I loved the idea of two strangers meeting on a train, spontaneously jumping off in Vienna, and wandering through the city’s night life lost in a meandering and unpredictable conversation. It was as rare a pleasure for moviegoers then as it is today. (Note: Abbas Kairostami’s Certified Copy may have been inspired, in part, by this film, and it’s my favorite film of the last several years.) I had recently returned from my first trip to Europe, and the movie made me long to return, to know that enchantment of exploring an older city for the first time.
But something aggravated me about the film.
I suspect that my discomfort had a lot to do with the fact that I was 24, and I thought Ethan Hawke was almost unbearably cocky and full of himself. His insecurity bothered me, and I was feeling very insecure. His cynicism bothered me, perhaps because I was cynical. A relationship that I fully expected would last a lifetime had just collapsed, leaving my heart torn open and my dreams destroyed, and I was really not in the mood to be inspired by romance. But overall, I think I was upset to see in Ethan Hawke’s Jesse such a garish exaggeration of traits that I disliked in myself.
Returning to the film a decade later, I liked it better. The characters seemed completely convincing. And, having written a lot of film criticism, I was more attentive to Linklater’s craft. I admired what he achieved in the film’s pacing, editing, and in its generous array of delicate moments. Before Sunrise is filled with subtle exchanges that seem entirely improvised, moments of of connection and disconnection and endearingly awkward body language. Also, I had been happily — no, joyously — married for more than eight years. I was in a place of confidence and hope. And I could look back with some measure of humility at a reflection (however exaggerated) of the snarky and self-contradicting college kid I had been.
I was watching it, of course, to prepare for the opening of the sequel, Before Sunset, which I liked even better than Before Sunrise, and which concluded with what remains one of my favorite final moments at the movies.
Watching Before Sunrise again tonight, in preparation for the release of the third movie, Before Midnight, I am in love with this movie.
I have no problem at all seeing the weaknesses of my younger self on full display in Hawke’s performance. In fact, I find myself admiring that character for his courage, for how he clearly values the conversation along the way, for how he convinces me that he would, yes, be decent enough to complete his overnight adventure without getting laid. Further, I am enchanted by Julie Delpy, who seems too young to create such a persuasively thoughtful character. What actress in her early 20s today could pull that off? Only Jennifer Lawrence comes to mind.
But wait, there’s more. I am enthralled by how perfectly Before Sunrise captures a kind of experience that I value now more than ever… the experience of moving ghost-like through an urban setting at twilight, at midnight, and in the moments before dawn. I love discovering a new place in the company of someone I enjoy, and meandering in such a way that the conversation becomes unpredictable. I love having the time to be spontaneous. I long for that kind of time today. It has been more than 20 years since I wandered aimlessly alleys in England, Ireland, Wales, and France, and I feel sick with jealousy when I see snapshots taken by students who are off on study tours today. Experiencing that kind of adventure vicariously through with Jesse and Celine is a joy.
Finally — and I couldn’t have appreciated this in previous viewings — Linklater has captured a kind of relationship here that is almost impossible now.
Thank God… he captured romance at the sunset of gadget-free existence.
Watch Before Sunrise again and consider how it would be different if Jesse and Celine had been carrying cell phones, cameras, iPads, Kindles, laptops. They would have hovered over screens, finding the best way to get from Point A to Point B. They would have social networked their experiences. They would have stopped to photograph things. They would have texted friends. And none of those things would have been immoral or even inappropriate. But… but… the powerful intimacy would have been disrupted, interrupted, and it would have inclined them toward a kind of self-awareness and an urge to document their time in ways that took their attention off of each other. Holy moments happen when we are fully engaged in an intimate way, when no gadget or lens comes between us and our immediate company and surroundings.
I think of Jesus’ disciples who, when they witnessed him talking with Moses and Elijah, immediately wanted to build a structure in which to capture the experience. Jesus talked them out of it. It had happened there, for them, in real time, in real space, for their attention. To turn and “make something of it” right then would change the nature of the experience.
How compelled I feel today, hour by hour, to own particular moments by “making something of them.” It’s a good impulse. It is a creative impulse. And yet, to always be making something of a moment is a kind of vanity. It is a way of exercising power over a moment, of expressing one’s own experience rather than actually “sharing” an experience. It’s a painful irony, that what we call “sharing” in the world of social media underlines that the moment being “shared” is already over, impossible to retrieve or share. In our desire for intimacy, we settle for something more second-hand, more anecdotal. And in making a habit of this, our compulsive “saving” and “documenting” activities interfere with our ability to fully “receive” experiences.
When Anne and I were married in 1996, we decided ahead of time that we would not allow anyone to make a video of the wedding. We did not ever want to experience those events from anyone else’s vantage point. We didn’t want to see a version that was anything less than the full experience. And to this day, I am grateful for that decision. I remember what I saw, what I heard, what I felt, from the place where my two fidgety feet were planted. And nothing interferes with that. Nobody has taken it away from me.
I share this with people, and sometimes they get angry, as if I’m criticizing or attacking them. “I love my wedding video,” one woman said. “I’ve watched it a dozen times. It’s priceless to me.” And that’s fine. I’m glad she enjoys it. But when I think of my visit to Paris, the first things that come to mind are the photographs I’ve examined countless times since my actual visit. It’s harder for me to plant myself back in those physical spaces, to smell the smells and hear the sounds. But when I think of walking down the aisle, arm-in-arm with Anne, there isn’t a single photograph that comes to mind. What I remember is motion, the thrill of walking past pew after pew full of smiling faces, the way they laughed when they realized what piece of music we had chosen for our recessional. I remember the experience, not the souvenir.
Sam Phillips sings,
When I take a picture of the city
It’s only a photograph.
The city is gone.
The places I go
Are never there.
During the Vienna sunrise, Jesse tells Celine to stand still. “I’m going to take your picture,” he says. And then he just stares, intently.
They stare at each other in silence, seeking to burn the moment into their memories.
They are fully present to one another, experiencing one another in a way that would be lost if he had pulled out an iPhone and taken an actual picture.
And we are watching celluloid, unaltered light and shadow, seeing Jesse and Celine, and Ethan and Julie, and Vienna, as they were then — having undiluted, concentrated moments.
How hard it is to go and do likewise now, when meandering has become so rare, and our busyness in documenting our experiences so complicates and dilutes experience itself. There’s nothing wrong with the creative impulse, and our lives are enriched by photography and note-taking and recordings of all kinds. But the pendulum is swinging too far, the world so crowded with cameras and recorders that what used to be so available, so natural, so free — authentic and unadulterated experience — has become something we must fight against the world, and ourselves, to get back.