One of the greatest thinking person’s film trilogies has got to be writer-director Richard Linklater’s “Before” series, comprising Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight. All three titles star Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, whose characters chance encounter aboard a train in the first film ultimately shapes their lives. I saw Before Sunrise when it was originally released to theaters in 1995. The film’s story, about a young American tourist (Hawke) and a young French student (Delpy), takes place over the course of a single day, beginning when the two meet aboard a west-bound train from Budapest. He’s traveling to Vienna to catch his flight home, while she’s returning from a family visit on her way back to Paris to continue her studies at the Sorbonne. Their initial connection is magnetic enough for him to suggest that she get off the train with him in Vienna to share a day of sightseeing, as he had planned to walk the city until flying out the next morning. Intrigued enough by the prospect of this unlikely one-day romance, she agrees to his suggestion. What follows is a series of deeply felt conversations about life, love, and future plans set against postcard views of one of Europe’s most picturesque and elegant cities.
While I retained positive, though cloudy, memories of Before Sunrise nearly twenty years on, I’d actually forgotten how captivating it was until I caught it again on TV recently. I’d recorded it so that I could refresh my memory in anticipation of the newest chapter in the story, Before Midnight, which was released last year. My plan was to skip my way through it (just watching enough to get the feel of the movie), but I quickly found that I wanted to watch it fully. As a sort of anti-action movie, it’s the dialogue that completely propels the story forward. Although the leads may be freshly-scrubbed types, their conversations paint them as deep-thinking individuals who question most every aspect of their existence. The actors are winning – even the sometimes inconsistent Ethan Hawke – and the film, though often serious in tone, is utterly charming.
Having reacquainted myself with Before Sunrise, it was time to take another look at Before Sunset. Then something funny happened. Upon reading the synopsis of Before Sunset in the library’s online catalog, I realized that I’d never seen it! With Before Midnight already waiting for me on the Franklin Avenue Library’s hold shelf, I scrambled to find a copy of Before Sunset to watch before my hold request lapsed – likely meaning it’d be several more weeks before my turn in the queue came up again. Fortunately, Before Sunset was checked in at another Des Moines Public Library branch and arrived quickly!
Before Sunset, which came out nine years after Before Sunrise, actually picks up the story after a similar (though fictional) nine-year interim, with the same director and stars. What sets Before Sunset apart from the other two films in this trilogy is that it’s told in real time, that is, the time portrayed on screen is the same as the film’s running time. Again, the two characters meet, talk, and walk (this time through Paris), having grown a little older, a little broken, and perhaps a little wiser. I found this second installment just as entrancing as the first, and was perhaps a little more impressed by the simple fact that the real time element was pulled off so effectively.
The third installment, Before Midnight, similarly catches up with the two characters after a lapse of another nine years. The story takes place over several days and, unlike the mostly romantic tone of the first two films, takes a harder, less forgiving look at the pair. That tonal shift makes portions of the movie a little difficult to watch, as viewers of the previous chapters have a pre-existing emotional attachment to the characters built on their mutual attraction and optimism about the future, not on their mounting conflict and acquired cynicism. Nevertheless, that often brutal honesty is done with such deftness that the picture is no less mesmerizing than the earlier films.
Throughout his career, Richard Linklater has consistently pushed the conventional boundaries of filmmaking. Self-taught, he was among the leaders of the indie film movement that established itself as a sustainable option to studio product in the early nineties. Since then, his output has been both prolific and varied. Although he has ventured into studio-backed commercial projects at various times, including The Newton Boys, School of Rock, and Bad News Bears, those movies are among the least interesting credits on his resume. Instead, he has excelled when free to pursue his creative impulses.
Linklater first attracted significant attention with this second film, Slacker. Featuring a no-name cast, the 1991 movie has a highly unusual structure: the narrative shifts from one character to another. As each new character is introduced, the story follows that character and discards the previous one. Two years later came Dazed and Confused, a multi-character, twenty-four hour glimpse into the life of American teenagers, which did for the seventies what George Lucas’s American Graffiti had once done for the sixties. Like American Graffiti, Dazed and Confused had a cast filled with future stars (Matthew McConaughey, Renée Zellweger, Milla Jovovich, Ben Affleck, and Parker Posey, to name a few), as well as a best-selling soundtrack album made up of oldies.
In 2001’s Tape, Linklater conducted an exercise in minimalism. The entire film takes place in a hotel room with just three characters. The three are former high school classmates, two of whom haven’t seen each other in ten years. Instead of being a happy reunion, the story (based on a play by Stephen Belber, which he also adapted for the screen) is about deep secrets, confrontations, accusations, and confessions. In this edgy, but very confined drama, Linklater uses various camera techniques to keep this self-contained set from becoming static. Among them are his frequent use of carefully composed low-angle shots and his daring utilization of swish pans between characters embroiled in heated exchanges.
For Waking Life (2001) and A Scanner Darkly (2006), Linklater employed an innovative form of animation to tell stories targeting adult viewers. Rotoscoping, a process that uses live-action film as a basis for drawn images, is nearly as old as filmmaking itself. Computer-assisted interpolated rotoscoping, however, was developed in the mid-nineties and Linklater was the first to use it for a feature-length film. With Waking Life, Linklater uses the new process to illustrate the dream images of the main character as he seeks answers to his existential questions about the differences between conscious reality and the dream world. In A Scanner Darkly, he returned to the process to adapt SF icon Philip K. Dick’s novel about an undercover detective investigating a brain-damaging recreational drug, who finds that his quest may have put his own sanity at stake. Both films share a unique visual look that, depending on your point of view, can either be considered hypnotically beautiful, or jarringly distracting.
Perhaps Linklater’s most creatively ambitious project yet may be his new film Boyhood, which has received spectacular buzz from several film festival showings earlier this year and is slated for a July 2014 release. Produced from an original script that he wrote at the turn of the millennium, Linklater gathered his cast annually beginning in 2002 to shoot sections of the film about a boy growing from a seven-year-old child to an 18-year-old college freshman. The movie stars Patricia Arquette and Linklater regular Ethan Hawke as the parents, and Ellar Salmon as their maturing son. Linklater’s own daughter, Lorelei, rounds out the on-screen family. It will be interesting to see where the film (quite obviously, a very personal project) will rank in Linklater’s ever-expanding, often audacious oeuvre.