Champaign. It was a stormy night in April, and students sat slumped in leather chairs, hunched over laptops, rain from umbrellas pooling at their feet.
As we walked past, we talked about the Big Stuff, the passing of time, the universe, knowing when to leave a good thing alone and when to meddle. Somehow, it didn't feel pretentious.
“You know, I've always felt like I make movies that play in real time,” he said, “like we're watching these things just happen. Maybe because I've always been self-conscious about time passing and I've always been worried about time. Even as a kid, I was into cosmology, how time relates to galaxies, stuff like that. I thought life was precious, that movies should be about that; that you don't have to be religious to feel it.”
We kept walking.
As he spoke, in somewhat long, quiet monologues, as we moved through that hallway and into a study lounge, it was hard not to imagine Linklater's camera trailing behind, a lengthy, gliding tracking shot that captured everything and not much at all. Then again, a week earlier I had seen “Before Midnight,” Linklater's latest, opening Friday in Chicago, and I was still under its spell. Like “Before Sunrise” (1995) and “Before Sunset” (2004), it's about an American named Jesse and a Parisian named Celine, played by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, and as with those first two films, there are lots of long, unbroken shots of the pair walking, talking. We grow aware of the smallest moments, of every change in their emotional barometric pressure.
It may be the best special effect you see this summer.
Heck, it may be the best special effect of the past two decades, a two-part, three-movie trick perpetrated by a filmmaker and his actors: First, there is the illusion of intimacy, that we've been watching an actual couple all these years, meet, separate, fall in love, grow distant.
“Which is such a special effect,” Delpy told me later. “You have no idea how uncomfortable, though I feel close to him after all these years, it is to have Ethan touching me. I literally have to shut down as Julie! It's like having your breasts touched by a brother.”
The second part of that trick: The illusion of real time passing, of watching life move in miniature.
“Which is in there because Rick, and I probably don't have to tell you this if you have met him, really is obsessed with the clock,” Hawke said on the phone last week. “I mean, ‘School of Rock,' what could be this ordinary kids movie, has classroom scenes shot in one or two long takes. ‘Slacker' takes place in real time, ‘Dazed and Confused' over one night. ‘Waking Life' seems to unfold in what I think is four seconds. This is a filmmaker who has a lot to say about the clock ticking on the wall — and ticking in the back of our heads.”
Indeed, in “Before Sunrise,” Jesse and Celine meet on a train and decide to get off in Vienna, where they spend the night walking the city, getting to know each other and understanding that they will separate when Celine's train arrives in the morning. It's ridiculously romantic. And “Before Sunset” is even more so: The pair meet nine years later in Paris. Jesse is a successful author, and Celine shows up at a book reading. They get reacquainted in the 80 minutes before Jesse must be at the airport and fly back to the United States. In both movies, Jesse and Celine are trying to beat the clock, to get everything said before their time's up.
“Before Midnight” is different. They're a couple now. They have kids. That clock on the wall seems different.
Linklater and I rounded a corner and entered a mostly deserted study lounge. A door slapped open nearby, and a pair of back-packed students stomped in, shaking themselves free of the rain. A splatter flew as we passed, and Linklater winced and smiled. “This place,” he said, “it makes me feel like, ‘Wow, I'm a student still,' then we pass a few students, and I feel like, ‘Wow, no, I am old now. And so much time has passed.'”
Linklater, who is 52 and was in Champaign as part of Roger Ebert's film festival, is a pleasant paradox: a middle-aged filmmaker with shaggy, flyaway '70s hair who could pass for a graduate student, a revered clock-conscious director whose temper is so happenstance that, when he speaks in his mellow Texas drawl, images of Owen Wilson float up.
Hawke told me: “For every movie we made together, there are two that didn't work for whatever reason. We have been in pitch meetings, trying to get people to invest money in scripts, and Rick announces he's honestly not sure if this film will work, that he doesn't even know if making this film is fiscally responsible! He's, like, the opposite of the image of the director as hustler.” Go figure.
With the “Before” movies in particular, Linklater's been working in a patience-requiring tradition that stretches from Francois Truffaut's Antoine Doinel series (which followed the life of a Parisian, played by the same actor across decades) to the recent finale of NBC's “The Office,” which ended on the lines: “There's a lot of beauty in ordinary things. Isn't that kind of the point?”
He has become a master of the cinematic metronome, so keenly attuned that, as I sat through the “Before” films again, it was hard not to be reminded of personal hopes, failures, lost opportunities and the value of what remains, how I am about the same age as Hawke and Delpy, and the development of their characters roughly traces my own, in real time. You recognize the symmetry that occurs, how the series begins with Jesse and Celine witnessing an argument and ends with an epic, already much-buzzed-about argument between Jesse and Celine themselves.
Even Hawke's character, who is 41 in “Midnight,” recalls how at 18 he wrote a letter to his 40-year-old self reminding himself not to fall into the very traps he fell into. Which Hawke actually did: “It was nonsense. You see so many adults lose their idealism, and at 18 you snicker and wonder where it went. I didn't want to be one of those people, so I wrote a letter. Which probably explains a lot about why Rick and I are close.”