Sunday, June 30, 2013

Is "Before Sunrise" or "Before Sunset" the better movie? Pt. I

I just recently found out that Before Midnight is playing in Seoul, so I decided to watch both Before Sunrise and Before Sunset back to back before going to see the third part. The first two movies are both great films, and quite different in tone, visual style, and maturity. But I still can't help directly comparing them.

The Case for Before Sunrise

The Telephone Game: I loved this scene so much when I first saw it
I must've seen this one when I was around 20 or 21 years old, and like every lonely (and self-involved) guy who was growing more and more averse to the routines of the college social scene, I just KNEW that this movie had been personally made for me. As in, Richard Linklater had been aware in the early 1990s of my 6-year old self and could predict that about 14 years later, I would really need to watch a movie like this. And for mainly that reason, he made Before Sunrise.

Okay, maybe I wasn't that narcissistic, but nevertheless, Before Sunrise was one of those movies that just sucked me in, especially since I barely knew of it beforehand. In fact, I don't even know why I decided to watch it in the first place. All I knew of it was that it starred a young Ethan Hawke, who after having apparently gotten over Neil's death and Mr. Keating's sacking, had decided to become goateed pseudo-jaded Eurailing slacker.

The horrors of "Hellton" turned Ethan Hawke into a
Gen X slacker
Upon first viewing, so much of the movie rang true to me. Jesse was my hero for being able to fight through his own uphill climb of awkwardness to start a conversation with Celine across the train aisle. I often was engaged in that fight myself, but I usually lost and never said much to the girls who sat near me in class or stood close to me at parties. Maybe I could be like Jesse one day, because all it took was for that first word to make its escape from our inhibitions and fly past our lips, and voila, conversation!

But Jesse wasn't some comic book superhero. For instance, when he is first talking to Celine in the lounge car, his hands can't help but touch EVERYTHING, from the table cloth to his neck to the salt shaker to the lamp... There are times when he can barely look at her, choosing instead to look out the window as he throws out every thought he has, hoping that something impresses her as interesting. Neither of them seem to actually be listening to each other at first, each just thankful for the attention being shown to them by the other. You ever have one of those conversations with someone to whom you're so glad to be talking that you pay absolutely no attention to what they say while you grin stupidly the whole time? Yeah, that was Jesse and Celine.

There was so much that could've gone wrong with this film. A story about 2 attractive and probably somewhat affluent young white people being all young and full of musings in Europe could've easily ended up as obnoxious as any one of Woody Allen's recent films in his Yurp tour (of which Midnight in Paris is the worst). The movie could've ended up as a movie adaptation of Thought Catalog. Its "One night in a city" tale could've ended up cloying as precious shit like Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist.

But it didn't, miraculously. The roughly sketched characters had enough little details and idiosyncrasies to not be complete audience stand-ins, yet they had no last names and no extensive personal biographies. They could've been any one of us. And the movie didn't glamorize Vienna, and through the camera's rather grainy and washed-out look, the city on an overcast summer day looked almost drab and mundane. This was no Hollywood travelogue that gloated its inaccessibility to us commoners whose own trips to Vienna wouldn't be aided by a prism-eyed cinematographer and an impeccable costume designer.

Does this fill you with optimism and pessimism? It probably depends
entirely on where you are in your own life.
Then a funny thing happens when one gives Before Sunrise a second (or third or fourth...) go, perhaps when one's a little older than the first time. The dialogue, while still spontaneous and naturalistic and uncontrived, makes you cringe a little bit for some reason. Jesse doesn't seem as cool anymore, and in fact, comes off a little bit like an immature douchebag a few times. You still admire the characters' romantic idealism, but you start to have more doubts about them.

The movie hasn't changed, but you have. And you know it when you watch the film.

Far more than Avatar or The Lord of the Rings, Before Sunrise is the greatest fantasy film in modern times. Its premise is so simple yet so unobtainable for most of us. All we can do is watch it again and again and hope that one day, we too will have our own Before Sunrise moment, to the point where it becomes an embarrassing cliche that we would never admit to anybody. But like those who secretly continue to believe in UFOs or hidden magical realms behind closets, we still cling to the fantastical idea.

Before Sunset may be more emotionally fraught, or more realistic, or just prettier to look at. But Before Sunrise is the better film because it'll strike you that first time like no other. No matter how your perception of the characters changes over time, the impact of seeing them in their youthfully unburdened lightness will remain the strongest.

In Pt. II, I will make the case for Before Sunset.


  1. Chris - One of the most fascinating articles comparing these two movies that I've read in a while.

    Can't wait to read what you thought about Before Midnight!


    1. Thanks Renato! I will get to it soon!