Tuesday, July 06, 2004

Time is a Lie: Before Sunset and the Power of Narrative

[We saw Before Sunset on Saturday at Bethesda Row Cinemas. It was only playing on 20 screens around the U.S. this past weekend, so unfortunately it may be hard for readers to find it.]

"Time is a lie," Jesse declares, in response to a question from one of his readers. "It's all happening all the time."

This film is somewhat Joycean; the date of the original meeting between these two characters in Before Sunrise was June 16, 1994 (Bloomsday 90); this film comes out shortly after Bloomsday 100.

But it's Joycean mainly in its emphasis on the power of immediacy to crystallize meaning. Richard Linklater (actually, read this) uses the space of Paris primarily as a kind of dry chalkboard, where nothing particularly intrudes on the intimate space of a conversation between two people who spent a night together nine years earlier. There are no noisy chattering drunks, no deus ex machina (i.e., the usual: car crashes, murders, or rain) to force the characters to a surprising end. And there is nothing particularly to smell, taste, or touch outside of the two faces that fill up the screen. In this way of telling the story, Ulysess would only be 80 pages long.

But of course a lot has changed, and the film is full of subliminal reminders — the flowing waters of the Seine, the shadows that lengthen in the golden Parisian light, the implacable movement of celluloid through the projector — that time runs in one direction, and eventually runs out. (A.O. Scott)

In the sense that narrative is always about time, maybe this film is a meditation on narrative itself. In order for an event to become a story that can be told, it has to end (one night, nine years ago, in Vienna). In this sense, we always want stories to end, even if that ending is a kind of death.

But what is a narrative's shape actually? What makes what happens (in life) special when you filter out nostalgia and sentimentality? What makes a story anything other than a simple sequence of events?

There is a myth that stories are distractions from the real, but that couldn't be further from the truth. Really good stories can have a crystallizing power, and offer a lens that a reader or viewer can continue to wear once the lights come back on. A story can then offer a clarifying perspective on the mess one struggles with every day.

Of course, the conditions have to be right. Expectations have to be moderate: just as in games that require you to put a ball in a certain place on a field or a court, you can easily psych yourself out of actively experiencing narrative by expecting too much. Also, people have to be receptive to the story they're hearing. One can't be constantly worrying about one's job, or what people sitting somewhere nearby will think. Also, one has to truly be listening, not thinking of the next clever thing to say (or: what will I write about this on my blog?). A powerful story does require a skillful storyteller, but it is equally important that the audience be both receptive and a little selfless -- open to lives lived differently, and an inexplicable flow of events.

The event may be over (romance), and even the telling of the event may be over (a conversation about an old romance), but the story continues to work as one sees the world through new eyes. Yes, this film is saying, why not? Yes.


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