Academic journal article CineAction

Magic in the Attempt: Before Sunset and a Legacy of Criticism

Academic journal article CineAction

Magic in the Attempt: Before Sunset and a Legacy of Criticism

Article excerpt

Of the many attributes that Robin Wood never failed to bring to bear on his life's work as a critic, perhaps the key feature--the one that continued to set him apart--was the personality of his writing, the perennial sense not only that he felt passionately about a film or filmmaker (and indeed about the art of criticism itself; always about criticism itself) but also that there was a deep and sincere connection with that person and his/her work. Could anyone have written so eloquently yet so thoroughly on, say, Michael Haneke's Le pianiste/The Piano Teacher (2002) without the forthright biographical engagement that underpinned Wood's essay in the pages of CineAction? Or, conversely, would his all but incomparable contribution to discourse on the American horror film have been as penetrating had it lacked the author's knowledge of and passionate feelings about the social/ideological context of corporate capitalist culture? (And one could well say the same not only about Wood's work on the great directors--Ozu, Mizoguchi, Ophuls, Rivette and countless others--but also about genres and otherwise neglected works, such as the American Pieled sub-genre of the gross-out teen comedy that proliferated in Hollywood from the late-1990s). These films, one always senses, were not just meticulously analysed, they were lived and breathed, taken into the heart as much as the mind and cherished for the emotional as much as the intellectual stimulation they facilitated. They were, in short, genuinely loved, and provoked a singular and individual response. Not for nothing was Wood's first collection of essays collectively entitled Personal Views.

As with the aforementioned features, so with Before Sunrise. Wood's response to the film in the pages of CineAction 41 in 1996 (something reprinted in his book Sexual Politics and Narrative Film: Hollywood and Beyond) stressed the fact of its status as a preliminary 'attempt' to explore the film, an initial reaction rather than a thorough reading: 'a series of loosely interconnected and often tentative probes ... to define why, for me personally, this film belongs among the dozen or so that exemplify "cinema" at its finest' (1) It is precisely this aspect of personal response and perspective--with a concomitant allusion to development, to growth as a human being shaping one's reaction to and appreciation of a film as one continues to return to it and assess its significance over time--that stands beside Wood's obvious intelligence and awareness in marking him out as one of the great critics. Part of my rationale for considering Before Sunset here is not simply to offer some thoughts on what I am increasingly sure is as great a work as its progenitor--on its beautifully subtle metaphysics and intertextuality--but also to try and work through some of what Robin Wood highlighted with regard to Before Sunrise. What follows, then, is my own attempt--to do justice to a great film, a great example of criticism and, hopefully, to a truly great critic.

Like Robin Wood, I knew immediately upon a first viewing of Before Sunrise that this was a film for which I felt love, a film that struck a particular chord with me for its openness, intimacy, unforced naturalism and emotional honesty and verisimilitude in what could, in other hands (certainly in other American hands), have become a clich-ridden high-concept romantic comedy. One can, with a shudder, imagine the film's denouement in such a commercial venture, where instead of Jesse/Ethan Hawke and Celine/Julie Delpy parting with a promise at the train station, they part forever in town, only for the former to have a last minute change of heart in time to make an obligatory last minute dash to reach the latter before her bus spirits her away and out of his life for good. Any such contrivance or convolution is, however, as anathema to this film as it would be consonant in a mainstream rom-com. Instead the narrative is concerned to an extraordinary degree with the complex ways in which men and women relate to one another, how feelings find flight and frustration in language and communication, and the subtle means by which spaces can affect and determine how people behave, even how they feel (and, lest we forget, the spatial environs of Vienna offer myriad opportunities for play and performativity--from the fake phone calls in a cafe to the impromptu dance at the fair). …

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