after midnight

"Now I know why Sylvia Plath put her head in a toaster."

“Now I know why Sylvia Plath put her head in a toaster.”

THE FIRST BEFORE MOVIE I saw was Before Sunset, and then I went back and watched Before Sunrise, and cringed at how young Ethan Hawke looked in it, and remembered him in White Fang, which was four years before that. I also cringed because I thought that Julie Delpy was so beautiful in both films, and how easily I fell like a sucker for her French “Celine,” the “European girl in transit.” Then — wait a minute, what the? — I did fall for the “European girl in transit” — And I am married to her, just as Ethan Hawke’s “Jesse” is now.

I confess that I wanted to see the latest film in the trilogy Before Midnight was because I had read early reviews that mentioned painful topics like middle age and transatlantic living, and, oh, how I yearned for that cold realism after all of those sun-tinged memories of romantic yearnings and recalling of baroque alleyway discussions and emotional self immolation of what could have or might have been. Jesse and Celine. They followed their hearts and it led here, to a hotel room in Greece, where they are about to argue about everything and be very mean to each other and threaten to destroy everything in the name of their discontent, as the married often do.

Celine is ever more voluptuous and incisive and weary-euro-trashy-eyed and Jesse looks like those 40-something zombie hipsters I saw at the monkey forest in Bali in April, with the tattered ironic t-shirts and deep grooves in their foreheads and children with pleasant, retro names {“Now, Hank! Now, Cora!”} crawling up their limbs. When I saw the Monkey Forest Hipsters, staring off into the nothingness like jungle wraiths, my only thought was, Oh my God, that’s what I am going to look like in 10 years.

But there were even more suspect parallels in the film. Jesse has written two books about his romance with Celine. I have written two books about those first years with my “European girl in transit” in Estonia, and then someone at the hotel in Greece pulls out their copies of the local translations of Jesse’s This Time and That Time and asks Celine to autograph them,and she demurs and says, “Oh, that’s not really me in there,” {and it isn’t, I know, and at the same time it kind of is} and in their ensuing total conflict Jesse recalls how he promises to never use her likeness or their children’s in his work and at the same time quips, “That’s a good line, I’m going to use it,” when Celine nails him with one. Meantime, he’s taking a leak and arguing at the same time and I am cringing and cringing and cringing more because I have seen it all before …

I also saw in Celine’s character the obsidian residue of the women’s movements of the seventies and the eighties, and what it’s done to the brains of the women of our generation. To comply with Jesse’s wishes is to be subservient. To be subservient, is to violate one’s feminist principles. More than once, Celine mocks this role to Jesse. And he’s trapped, because the same seventies/eighties pseudo-psychological rubble and debris has left him all mopey-eyed, hovering over his 14-year-old son, considering a move to Chicago, because he must do his best to be a good father and these are crucial years, and  in the meantime, the son doesn’t seem that interested in him, and is more excited because he had a teenage fling with a local Greek girl, making it the true “best summer of his life.” Double-you, tee-eff, indeed!

So this conflict is, in some ways, just as much between Celine and Jesse as it is between who Celine and Jesse feel obliged to be. Who we feel compelled to be. Women raised to think that they don’t need men, and yet, they still wind up living with a man. Men raised to think that they must be perfect fathers, to the point that this epic attempt at parental mastery becomes self harm, because — uh, oh/oh, no — nobody is perfect. So what do we do with ourselves then? We can’t undo our paths or the ideas that time has bred into us or the bigger choices that we have made. We’re all sort of like Celine sitting alone along the water in Greece. You could still turn away from it, but toward what, and for what?

I watched this film in the early morning hours on the North Fork, with the wind making the wood of the house bend and creak and hurt. At the end of it, the European girl in transit on the couch across from me said that she didn’t care for the slow pace of its beginning, but that the second half, the argument half, was very good. I was restraining the tears of catharsis and cringing some more at my emotions. Then I went to sleep and slept well and dreamed about the dialogue and situations. It was good to watch a film together. It is so infrequent in these busy days of life’s big demands that we have any time to do simple things like that.

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5 comments

  1. Reine

    oh, my stomach was hard as a stone during the dialogs and in the end, I wept like a baby! And I re-watched for the second time the trilogy from the beginning!

  2. Nadine B

    Hi Justin

    I just got back from an 8 day visit to Estonia. Apparently the first time it hasn’t snowed during Christmas in 15 years! Experienced Tallinn, Viljandi and Rapla before coming back to the UK. It was amazing on so many levels. One of the many highlights was my Estonian friends encouraging me to read your first book. So I bought it and I can’t even begin to tell you just how insightful reading it has been! You see, I’m a South African, lived in the UK for nearly 14 years and in Mexico for 4. For some strange reason the majority of my friends are Estonian! Reading your book, along with my recent visit to Eesti has helped me understand my friends so much better! After 5 years of knowing them it’s crazy to read your book and see someone else articulate my thoughts and observations in such a humorous and entertaining way! Thank you for sharing your experiences with the world.

    I wonder if you have any insight on what Estonian men are like in relationships..? You described them as “walking trees” which coincidentally rings true from my experience thus far! But I’m in love with an Estonian man and I predict he’s going to be a LOT of hard work! 2 major issues I foresee thus far: 1. Excessive drinking 2. Lack of ambition

    I don’t suppose you had some thoughts on this do you? I know my Estonian isn’t an exception. After visiting the country I realise most men are similar. Which is dissapointing because the guy I’m with has such great potential!

    Apologies for the novel-“esque” comment here!
    Looking forward to hear from you!

    Ps. Happy 2014!!

  3. marko

    Oh dear! Check out Pinks music video for her ‘Sober’. That kind of gives you an idea of where your husband is coming from. Therell be some major cultrual differenceses, but as far as i know South Africans, youll be in a good position to iron them out! B3st of luck ! 🙂

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