I watched before sunrise for the first time and unfortunately now I need to talk about it a lot
Nothing could possibly matter less than love; nothing could possibly be less important than the space between two bodies in a room, or the indoor bargains between two people. It has been a great honor and privilege to love you, writes Hera Lindsay Bird near the end of a poem I see on instagram all the time, it has been a great honor and privilege to eat cold pizza on your steps at dawn. There’s a lot of poem before that part, though, before the section near the end that people like to post, where it erupts into a heart-bursting direct address. Before that there’s a long and meandering consideration of the term “pyramid scheme,” the title of the poem, and how it may or may not relate to love. There are throwaway jokes and sudden declarations of the poem’s theme and then walkings-back of those declarations. There are concepts, hypotheses, and denials. And then maybe ten lines from the end, the poem turns and shows its hand: yes this is all complex and conceptual but also it’s very small. This poem is only talking to one person; this poem is just about love. Love is so stupid: it’s like punching the sun, the poem continues. Everything leading up to here was a feint, trying to sound smarter than it was, trying to pretend there was anything bigger to say, and here we are instead at love. Love is so stupid. The admission feels like an exhale. All this is stupid, and here we all are coming back to it, again and again.
Last Sunday, Rachel posted about Before Sunrise and the trilogy it’s part of and I texted her that I’d never seen it and she said I should watch it so I did, because right now I will watch literally any movie anyone tells me to watch. I will throw just about anything up on the TV screen in the hopes that it might briefly transport me elsewhere, that it might blot out the repeating and unbroken facts of the couch and the walls and the view out of the windows and the bad news pouring out of my phone in a river of bile. I turned the lights off in the room and turned my face up to the screen, pretending my husband and I were the only two people in a small and run-down movie theater in the middle of a long afternoon. I texted Rachel the title screen as it played, words across train tracks.
Before Sunrise is an extremely simple love story: Two attractive young people are on the same train and strike up a conversation just before the train stops in Vienna; they walk around the city together all night; they fall in love, for some value of love. It’s about time, and desire, and youth, and how every moment grieves the previous moment, moving forward inexorably into loss. It’s about how time is at once what gives things meaning, and what makes them unbearable. It’s set in 1995, the same year the movie was released; it wasn’t made as a period piece, but it could not feel more like one now. Anytime someone talks in some romanticized way about “the ‘90s,” (which people do less and less lately as the popular nostalgia cycle moves on up into the ‘00s), they mean the same things this movie means. Every way in which it succeeds is as a period piece, a moment in time, a story about memory and the past as a different country.
It’s still hard to explain why any of this makes it good rather than obnoxious, partly because the movie is obnoxious. Like most things I really love it is both obnoxious, and far more than the sum of its parts, as indefensible as the light when it hits the side of a building at the right time in the morning. A friend who hated the movie said it’s only good if you pretend the two characters aren’t boring and she isn’t wrong, but this is also a decent explanation of what’s good about it. Of course they’re boring; people are boring, mostly. That’s what’s so miraculous about them; people are boring, and yet we find them fascinating, their stupid and unimportant details lifted into poetry, banal and obvious ideas sounding from their mouth like revelations. The movie puts you as the viewer, or put me, anyway, inside of this experience. It pulls you into that inexplicable process in which one boring person for no particular reason briefly lights up the whole world with meaning, their presence giving each passing minute weight and substance. Love absolutely does not matter; from inside of it it feels like the most important thing in the world.
It’s so embarrassing to care about a movie. It’s almost unthinkably embarrassing to care about a movie made in the 1990s, in English, about two beautiful young people meeting on a train in Europe. I can tell when I really love something in that oh shit way when I start thinking about how to articulate everything that’s terrible and embarrassing about it, when I start relentlessly roasting it and myself for liking it, when I skip right over figuring out how to talk about why I love it and go right on to figuring out how to talk about why loving it is embarrassing.
If you like the kind of movie where the filmmaker states the film’s thesis by having one of the characters recite an Auden poem out loud while nothing else happens, if you are the kind of garbage person like me on whom this exact type of shit works every single time, then you will really love this movie and I suggest you watch it but you probably already have. Is this a good movie? How would I know? I loved it, which makes me the worst-qualified person to answer that question. Liking things is about taste, knowledge, intelligence, skills, references, morality, rationality, all of that academic knows-what’s-good stuff; loving things is about who we are and what has been done to us, who we have loved, what we have lost, what we would save in a fire, and what we feel our lives are missing. Loving something is almost entirely about the person watching, and not about the thing itself. Every rave review is a personal essay, whether or not it dresses itself up as something else; love is by definition irrational and subjective, unable to see anything clearly.
Eating cold pizza on someone’s steps at dawn is not inherently a beautiful experience; that’s why it matters that love makes it feel like one. Essentially this is a movie set inside those two lines of that poem. If you know you should be sick of people posting the same goddamn poems on Instagram all the time but you aren’t and secretly you love it whenever anyone does, then you would probably like this movie.
Before Sunrise is, I suspect, a weird movie to see for the first time in your thirties. I would guess this isn’t the usual way people encounter it. Maybe this wasn’t a movie about the past if you actually saw it in 1995 in the theaters; maybe this isn’t a movie about the past if you see it as a young person who still believes this kind of experience is waiting for you around the corner of each next day. The movie is about being very young, about a time when the whole world feels new and possible. I wondered afterwards if I felt like this movie had kicked me in the chest because it was about something I had never had. I wondered if it felt that way because I had waited too long to watch it and was the wrong age for it, but I suspect I would have felt that way even I had watched it at twenty-two. Young is other people; youth is always something that is happening to someone else. I started talking about being young in the past tense quite a few years ago, when I was still very young. Probably one day I’ll look at that sentence and be annoyed by how young I was when I wrote it.
My husband and I were not young when we met. We were both old enough to be damaged; we were crawling out the trenches of what we had done and what had been done to us. We were old enough to be accumulations of other loves and other fuck-ups, old enough for nothing to be new. We were a big story to each other, but also our big stories had already happened, and we arrived carrying them on our backs. Whatever it was we were living in would never be wholly created by the other; whatever doors we would open to the world had already been opened. We had already done enough to regret some of it; we had already burdened ourselves with our own lives. Much of the time we had for love and most of the years in which we were young had already been given over to other people and to other concerns; a lot of what was there had already been used up.
When my friend Sam wrote the speech he gave at our wedding, he said he was writing it on this theme, mature love, love that arrives with knowledge, with its eyes fully open. He meant this to be romantic and kind but I felt embarrassed, and searingly jealous of him and his wife, who had met in college and whose life had that sleek and glossy beauty of something built together, of something that started in youth, that did not carry that next-morning-cigarette smell of lost chances, wasted time, other lives. They appeared to me as clean parallel lines running through the daytime, living up in the light.
My husband and I stay up late after the movie and talk about what it would have been like if we had met when we were younger. We make up grandiose and idyllic scenarios, what other choices could we have made, what other lives could we have been living, and how might we still have found each other. The stories we invent are silly — sappy little details, cities and apartments and which friends we’d know and which ones we would have never met — but the longing behind them is very real and deadly serious. We talk about what it would feel like to have met early enough that we didn’t worry about the wasted time before each other, or about the closings-down and losses coming up too quickly ahead. What if the whole road had stretched out in front of us the color of morning, with enough time not to worry about time?
The thing is, it wouldn’t have been all that different. It still would have been fraught, and shitty, and burdened. If any of these gaudily imagined scenarios had been real, we would have still come to them carrying everything that had already happened, carrying individual desires and betrayals and resentments. Everyone arrives from somewhere. Even first love is built out of whatever came before it. I never once felt young enough not to worry about time; I mostly never felt young when I was young. Youth was always just out of reach, in a different city, in a better story, in a movie about trains, in the lives of people doing all the things right that I never managed to do, while I got old waiting to finally be young. Love would have changed none of this; we would simply have had more time in which to worry about time, which is exactly what we would have done with it.
It feels sick to even think about romantic love right now; it feels like a stupid indoor joke to watch a movie and have a reaction about it. Love is the smallest, most selfish room. The world howls outside the windows and here we are inside talking about a movie about people talking about love. Love is a day binge-watching television, going to bed instead of looking at the bad news, a warm room where we can close the door and render the real world fictional and the fictional world real. Love is pretending large things are small and small things are large. The fact of being able to go into a room matters far more than who we love once we’re inside of the room. The movie talks about the space between two people; maybe what I liked about the movie was getting to go inside a very small space and shut the door and pull the blinds, blotting out everything that matters.
In the poem, the line about eating cold pizza is the turn because it’s where it stops pretending that any of this is in fact a big deal; love is the tiny, grungy things, two kids in sneakers, knees pulled to their chests, eating cold pizza on a stoop after a long night out. The picture is unbeautiful and unmemorable to anyone not experiencing it, which is exactly why it is so vivid for the two people within it. Love is like being invisible, rendering the unseen seen. The space between two people who think they’re in love with each other is the smallest possible room. It is the luxury of being exactly wrong about what matters, about what is and isn’t important, what is and isn’t boring, what doesn’t and doesn’t exist outside of this smallest possible room.
thanks so much for reading. this is the weekly free edition of griefbacon. if you enjoyed this post, maybe consider subscribing? each week there’s also another essay and a discussion thread, both for paying subscribers, both loosely about feelings in some form. if you’re new here and not sure what this whole thing is about yet, here are what I think are some good examples of what we do here. you can also check out the whole archive here. if you want to subscribe but can’t afford it, you can always just email me and we’ll figure something out (if you emailed previously and didn’t hear back, definitely follow up, I probably just missed it). you can also buy someone else a gift subscription, which I think is a wonderful thing to do.
an extra note: this week in particular is a good time to donate to or get involved with mutual aid, both in your own community, and in those communities in Texas devastated by the storm last week. here are a bunch of places where you can help out people in Texas. One more thing I recommend, if you currently have the means to donate money, is to read down into the comments on any of the big viral threads about resources for Texans and you’ll see at least one person, probably many people, posting their venmo or cashapp and their individual situation and needs. Send them money if you have it. This helps someone in need *and* it helps you kill the voice in your own head that says people asking for help have to be somehow vetted or authenticated. People are asking for help all the time; you can actually just help them.
see you next week, when there’ll be a long essay about spending all of 2020 reading three (3) books about thomas cromwell, and I guess some other stuff about love, maybe. thank you for being here. xo