have also discussed. GIven that one of them is American and the other is European, it's especially entertaining to see a well-rounded discussion with both Jesse and Celine's ideological perspectives somewhat represented.
The other piece of outsider appreciation also engages Before ideas, that I and others have attempted to put into words, and offers them in a unique way that only images can. It is a short filmic meditation called Linklater // On Cinema & Time, a 2016; a video essay by filmmaker :: kogonada. The piece stitches together the films’ best lines and visually enunciates their echoes. Also, by using old grainy footage of a young Rick Linklater, :: kogonada pulls the director into his own world of thin fiction and big ideas. It’s beautifully done.
You see, he knows he's not remembering this dance, he's there. He's there in both moments simultaneously. And just like for an instance (snaps his fingers), all his life is just folding in on itself and it's obvious to him that time is a lie… that it's all happening all the time and inside every moment is another moment, all happening simultaneously. - Jesse (Before Sunset)
It’s possible that Before Sunset is currently my favourite of the trilogy, because rewatching it at 32 years old - the same age as the characters - was a shockingly profound experience... possibly as profound as watching Before Sunrise at the age of Celine and Jesse in that film. But that was many years ago and time has washed away that particular sensation. It makes me wonder if my favorite will become Before Midnight when I hit the unideal age of 41 (jk).
As we know, there are many clever, elegant ways in which the films subtly echo one another. From a filmmaking perspective, they all share a gracefully plain aesthetic, that allows our characters to just be, amidst beautiful backdrops. Like a play, the characters go through pages of dialogue before the audience has a chance to realize they can't remember the last time there’s been a cut. It’s as effortless as Celine and Jesse’s time together.
Perhaps my favorite of the recurring elements are Jesse’s ideas for fiction; TV shows, books, songs, thought experiments. Back in Before Sunrise, Jesse speaks of a sort of proto reality TV network for his friend's public access channel - Reality TV that actually depicts reality. NIne years following Before Sunrise, after Jesse becomes a published writer, he’s twice asked what’s on the horizon for his art. His answers in both Sunset and Midnight are very telling.
In Sunset, he shares fragments of a book he’s been dreaming up that takes place within the life of a 3-4 minute pop song, wherein the past, present, and future, as evoked by the feeling this pop song inspires, all exist in simultaneously lucid harmony. In Before Midnight, Jesse speaks to his Greek friends about his most recent novel - an ensemble deja vu Ulysses perhaps - and hints at something he’s got cooking in his mind. They joke about how it sounds long and ambitious. With the benefit of hindsight this is potentially amusing, considering, Boyhood, which was only one year away from its long-anticipated completion, could similarly be poked fun at for sounding long.
Throughout my Before hole - the week I spent taking in the entire Criterion Trilogy package - I found myself thinking a lot about Linklater’s train of thought circa 2001, the year he completed and released Waking Life, which was supposed to premiere at TIFF on September 11, but was delayed for tragic reasons. I had a ticket.
Anyway, at a Boyhood press roundtable interview, Linklater shared that it was at TIFF ‘01 where he laid the seeds for IFC funding this wild illogical investment - a film that wouldn’t see profits for 12 years! It struck me as fascinating that Linklater had narrative scope in mind while he was in the process of releasing a film that revisits Jesse and Celine in dreamy form, discussing reincarnation again in an alternate reality.
Is this also when he began crafting a Before series in his mind? If so, and regardless, it's fun to compare the scopes of Boyhood and Before, considering one is continuous and one is strengthened by nine year gaps. It’s a marvel to watch Mason come of age before our eyes in Boyhood, but there’s something so dramatic about revisiting the characters of Before, as they study the lines on each other’s face. It's really a stunning portrait of life and love and as much the opus that is Boyhood in its meditative journey through time.
The question on everyone's minds, perhaps, and one asked at multiple junctures throughout the special features is, will there be more films with Jesse and Celine? The common answer is ‘never say never’ with a hint of doubtfulness, considering the feeling of finality in Midnight’s closing camera movement that pulls us away.
Also, unlike after after they wrapped the last two films, for the first time, there are as of yet, no new ideas for a future installment. But there is much more living for Linklater, Delpy, Hawke, Celine and Jesse to do and it’s unlikely, in my mind, that there won't be inspirations down the line, as life continues to inspire. I just don’t see it happening in nine years.
That said, I have faith in my hope that Linklater will return, as Ingmar Bergman did in Saraband, to offer insight on what it means, or at least how it feels, to live and love near the real end; to offer Celine and Jesse at 80 years of age.