If you asked me at this point what I thought the best movie of the year was, in my not-so-humble opinion it would have to be Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset . Certainly, there are many reasons why this improvisatory collaboration by Mr. Linklater, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke would be my favorite release of the year so far. For one thing, it’s a love story, one of my favorite genres. For another, it’s set in my favorite city, Paris. (The film even starts off in Shakespeare & Co. on the Left Bank, where I used to pawn my typewriter for meal money back in 1961.)
I should note that although the film has been very favorably reviewed by most of my esteemed colleagues, audiences have not flocked to see it because it’s been described-more or less accurately-as 80 minutes of pure talk almost entirely between two characters, Celine (Ms. Delpy) and Jesse (Mr. Hawke).
These same two characters had talked up a storm nine years earlier during an overnight encounter in Vienna in Mr. Linklater’s Before Sunrise (1995). As I recall, I wasn’t overwhelmed by their first talky entanglement, though I continued to be moderately impressed by Mr. Link-later’s seemingly quixotic attempt to bring articulate dialogue back to the movies at the expense of action, spectacle and MTV kinetics.
Indeed, much of the low-rent independent-film movement has made an aesthetic virtue out of its limited means. Ever since his Slacker put Austin, Tex., on the maverick-movie map in 1991, Mr. Linklater has served as spokesman for a new batch of disaffected youth-a group that has lacked any common cause to rally around. Up to now, a lot of his work has been hit and miss, so I wasn’t prepared for what I encountered in Before Sunset , at a lightly attended noontime screening at a lower Manhattan multiplex.
What I wasn’t prepared for were the long, lyrical camera movements through the streets of the most accessibly beautiful city in the world. The Ophulsian amplitude of the spectacle was completely sustained by the shifting moods of the two former lovers, who try to strike one light note after another and fail, miserable and painfully. Mr. Linklater and his two creative leads have managed a miraculous transformation of the characters from once-callow lovers into grown-ups teetering on the edge of eternity.
Some reviewers have compared this film to the prolonged stunt that was Louis Malle’s My Dinner with André (1981), written by its two principals, Wallace Shawn and André Gregory, as a series of conversational power struggles. The audience-pleasing turnaround by the less presumptuous Shawn character over the ideologically overbearing Gregory is a much easier contrivance, and one that justifies the self-indulgence of the project. But nothing is really at stake for Mr. Malle’s two conversational combatants. By contrast, Celine and Jesse find themselves on the edge of a cliff by the final fade-out.
Part of the surprise of Before Sunset can be attributed to its initially inauspicious premise. At the end of the first movie, the two were supposed to reunite in Vienna six months after their initial encounter; Jesse showed up but Celine didn’t. At the start of the new film, Jesse finds himself in a Paris bookshop as part of the book tour for his best-selling novel-based, of course, on the events depicted in Before Sunrise . This is a big stretch, even for the long arm of coincidence, but in a way it makes sense: If Jesse were ever to meet up with Celine again, it would be in Paris, not Vienna. Still, can the movie survive the burden of all the expository back story needed to bring the two former lovers up to date? It does, and then some, as I have already indicated.
Along the way, Mr. Linklater performs prodigies of invention with the time and space coordinates of the mise en scène . His is the subtlest form of filmmaking, which is to say it’s made to look and sound effortlessly minimal. Yet it is also marvelously fragile-as if at any moment the sheer improbability of the situation is going to blow up in our faces with a disillusioning blast of common sense.
After all, Jesse has a wife and little boy in New York, and Celine has a lover, a war photographer, whom she tolerates only because he is away on foreign assignments most of the time. She has never been able to connect permanently with any man since that fateful night in Vienna. Jesse’s marriage is far from idyllic, but he is content to spend his remaining years watching his little boy grow up. The two lovers discover, to their amazement, that they were both living in New York for several years at the same time without ever running into each other. But neither character broods over the vagaries of chance. Jesse, in particular, has been meditating lately on his own mortality and confesses with some embarrassment that he once entered a Trappist retreat. He was pleasantly surprised to discover that the monks were a cheerful lot who never tired of wishing him well. No Sturm and Drang there.
Still, most of the burden of self-analysis and self-recapitulation falls on Celine, as if she were talking aloud in a desperate attempt to chart her own future. In the few glimpses we are given of Celine and Jesse from the first film, it is clear that Ms. Delpy’s face has changed more than Mr. Hawke’s. Her features are thinner and less lush; it’s as if she’s grown out of her youthful vanity and is preparing for more rigorously existential challenges.
There is a breathtaking moment when Celine makes a furtive, caressing gesture toward Jesse’s head while he is looking out the limo window, then withdraws it hastily when he begins turning back. It’s a subtle sign, and even in the midst of her tirades against ex-lovers, Celine notes that they have all credited her with teaching them to respect women-though they’ve invariably applied the lesson not to Celine, but to the women they’ve gone on to marry.
As the time nears for Jesse to catch his plane to New York-and take him out of Celine’s life again, perhaps forever-she intuitively prolongs the suspense with two improvised pieces of performance art that serve to bring the film to an exquisitely metaphorical conclusion. I doubt that there will be a sequel to this sequel, nor should there be. Before Sunset is perfect as it is.
Raiders of the Global Economy
The Corporation , a nonfiction film by Mark Achbar, Jennifer Abbott and Joel Bakan, based on Mr. Bakan’s book, The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power , is the winner of the Joris Ivens Special Jury Prize at the Amsterdam International Documentary Festival, the World Cinema Documentary Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival, and the People’s Choice Award at the Vancouver, Calgary and Toronto International Film Festivals.
Among its more familiar corporation-demonizing interviewees are Michael Moore, Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn. So why, after 145 minutes of very ambitiously conceptualized Canadian agitprop, did I feel weary and depressed by the sheer futility of it all? At times, I felt as if I was trapped at a Ralph Nader rally; at other times, I couldn’t help thinking of the German Communists in the last days of the Weimar Republic, confidently predicting that “After Hitler, us” as a rationale for letting the Weimar Republic perish without any resistance on their part. They were right, of course: The Communist Party came into power over a big chunk of Germany after Hitler perished, but only after millions and millions of people had been slaughtered.
If Fahrenheit 9/11 has been demeaned as preaching to the converted, The Corporation can be demeaned as preaching to the converted with advanced degrees in rabble-rousing. Speaking of which, I’m petrified by the thought of left-wing crazies pulling another Chicago ’68 on the streets of New York during the Republican National Convention over the upcoming Labor Day weekend. All right, I admit it: I’m a centrist by temperament and conviction. I believe in voting for the lesser evil now over waiting for the absolute good of the future. I also believe that things can get a lot worse before they get better. And yes, I believe in incrementalism, and I believe in America.
However, The Corporation is very well informed about the legal origins of corporations and their current near omnipotence. The film outlines how the judiciary treats corporations as individuals, with all the requisite Constitutional protections, thus perverting the intentions of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which sought to protect liberated slaves, by giving corporations the same protections of due process. An environmental wrinkle is added to the traditional Marxist rhetoric against the capitalist system, but the word “capitalism” is seldom employed in The Corporation . To do so might’ve induced viewers to think about alternative systems, like socialism or communism. Nor is there much discussion of the ameliorative powers of representative democracy. There is no suggestion that Americans can ever use the ballot box to remove an oppressive government: We are all too brainwashed by corporate advertising to know what we really want.
This is all true, to a certain point. As much as anyone else, my tastes in consumer goods have been shaped by advertising. But where else in the world do I go to find a justly governed realm that’s free of the brutal machinations of multinational corporations? I am too old to forage in the jungle. This is the only system I know, and if I’m farther from the top and closer to the bottom than I realize-like most of my equally deluded compatriots-I console myself with a vague awareness of the totality of human history, geography and sociology since the blessed days of the Garden of Eden. Everything I read about antiquity and the Middle Ages reeks of injustice and inequality and corruption.
So what do “we” do now? And how many of “us” does it take to make an effective “we”? The makers of The Corporation point to instances of group action-decertifying an irresponsible corporation in one locality, and restoring the water supply in a South American country to public control after a multinational company gouged the citizens for its own profit. But the movie really gets its adrenaline going with shots of milling crowds in the streets screaming and shouting for justice. Even so, no one goes so far as to preach the virtues of revolution, once such a rousing word for May Day speeches. Nowadays, even this workingman’s holiday has gone the way of the dodo.
One can agree with The Corporation on the dangerously growing power of multinational corporations, which hide under the cloak of “globalization” and “free trade.” And there should be no argument that the earth itself is imperiled by the excesses of a global manufacturing and consumer culture. As Walt Kelly’s immortal Pogo once observed: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” How much environmental damage is caused by poor people in the Amazon rain forest chopping down trees to grow crops? Can a majority of the American people ever consent to be deprived of their gas guzzlers? If we all universally agreed to lead a more Spartan existence-regardless of the discomfort-I would have more hope for the future.