By popular demand, a few more words on Linklater’s Before Midnight.
The rules of drama typically involve things like a protagonist and a structure leading to tension and resolution. Of course the rules are meant to be toyed with, stretched and sometimes subverted but there they remain: a kind of bedrock for expectations relative to taking in the art.
And life, as they say, imitates art. Life should be so lucky as to have the kind of ordered meaning sometimes found in art. That’s especially the case with the art of film, given that movies simulate lived human lives more directly than most other art forms. So life often strives to mimic the art of film as a way of imposing some meaning on what is experienced as the disorder of life-as-lived.
My own favorite film experiences toy with this very convention, and are reluctant to provide meaning in too clear a fashion. Take Altman’s Nashville and Short Cuts, for instance. Is there a template of sorts delivered in these films, some sort of design for living? Sure, but it is a bracing one nonetheless, allowing for some window to meaning while keeping one foot firmly in the relative anarchy that often passes for real life.
But these films are less common. They probably can’t be dime a dozen. People–me included–often cannot help but want things to be tidied up somehow. It’s comforting. You are invited to be the protagonist and egged on to take that side in love, war, moral issues and all else. I like that Before Midnight challenged that tendency to take sides.
The desire to take sides in a film is a strong one. For instance, to my mind the Village Voice reviewer (Stephanie Zacharek) brought a bit too much of a feminist lens to the fight scene. For her, Celine’s hotel room flare-up is “a diatribe that melds thousands of years of female oppression with the everyday anxieties of raising twins.” As for Jesse, he is “earnest, clueless, helpless”, and he “cowers on the hotel bed, attempting to process his partner’s anger, horrified that he may never be able to stem it.”
It feels to me as though Zacharek comes to the fight scene a little too forthrightly as a woman. If she is not exactly taking the woman’s side, she is at least putting herself firmly in the woman’s shoes. Yes, Celine has popped a cork and Zacharek wants to yell at her to “STOP!”–but this seems mostly about the embarrassment she feels over her own identity with “her” protagonist. For her, there is still the hope of a morality tale lurking underneath the hostilities.
I am not so sure. For one, Jesse is no “clueless” male presence, awed in the face of female rage. He’s got plenty on his mind, too, and his own tricks up his sleeve. You are suspicious at the beginning of the film when Celine carries on about what she claims to be Jesse’s hidden agenda: moving to Chicago to be near his son. Has Jesse carried on about that? No. Does Jesse acknowledge it when she claws at the issue? No. But it gets clearer as the film goes on that a move is exactly what he wants. And that he knows Celine’s ways, and that he knows Celine knows he knows, and that he knows the best way to proceed is obliquely. And of course, Celine knows he knows this and then some, and reacts accordingly. And he sees her react, and reacts accordingly.
It is hard to find an oppressor/victim explanation (or right/wrong or good/bad) in this interchange, just as it often hard to find such things in real life, and real arguments. Ask any couples counselor.
The radical psychologist R.D. Laing wrote a book called Knots (1970), which consisted of strings of words that looked like poems but were in fact ways of describing the psychological puzzles arising from the entanglements of “normal” relationships”. For instance:
They are playing a game. They are playing at not
playing a game. If I show them I see they are, I
shall break the rules and they will punish me.
I must play their game, of not seeing I see the game.
It’s all a bit arch, and very 1970. But the point of the book is a good one: it is easy to take sides in a fight; much harder to understand. We are primed to seek the protagonist, and if the protagonist is of our race and gender all the better. We live our lives as one person seeking to map our one-person experiences onto life. Life, of course, proceeds in its own way through the crashing together of different perspectives.
Anyway, I didn’t end the film siding with Jesse or Celine. Much less did I agree with Zacharek that the film has a “happy ending”. It’s turtles all the way down.