My freshman year of college brought me a lot of discoveries: how much weight I could gain from eating cafeteria food, how to nearly fail an English class, the wonder of Jim James’ voice. I went back and forth on how much I loved the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ excessive Stadium Arcadium double-album, and which of the two sides I loved more (this is still a debate I have not settled). I cackled every time I played ‘Knocked Up’, the opening song off Kings of Leon’s Because of the Times album in the family van, waiting for my very Catholic mother to flinch at the ‘I don’t know care what no one says, but she’s gonna have my baby…” (spoiler alert: she never noticed).
But one of my favorite and most lasting discoveries that freshmen year is stumbling into Before Sunset, the second film in Richard Linklater’s Before Trilogy. This was a solid six or seven years before I moved to Austin, unknowingly the hometown of Linklater himself. I had heard, based on a few reviews I had glossed over, that such a film was supposed to be short, compact, and absolutely worth a look. The premise – two friends/lovers who meet again after ten years – didn’t completely grab me. It didn’t need to. The plot, however thin, just creates the space for the story to fill up and nearly flood the emotional chambers. There was so, so much going on – each longing look, each pained joke – that I immediately seemed out the original Before Sunrise that started it all.
And like I went back and forth between the Mars and Jupiter sides on Stadium Arcadium, I went back and forth on whether I loved Before Sunrise or Before Sunset more. They both had their own way of holding me. Before Sunrise reminded me of the wide-eyed crushes I had in high school and college, when a short encounter – a dinner date, a Sadie Hawkins dance – would send my mind reeling at all the possibilities. And there was no way to know it, but Before Sunset would forecast the feelings I would grapple with in my early 30s, when the longer you live means the more you emotionally accumulate.
Jesse and Celine talked the way I imagined my conversations with my soul mate would go. Growing up the sole deaf person in a family, I frequently wished I could fully understand the conversations around me. I remember one particular night when my brother and sister and I were sent upstairs in the playroom so my parents could have an argument in relative private. I could hear their yelling and the cadence of their cases. But I could not make out enough of the actual words. I asked my sister, nearly four years younger, just what they were saying. They were not very nice things, she would tell me. But I didn’t care about the plus-minus value. I wanted to know the precise words. I wanted to know how the hearing world really talked to each other when they were very upset.
Movies (and the subtitles with them) gave me access to that conversation. Finally, I could understand what people were saying! Finally, I could see the actual words used in a real ugly, drawn-out argument. Or the awkward pauses when there’s nothing good to say. Or the cutting, sarcastic line that releases the tension and sends everyone into fits of laughter. I could finally be a part of this carefully-edited world these hearing people lived in, even if they were characters in filming locations, moving to director commands and separated by a big glass screen.
When I found out Before Midnight would be coming out in the summer of 2013, the first of the trilogy that I could actually see in theaters, I was hoping and praying it wouldn’t gloss over anything. I wanted to see all the warts, as sun-dappled by the Grecian sun as they may be. I wanted to be shown, “This is what your life could look like in another ten years,” and find a place of acceptance, if not hope. I wanted to know that two people I greatly loved and admired – however fictional – could get into an absolutely brutal fight and still find the reasons to remain together.
And boy, did I get it.
That final hotel fight in Before Midnight is still one of the most brutal things I’ve ever seen onscreen. You can see them digging in, alternating between saying the most hurtful thing they can think of, before backing off and realizing, “Oh shit, are we really going this far?”. It’s a delicate, masterfully written and acted moment. And I still doubted what would happen. I, for far more moments than I was comfortable with, wondered if they wouldn’t make it. The dream would be over. Reality would finally hit me upside the chin.
But Jesse finds Celine. And he makes a joke that brings them back to the beginning when they first met. And Celine holds out as long as possible, unconvinced that they can pull this off AGAIN.
As a time-traveler, he takes her back to that summer of ’94, the man who fell in love with her for the first time. And that’s what we all are in our stories: time travelers who live in the present moment while pulling out each memory we’ve built together, sometimes to lovingly pull us tighter together and sometimes to drive us a little further apart.
I thought about Jesse and Celine a lot as I watched Rob and Sharon move their way through Catastrophe’s fourth and final season. There’s a lot of similarities between the two sets of writer/actors, in that both would meet up and hash out ideas and write together before production (Linklater’s more direct writing/directing invovlement with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy the main difference). Both sets of actors drew from their own lives. Both seemed to be figuring out their own lives offscreen just as their characters were their lives onscreen. You can see what drew them together, in Before Sunrise and in the first season of Catastrophe. You can see where the cracks formed that would have to be sealed up between the two. And you can see just how they found their home stretch narratively, where they had to compromise, make some concessions, and be a little bit more forgetful about the past and a little more optimistic about the future.
Similar to Before Midnight, Rob and Sharon, in the last episode of the fourth season, have an absolutely brutal fight. Rob, most likely indirectly struck by the grieving of his mother’s death and a job offer to stay in America, absolutely tears into Sharon, saying the meanest things possible. Sharon is completely flabbergasted. She knows they’ve had a rough go of things, but damn. Even my fiancé said, “What the hell, Rob?”. Catastrophe has always done a great job of allowing their characters to have their human, unlikable moments. And they sure let Rob do so, with Sharon barely fighting back.
It’s so vicious and the situation so delicate, that we don’t know how they’re going to be okay again, even as the episodes – and series – ticks down to its final minutes. Except we remember all the other vicious fights we’ve seen (and this is where I realized just HOW MUCH they packed into four short seasons) from these two and how they’ve found a way to come back to each other.
I absolutely love the way this series ends, because it works on both a figurative and literal level. They pull over to a beach, finally beginning a vacation they’re almost not sure they can enjoy. Rob apologizes as Sharon assures him he really does make her happy. They both recognize a third child that’s on the way. And then Sharon takes off, discarding clothes with every few steps, beginning a swim she’s not sure Rob will share with her. Rob just watches all this until he spots a sign warning of strong currents and the generally very unsafe swimming conditions. Instead of screaming at her to come back, he discards his clothes and runs right in himself.
As he catches up to her she says, “Thought you didn’t want to swim.” And then Rob gives the real kicker of a response that wraps up the series so beautifully:
“I just didn’t like seeing you there drifting on your own.”
They kiss. They enjoy each other’s presence as they barely keep their heads above water. The camera pans back to their clothes upon the rock. They’re physically and emotionally naked with each other. They’re all in. The camera pulls back wider and wider and we just see them for what they are, just like I saw with Jesse and Celine before: two people committed to swimming in this giant ocean of craziness because they enjoy each other and don’t want to watch each other drifting on their own.