this is the second installation of a series of essays about the Before trilogy that I started last month (here’s the first one). however, it should stand on its own just fine, just like it should still be an equally interesting read if you’ve never seen these movies and have no intention of doing so, a choice I would not blame you for at all.
Last month, over three ill-advised days, I watched Richard Linklater's Before trilogy for the first time, in perhaps the worst way a person can choose to watch these movies. On a Sunday night, at a friend’s suggestion, I watched Before Sunrise, had feelings about it, and then went to bed. The next day I rewatched the second half of Before Sunrise, and then immediately watched Before Sunset. The day after that, I re-watched the entirely of Before Sunset and then, with no break in between, watched Before Midnight. This is a completely masochistic approach to these movies, and I cannot advise against it strongly enough; I also suspect it is exactly how Richard Linklater hopes people watch them.
For days afterwards, I was profoundly not ok. I felt far too much about the movies, and besides all the other feelings I was drowning in embarrassment over feeling this much about these movies, all of things. I felt about them a way it would make sense to have felt about something that had happened to me, rather than a self-conscious and suspiciously sappy piece of media from a previous decade.
In an essay about getting high in a hotel room in Marseilles, Walter Benjamin offhandedly compares love to smoking hashish— or, actually, the other way around. He describes the experience of hashish as akin to “the squandering of our own existence that we know in love.” What’s glorious about both these things, the phrase implies, is that they are not merely useless but wasteful, a few days or hours pulled free of the relentless ongoing of one’s life, dwelling lavishly and selfishly in pure feeling. That was how I felt watching these movies; they were small and stupid and unimportant, a meager little love story about two essentially boring people, but as I watched them, the larger and more important world beyond the screen fell away. I was saturated with useless, wasteful feeling, soaking in a long bath about myopic and falsely urgent love. It was the desire for time to stop, a permission to stand still in feeling rather than doing, freed from the tyranny of forward motion. That impossible longing, that stubborn selfish refusal at the heart of love, is also what these movies are about, the single thin emotion in which they are interested.
Through some grand injustice, it is March again. Everyone is already talking about lockdown anniversaries, but in terms of the calendar, most of us are actually not quite there yet. We’re in the just-barely-before, something arguably far more painful. This week is the anniversary not of lockdown but of the thing that preceded it; these are the anniversaries of the last good day.
It’s almost certainly true that my last good day was not as nice as I remember it being. It was a good day, sure, and most of the things I remember happening probably happened, but it was not the outsize perfect day I now imagine it to be. It’s just that it was my last day before all the current ones, before the never-ending March in which we are still living. It is the last time I can remember being happy in the sloppy, luxe, careless way that I now associate with a permanently shuttered part of my life. Whatever the “when this is all over” that we all talk to each other about actually turns out to be, it will not be recognizable. The early part of last March happened in a language that none of us will ever speak again.
Before Sunset, the second movie, the one I loved the most and for the worst reasons out of this trilogy that I loved too much and for bad reasons, is also about a single perfect day. The single day that is the subject of the movie isn’t the one in the movie’s eighty minutes of real-time walking and talking and arguing and getting onto boats and into cars and crying and getting the geography of Paris wrong. The day the movie is about is the last good day, the day before everything changed, the day when nothing had yet gone wrong, the day nine years ago, the day from the first movie.
The plot of Before Sunset is simple, maybe even simpler than the movie that precedes it, in which two attractive young people meet on a train, get off the train in Vienna, and walk around that city together all night until the next morning when it’s time to separately leave. Before Sunset takes place nine years after that, when the same two characters, now in their thirties, reunite in Paris and walk around that city, this time for just under an hour and a half instead of a whole night. Essentially, that’s the whole movie: Two people talk to each other for eighty minutes, in Paris.
At one point Celine, Julie Delpy’s character, says that seeing each other again is “like time travel.” The closest thing we actually experience in our lives to time travel is consequences, the way the results of bad actions, or even good ones, show up again much later, the way a lucky decision or a poorly considered one can echo all way down our lives, shoving the past back up into the present. Each of the movies in the trilogy is about the consequences of the previous movie; what happened afterwards, what happened because of it, what that one encounter set in motion.
In the second movie, both characters think of the single perfect day from the first movie as the last time things were good, the last bright moment before they fucked it up; both of them feel like if they could only get back to that day, they might salvage their lives. “I remember that night better than I remember entire years,” says Ethan Hawke’s character longingly when Celine challenges him about getting a detail wrong. Before Sunset takes place in the present, but the characters spend much of the movie’s eighty minutes in the past, rehashing the collection of hours they spent together nine years ago. Time has not gone forward for either of them; they are still living June of 1995 in the same way we are all still living the very first days of March 2020, the last moments before the dark clouds on the horizon rolled into town.
Anniversaries are dangerous in the same way very beautiful days in the late spring and early summer are dangerous, heavy with too much meaning and offering too much permission. The second movie never says explicitly that it’s the exact same day on which the first one took place, but it’s also pretty clear that it’s supposed to be (June 16th, because these movies are the patron saint of every college student who ever substituted having read Ulysses for a personality). Anniversaries are dangerous, and this is an anniversary movie. It’s struck through with that same immature and stubborn reaching for meaning that compels us to celebrate anniversaries, to insist on their significance, to throw up a holiday in place of the natural sadness that comes with these reminders of accumulating time, trying to pretend that loss is actually abundance, and that regret is in fact joy.
Anniversaries are also period pieces, and every recollection about March 2020 that any of us will read this month will be a period piece, a story about a time that has already receded into the past. The past is a different place, where the rules and customs are different; period pieces are both nostalgia and translation. Like its predecessor, Before Sunrise, Before Sunset is a period piece that works as one because it was made about the immediate present moment. The movie is set in 2004, the same year it was released in theaters, but it feels like a portrait of another era, and it is hard to imagine it felt any different to viewers when it was first released. The film looks like old photos from the ‘70s and ‘80s and ‘90s, softened with the slightly blurry sheen of age. All the colors are the colors of a photo filter meant to evoke nostalgia, the greens too bright to be real and everything else muted and watered down; even the ugly things are beautiful because all this is occurring in memory and not in present experience. The main emotion in this movie is the same one that drives people to use those apps that make Instagram posts look like old polaroids. It’s the thing my stomach does when I look at old photos of my parents and wonder why the colors aren’t quite right, why the quality of light was different in the ‘80s and ‘90s, photos fading into a truer unreality.
If the first movie is for those of us garbage people who love whatever same poem is going around instagram this week, the second movie is for the overlapping group of garbage people who post photos of the light at the end of the day in summer captioned “golden hour.” This whole movie is shot like those photos, golden and unreal, the last hours of an early summer afternoon, blurred with longing. These characters want the same thing I want when I stop scrolling to stare at a golden hour post, or when I walk slower in the long late light in my neighborhood at the end of June, convinced there is some greater meaning to this than beauty, convinced that the good light lasting past 8 p.m. means that no one I love is ever going to die. Maybe this time it really will just last forever, all the cruelties and losses of time grinding to a halt in the sun at the last bright low angle of the day.
But of course it doesn’t. Time doesn’t stop, even on the days when its passage is beautiful; essentially this is these three movies’s very obvious and very self-impressed thesis. Even when it feels like we are standing still, we are always moving too fast, sprinting away from the last thing that happened to us, from the things that mattered and that we meant to hold, as they recede already out of view. 2004 was nearly two decades ago; people born then are on the internet already, better versed in the reality of the world I inhabit than I am. I am still stuck in March of 2020, and February of 2020, and the summer of 2014 and a bad day two years before that and a good month another two years before that and a stupid decision a decade before any of these things happened. I am still stuck at the turn of the millennium, barely a person, waiting for the big change I was so sure was coming. I am still stuck in the creamy-lensed notion of an era that is now entirely relegated to the past; times that seem immediately present are in fact period pieces, stories about memory and not about life.
In Before Sunset, the two characters from the first movie find each other again, but the point of the story is that finding each other undoes none of the losses of nine years before. They cannot ever go back to that single perfect day; even in love, you can only ever move forward. Like a miracle, these two people locate each other again out of all the churn and unlikeliness of the whole world, but they can’t ever be with the young version of one another. The person they lost is still lost. They can’t ever have the romance they imagined having with the person they fell in love with, because that person no longer exists. The time that they would have had together in that gloriously stupid eyes-barely-open youth is gone and can never come back, and what they feel about each other reuniting nine years later is inextricably bound up with those losses. It’s the same thing as the long day melting against the horizon, turning the city gold. Trying to believe something lasts only highlights how fast it goes, how little anything can be held.
People overuse the noxious little phrase “the before times,” enough that it’s now cringe-y and embarrassing to say it; the same is true of the answering noxious little phrase that has sprung up to match it, “the after times.” The two present themselves as a matched set; the coastline you left from, the one you will eventually reach. The longing inherent in these paired phrases says that one will be the same as the other, that the after times will be the before times all come back again. So much of the strange, naive, anticipatory nostalgia of the current moment is about getting back to things, returning to those burnished and largely imaginary perfect days living so bright in memory, getting back to the last good day. The sharp little tragedy at the heart of Before Sunset is that it is impossible to do this, whether after the large tragedy of a pandemic or after the small, stupid tragedy of losing new love before it had a chance to start.
These two people are clearly still attracted to each other and clearly still enjoy each other’s company, but the swelling-orchestra feeling that craters them toward each other is as much, and perhaps more, a love for something they can never reach and can never have, a single perfect day out of memory, stuck forever in the past. In the unlikely living fact of each other, it seems miraculously possible to go backward. But they are already in the after times, and the after times have nothing to do with the before; they are an uncharted country, and its map is carved out of loss. Consequences are our form of time travel; everywhere we arrive is a story about where we have been and what has brought us there, which is why the past always seems falsely innocent and better than it was.
The light eventually slides off the afternoon, and we are left with what we did, and what we cannot undo. There is no proceeding backward into the before times, there is only time moving swiftly forward beneath us. If the movie is a love story, it is Benjamin’s version of love as the way hashish blurs the edges of things, the selfish desire not to know and not to experience consequences, to stand still in a single feeling, unmoored from time and action. The movie is the futile action of trying to hold still in the present tense, trying to grip onto a single moment, while time continues to move inexorably past it, and carry everything away.
thanks so much for reading. this is the free-to-everybody public edition of griefbacon. if you enjoyed this, maybe consider subscribing? paying subscribers get one extra essay a week, plus a weekly discussion thread (these have been a very strange and fun and soft online space so far.) remember that you if you were subscribed pre-2020 and would like to be a paying subscriber again, you’ll need to set up a whole new subscription. also remember that you can always buy a gift subscription for a friend, and that you can always email me if you would like to subscribe but can’t afford to do so right now. yes I’ll probably write something about Before Midnight soon-ish, but it might only be for paying subscribers because I sure had some very strong feelings about that movie. I’ll see you next week. xo