Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Wednesday Talkie: Before Sunrise

I think the film noir well is getting pretty dry so I thought I'd switch to another genre. Talkie, of course, originally meant a movie with synchronized sound. But no one ever called them "soundies"! Very quickly, the early sound pictures became feasts of talk.

In a sense, this is trivial. Nothing should be less surprising that human beings would respond to an art form that included talk. It is similarly unsurprising that one of the very first things people did after the invention of photography was to take pictures of naked women. Talk is as fundamental to human beings as the winning photographs in a competition featuring Aubade lingerie. Everybody responds to this, even the people who claim they hate the stuff.

Okay, but what specifically do I mean by "talkie"? Well, this line from Wikipedia accidentally captures all the elements:
A Summer's Tale (1996) has most of the elements of a typical Rohmer film: no soundtrack music, no closeups, a seaside resort, long conversations between beautiful young people (who are middle class and educated) and discussions involving the characters' interests from songwriting to ethnology.
Some elaboration:
  1. There are talkies with soundtrack music, most infamously Paris, Texas, but I think that movie proves the point. The soundtrack is beautiful but it doesn't fit. It would have been a much better music without it.
  2. These movies use self-conscious cinematic techniques in a minimal way for exactly the same reason they use minimal soundtrack music. Everything important has to be accomplished with talk. They are the opposite of the artfilm style. If you really like the movies I call talkies, you're probably underwhelmed by Citizen Kane.
  3. These things need a beautiful setting but they also need a setting where people are thrown together in unusual ways. People summering at the seashore, people escaping the war in Casablanca, people arriving at a country house unaware who the other guests will be, travelers meeting on a train.
  4. Beautiful young people is another way of saying these movies depend absolutely on the possibility of sex and love. My Dinner With André* is not a talkie even though it consists of almost nothing but talk.
  5. These are movies about starting conversations with people you don't know. The only way you can do this is by discussing stuff and hoping they like the stuff you talk about.
And then there is the big question, what do people do when they talk? I can't answer that but most people can understand why the idea of "just being able to talk" is so seductive. I think most people will remember, assuming they are not still living it, that moment of adolescence when they thought, "Wouldn't it be nice to just cut past the bullshit and really talk to one another." People usually think this when they get a crush on someone and wish they didn't have to live with the uncertainty. They want to go straight  past the conventions and say something like, "I really like you, any chance we could get to know one another?"

Except, not really. The problem with saying something like that is that the girl might say, "Get away creep?" Or, if you are a girl, the guy might laugh at you and then text his girlfriend saying, "Guess who just offered herself to me?"

The talkie is a genre because a series of artificial elements all fit together in a way that feels comfortable and natural even though it isn't like real life. Just as we willing surrender our disbelief and cheerfully prepare to go along for the ride when the cowboy rides out into the frame, so too when the man or woman in a transitory setting strikes up a conversation. The unusual location means that you can have conversations you wouldn't normally have. The lack of or minimal soundtrack and cinematic techniques means that the thing to be accomplished has to succeed or fail by means of conversation. The lack of existing social ties between the principals means that the conversation has to take off in quirky ways. (And this is the major stumbling point for people who hate the genre.)

A digression, sometimes Apple is sooo stupid. The latest version of iTunes won't let you do screen captures from movies you are watching.

Anyway, I got started on this because I rented Before Sunrise, a movie that came out the year I was married so I didn't see it for the simple reason that I did not need any outside help with romance. Two people meet on a train and talk. Trains are good. Trains are the opiate of college-educated white people. Trains make very little sense in the modern world but we love them. Cities all over North America are headed for bankruptcy because college educated white people want them to have light rail transit systems that don't even begin to make sense.

Our hero and heroine don't just meet on a train, they keep getting getting on trains and streetcars all through the movie.

But let's back up. These movies work a little like porn. You've daydreamed about sex right? In your daydream, the sex always happens. That makes it very different from real life. Look, you could be sitting in a café and thinking about having sex with that person right over there and thinking it would be really nice but you only do this because you are reasonably confident that life won't call your bluff. If she or he walked over and said, "This might sound strange, but I really want to have sex with you," you'd most likely balk.

Those social conventions and all that seemingly endless manœuvering that has to happen before you can begin to really talk that just seemed like "bullshit" when we were adolescents is actually really important. Take it away and we get really nervous and with good reason.

Everyone whose ever gotten on a train alone has looked at other passengers and thought about striking up a conversation with them. But no matter how much you want it, you wouldn't do it if it moved too quickly. You have no idea who this person is and they might be a crashing bore or crazy or creepy or be married or ...

There is a fantasy element here.

One of the things that makes possible is the Nabokov gambit. I refer here to an incredible (literally) moment in Lolita where the protagonist is about to exposed only the woman who might expose him is hit and killed by a car just in time to save him. This should be a moment of complete narrative failure causing us to close the book and think, "I'll read some trashy murder mystery instead". And you might actually do that. That is exactly what I did the first time I tried to read Lolita.

But if you don't do that, Nabokov has got you. When you hit that moment that is too too much but decide to go on anyway, you commit yourself. You agree to actively make efforts to make this work.

This is how women agree to help with their own seduction. It's why actually asking her on a date or asking her to come up to your room afterwards is so imprtant. At neither stage does she agree to sex but she does make it a little bit harder to back out.

The moment in this movie is when the guy who has been talking to the girl on the train comes back to her and asks her to get off and spend time with him in Vienna. It's not credible and couldn't not be credible in a million years but if you go along with it you are committed to making the story work.

Ironically, because there is so much willful fantasy with a certain porn-like quality in talkies, it is very important they have no sex scenes. There can be sex but portraying it destroys the thing because the movie is about anticipation.

The other thing about these movies is that they are more sensitive to spoilers than any other genre. There are certain details that would ruin it forever. So I won't. Before Sunset isn't great but it's pretty darn good.

* I think I will have to cover My Dinner With André at some point, though, because understanding why that film fails goes a long way to explaining what it takes to succeed.

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