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Lessons from Linklater

It's been a year of learning. Love, travel, conflict, life, death...journeys. I've been meaning to do a post on my love for Richard Linklater's films - not that I've seen them all, far from it, but the ones I have seen are among my most cherished, the rewatch-multiple-times, good-for-my-soul, unearth layers, memorise kind. And because I've been stalling, it's the last day of the year but I'm. Going. To. Do. It.

I watched Before Sunrise (1995) and its sequel Before Sunset (2004) in succession in 2011, and if someone today gave me one of those slam books we used to fill out as teens, Sunrise would be my answer to "favourite film". It's taken me years to get to the point where I actually have a favourite film, or even a favourite song. I like to think that's because our tastes and experiences are constantly shifting, there's so much more to witness, and we need the years to pass before we can see what truly endures. I know this with Before Sunrise just as I know it with Billy Joel's "Vienna" - they have stood by me, I have turned to them, they have answered my questions and provided comfort when it was needed. Nothing, however, is forever; but even as I write this, I'm struck by the connections, how during my visit to Vienna in 2012 I sought out many of the film's locations, re-enacting the scenes in my mind and marvelling at how little had changed nearly two decades later, enjoying my status as a solo traveller to the utmost, for who would be interested in visiting a bunch of random streets and restaurants and music shops unless they held as deep a significance for them as they did for me? Don't get me wrong, I really enjoy company, and I'm not even that picky about it (people surprise you, more lessons from this year), but sometimes, you need the right company, and barring that, being by yourself is the best. It's as Celine says as they lie in the park gazing at the sky: exactly what was so important to me they wouldn't understand.

Before Sunrise

I watched Before Midnight in 2013, Boyhood in late 2014, and Waking Life (2001) earlier this year. Each of these five films struck a deep chord. A good movie, for me, is one that changes me after I watch it, and very, very few do that. These are the kinds of films I'd like to make, or write; these are the people I'd love to know, or just have one conversation with; these are people I relate to, that I am. Everyone puts something of themselves in their art, but it's truly special when you can see how much of themselves they've opened up to you, how many connections you can spot between their films, how all the people involved have come together again and again to tell stories because they needed to be told, because, just like life, just like all of us, they were unfinished, works in progress.


O let not Time deceive you
You cannot conquer Time.

Do you ever feel like time is almost a character in your life? That you're always thinking in terms of futures and milestones and timelines and age and everyone else, and no matter how old you get or how much you do, there's more of the same and it never stops? Or that you're running out of time, as though life just changes when the year ends, a clean break, a new beginning? Do you feel upset when you're turning a year older, seeing proverbial wrinkles on your face and thinking about all the things you want to do even as the clock is ticking? I do sometimes. Okay, often. Then I remind myself of all the people who would love to get older, see another birthday, have at least the illusion of a future that wasn't uncertain in the sense that they might not be there to see how it plays out. Technically, we are all those people, but we seldom think of ourselves that way. "When I'm 30, I hope..." instead of "If I make it to 30, I hope..."

(Also, who decided that 30 is the terrifying age when life will just stop being any good?)

It's such a strange paradox. I mean, while, technically, I'm closer to the end of my life than I've ever been, I actually feel more than ever that I have all the time in the world. When I was younger, there was a desperation, a desire for certainty, like there was an end to the path, and I had to get there.  
I know what you mean, because I can remember thinking, "Oh, someday, like in my mid-thirties maybe, everything's going to just somehow gel and settle, just end." It was like there was this plateau, and it was waiting for me, and I was climbing up it, and when I got to the top, all growth and change would stop. Even exhilaration. But that hasn't happened like that, thank goodness. I think that what we don't take into account when we're young is our endless curiosity. That's what's so great about being human.
- Waking Life

Maybe what I'm saying is, is the world might be evolving the way a person evolves. Right? Like, I mean, me for example. Am I getting worse? Am I improving? I don't know. When I was younger, I was healthier, but I was whacked with insecurity, you know? Now I'm older and my problems are deeper, but I'm more equipped to handle them.
- Before Sunset

I've been thinking and rethinking life and love, my expectations and my approach to both. A few events from this year have made me want to live deeper, rid my life of the superficial, but also hone my sense of humour so that I can laugh more easily and not take everything too seriously. A fine balance. I've realised the significance of being there for someone who needs me, even if for just one evening.

If we can actually feel ourselves transforming, this year was all about that. I know I've definitely made an effort and I've seen results. I've taken risks, I've faced fears, I've worked through my issues, I've done things I always wanted to despite apprehension, I've begun to understand my triggers, my limitations, and use them to lead a more balanced life, and even test those limits occasionally - for the comfort zone leads nowhere. And though I have some very serious concerns right now, I think I've never felt better about how far I've come. Sometimes I almost can't believe it; scenes from my life flash across my mind as clearly as a film, often when I'm in them, as though all these things were happening to a character in a story who wasn'
You want to go with the flow. The sea refuses no river. The idea is to remain in a state of constant departure while always arriving. 
- Waking Life

Maybe we are all "designed to be dissatisfied", as Jesse admits, but all life is merely the moving from the "no" to the "yes", of acceptance and understanding. Things happen; it's how we respond to them that matters. Would you hold a grudge or meet someone halfway and try to figure things out? Would you remember and cherish the good things when something ends or block everything out and be mired in resentment? Would you embrace your pain or hide from it? I know my answers to these today are probably different from what they would have been five years ago. In the end, it doesn't matter how much we did, but how gracefully we lived.

The problem is that we are all biographers, and we impose narratives on our lives and then feel cheated or upset when things don't happen that way. Maybe if we just let life surprise us we'd be better off. That's what seizing the moment is all about.

Everything is so finite, but don't you think that's what makes our time in specific moments more important? 
- Before Sunrise

Time plays an important role in these films. The Before trilogy is essentially in real time, a series of conversations between two people taking place over the course of a few hours, with long takes and awkward moments and raw emotions. The first part begins with a chance encounter between two young people, Jesse and Celine, on a Vienna-bound train. The next two parts take up where the previous ones leave off, set in Paris and Greece respectively, and we see the changes in Jesse and Celine's lives over a span of nearly two decades. But the three installments were also filmed nine years (each) apart - which is the exact amount of time that had passed in the actors' lives - looking at their stories from new perspectives as they (and we) age. The trilogy was unplanned, and written by Linklater in collaboration with Ethan Hawke (Jesse) and Julie Delpy (Celine) because they were all curious to find out who and how these people were now. And that's what makes the evolution of the series so much more real.

From sunrise to midnight

Boyhood, similarly, is a tale of growing up and growing old (what divides them?), shot over 12 years with the same cast, and for me one of the best things about this film is how it breaks the rules of cinema, how "nothing really happens", how like us these characters are. Mason Jr., around whom the story revolves, is played by Ellar Coltraine who was/is not an actor; and his sister Samantha is in fact Linklater's daughter Lorelei.

In Waking Life, an animated philosophical adventure, we enter the world of dreams and time follows no rules of linearity. As a vivid dreamer, but also as someone interested in philosophy and existential issues, this film gave me so much to think about. I have some recurring dreams, but in the last couple of years they've become increasingly more creative, interesting, even terrifying.

I usually write them down and look up themes and motifs, and I can't say for sure, but trying to figure out what is up with my subconscious does clue me in to how I can make changes in my waking life.

And a second of dream consciousness, right, well, that's infinitely longer than a waking second. 
- Waking Life

I think the randomness, the casual lack of plot and the fact that sometimes you need time to tell a story (see what I did there?) are probably what attract me the most about these films. They are stripped to simplicity. They always hold something new for me each time I watch them. I come to them with different questions, different experiences, I've changed a little bit...and so have they. The more I grow, the more I seek, the more I resign myself to the awkwardness of life; and aren't films that throw up more conundrums than answers almost...comforting?

Mason: So what's the point?  
Dad: Of what? 
Mason: I don't know, any of this. Everything. 
Dad: Everything? What's the point? I mean, I sure as shit don't know. Neither does anybody else, okay? We're all just winging it. The good thing is you're feeling stuff. And you've got to hold on to that. 
- Boyhood


Where do stories come from?

As I look back on the year, what grabs my attention most are not the things I've done or the places I've been, but the people I've met, talked to, left a part of me with. Just like the Before series was inspired by a significant chance meeting in Linklater's own life, all the people I met also triggered stories. We just don't know where our stories will lead us yet. Lodged in life, like branches in a river...

These films are mostly just a series of conversations, often blurring the line between real life and acting. I feel like I'm there, listening, about to interrupt. People come and go, people weave in and out of our lives. We're all wanderers, after all, on the same train, the same journey. We live in their memories as they live in ours; people invent the best and worst for us, and no one person knows everything about us because we scatter and reveal different parts of ourselves, and everyone remembers differently too. Some dazzle us and leave us reeling, with conversation and connection we never dreamed of, whom we connect with on a deeper level, whose loss we feel more keenly because they've managed to settle in our mind in a way that makes them constantly reappear. There have only been a handful of people in my life so far that I've connected with like that.
Celine: I guess when you're young, you just believe there'll be many people with whom you'll connect. Later in life, you realise it only happens a few times. 
Jesse: And you can screw it up, you know, misconnect.
- Before Sunset

But others are quieter in transforming us. In surprising us, in challenging our first impressions, as we find the worlds inside them. And that's equally rewarding. 

The spirit of connection and collaboration runs through the making of these films too. Names, motifs, dialogues, characters reappear, even when it's not a sequel, to remind us subtly how everything springs and evolves from something else. We see Jesse and Celine in a scene in Waking Life, having a conversation about dreams that references some of the things they talked about in Before Sunrise, long before Before Sunset was planned. Ethan Hawke (who appears in all these films) manages to include a whole bunch of dialogues and ideas from Linklater's other films in the song he wrote for Boyhood, one of my favourite scenes in the film:

(You can listen to Hawke singing the complete unabridged version of "Ryan's Song" here, and "Split the Difference", the other beautiful song he wrote and performed for the film here.)

While the Before series and Boyhood brought the same actors together over a prolonged period of time to work together on something that clearly meant a lot to them, Waking Life was a collaboration between a whole bunch of animation artists who contributed different scenes in the film in various styles of drawing and animation, which fits nicely with the subjectivity of dream worlds. 

And then there's Before Midnight, coming full circle, with fights that have happened and will happen again; with themes and things that have been discussed and will be discussed again; with reminders about ephemerality and repetition, giving some sort of shape to a shapeless existence. Relationships are fragile, but maybe they are not as fragile as we think. Natalia talks about visions of her dead husband, just like Jesse all those years ago told Celine about seeing his dead grandmother.

Who knows how we reverberate through each other's lives?


  1. What about School of Rock? It's quite different from his other movies but one of my favorites. Reminds us to not let that spark of rebellion die.

    I didn't like Boyhood that much; maybe the hype is to blame. The effort is commendable but the story was just okay.

    1. I know you love School of Rock ;) I watched Slacker after I wrote this post, and wanted to see SoR again. I remember enjoying it. But very different from this style I'd say...maybe because he didn't write that one?

      I've heard a lot of people say that about Boyhood but I don't get it! It's point was its ordinariness and lack of "story"...i.e. life. :)

    2. In a strange way, I felt like some things in School of Rock are like some things in Dead Poets' Society (another of my favourites!). Haven't seen Slacker though!

      I don't think life is ordinary, far from it. Or conversely, if it is, one doesn't need to watch it in a movie.

    3. I've been thinking of watching Dead Poets' Society again too! I did not realise Ethan Hawke was in that, hah. I watched this really beautiful video of Hawke talking about Robin Williams and that film...

      What I meant by that is that there doesn't have to be an extraordinary story to make something worthwhile - watching people living, even when "nothing happens" (as many have complained) can be special too. All these movies are mostly conversations...but I guess that's what makes them liked/not liked, depending on how much one can relate to them? To each their own. And one doesn't "need" to watch anything ;)

      Slacker is very experimental. Just random bits of happenings and conversations to different people during one day in Texas. One of his earlier films.

    4. I only *just* realised it when I saw it with Gemeng (she recognised him). I was like omg whaaaa you're right! And he's the main character too.

      Well, yeah different strokes etc. I really liked the Before... series because of the conversational aspect. Boyhood didn't carry the same charm (for me). But doesn't matter, glad you liked it!

    5. Right? It's because I watched it before I knew (of) him, I reckon! Never made the connection though. He looks so young and cute. Watch this:

      Haha yeah :) I actually enjoyed the sibling parts a lot, reminded me of us hehe

  2. Great; meaningful; article. Thanks for the work! Divya (of gsb fame) sent me a link cos she knows I'm a big linklater fan (and have seen WL 17 times as of last count)

    To the comment- there is no story; there's a point. The point is precisely that there is no story.

    1. Hi there, thanks for reading and your kind words :)


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