Movies Are My Wife

Married to the Movies — Mdino's Blog

BEFORE SUNRISE (1995)

Alfred Hitchcock deplored movies that amounted to “pictures of people talking.” He considered the making of a film containing little action and structured around conversations to be the worst crime a filmmaker could commit. The irony that a work such as NOTORIOUS (1946) essentially fits that description and remains one of Hitchcock’s greatest masterpieces, was apparently lost on the master director. Hitch’s assessment can also be shot down with a viewing of Louis Malle’s MY DINNER WITH ANDRE (1981), a film that is not just a talk fest, but one of the most fascinating and riveting cinematic treats of the 1980s. If the conversation is bright and intriguing… It is with these possibilities in mind that I viewed BEFORE SUNRISE (1995). This very wordy (but never verbose), one hundred minute long acting exercise follows the conversations between a young American named Jessie (Ethan Hawke) and a French woman (Celine, played by Julie Delpy) as they spend a day and night traversing the breathtaking landscape of Vienna in the late Spring.

Jessie (his real name is James but his friends call him Jessie – perhaps because he shoots from the hip), first encounters Celine on a Vienna bound train as they travel through Europe. He is just “traveling around.” She is returning from Hungary where she was visiting her Grandmother, and plans to take the train to Paris. The first shot of the film is a clue that they will be together – at least temporarily: The parallel rails of a train track as the locomotive speeds on its way. Celine and Jessie meet when she changes her seat to avoid a bickering couple (Andrea Eckert and Hanno Poschl). This is another clue: BEFORE SUNRISE will be about relationships, especially the conflicting personalities of men and women. One of the first lines in their conversation will be about conversations, with Celine remarking, “As couples grow older they lose their ability to hear each other.” It seems men lose the ability to hear high-pitched sounds and women lose touch with the lower pitched end of the spectrum. While she is referring to a literal loss, her statement could also be interpreted along figurative or symbolic lines, as we recall the arguing couple.

Later, as they ride a tram through Vienna, the subject turns to sex and love. When the couple play a version of twenty questions, Jessie asks about her first sexual attraction. Celine asks if he has ever been in love. This is the eternal divide with women interested in love and men forever obsessed with sex.

The film could also be read as an exploration of the differences between Europeans and Americans. She is cosmopolitan and speaks several languages (including English) while he is a self-described “crude American” who has only mastered English. Celine is preoccupied with stories of her Grandmother and sees herself as an elderly and wise woman (though she is only in her mid twenties.) Jessie thinks of himself as a very young boy and it is laid out clearly: Europe, the older, wiser partner and America the young snot nosed kid, will always be in conflict. Jessie plays the ignorant, ugly American joke to the hilt. When Celine points out the Danube from atop a ferris wheel, he jokes “That’s the river, right?” And he is genuinely cynical. Encountering a fortune-teller on the street, the grandmotherly woman (Erni Mangold) reads Celine’s palm, eliciting disdain from Jessie. Celine, of course, believes in the woman, partially perhaps, because of her respect for the aged. Jessie will have none of it. Affecting a Romany accent, he recreates what he feels a truthful palmist would tell a disappointed old lady. “You’re life will be a tedious collection of hours with no new passions.”

But Celine is falling for him. AS they happen upon an impoverished street poet (Dominik Castell) who asks the couple to suggest a word he will use in a poem (in exchange for a small donation), Celine picks a uniquely American one:”Milkshake.” The poem he creates on the spot is all about relationships and ends with the query “Don’t you know me by now?”

Stopping in a pub, they play pinball while once again discussing love. Both seem to take out some suppressed anger on the machine. Hitting the button with more and more intensity as they take turns, there is a sense of barely subdued violence and perhaps, sexual tension. Jessie: Love is for people afraid to be alone. There’s nothing more selfish!” Later, after leaving the pub, he reveals a paranoid streak when he states, “On some level women don’t mind the idea of destroying a man.” Celine is more philosophical, saying “Isn’t everything we do in life a way to be loved a little more?”

There is ample discussion about God and the deeper meaning of existence. An emotionally pointed scene has the couple visiting a cemetery. The countless black crucifixes that decorate the landscape of the grounds remind us of comments Jessie made earlier about reincarnation, in which he states his belief that the million or so souls that populated the world at the beginning have splintered into the six or seven billion that exist today. The crosses stretch to the horizon and we are struck by the universality of human existence.

We see the couple working together in a revelatory scene in yet another pub. Jessie talks the bartender (Hayman Maria Buttinger) into giving him a bottle of wine (the broke American is now the panhandler), while Celine steals wine glasses from under the preoccupied barkeeper’s nose. In an isolated park the two share the wine, and apparently sex, but not before much discussion as to whether the latter is a good idea. Jessie, of course, thinks it’s a great one, eventually having his way with Celine.

As morning beckons, Celine and Jessie end up on a deserted street dancing to harpsichord music played by a man in a nearby apartment (Wolfgang Gluxam), just as they danced the night before to “Yakety Sax” at an amusement park. The crude red neck American song has given way to the elegant strains of European classical music. Celine and Jessie have each given up a piece of themselves for the relationship.

At the train station that morning, they agree to meet again “six months from last night.” Originally they intended to keep their evening together a one night affair – something to remember for the rest of their lives – but emotions got the better of them – even the love leery American. In what appears to be a nod to Yasujiro Ozu, Linklatter closes his film with shots of all the places the couple visited during the previous night. Each location is now empty (Ozu frequently ends a scene on a shot of an empty room – creating a feeling of melancholy), except for an old man in the town square and an elderly woman in the park where the couple indulged in the pilfered wine and much debated sexual coupling. No matter our experiences in life, we often end up old and alone. Perhaps it will be a mistake for the two to meet again. I may view the sequels that followed to find out Celine and Jessie’s ultimate opinion of their decision. The continuing conversation would be an interesting one on which to eavesdrop.

CREDITS: Produced by Anne Walker-McBay. Directed by Richard Linklater. Written by Richard Linklater and Kim Krizan. photographed by Lee Daniel. Edited by Sandra Adair. WITH: Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy, Andrea Eckert, Hanno Poschl, Erin Mangold,Dominik Castell, Hayman Maria Buttinger and Wolfgang Gluxam.

Advertisements

July 24, 2013 Posted by | 1990s cinema, American Film, film directors, film drama, films set in Austria, independent film | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

fast, cheap & out of control (1997)

Errol morris’ existential documentary “fast, cheap & out of control” (1997) often has the feel of a fellini movie – with its big top scenes and nino rota style music score by caleb sampson.  But if the “circus of life” attitude is prevalent throughout, it is tempered by a somewhat somber mood concerning the human condition.  Somber, perhaps because there is a belief held by some of those interviewed for the film, in the inevitable decline of humanity.  Maybe this is the reason the films’s title and the names of the principal humans involved are all presented in lower case letters.   Well, maybe…

Fast, cheap & out of control, examines the lives and work of four men, all of whom are involved in vocations that are admirably unique.  They are, in order of their first appearances in the film, dave hoover, a wild animal trainer, george mendonca, a topiary gardener, ray mendez, and expert on the naked mole rat and rodney brooks, a robot maker.  Emerging from the exploration of these wildly disparate careers, is the theme of life, human and animal, real and artificial. 

Mendez and brooks began their careers with a fascination for insects – brooks for how they moved and mendez particularly interested in their societal structures.    Brooks as a young man loved to build computers, then became enthralled with the world of robots.  Even after entering a career as a robot maker, he was startled to see one of his creations actually move.  He was responsible for the movement, after all, but was never-the-less intoxicated by the belief that he somehow created a form of life. 

George mendonca, it could be said, is a creator of life as well – specializing in huge animals sculpted from bushes.  A haunting shot, near the start of the film, features a giraffe seen from a low angle, darkened skies pouring down rain.  Stunningly photographed by robert richardson, the “green animal” seems just in time to board Noah’s ark.  This may be seen by some as a strangely apocalyptic image for such a beautiful film, but as we will see, an appropriate one. 

If the men seem exceptionally nerdy, human bonding is seen as essential as told in the story of dave hoover’s developing relationship with a childhood heroe –  lion tamer and “B” picture star, Clyde Beatty.  First introduced to lion taming by beatty’s films, hoover later met his idol in the air force and the two became friends. 

Although all four of these intriguing gentleman are given roughly equal screen time, it soon becomes clear that the circus milieu of hoover’s profession will act as the major metaphor.  As a microcosm of life, it is rarely surpassed.  Fellini was well aware of this and so is errol morris.  Every variety of humans is found here, as well as a startling array of animals.  Morris frequently places commentary by all four subjects over circus footage.  We see images of balancing acts – a man balancing a glass of water on his forehead, dogs balancing on a spinning wheel and women atop large rubber balls.  Life, it would appear is seen by the filmmaker as, indeed, a balancing act – for man and beast alike.  As hoover and mendez attest, we learn by trial and error.  Hoover even had a near death experience in his act, when a lion’s claw got tangled in the band of his wristwatch.  The lesson learned by hoover?  Never wear a watch again – at least not while dealing with man-eating animals.   

According to rodney brooks, evolution is as important in the creation of robots, as he feels it is in man’s.  “Inside the human brain is a reptile brain.  Inside a reptile brain is a fish brain.”  All life is connected – even artificial life, which he sees as an evolutionary extension of man – and the final exalting level of man’s journey.  In a surreal piece of stock footage, we see a man walking a robot on a leash.  The leash won’t be necessary for long.  But george mendonca has a conflicting view, explaining in-depth why hand shears are superior to electric shears.  It is the human touch that makes them so effective. 

Despite this, man is always learning.  As rodney brooks points out, “I seek to understand life by building something lifelike.”  And ray mendez explains that people come to his mole rat exhibits to “find themselves in another social animal, to find common ground.”  And much common ground there is.  Mendez discusses how mole rats are always able to “find the alien in their midst”, sensing by smell (these weird little animals like to roll around in their own feces and urine) which rat may be a newcomer, and behaving with the mandatory scorn.  Hoover feels lions are very conscious beings, always “scheming” , he reports.  Mendez believes the source of stability for all living things is the fear of death.  It keeps us, for the most part, in line.  But there are differences as well.  He states that mole rats are forced to separate the sick and dying from the heard.  By contrast, when the chips are down, humans “culturally let everybody die.”  There is an undeniable air of the poetic, as morris follows these words with a shot of empty shoes at the foot of a circus net. 

The title is explained when brooks discusses a theory that thousands of tiny robots could be used to explore other planets.  Such robots would be “fast, cheap and out of control,”  With many robots, the loss of one or two would be less damaging to the mission.  These comments are accompanied by shots of World War II paratroopers leaping from planes, and are followed by mendez describing how “soldiers” protect the mole rat nest. 

As with all forms of life, keeping animal sculptures (and the plants that form them) alive is a constant battle.  There are heavy storms that weigh them down and, of course, insects.  It may all begin and end with insects – or insect like robots. 

A final note of philosophy comes from ray mendez: “Only in captivity can an animal get to reach old age.”  This may say more about the human condition than anything else in the film.  Eventually,  death is the ultimate fate of all living things, except perhaps, those that are artificially created.  As rodney brooks suggests, all carbon based forms of life may be on their way out.  Stock footage from old clyde beatty serials, shows volcanoes erupting and earthquakes rattling the planet.  After this we are shown a circus clown being chased by a skeleton.  But there is hope for the continued existence of mankind, according to morris, who uses footage of beatty emerging from the ruins with a small boy and other examples of trembling humanity.

The final image is of george mendonca, umbrella in hand, walking through his topiary garden as a steady rain falls on him and his creations.  Errol morris may believe, not in the decline of man, but in what he would probably refer to as man’s proper place in the chain of life.   This is not an apocalyptic rain after all, but rather one conducive to life – in all its forms.

CREDITS: Directed by errol morris. Photographed by robert richardson. Music by caleb sampson. With: dave hoover, george mendonca, ray mendez, rodney brooks.            

April 23, 2013 Posted by | 1990s cinema, American Film, documentary, film directors | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment