Vol 17 - Issue 27 - July 7-13, 2004 


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Armond White
Matt Zoller Seitz
Mark Ames
A.D. Amorosi
Jim Knipfel
Saul Austerlitz
Julien Lapointe
Jim Knipfel

A date movie for lobotomized lovers.

By Armond White


Here in the middle of the most tumultuous movie year in years, you have to wonder: Why do people go to the movies? With the exception of Eternal Sunshine and The Passion of the Christ, the year's best films so far have rarely stayed around to offer nourishment. Most of them quietly vanish from the scene, their influence an unconsummated promise. Big hits like The Passion and Fahrenheit 9/11 provide distinctive answers to Why? But their success is only the aftershock of media chatter that rocked film culture without improving it. Moviegoers were driven by those critics prejudiced against Mel Gibson and those biased toward Michael Moore; between them, it's been a sorry season for reasoned judgment or unalloyed pleasure. The cultural climate has been so poisoned ("dangerously credulous critics" Gregory Solman says in First of the Month) that viewers were unable to feel inspired or fulfilled by what they saw on the screen. In 2004, it seems that movies bring us together only to drive us apart.

Now comes Before Sunset, a so-called love story that encourages the selfish tendencies of modern movie-makers and audiences. Our cultural divide can be felt in the very concept of this movie about the mutual attraction of two navel-gazers: Ethan Hawke as an American novelist and Julie Delpy as a French environmentalist, the same pair that met nine years ago in Before Sunrise. Not just thirtysomethings, now they're smug thirtysomethings; other people and the outside world do not puncture their intellectual cocoon. Life, as abundantly displayed in Son Frère, The Terminal, Eternal Sunshine, A Thousand Clouds of Peace, The Ladykillers, Strayed, The Dreamers and Napoleon Dynamite, is blocked out of director Richard Linklater's storytelling. And the transformative vision that distinguished The Passion, Torque, Father and Son, The Return, Shaolin Soccer, Greendale, Bon Voyage and Teacher's Pet is beyond Linklater's esthetic. That means artistry is outside the contemporary movie standard that Before Sunset represents.

It's been a fair-to-good movie year thus far anyway: two masterpieces that affirm what it means to be human and nearly a dozen other movies that sustain the media's capacity to show life freshly. The existence of these movies is heartening, but their dismissal by critics (which lessened the films' cultural impact) is nearly cause for despair. People who were reminded by Eternal Sunshine that movies could connect to their emotional lives might have felt a similar excitement from The Terminal and A Thousand Clouds and The Ladykillers. Instead, the adept but trivial cartoonishness of Spider-Man 2 is celebrated with almost patriotic loyalty. That means moviegoers are discouraged from taking movies seriously, urged to prefer "fun" over edification, the ersatz over the true.

This is frightening when you consider how many reviewers referred to the real-life story of the Iranian emigre stuck in a Paris airport as a way to discredit The Terminal. That criticism contains the worthless and hypocritical implication that Iranian experience (and Iranian cinema) is more real than a sensitive interpretation from Hollywood's most conscientious artist. The film's examination of America as both myth and multicultural, class-conflicted reality was cruelly disregarded—as was Patrice Chereau's equation of gay and straight life imperatives in the great, tragic Son Frère. These films elevate cinema from the realm of commercial product. Their artistry is in their lifelikeness. Along with Eternal Sunshine, they make our own personal experiences memorable and valuable by connecting us to others. Spielberg, Chereau and Michel Gondry inspire audiences to think, which is just as important as the way Gibson, Sokurov, Joseph Kahn, the Coens and Andrei Zvyagintsev cause us to marvel.

These filmmakers are the ones who justify movie passion in 2004. They sustain cinematic potential. Even The Dreamers, Bon Voyage and Crimson Gold were reminders that the medium could be interesting without pandering to a sensation-addicted youth market. Bertolucci's film seemed almost embarrassingly out of touch and couldn't muster much of an audience despite its NC-17 hard-sell; still it is especially worthwhile for the way it combined an out-dated, unfashionable regard of cinema with the still-pertinent obsessions of youth. Far from the best film of the year, The Dreamers explicitly evoked the sexual and political essence in cinema and faith in humanity—which too many contemporary filmmakers and filmgoers have forgotten.

Everything wrong with today's movie culture can be found in Before Sunset. Not to exaggerate this pipsqueak movie, but its very "smallness" is symptomatic of the diminished expectations and paltry substance that have become standard. Linklater's screenplay collaboration with his performers enshrines the indie audience's solipsistic taste. Their nonvoluptuous love story reduces courtship rituals to talk—and unexciting talk at that. The woman is slyly aggressive, and the man is abashed about his desperation. Linklater, Hawke and Delpy are not rejecting the screwball comedy model so much as indulging their own lack of imagination. (Any episode of tv's Elimidate or Blind Date tell us as much about how men and women feign and risk.) It's a grim joke that anyone took this method seriously the first time around, and the sequel will feel superfluous to anyone except those viewers vain enough to see themselves in Hawke and Delpy. The sign of Linklater's facetiousness is that his couple comes off as over-sincere and pretentious rather than embarrassingly real.

It's a Sundance fallacy that Linklater (and Kevin Smith's execrable Chasing Amy) gets the precise tone of modern lovers. Loving doesn't change, but how people fancy their attractiveness or intelligence is often a matter of fashion, and Linklater is practiced at hipster intellectuality. (Waking Life was a snooze.) A screenwriter as gifted as Whit Stillman can show how lovers avoid talking about themselves, but all Hawke and Delpy do is parade their obnoxiousness. When he says, "I'm designed to be dissatisfied with everything," and she boasts, "I'm a romantic," it's a meeting of non-minds. This couple and their enabler are really stuck on themselves. By rejecting traditional movie romanticism, they deprive the audience's romantic needs.

Before Sunset's key insult is its pretense of realism. Starting with Linklater's long-take, dollying-camera scenes (a favored trope since Slackers), the eavesdropping technique can only fool the most naive spectators. Linklater's real-time fascination is not fascinating; he insists that audiences acquiesce to his refusal of wonder; he films Paris like Hoboken. There's nothing like that time-stopping illusion in The Terminal where dinner between Tom Hanks and Catherine Zeta-Jones seems both intimate and surreal. Hawke and Delpy's loquacity never transforms into lyricism. In great romantic films, conversation and wit are stylized into poetry. Reality gets transformed. Actors need to articulate other peoples' genius or, at best, embody complex feelings. These actor-screenwriters just aren't witty enough.

It's easy to contrast Before Sunset with the luminescence of Eternal Sunshine, but the simple fact is, it fails comparison with the most ardent moments of even modest recent films. In Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life, Angelina Jolie tells her alpha-male ex, "I'm not leaving because I couldn't kill you. I'm leaving because I could." In Torque, Ice Cube's flirtatious girlfriend silences his macho jealousy with the simple insistence, "I love you!" Such classic expressions of passion represent a good reason why people go to the movies: to see their most complicated feelings clarified, immortalized. But Before Sunset turns complexity to collegiate drivel.

Compare the way Delpy greets her long-gone one-night-stand, saying, "Memory is a wonderful thing if you don't have to deal with the past." It's banal. Her confession, "Each relationship really damages me; I never really recover," is worse. She never gets over herself. A crushingly middlebrow, middle-class egotism ruins all their exchanges. Maybe that's why critics love it. They flatter themselves by approving such bad badinage as Delpy asking, "Would you have written the book if you were fucking every five minutes?" and Hawke responds, "I would have welcomed the challenge." That's disingenuous, or else a pitiful attempt at Woody Allen—not Eric Rohmer.

Without the style to create romantic illusion, the film is left with the persistent vanity of former teen beauties. This aspect of Before Sunset is, at least, poignant. Hawke looks gaunt and wasted; the bloom is off Delpy, yet her acting seems sincere. There's a scene where she refrains from touching Hawke that says more than her chatter. And she ends the movie with an endearing impersonation of Nina Simone's walk. If she'd rather have a real role to play, who could blame her? o

Volume 17, Issue 27

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