Friday, June 28, 2013

Film Friday: Before Midnight

It's wonderful to know that a movie about two people bullshitting for ninety-odd minutes can matter, and even make a tidy profit.  And to see three such movies now over 18 years with the same two people bullshitting and still mattering? That's inspiring.

Richard Linklater's third and probably final installment in the lives of Jesse and Celine, Before Midnight, gives us a pair of grown-ups struggling with real-world problems and still managing to address the more abstract, existentialist issues that their younger selves talked about in 1995's Before Sunrise.  In the first film, Jesse and Celine meet on a train coming to Vienna, and he persuades her to spend the day and night with him before his plane leaves for the States the next day.  They do, and have a fascinating, romantic conversation all through the streets of the city, meeting a few oddball characters.  In the second film, 2004's Before Sunset, Jesse is in Paris at a book signing, having written his novel about that night in Vienna, and Celine goes to find him.  They spend the rest of the film talking about their lives since then, but where the first film ends with a romantic promise to meet again (a promise that was not kept, though one of them had a good excuse, a death in the family), this one simply ends with the two of them back at Celine's apartment, and Jesse apparently going to miss his plane back to New York, where he lives with his wife and son.

And now, it's nine years later, and we see Jesse putting his teenaged son on a plane from Greece back to the States. It's turned out that Jesse did stay with Celine, and that they have twin daughters (though they have not married).  Jesse and his wife got a very bitter and angry divorce, and she and their son live in Chicago, with the boy spending summers in Europe with Jesse and Celine. In this goodbye at the airport, the kid seems pretty level-headed, considering, and Jesse is obviously wracked with guilt at how all this has played out for him. His worries about his son trigger much of the intense conversation that the film gives us between this couple, now in their early forties.

Unlike the first two films, which really only give us the two lovers, Before Midnight gives us a middle scene with a few other characters who also talk about the meanings of life and love.  The couple and their children have been in Greece for six weeks as part of an opportunity for Jesse to write at the house of an older, prestigious author, and his friends and family all share in the experience.  Here we find out about what happened immediately after Jesse missed the plane, and yes, he's written a sequel to his first book about that day and night.   The inclusion of these scenes makes sense, as  they show an intimacy and friendship that shows different generations' ideas on love and life's meaning.  But it also gives us a contrast to the real struggles of Jesse and Celine's relationship.

They walk through the town  on their way to a hotel, a gift from their Greek hosts on their last night, so that  can have a night alone while they watch their daughters. But a call from Jesse's son to Celine interrupts their intimacy, and leads to an extensive argument about their relationship, each one pointing fingers at the other, complaining about the sacrifices they have made for the other one, and hurting each other at almost every word.  This fight has been long in coming -- during the drive from the airport, each has talked about changes in their lives, Jesse considering moving to the States to be with his son, Celine thinking about taking a government job instead of struggling to make a difference at a nonprofit group, and each seemingly talking at cross-purposes -- but it explodes in that hotel room.  The long conversation during the long walk to the hotel has captured some of the wistfulness of their travel through Vienna in the first film, as they contemplate life at forty and how different it is than at 20. You only have a few years of really having your own life, Jesse says, from the time you first leave your parents' house to the time you have kids.

And yep, that's about right.  And since we (me, my wife, people of our generation who have grown up with these two) have cared so much about Jesse and Celine to follow their lives on screen for nearly twenty years, we flinch when they fight, because we recognize so much of what they are saying.  The Times  noted that recent films are showing how much work it is to maintain marriage. (Coincidence that such films are coming out amid the changes regarding marriage laws and sexuality?)  It sure as shit is.  And all those crazy dreams we have when we are young  are hard to fathom when you've got to figure out who picks up the kids at school, when you get quizzed on the name of their pediatrician (and yes, I bet almost every woman knows it, and very few guys do), when you realize you have not an adult conversation in years.

Of course, Jesse and Celine's circumstances  are still exaggerated for the screen, but they are not far-fetched. That's because Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, who coscripted the film with Linklater, as they did with  Before Sunset, are so terrific together again.  They know these two very well, and their conversations, no matter how intense, always seem real. Linklater also gives us a feel for the Greek settings with some fine steadicam work through the landscapes of country and town.  And the secondary characters are perfectly placed and well-acted by an international cast.  But the heart of the film, as it has always been, is the relationship between Jesse and Celine, how interesting they are to each other, how much they love each other, and how much we are interested in them. The film ends somewhat ambiguously, and that's probably about right for them.  Let's face it, this is hard shit. Yet I hope this is the last film about them.  Can these three talents pull it off one more time?  I don't know.

In thinking about Jesse and Celine, I'm reminded of two songs of the same title, "Tunnel of Love."  Dire Straits' 1980 song is a youthful memory, of two young lovers who meet at a seaside amusement park, spend the day/night, and part in an ultra-romantic manner:
                                                 she took off her silver locket,
                                                 and said remember me by this,
                                                 she put her hand in my hip pocket
                                                 I got a keepsake and a kiss

very romantic, very lush, especially aided by the sweeping keyboard work of E. Street Band's Roy Bittan. (Springsteen's egineer on Born To Run, Jimmy Iovine, was the producer of the Dire Straits album Making Movies, whose first song is "Tunnel of Love.")

And speaking of Springsteen, "Tunnel of Love" is the title track to his 1987 follow-up to the blockbuster Born in the U.S.A.  A modest hit considering the success of the previous album, the song gives us some seeming cliches about the funhouse rides, and it seems like he must be speaking in metaphor throughout. But the last verse really tells it like it is, for the older Jesse and Celine, and for us:

                                                 Well it oughta be easy, oughta be simple enough:
                                                 man meets woman and they fall in love, but the 
                                                 house is haunted and the ride gets rough     
                                                 you've got to learn to live with what you can't rise above

That's pretty much what we're all doing, trying to live with the baggage, the stress, and the shit that we can't rise above.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

An Evolving View of Marriage

Yesterday the Supreme Court struck down DOMA and California's Prop 8.  It's probably not for me to say where this decision fits on the timetable of Major Events in the Gay Rights movement in America; perhaps it's too soon for anyone, regardless of sexuality, to place it.  But it is fair to suggest it's a biggie.  And the movement towards greater social equality is only going to get stronger in time. My kids' generation will likely not think it's important how one identifies oneself sexually, and I hope that that means that fewer kids who are just entering puberty now are going to try killing themselves -- be it literally, or long-term via depression/substance-abuse/self-loathing/etc. -- because they are queer.

I'd rather reflect on my own take on the subject, where I've changed, what I think now, etc.

In the seventies, in my schoolyard, I saw two girls -- fourth-graders, I think -- dressed up in communion dresses and get "married."  It was all play, though of course I have no idea where these two girls are now.  I don't remember seeing them before or since.  It was show, spectacle.  I remember hearing the chants from the older boys: "lezbos! lezbos!" That was funny to me, at twelve, like a lot of stupid shit.  Homosexuality was something that was in the cultural air, but generally, a source of ridicule, especially gay men.  But there were some more nuanced portrayals scattered about, like Billy Crystal's character on Soap -- still played for laughs, but not always going with type.  (Jody Campbell was an ambivalent representation -- even though he was openly gay, he had a heterosexual relationship that led to a pregnancy.  But when he fought for custody rights, his response to her lawyer's nasty question "are you a practicing homosexual? is burned in my memory: "no, I don't practice, I do it very well, thank you!"  Crystal struck a perfect blend of petulance and righteous indignation.

I had homophobic teachers in high school, some of whom I'm sure are stunned at what's happened in the past thirty years.  I'm sure a few kids were bullied and namecalled with anti-gay language, even if the bullies weren't even addressing the question of their victim's sexuality. At college, there were more openly gay students, and I recall a major anti-discrimination bill that would have been an important landmark had the city council had the nerve to pass it.   (And I was told by an ultra-lib prof that shortly after this council vote, the university president's daughter, something of a ditz, commented that one of the reasons she liked our city was because "there were no gay people here, not like in New York or San Francisco.")  

I've spent most of my adult life in New York, with all those gay people the prez's daughter didn't think existed in her city.   I've lived through the passage of civil unions and now legalized marriage for same-sex couples.  I've lived through the epidemic of AIDS, and saw tons of activists who helped to bring awareness and help.  And I hope the sacrifices others have made generations before I was born -- I was a baby at the time of Stonewall -- will be appreciated by all future ones. 

Under the Clinton Administration, Congress passed the Defense of Marriage Act.   During that time, one of the central concerns gay rights activists had centered on health care.  Married spouses could get health insurance, but gay couples could not do the same.  There are other legal protections marriage brings that domestic partners are not entitled to, even heterosexual partnerships (but if you live with someone of the opposite sex long enough, you can be considered a common-law spouse, not the case if you are homosexual.)  I used to give a glib comment on such matters: if the United States had universal healthcare, would it matter who got married to whom?  In my time, opportunistic marriages became more about health bennies than anything else! 

I also had something of a libertarian streak on the matter: if marriage was going to be defined as something "sacred" and related to some kind of covenant between Man and God, well then that smacks of State Religion, expressly prohibited by the First Amendment.  If you're gonna tell me that marriage is a religious practice, then the state has no business recognizing any marriage.  That also means that the state cannot provide any extra privileges to married couples.  The state could set up civil unions that provided protections and then each local government might rule on defining those,  but stay out of the "m" word.

Of course such a suggestion is not practical.  There are too many intricacies pertaining to martial economics that would collapse into an indecipherable mess, especially if civil unions are not uniformly defined across state lines.  This is why marriage equality matters.   I no longer have an ambivalence on the subject.  I won't even make the jokes in the Dangerfied/Youngman tradition suggesting that perhaps homosexuals might want to reconsider getting married if they knew what it was like. My marriage is not under threat because my queer friends are now married too.  

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Yes, MTV Played Videos, part 1,387,756,009: The Residents!

Just a very short note here.  I came across this article in the Journal of Film and Video, the publication of the University Film and Video Association.  It does exactly what the title says: it situates the weird avant-garde multi-media-platform group the Residents in specific historical/media contexts.  The link takes you to the ProjectMUSE web page containing citation information and a small sample from the article.  If you have an account, or if you have access to databases like it and JSTOR and others through an academic institution, you can get the pdf for free.

One of the things I'd forgotten about the group was that their amazing videos were played on MTV.  They were among the videos played that very first day of MTV's existence in August 1981.  Everyone of course knows the first video played was Buggles' "Video Killed the Radio Star," but these weirdos from who-knows-where got quite a lot of airplay in those early times. 

Go to youtube; you can subscribe to their own channel, or just search "The Residents," and just imagine being fourteen and watching this on MTV.  Men at Work it ain't.  It does go to show you that in those first few months, no one was quite sure what MTV would become, so they tried lots of different things.  Soon enough, pretty boys and hair bands and sophomoric humor became the norm, and then eventually, videos were replaced with reality tv shows.  But for a short while, crazy shit like the Residents offered a glimpse of What Might Have Been.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Film Friday: Epic

Chris Wedge, of Ice Age fame, has created a new movie, oddly called Epic, which seems to be about the tiny worlds that exist in nature, and whose balance the entire planet needs to maintain or else.  In keeping with this eco-friendly theme, the basic plotlines and characters are recycled from numerous other such animated features of the last fifteen or twenty years. 

MK is a teenager who has apparently recently lost her mother and has now gone to stay with her estranged father. Mom and dad divorced because apparently he was so obsessed with proving that there was a tiny civilization in the forest near their home that she decided he was crazy and left him.  Guess it's not a spoiler to tell you that Dad was right, but he's not the one who really proves it: the girl ends up inadvertently getting involved in the crisis involving the two oppositional forces in the tiny civilizations.  

And so you have the stock characters: the young hero who is extremely gifted but undisciplined; he's commanding officer -- who was the hero's father's best friend; the wise if clownish old scholar; the comical sidekicks (one of whom is probably gay, in keeping with simplistic stereotypes); the villain who is seeking power for little reason other than he's the villain.  You have intermittently exciting special effects, especially if you pay the extra to see it in 3D.  You have a plot very predictable and pretty uncomplicated.  And good triumphs, though as my older kid pointed out, if the villain is destroyed (which seems to be the case, though with all this money being spent it's very likely he will return for a sequel), then balance is actually not restored since you need to have both green and colorful growth AND the decomposition brought on by Rot.  

But then, my oldest is already too old for the demographic that this modestly amusing film is aimed at. The little ones will probably like it, though some of the battle scenes might be too scary.  The adults will ho-hum this one off and wait for the next Superman movie, which, I understand, is coming out soon. (Not that I am sure of that, what with the ads for it all over the entire city...)