Before & After
By Nathaniel Nelson
If you could truly come to terms with your inevitable death, actually grasp the vacuous inconsequence of your own life and the ceaseless passing of time, what would you do? Would you have an orgy? Splurge your life savings? Or would you change nothing? Would you curl up and cry? Or end your life immediately, on your own terms?
In the dying minutes of Before Midnight (2013), the third and final act of Richard Linklater’s epic Before trilogy, Celine (Julie Delpy) is faced with this dilemma. Forty years from now, looking back on her intimate yet uneasy relationship with Jesse, the imperfect but caring father of her children (Ethan Hawke), will she be thankful for having stuck with him through the bad times, or resentful that she failed to exit the stressful relationship that had endangered her life’s goals? “But if you want true love, then this is it. This is real life. It's not perfect, but it's real,” he whispers to her, in a last-ditch effort to save himself from eternal loneliness.
WORKING ON SAME PAINTING: Sorry I’m late.
HAVING A BREAKTHROUGH DAY: That’s okay, time doesn’t exist.
Time is a consistent beast in the Linklater masterpieces — it is the space his characters inhabit and grow by, not unlike New York City is to Woody Allen or the West to John Ford. The only realistic way to deal with passing time is to accept life within its constraints, and the only successful way to make something of it lies wholly in the realm of human interactions.
As time pervades all aspects of existence, it surely affects human relationships in a direct way, almost as much as the individuals themselves involved. For some Linklater characters, ungroomed relationships are like milk: first tasty and fresh, then smelly and gross, then dangerous to humans, then…cheese? The rough men Patricia Arquette’s character attracts in Boyhood (2014) drive her and her family into bad situations, but ultimately seem less like mistakes of the past than stepping stones of personal growth. For Morris Buttermaker (Billy Bob Thornton) of Bad News Bears (2005), Wooderson (Matthew McConaughey) of Dazed and Confused, and equally for Jack Black’s Dewey Finn of School of Rock (2003) and Bernie of Bernie (2011), time, or age, more specifically, is a latent awkwardness within their relationships. Ethan Hawke’s characters in Boyhood and Before Midnight deal with similar complications in trying to foster relationships with their cool-yet-distant young sons.
Nowhere better than the Before series does the violent challenge of time to human love manifest in such multifaceted ways. In the first installment, Before Sunrise (1995), time is an impenetrable wall: the two protagonists become immediately infatuated and spend a night in Vienna, but he’s got one destination and she’s got another, and the trains leave tomorrow. Nine years later in Before Sunset (2004), time has become a conquered enemy: he’s got a family back home and a plane to catch when she shows up at his book signing event, but he’s learned by now not to make the same mistake twice in leaving her. Nine years deep into their official relationship in Before Midnight, time has given them shared experience (and twin children) and wisdom, yet violently chips away at each of their deepest regrets and insecurities.
In some sense, Linklater uses time almost like a magic trick in his films. In lieu of a plot, for example, Waking Life (2001) is presented as an episodic string of dream sequences of its protagonist, with no real timeline. Through clues posed by multiple characters in the dreams, which may or may not indirectly inform the “timeline” of our protagonist’s experiences, we’re left to assume that the entire film occurs either in roughly a minute of dreaming, six to twelve minutes of an active brain of a deceased person, or outside of a conventional linear notion of time entirely.
Slacker (1991) presents one town and much of its population at a single time. The Before series, on the other hand, presents the same two people at distant times along the course of their lives. Boyhood presents one person, episodically, on an annual basis over the course of his childhood. In both of these cases, the films were created along real-life timelines, with the aging actors reflecting the films’ characters’ fictional lives; the result is jarring on many levels. Where instinctually an artwork might be considered a sort of object — a movie is a movie, it’s a couple of hours long, and it’s there on Netflix if you want to see it — the way time shapes Linklater films makes time itself a more immediate consideration for his audiences. Theory aside, there’s also what I’ll call the “reunion effect,” wherein, like high school reunions or running into an old friend, seeing Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy after nine years might just make you feel old. In a different way, the reunion effect repeats a dozen times in Boyhood, to the point where, by the end, you might feel as if your own entire childhood just passed before your eyes. It’s like a magic trick, except instead of going “Ooh, how’d you do that?” you just feel old.
GUY WHO TOSSES TYPEWRITER: The typewriter isn't the point. The point is, it symbolizes the bitch that just fucked him over. It symbolizes the bitch that fucked me over six months ago. And it symbolizes the bitch that's GONNA fuck you over!
Linklater films present a total democracy of experience. We’re with Mason, the protagonist of Linklater’s magnum opus Boyhood, moving out of his early childhood home to watching him take a picture of a fire hydrant on the side of the road. A bad haircut might not seem like fodder for a dramatic film, but a bad haircut surely feels dramatic when you receive one in your own life.
By elevating the seemingly mundane in such a way as to give it the same validity as any dramatic event, Linklater is able to touch upon human experience in a way totally unique to his own style of cinema. In a Linklater drama, a long drive with the kids sleeping in the backseat is the only thing that matters when you’re on a long drive with the kids sleeping in the backseat. “It's constant — the moment. It's just...it's like it's always right now, you know?,” a stoned Mason says at the film’s conclusion. This is an essential principle to understanding Linklater films. The important parts in an action film occur when someone dies. In a horror film? When someone dies. In a Western? When someone dies. Et cetera. In a Linklater film everyone is dying all the time, but the important parts happen when the characters are doing their best at living.
In the connotative sense, this style is quite anti-cinematic. These films follow arcs and are guided by the most ancient rules of fiction, but lack the key points one might be taught in a screenwriting textbook. As Pauline Kael presciently wrote in 1964 of the wider American viewing audience, “They want less effort, more sensations, more knobs to turn.” We see this manifest in the majority of 21st century Hollywood films, especially those which make the most money. The same plot elements return for every new picture because they’ve been tested over time and have proven successful. Only its director’s daring confidence could allow Before Midnight to open with an uninterrupted 15-minute-long shot of a car ride conversation between two parents. Linklater’s banking on the assumption that enough of an audience will be drawn in, a particularly empathic one, from the shared human experience exhibited within the most commonplace of dialogue. There are no deaths to be found here — no automobile crashes, no evil dictators, inspiring disabled people, long lost cousins or fat people falling. Take it or leave it.
That his films are able to portray the human experience in such a real and visceral way may be due, in part, to Linklater’s ability to draw from his own life. He was able to convey the odd charm of his hometown Austin, Texas in Slacker and Dazed and Confused in a way that spoke to a generation of people who felt like they grew up in a place just like it, and knew characters just like these. Twenty years later he returned to small-town Texas (this time Carthage) with Bernie, and then back to Austin in Boyhood. It also shouldn’t be seen as a coincidence that the protagonists of many of these films — Jack Black, Wiley Wiggins, Ethan Hawke, Ellar Coltrane, etc. — look a lot like Linklater himself: Waking Life was inspired by a dream of his, Boyhood was dually inspired by his own childhood as well as Ellar Coltrane’s, and Before Sunset was inspired by a night he’d spent walking and talking in Philadelphia in 1989 with a woman named Amy Lehrhaupt (who died a few weeks before they began shooting Before Sunrise).
SHOULD HAVE STAYED AT THE BUS STATION: Every thought you have creates its own reality. You know, it’s like every choice or decision you make, the thing you choose not to do fractions off and becomes its own reality, you know, and just goes on from there, forever.
To decode Linklaterian philosophy from the ground up would be a trying exercise — fundamental philosophical inquiry pervades almost every one of his great films, constantly rearing its head in the dialogue of Slacker, the Before series and Boyhood, and driving Waking Life. More often than not, characters will directly speak of philosophical ideas in monologue, referencing specific thinkers and disciplines. It’s definitely entertaining, though the frequency with which ordinary characters improvise enlightening in-depth analyses of the works of Dostoyevsky or D. H. Lawrence borders on unrealistic.
If there is a logic to be drawn from the overabundance of casual philosophical inquiry in Linklater scripts, it begins with Waking Life. The film is constructed as an animated dream sequence of a young man, in which similar sorts of existential conversations occur with different people in very different settings. Under the guise of normal conversation, most every character in the film is able to verbalize incredibly complex and detailed philosophical ideas. At no point do we question how “realistic” this is, however, because it’s given that the entire film occurs within one man’s dreams. Everyone in the film is a manifestation of the ego of our protagonist, just as everyone in your own dreams is a version of you, rather than the real or unreal people they represent in your dream state. It follows from the same logic Linklater’s ‘SHOULD HAVE STAYED AT THE BUS STATION’ character opens Slacker with: “Man, there was this book I just read on the bu-…well, you know, it was my dream so I guess I wrote it or something.”
Slacker is formatted very similarly to Waking Life, jumping from moments of conversation between different characters, flowing along an undefined trajectory without narrative structure. In the same way that dreams often lack continuity as they cut from one seemingly unrelated event to another, Waking Life and Slacker devote less to transitions than to significant events themselves. However, Slacker has no defined protagonist like Waking Life does — the camera alone, with Linklater behind it, guides the viewer from one event to the next. The whole film is a sort of Linklaterian dream. The characters are all very different, but they live in his hometown and represent the sorts of people he might recall having met growing up. If a disproportionate number of them are able to verbalize complicated philosophical ideas compared to what one might expect of random residents of suburban Austin, it’s because Linklater himself, in the same role as Waking Life’s main character, is the ego through which all of these individuals are born in the screenplay.
If there is one existential concept that stands out for its relevance and pervasiveness in Linklater’s filmography, it is the “many-worlds interpretation.” A layman’s interpretation of the theory is vocalized in the first monologue of his first major film, by Linklater himself (as quoted above), and it is briefly explored again in Waking Life.
The many-worlds interpretation also illuminates some of the inner-workings of his greatest films. Boyhood, for instance, is structured as a succession of annual versions of Mason Jr. (as well as his supporting cast), and it can be unnerving to witness these jump cuts between years, depending on how significantly his visual appearance has changed in the time in between. While watching him grow up before our eyes at an extremely accelerated rate means we miss most of his life, it also reveals how personal continuity is shaped over time. Purely as a result of this time travel jumping are we able to sense, more acutely than we can of ourselves in our own normal-timeline daily lives, how last year’s decisions might have influenced this new Mason. Each new Mason is, in some sense, a new reality created by the events and decisions of the previous summer.
The Before series may be understood in terms of the many-worlds interpretation even more concretely than Boyhood. Firstly, it is spelled out very clearly how the often split-second decisions these characters make affect the course of the trilogy forever after. Right off the bat, Celine’s decision to get up and sit by Jesse on the train to Vienna, and his subsequent impulsive request of her to get off the train with him, is what allows the entire 27-year-long story to take place. Their uneasy and ill-considered plan to meet up one year later without exchanging contact information is what causes the nine-year delay until their next meeting, and when that second meeting finally comes along, his decision to stay with her is what allows for the third film. The Before trilogy is just one path created along the continuum of branching alternate universes resulting from decisions made by these characters, and one gets the sense that the whole story could have unfolded entirely differently if one or two decisions had gone the other way.
In Before Sunset, the characters directly address the hypothetical scenario in which her grandmother hadn’t died at the time he had waited for her in Vienna — in this alternate reality they might have fallen in love again, and married, and he wouldn’t have a wife and kids of his own back in the States. They also consider what would have happened had Celine not learned of Jesse’s book signing event in Paris: “JESSE: What do you think were the chances of us ever meeting again? / CELINE: After that December, I'd say almost zero. But we're not real anyway, right? We're just, uh, characters in that old lady's dream. She's on her deathbed, fantasizing about her youth. So of course we had to meet again.”
What’s especially interesting here is how a many-worlds interpretation of the Before series is oddly affirmed in Waking Life, in which Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy reprise their roles as Jesse and Celine in a cameo twenty minutes into the film. In an ultimate cross-reference, we must presume that the actors aren’t just playing any romantic couple, but specifically their characters from the Before series, when Hawke’s character opens the scene by turning to Delpy’s and saying, “I keep thinking about something you said […] about how you often feel like you’re observing your life from the perspective of an old woman about to die.” This line couldn’t have been written as a reference to that specific line from Before Sunset, because Waking Life was written years earlier. However, that the idea was taken from Waking Life and used in the Before series means that we can draw a direct parallel between the otherwise unrelated movies. It appears, then, that the characters in Waking Life are Jesse and Celine in an alternate reality where they did successfully meet up again that December following the first film, and we find them now in bed as a happy couple. The logic of this crossover is explained further in Linklater’s opening monologue in Slacker: “Say I have a dream some night […] see that’s just a momentary glimpse into this other reality.” The main character of Waking Life dreams of Jesse and Celine together, glimpsing into the alternate reality in which they exchanged contact information before separating that morning in Vienna.
VIDEO BACKPACKER: To me, my thing is, a video image is much more powerful and useful than an actual event. Like back when I used to go out, when I was last out, I was walking down the street and this guy, that came barreling out of a bar, fell right in front of me, and he had a knife right in his back, landed right on the ground and...Well, I have no reference to it now. I can't put it on pause. I can't put it on slow mo and see all the little details. And the blood, it was all wrong. It didn't look like blood. The hue was off. I couldn't adjust the hue. I was seeing it for real, but it just wasn't right. And I didn't even see the knife impact on the body. I missed that part.
Perhaps to his credit, Richard Linklater is one of those totally experimental filmmakers who is rarely referred to as such. Though Boyhood was called experimental by many, Linklater himself is almost never grouped into the category of “experimental” despite his nonlinear tendencies. It’s easy to forget that the same man who created Dazed and Confused also created School of Rock (2003) and A Scanner Darkly (2006). There isn’t a singular, distinct visual style to his films, like one might say of Quentin Tarantino or Steven Spielberg. His form is mutable, but effective and almost always subtle.
Check out the three posters for the Before movies. For the first film, we see Jesse and Celine with eyes locked, him gently cradling her head on his lap as if they’re the only two people in Vienna. The shot is intimately warm and close-up, and the actors appear larger than the city itself in the background. In many ways this reflects visual themes that run throughout the film itself. On the train, on a trolley, in a restaurant, in a record store, the characters are generally presented closely and fully within the camera’s frame, their faces not only consistently visible but usually the focal points of the camera’s attention. In fact, the camera only pulls back some towards the end of the film, before dawn when the streets are empty and it really does feel like they’re the only two people in the whole city.
In the second film’s poster, the characters’ gazes are once again reciprocal, but her eyes are partly closed. They’re not holding each other, or even touching each other, but their bodies are oriented inwards, towards the space in between; as she says in the first film, “I believe if there's any kind of God it wouldn't be in any of us, not you or me but just this little space in between.” In this picture, they’re set at a close yet comfortable distance from the camera, each at the one-third mark of the frame and with most of their bodies visible in the sunset. Below a bridge but above the river, their bodies almost seem to conform to the bridge’s structure — Jesse’s back arched along its curve and Celine’s straight-up posture mimicking one of its pillars — placing them wholly within the physical space of the city of Paris. The film itself fluctuates between the intimacy of a long-lost love and the distance of nine years, and the camera reflects these changes in its varying distance from the actors, but the characters always remain bound to the Parisian settings in which they find themselves in a way that feels less free and more down to Earth than their long walks along the cobblestone streets of Vienna.
By the third film, Jesse and Celine have become somewhat overwhelmed by their situation — he feels trapped in Europe as he’s unable to see his son in Chicago, and she feels consumed by their relationship which threatens to tame the very person she was when he fell in love with her initially, twice over. In the film’s poster, they appear very small and are clearly overshadowed by the surrounding nature. The camera is distanced to such an extent that a quick first glance might not even register people in the shot at all. Their bodies appear very weak against the grand rock structures and the vast sky and sea. This time around, rather than looking into each other’s eyes, they’re each gazing outwards. Their bodies are oriented almost straight ahead into the distance, and she seems to receive his somewhat impersonal arm against her back with a bit of coldness. They’re each dressed in all blue, further blurring the boundary distinguishing them from the background of the shot. The blue of this image is colder than the sunlight radiating in each of the two previous films’ posters.
The cold blue of the Before Midnight poster manifests visually in the film in more ways than one. Immediately, it is apparent that Linklater has transitioned from film to digital video for this third entry. The video is hyperrealistic, much sharper, losing the soft edges and warm tones of the previous two films. Camera movements in the early minutes of the film also contribute to the more futuristic look to Midnight, with smooth tracking shots that might feel more at home in a car commercial than the Before series. Our protagonists appear slightly smaller in the frame in Midnight as compared with the first two films of the series, just as they appeared slightly smaller in the frame in Sunset in relation to Sunrise. In the most extreme scene of the film, when Jesse and Celine’s relationship literally breaks down over the course of twenty minutes, the characters seem increasingly small in their large hotel suite. In particular, during the middle of this sequence, the camera is placed in between the two main rooms of the suite. Celine is on the couch in the living room, and Jesse on the bed in the bedroom. The camera, in the middle, cuts between them sitting on their own, far apart from one another. Never before in the entire Before series have the characters appeared so far away from one another during conversation. Remember that trolley ride in Vienna? They were right up against one another, as if the seats were too small.
It’s quite a feat to retain a cohesive artistic vision through a period of 27 years, having the visual style of each of the films lend itself so seamlessly to the framework of the series overall. Boyhood is the prime example of visual consistency over time, where over the course of twelve years’ worth of personal and technological growth the crew nonetheless managed to create a film that works seamlessly and holistically from beginning to end. Richard Linklater is unequivocally the most patient and forward-thinking filmmaker of all-time.
HITCHHIKER: Every single commodity you produce is a piece of your own death!
Thus, we return to our original question: what is one to do in the face of an overwhelmingly inconsequential and brief existence? Perhaps the meaning of life lies in the sort of love shared by Jesse and Celine, or in the seemingly little moments like those which come to define Mason Jr.’s childhood. Perhaps the meaning of life is to think about the meaning of life, as the main character in Waking Life does, or the pretentious townsfolk of Austin in Slacker. Perhaps the meaning of life is to create art, or document reality in a search for truth, as Richard Linklater has done so successfully in his career. In my view, none of these answers suffice, and none are specific to Linklater’s work.
One aspect that does stand out significantly in regard to Linklater’s great films is that none of them really end; in fact, most of them don’t even really begin, either. Most movies present a clear beginning of a story, which will advance as an arc and eventually wrap up before the lights go down in the theater. In contrast, Slacker merely ends with a song playing over an amateur video shot by a group of rowdy teenagers. Waking Life ends with the protagonist dissolving into a shadow as he levitates into a blip in the sky. Each of the Before movies have an open ending, and Midnight leaves open the possibility for a fourth entry into the series. Boyhood ends in the middle of Mason Jr.’s first day of college, leaving us only with the hope that he will fare well.
These films represent the human experience in a visceral way not only due to Linklater’s sensibilities as a writer and director, but also because they don’t subscribe to a traditional cinematic structure. Waking Life feels like a dream because, like real dreams, it doesn’t begin or end clearly. It’s weird in the middle, and moves along an undefined and unrefined flow of consciousness. Boyhood feels like growing up because it grasps the nature of those little moments we recall in our own childhoods, those beats along the narrative of our lives. These films feel like they move at the pace of life as it’s experienced, rather than the traditional structure of a conflict-climax-conclusion 90-minute picture.
To me, then, it’s noteworthy that Linklater films follow a lifelike trajectory and don’t wrap up tightly. Because life indeed wraps up. Right? The Before series should end with Jesse or Celine dying, and Boyhood should end with Mason Jr. dying, and Waking Life should end with the main character realizing he’s dead. But none of them do. None of them do. I think that’s important. I don’t know why.
*All block quotations are from Linklater’s 1991 film, Slacker.
Originally published 05/10/16