Cinema Qua Non – Indispensable DVDs: Part 2

Day Two – A demanding Decalogue overflowing with everything: from fascinating international fare, misbegotten masterworks, some out of the blue bafflers, and that seminal show about “nothing”.

DVD: Once Upon a Time in America

Director: Sergio Leone

Film: Once Upon a Time in America

Studio: Warner Brothers

Cast: Robert De Niro, James Woods, Elizabeth McGovern, Jennifer Connelly, William Forsythe, Tuesday Weld


MPAA rating: N/A

First date: 1984

Distributor: Warner Home Video

US DVD Release Date: 2003-06-10


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Once Upon a Time in America
Director: Sergio Leone


Once upon a time, the movies seemed on the brink of becoming something more than merely visual storytelling, but rather (as in Federico Fellini and later Zhang Yimou) a kind of magical alchemical suspension of emotion and music and indelible image far more memorable than any of those individual elements. But with few exceptions, that brief moment of brightness has faded, and today most movies are aptly characterized by those who market them as “product”.

To get a glimpse of the artistic promise movies once held, consider watching –- or watching again, if you were unlucky enough to see only the initial theatrical release –- Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America.

But bear in mind –- if you did see it in the theatre, or remember those reviews –- that there are few movies whose long-term critical reputation has outstripped its initial chilly reception to a greater degree. The reason? On its first release in the mid-’80s, Leone’s masterpiece was sliced and diced like a platter of Cobb salad and flung into the theatres, whereupon moviegoers and reviewers promptly flung it back.

Ironically, the ruthless editing that nearly destroyed Once Upon a Time in America’s reputation was designed to make the movie more “comprehensible” by rendering it perfectly chronological. But Leone’s cinematic poem about memory and wasted lives and the helplessness of humans against the force of time wasn’t designed to be told chronologically.

Instead, in the Warner Brothers “Two-Disc Special Edition”, we see the movie as it was always meant to be seen: As a rapturous and surpassingly tender elegy about how the past impinges on the present; the way that time can fold in on itself, collapsing 30 years into an instant; and, conversely, the manner in which the act of an instant can resonate throughout a lifetime.

The movie follows the lives of a small group of Jewish gangsters who meet as children, prosper during Prohibition, and then destroy themselves as the result of one of the gangsters’ (Robert De Niro) failed attempt to prevent another (James Woods) from carrying out a suicidal heist. Some people will be put off by their preconceptions about the gangster genre, or by a very violent beating scene in the movie’s first five minutes, and an equally painful rape scene later on, or by the running length (229 minutes). And certainly, Elizabeth McGovern (who looks here like a little girl playing dress-up in Mommy’s clothes) is egregiously mis-cast as De Niro’s lifelong love.

But despite more than a few flaws, there is something inexhaustible about Once Upon a Time in America. The second viewing reveals facets of the story the first did not; so, incredibly, does the twelfth (the number of times I have seen it, all but two on DVD). And the grandeur of Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack, one of the finest and most poetic in the history of the movies, never grows old.

The last scene of the movie is a close-up of De Niro’s character sporting one of art’s most enigmatic smiles since La Gioconda. Most viewers will be haunted enough by this one to watch the DVD again, and again, in pursuit of its elusive meaning. Michael Antman


DVD: Back to the Future

Director: Robert Zemeckis

Film: Back to the Future

Studio: Universal Pictures

Cast: Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson, Crispin Glover, Thomas F. Wilson


MPAA rating: N/A

First date: 1985

Distributor: Universal Studios

US DVD Release Date: 2002-08-27


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Back to the Future
Director: Robert Zemeckis


In 1985, before cell phones, the Internet, and reality shows, teenagers often spent the majority of their time outside of their homes. Malls, arcades, and movie theaters were, for the most part, the standard choices for young adults to spend their waking hours outside of school. Most teen flicks around that time revolved around these Meccas of youth, often using two out of three elements of the following formula: un-chaperoned parties + under-aged drinking + nudity = teen hit. Then came Back to the Future.

Directed by Robert Zemeckis and produced by Steven Spielberg, this teen comedy took the notion of ’80s adolescence and made a sociological statement on relationships between said kids and their parents. Of course, I was ten back then and noticed no such thing. But little did I realize the cultural impact the film would have on American society.

Back to the Future was touted as a sci-fi/action-adventure film at the time of its release, and it was exactly that. According to Netflix, it has been added to the family comedy genre, and that makes sense. It is about family. But it’s also one of the first sci-fi films to take a complex theory like time travel, spin it, and make it believable. And, thanks to screenwriter Bob Gale, even as an adult, I still buy the whole space/time continuum thing. Why? Because it actually kinda makes sense. The beauty of this film is that it is intelligent without being boring. It’s a cornucopia of quality quotes, with gems like ”Hey you, get your damned hands off her,” and “Roads? Where we’re going we don’t need roads.” And who hasn’t heard of a flux capacitor or 1.21 gigawatts?

Let’s talk action. The Twin Pine Mall parking lot car chase scene and the skateboard chase scene in the courthouse square are two of the most thrilling action sequences in film history. I mean, who didn’t reenact the part where Marty McFly punches out Biff in the diner, runs outside, grabbing that kid’s scooter, skateboarding away with Biff and his goons chasing after him in a car?

Not only was the movie smart and action-packed, but it also featured a great soundtrack, putting Huey Lewis and the News at the top of the music charts with “Power of Love”. Even the score was terrific. During the conclusion of the film, as Marty is racing down the street during the famous Hill Valley lightning storm, trying to time the lighting strike just right so the bolt of lightning will send 1.21 gigawatts into the DeLorean, enabling him to get back home, I still cringe, thanks to Alan Silvestri’s theme. And do I even need to mention “Johnny B. Goode”?

Though there were two sequels, the first one being better than the second, as it takes on a much darker tone, the original, by far, is superior and set the standard for teen flicks in the ‘80s because of its ability to wrap so many different genres into one film. Back to the Future is one of those movies that, even 23 years later, still stands the test of time. No pun intended. Charles Moss


DVD: Crimes and Misdemeanors

Director: Woody Allen

Film: Crimes and Misdemeanors

Studio: Orion

Cast: Martin Landau, Woody Allen, Mia Farrow, Alan Alda, Anjelica Huston, Jerry Orbach

MPAA rating: R

First date: 1989

Distributor: MGM

US DVD Release Date: 2001-06-05


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Crimes and Misdemeanors
Director: Woody Allen


If someone can only watch one film for the rest of their life, it had better be a film that, by virtue of its breadth of expression, can adapt to whatever mood they are in when they watch the film. We watch happy films when we are happy in order to square with our elation. We watch sad films when we are sad for to commiserate with ourselves. The correlation goes on. Therefore, a truly indispensable film must be able to assume every role that cinema plays in our life, lest we forfeit some place of film in our lives.

Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors is such a film, aglow in its mutability. On one hand, it is not only Allen’s funniest piece, but one of the funniest films in the cinema catalogue. Allen’s character Cliff is hired to make a documentary about a man whom he despises. When the final product is shown, it cuts footage of Cliff’s enemy together with that of Mussolini and several other hilariously unsubtle editing decisions. The scene is unforgettable. There is a scene in which Cliff discusses with his ex-wife a situation in which a blind date tied his sister to the bed and defecated on her chest. Allen’s dry rebuttal of his sister asking for an explanation, “Is there anything I could possibly say that would be a satisfactory answer to what I just told you,” leaves the viewer in tears. When Cliff is rejected by his love interest, he remarks about the love letter he sent her, “It’s probably just as well. I plagiarized most of it from James Joyce. You probably wondered why all the references to Dublin.” Simply put, the movie slays, Allen finding an ideal balance between ironic affect and humanity.

The second plot in the film involves Judah Rosenthal, a man who has his paramour killed to prevent his wife from discovering. He must deal with the guilt for the entirety of the film. This leads to long dramatic scenes of introspection and ethical discussion. “I remember my father telling me, ‘The eyes of God are on us always.’ The eyes of God. What a phrase to a young boy. What were God’s eyes like? Unimaginably penetrating, intense eyes, I assumed. And I wonder if it was just a coincidence I made my specialty ophthalmology.” I would be racked to think of a film which succeeds so thoroughly in conveying moral dilemma.

All of these elements are woven together by interlocutory bits of a recorded interview with a philosopher, Professor Levy. “We are, in fact, the sum total of our choices. Events unfold so unpredictably, so unfairly, human happiness does not seem to be included in the design of creation. It is only we, with our capacity to love, that give meaning to the indifferent universe.” The profundity of such sequences radiates through the film.

At once painfully funny, heartbreaking, and thought-provoking, Crimes and Misdemeanors is indispensible in its versatile virtuosity. Erik Hinton


TV Show: Seinfeld

US release date: 1989-07-05

Network: NBC

Cast: Jerry Seinfeld, Jason Alexander, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Michael Richards



MPAA rating: N/A

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Seinfeld is generally considered to be the best sitcom of all time, in terms of raw popular success and critical appraisal. Rather miraculously, the complete series DVD box set is equally impeccable, filled with more than 100 hours (!) of detailed, compelling extras. Clearly this was a labor of love, and not all DVD packages so clearly reflect the excellence of the source material. In terms of pure generosity and quality, the Seinfeld collection is — in my humble yet meticulously considered opinion — the best complete series TV-on-DVD box set ever issued.

But at 33 discs, 180 episodes, and several hundred dollars, it’s a big investment in both time and money. I’m proud to say that I have made that investment, gradually, over several months, because I am to other Seinfeld geeks, roughly, what the Pacific Ocean is to that trout pond behind my Dad’s place.

However, I realize the casual Seinfeld fan may not want to sink several dozen weeks into mining every last bit of excruciating minutia from this box set. And so, in the interest of consumer advocacy — and the promotion of what really is a 20th century work of art — I’ve narrowed down the set into a few critical discs. At many rental stores, and via online services like Netflix, you can dip into the Seinfeld collection one disc at a time. But because the extras are scattered throughout the series, it’s hard to know which exact disc to rent. For Seinfeld, I recommend these discs:

Season 3, Disc 4

Season 3, most fans agree, is when Seinfeld really started hitting on all cylinders. Disc 4 has six solid episodes, all with additional with commentaries and trivia. Most compelling is the 21-minute documentary “Kramer vs. Kramer: Kenny to Cosmo”, a revealing look at the Kramer character, as invented by actor Michael Richards. As cast and crew discuss the evolution of the character, it’s clear that Richards was every bit as intense and eccentric as the character — a solitary comedic technician who rehearsed physical bits for hours and demanded professionalism from everyone around him. Icing on the cake: This is one of only a handful of individual disks that features a blooper reel.

Season 7, Disc 4

This disc features one of the collection’s best commentary tracks, in which Jerry Seinfeld, director Andy Ackerman, and writers Jeff Schaffer & Alec Berg dissect the classic episode “The Calzone”, and give a sense of just how hard it is to be this good this consistently. Also interesting is a feature on the departure of series co-creator Larry David, the secret author of the show’s unique style. Season 8 marks a significant shift in tone, and is the show’s third distinct era. But the best part of this disc is a documentary tribute to that most underrated asset of the show, actress Julia Louis Dreyfus.

Season 9, Discs 1 and 4

Season 9, Disc 4 has the two-part series finale, which was far from perfect, but did serve nicely as a curtain call for all the ancillary characters that so enriched the series: the Soup Nazi, David Puddy, Mr. Pitt, and many of Jerry’s weekly turnover of girlfriends. Disc 1 is a winner, too, with a stellar line up of late-era classic episodes, including “The Voice”, “The Serenity Now”, and “The Merv Griffin Show”, all with meaty commentaries and extras. You’ll also find here the bittersweet featurette “The Last Lap”, detailing the difficult decision by the cast to end the show.

Finally, if you really want to geek out, the entire collection is littered with “easter eggs” — special content hidden in the various menu screens. Google around, and you can find the list of instructions on getting the hidden goodies easily. Glenn McDonald


DVD: Tetsuo: The Iron Man – Collector’s Edition

Director: Shinya Tsukamoto

Film: Tetsuo: The Iron Man – Collector’s Edition

Studio: Original Cinema

Cast: Tomoro Taguchi, Kei Fujiwara, Nobu Kanaoka, Renji Ishibashi, Naomasa Musaka, Shinya Tsukamoto

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MPAA rating: R

First date: 1988

Distributor: Tartan

US DVD Release Date: 2005-07-19


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Tetsuo: The Iron Man
Director: Shinya Tsukamoto


Director Shinya Tsukamoto was a fresh-faced 29-year-old newbie when he came up with the idea for his third film, a surreal horror fantasy about a guy who realizes he’s turning into a machine. He painstakingly crafted the film himself, from shooting stop motion techniques to constructing the trash compiled “iron man”. The result was a cyberpunk cult classic that meshed the fantasy world as well as the gritty side of modern Japan. Fans waited for years for Tetsuo to be released on DVD, and expected such a legendary film to get the Criterion treatment.

Unfortunately, Tetsuo‘s release was overshadowed by the growing popularity of other Asian extreme films. The film was snatched up by Tartan Asia Extreme and given the same treatment as forgettable Asian extreme titles like Pulse and The Eye. The DVD had no bonus features, no commentary — nothing. Besides an improved picture quality over the VHS version, the DVD was rather empty.

So, out of all the DVDs in my collection, why would I pick the most disappointing one? As much as commentary, deleted scenes, and extra features would have been grand, Tetsuo is perfect enough as is. Unlike other films that need extra candy to lure viewers to watch again and again, Tetsuo demands to be seen repeatedly. It’s impossible to grasp all that’s needed from Tetsuo on one viewing. On first viewing, the film whips away at a blinding pace, bending our senses and taking huge leaps into strange areas. On first watch, it’s easy to only notice the surface things and quickly write the film off as an overly avant-garde mess.

But on multiple viewings, the film begins to unfold. Suddenly it’s no longer a cyberpunk film, it’s a romance film, and suddenly the idea of a man turning into a machine seems less bizarre and more reactionary and deeply parallel to certain societal themes. But hey, I’m not here to analyze this film. Although there are so many films I admire, some films are hard to watch multiple times, either from an emotional aspect or even from a startling realization a film is less perfect than how I remembered it. But Tetsuo is always brilliant, and the short length of the film (just barely over an hour) also means a ridiculous amount of multiple viewings are inevitable. Could Tartan have given a better treatment to Tetsuo? Of course, but the film does its part and that’s all that’s needed. Tiffany White

Display Artist: Krzysztof Kieślowski

Director: Krzysztof Kieślowski

Film: The Double Life of Véronique

Subtitle: La double vie de Véronique

Studio: Miramax

Cast: Irène Jacob, Halina Gryglaszewska, Aleksander Bardini, Władysław Kowalski, Guillaume De Tonquédec

MPAA rating: N/A

First date: 1991

Distributor: Criterion

US Release Date: 1991-05-05

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The Double Life of Véronique
Director: Krzysztof Kieślowski


Krzysztof Kieślowski is one of the world’s most criminally underappreciated filmmakers. Not getting the nod until 2006 by the Criterion Collection series, they finally put out the Polish director’s pseudo-masterpiece, The Double Life of Véronique. If stuck for one DVD to hit the ol’ dusty trail with, this film packs enough emotional despair and aspiration, led by the ungodly but innocent Irene Jacob, to accompany the lonely nights at sea.

Metaphysically speaking, this is a film that offers a different interpretation with each sitting. The purely arousing bond between viewer and creator is unparalleled through a visual spectrum. Sure, the dialogue is important, but for those of you that have watched anything by Kieślowski, the beauty captured within the mastermind’s eye is what speaks volumes. Watch this movie and try not to fall apart. I dare you… if you fail, you can’t feel feelings.

We often speak of the moviegoing experience as an out-of-body experience not to be captured within the dimensions of the small screen revolution. But if there’s one moviegoing experience worth noting in which I’ve had to move from the kitchen to the couch, the Double Life transfer is at the top, bar none. Criterion is at the top of their game as far as the design world goes, and everything from the cover to the commentary is flawless. Most of all, the resolution is captured with MTI Digital Restoration, therefore cinematographer Slawomir Idziak’s elegant lighting and color contrast can be seen the way it was meant to be seen.

Did we mention special features? My god, the special features. Audio commentary featuring Kieślowski scholar Annette Insdorf, author of Double Lives, Double Chances: The Cinema of Krzysztof Kieślowski, and three short films (Factory, Railway Station, and Hospital) that highlight Kieślowski’s early obsession with the camera and working class run-of-the-mill life. Not to mention book featuring essays by Jonathan Romney and Peter Cowie. See! I get to read too… take that, one-disc budget DVD picks. John Bohannon


Director: John Bailey

Film: The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe

Studio: Orion

Cast: Lily Tomlin

MPAA rating: R

First date: 1991


US Release Date: 1991-09-27

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The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe
Director: John Bailey


The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe changed my life. Written by Jane Wagner and performed by Lily Tomlin, it articulated concepts and thoughts that had a place in my adolescent mind but not a voice. The interconnectedness between human beings, reflected by the dozen characters that Tomlin embodies, is a concept I thought about often, but could not express. This film gave me the vocabulary.

Originally performed by Tomlin on Broadway in 1985 as a spellbinding one-woman show, The Search… was filmed for Showtime in 1991. Half a simulacrum of the bare-bones set Tomlin performed on in the theater (for which she won a Tony) and a half a minimalist, filmic rendering of the different mise-en-scène where each character is presumed to be found, it is the film version that helped me understand how much more there was to the genius of Lily Tomlin than her Ernestine and Edith Ann characters and films like 9 to 5 (1980) and All of Me (1984).

For 120 breathless minutes, Tomlin morphs from one character into another: Trudy, a bag lady who serves as the story’s central character as she plays hosts to aliens from outer space who are looking for signs of intelligent life; Chrissy, a health-conscious suicidal crippled by “false hopes”; Tina and Brandy, two wise prostitutes who give an author the story of their life (instead of a blow job); Kate, the wealthy but bored socialite with a bad haircut; Agnes Angst, the rebellious teenager who leaves dirty fingerprints on the cheese in her grandparents’ refrigerator. A common humanity exists between these characters, and half a dozen more, that rears itself in profound, chilling, and inspiring ways.

For years, I devoured the VHS copy until I uncovered each link between the characters. To the annoyance and bewilderment of family and friends, I would randomly recite Jane Wagner’s poignant and witty dialogue. One favorite of mine uttered by Trudy: “If evolution was worth its salt, it should have evolved something better than survival of the fittest. I think a better idea would be survival of the wittiest. At least that way creatures that didn’t survive could have died laughing.” Of course, my limp rendering could hardly compare to Lily Tomlin’s brilliant intonations and gestures.

The DVD release of The Search… arrived in 2005 and serves up fascinating extras and commentaries that give more insight into Jane Wagner’s character creations. (Though just owning the film is reason enough to buy the DVD set.) Disc One contains the original two-hour film, while Disc Two features an analysis of each character, a 30-minute interview of Tomlin and Wagner conducted at M.I.T., a beautiful slideshow of images from the published book of the play, and amusing outtakes that prove just how seamlessly director John Bailey transitioned the characters between the stage and the illustrated set pieces.

In a time where our culture is on a fast track to unintelligence, The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe is an indispensable tool to reorient our minds about the psycho-social glue that binds us together, where just the simple act of bumping into someone on the street has the potential of a “goosebump” experience. See The Search… and you’ll find the pun in that logic. Christian John Wikane


Director: Ross McElwee

Film: Time Indefinite

Studio: First Run Features

Cast: Ross McElwee, Charleen Swansea


MPAA rating: N/A

First date: 1993

Distributor: First Run Features

US Release Date: 1993-05-12

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Time Indefinite
Director: Ross McElwee


In an age of CGI run amok, when it is possible to create a credible image of a movie camera being swallowed and then shat out by a fly while it turns barrel-rolls through Brad Pitt’s trachea in some yet-to-be-made summer mega-hit that was pitched to some studio as “Fight Club meets Iron Man meets Wall-E“, well, what I really need in a film is human connection. Smart, real human connection.

Ross McElwee is the most human filmmaker in America, a wizard of the personal documentary. His breakthrough movie, Sherman’s March (1986), was ostensibly a documentary about the lingering effect of William Sherman’s brutal campaign through the South during the Civil War, but was, in fact, the story of McElwee’s own deeply self-conscious attempt to satisfy his family (and himself) by finding a woman to love in a present-day South in the grips of modern anxiety.

His best film, however, is the Sherman sequel, Time Indefinite (1993), which begins with McElwee’s long-awaited marriage and ends with the birth of his son. In between those poles, however, McElwee explores his relationship with his father, his siblings, his dead mother, and his deepest fears about love, culture, and class.

McElwee deftly turns his “home movies” into something composed and edited with (seemingly) casual artistry. Acting as his own cameraman and sound recordist as well as his own star and narrator, McElwee’s technique appears low-tech and suspect at first. In fact, his shots are carefully composed, and he edits them together with an attention to symbolism, leitmotif, and rhythm. Unlike most cinema verite documentarians , McElwee weaves around his images a poetically composed and beautifully read narration. He ruminates on his past, on the nature of human behavior, and on the injustices of our culture. He does this, however, with the self-deprecating humor of Woody Allen and the folksy charm of Garrison Keillor.

Time Indefinite does not shrink from the most profound parts of the human story: love, family, death, fear, joy, and perseverance. McElwee has the courage and insight to find these themes not in a war or a melodramatic “drama”, but in the small fabric of ordinary lives. Through his lens, an annoying knock at the door from a Jehovah’s Witness is a glimpse into the fabric of faith, and a visit from the exterminator is an ominous sign. Life is accurately depicted as cruelly random, but it is also celebrated for the simplicity of its knock-about joys.

For me, the most beautiful actors in the world and slickest soundtrack possible cannot begin to match of seduction of McElwee’s elemental “gerbil shot” of his newborn son. Nor can a whole team of creepy Heath Ledgers begin to match the horror of McElwee holding his camera for 60 seconds on the X-ray of an ulcerated breast tumor being treated by his father.

Time Indefinite argues, with unflinching simplicity and audacity, that our lives are beautiful just as normally lived, if only we will look at them and think about them with the necessary love. It dares us to care more about our own story — a lesson and sentiment I would not want to do without. Will Layman


Director: Michael Radford.

Film: Il Postino

Studio: Miramax

Cast: Philippe Noiret, Massimo Troisi, Maria Grazia Cucinotta

MPAA rating: N/A

First date: 1994

Distributor: Miramax

US Release Date: 1995-06-04

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Il Postino
Director: Michael Radford


The first time I opened The Captain’s Verses, my jaw quite literally dropped. It was one of those moments where a piece of literature — in this case, a group of poems — literally embodies you. In such simple and direct language, Pablo Neruda had taken every scattered and uncertain thought about romance that was in my head and translated it onto the page. What was most impressive is how he could use such everyday language, like merely repeating the word “love” three times, to transcend the sheets in front of my eyes.

So the first time I popped Il Postino into the DVD (well, back then, VHS) player, I had high, if not demanding expectations. Everyone knows that a movie never captures the essence of a book. Cinema is an externalizing process of ideas. Once you give the characters of literature form, they tend to stop having a strong internal impact — Jack Nicholson may have an emotional if not visceral impact on us, but we are left to wonder what the “shining” really is about, while in the book the concept is explored in depth. Yet Il Postino is not a movie about a Neruda book, but one in celebration of the words of this poet. It has since been an indispensable piece of film in my life, for it truly achieved (and some would say transcended) its expectations.

The movie about a fumbling postman in search of the right words to win the heart of the woman who had stolen his remains as poignant and meaningful to my life today as when I first watched it well over a decade ago. As the Sufis say, it is the quest, and not the goal that is important. That we are seeking is the goal. Neruda developed this ability to go beyond the meaning of the words, to make them universal in appeal, whether he was talking about the lovely hands and feet of his muse, or the political liberation of his Chilean nation. The movie focuses on the love between a man and woman, yet still rises above the simple affair of two people. It is one of the few times in cinema that the characters do not take away from my own process of the struggle and glory of romance — they actually add to it.

And yes, there is tragedy — real life tragedy, in fact. Massimo Troisi, who plays the postman Mario, was warned that heart surgery was necessary and he should not complete the film. He chose to finish his masterpiece first, and the day after it was completed, he died. While there is poetry in this, the human side of us suffers contemplating such a fate. Yet if true love involves the transcendence of ego, then we should celebrate his passion for his art, and that if he did have to leave, that he left us with such an inspired performance that continues to be the epitome of poetry on the screen today. Derek Beres


Director: Richard Linklater

Film: Before Sunrise

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Cast: Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy

MPAA rating: N/A

First date: 1995

Distributor: Turner Home Entertainment

US Release Date: 1995-01-27

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Before Sunrise
Director: Richard Linklater


A man is probably not supposed to like Richard Linklater’s indie-classic Before Sunrise, at least to the point where he might prattle on at the dinner table about how the film’s 100 minutes feel like a robbery of his own experiences, how the film gives a very nearly tangible form to where he has been and what he has seen and felt and never managed to articulate.

But with me, it is so.

It was easy, when I first saw it in 1996, to explain away my reaction as that of a somewhat cerebral college kid afflicted with sickening wanderlust. At the time, I saw the story of Jesse and Celine as a parable of travel’s possibilities: Hop on any train in Europe, meet a beautiful French (or German or Italian) woman, impetuously disembark together in some grand capital (the movie chooses Vienna).

Turns out Before Sunrise is a parable, but of the realities of travel more than the possibilities.

It’s taken years on the move and a concerted effort to live ‘Elsewhere’ for me to see the fundamental truth of Before Sunrise: It is the seminal movie about finding connection in a random encounter. The flip side of that truth, on the road as in the film, is that more often than not that meeting ends with a goodbye.

Spend enough time traveling and you realize that perhaps the lone drawback of the road is meeting people. There’s something about being among the unfamiliar that quickens your desire for connection. You fall for people — lovers or friends — but move on. The romantic plunge stings most: Love sparked on the road is a uniquely intense thing, maybe too intense, a fiendishly honest dance between two people bent on fitting as much as they can into a short window of time.

Time — it’s always against you. You hear it ticking, and it will adjourn the proceedings long before you (or she) would. So you both compress time with questions meant to pick at each other’s soul. You find yourself revealing things you’ve never said to anyone. And to who? A stranger? Yes, but you quickly realize that this naked honesty is where the connection can take root. You give yourself permission to be honest, because, hey, you’re never going to see this person again.

Then you fall. You always do. And it’s as much based on the feeling you have at a given moment as the dizzying imaginings of how those feelings could evolve, into if given the chance.

But you catch a train instead.

We can talk about how Before Sunrise is a masterpiece of subtle acting (For exhibit A, watch the eye play between Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy as their characters put on a scratchy LP in the listening booth of a Vienna music store). We can talk about the movie’s spot-on dialogue, which somehow knows that in such a situation as the characters find themselves in, the conversation must be trivial, yet built up, like so many Legos, to something approaching pathos.

But ultimately, for me, it’s this: Before Sunrise gets the dance between its two characters exactly right. It’s a movie about finding and leaving, about the decision made and the alternative implied, but not taken.

Staying isn’t always in the cards — not even usually. Traveling, you tend to say goodbye to more people than not. Maybe I watch Before Sunrise purely for nostalgia, for the backward glance that still hinges on the particular decisions I’ve made in my life.

But I don’t think so. Rather, I think I watch it to set two versions of myself that normally would be uncomfortable in the same room against each other.

One is younger and hemming to the film’s quixotic innocence; he knows the profoundness of meeting a person randomly in a random world. The other, older, wants to hold on to that, too, and tries, yet can’t shake the goodbyes. He thinks about the rides that took him away, and what might have happened if he’d missed one or two.

There’s no winner, only a perpetual rematch. Jeffrey White