The Examined Life: Musings on Philosophical Conversations in Film

Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke in Before Sunrise. Celine (left) and Jesse (right), are sitting together on a stone wall outdoors. Celine, a slim white woman with long blonde hair, is wearing a black slip dress over a white t-shirt, and is leaning her head on Jesse's shoulder, her arm linked around his. Jesse, a white man with combed back brown hair and a faint mustache, is wearing a black leather jacket over a white t-shirt and blue jeans. They look peaceful, smiling slightly.
Before Sunrise (Sony Pictures Entertainment)

Of course, all films are a practice in listening, but the ones that stamp – the ones we remember – are the ones whose characters talk to no resolve, who play conversational tennis not to win, but for the fun of it all. The ones we follow through streams of consciousness. This sort of impact seems to happen almost without the audience knowing, maybe because of deja vu – haven’t I had this conversation before?

The thing about vulnerability is that you have to talk. Dialogue-heavy films demand listening and therefore ensue feeling, and the anticipation of what’s going to happen next becomes irrelevant because we’re just there. Personality over plot. Does the viewer occupy the same intimate space between two people talking?

Take Andre Gregory, (as himself, slightly fictionalised) in My Dinner With Andre, when it may seem clear that he loves the sound of his own voice. Name dropping cultural figures just to prove that he knows something. Wallace Shawn’s (also himself) forever-furrowed brow says that he’s attempting to keep up with Andre’s cartwheeling stories so far out that the only response squeezed in is “Gosh”. Haven’t we all been there? Experienced listening to a person who refuses to tell a story in a straight line? Haven’t we all been the victim of someone else’s rambling, and we think, in disbelief, “What is he talking about?”

But then Andre becomes a winning character by swivelling, unintentionally, into the ponderings of existence that must require a call and response. We’re all bored, he says. I recall his digression into distress, and at that moment, his face of a poised intellectual morphs into a patient in therapy. He’s afraid of becoming a robot in society, but Wallace counter-argues that he enjoys the security of routine. It’s impossible to remember verbatim, but that’s the gist of what I remember. Does it matter that I can’t tell you exactly?

Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory in ‎My Dinner with Andre (1981). Wallace (left), a white man with a bald patch atop his head and wearing a camel-coloured velvet suit and black tie, is sitting at an elaborately-set dinner table. Opposite him is Andre, whose dark hair can only be seen as he faces away from the camera, in conversation with Wallace. He wears a grey suit jacket.
My Dinner With Andre (New Yorker FIlms)

We feel time. Notice how they’re the only two people in the restaurant and the staff wants to go home, and yet, the movie falls short of two hours, which is the average time a table sits and leaves. Barely any space between speech, barely any stops for bites. They forget about time.

And although it seems far too obvious to say that Richard Linklater’s Before Trilogy is an art installation of time that, at its core, is a disquisition of romantic vulnerability– in all its youthful cynicism that transforms through the second and third films of the trilogy into the irreversible jadedness of adulthood. There’s conversational movement, at the very onset, and in every spoken truth and untruth that bounces back and forth between them, and goes on and on because the engagement in free-styled existentialism never resolves. There are equal parts listening and speaking, and neither of them holds the mic for too long. The glance shared in the record room and the music playing and the innocence of it all, like the moment you form a middle-school crush. Silence is language, too.

In Before Sunset, we see Jesse (Ethan Hawke) bum a cigarette after Celine (Julie Delpy) lights one, Parisian style, as he goes on to say that he is “slightly designed to be dissatisfied with everything”. The loose flow of wandering that fills the countdown of time and the anxiety of running out of it. 24 hours. Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, Before Midnight. All stitched together only to become loosened over 9 years at a time – a total of 18 years, and the evolution of character, individually, but destined to converge, over and over again. Time. Linklater’s characters love to talk, but maybe more so, love to believe in love, though flawed, whether or not they are able to grasp their own destiny in their palms.

John Turturro in Thirteen Conversations About One Thing. Walker, a white Italian American man with slicked back dark hair and a sharp grey suit, is at a dimly lit but crowded pub, leaning over the bar, staring intently at someone out of the frame.
Thirteen Conversations About One Thing (Sony Pictures Classics)

I’ve always felt connected to Celine, the girl who once wore a t-shirt under a long dress and what the heck, she threw in some Keds. Or so I remember them as being Keds. But since watching the trilogy again during quarantine, I realised that I’m 27, the age that’s wedged between the first and the second film. Linklater often leaves one to self-examine but instead, we are left vicariously living the romance, luxuriously hiding behind the TV, almost seeming to stalk them without any say about any of it, and perhaps wanting to be the character.

Now, may I present to you the question: what is it that people want? Who’re people? I think John Turturro’s character is the only one that goes without smoking a cigarette in Thirteen Conversations About One Thing. Smoking cigarettes seem to symbolise being jaded, an act of self-destruction. This movie is presented to us in vignettes, yet all I can see is green in every scene. The green walls, the green mug. Money, luck? The characters all lead separate lives, mourn over a current state of contentment because there’s an unavoidable hunger for more than just, and without them knowing, are all connected by the circumstance of destiny. They always circle back to: why do bad things happen to good people and vice versa? This can be philosophised forever but the reality is unchangeable; it just seems useless to dwell on it for too long.

How Wim Wenders can encapsulate the vibe of Berlin in Wings of Desire, starring two angels that have the ability to hear living humans’ inner monologues. Marion (Solveig Dommartin) is so exquisitely human, just a woman forever in the process of becoming, and she knows this. The first time Wenders surprises us with a shift from black-and-white to colour, Marion is gliding on a trapeze, she’s doing her thing, she is herself. What we say to ourselves when we’re alone, our personal quest for truth and learning to like the company we keep – how can we speak truthfully and critically with other people if we can’t speak with ourselves? Damiel (Bruno Ganz) opts to become human; he’d rather trade his immortality for the ephemeral beauty of time. Contentment is voided in Damiel’s longing, “As you’re walking, to feel your bones moving along. At last to guess, instead of always knowing. Or at last to feel how it is to take off shoes under a table and wriggle your toes barefoot, like that.”

Harry Dean Stanton and Hunter Carson in Paris, Texas (1984). Travis, an older-looking white man with dark hair, a thin mustache, and a lined face with a pensive expression, is driving a car along a wide road with grass and trees in the background. A small blonde boy in a red t-shirt is sleeping soundly next to him, and Travis has an arm around him.
Paris, Texas (20th Century Fox)

Let’s not forget Paris, Texas. I wondered if Travis (Harry Dean Stanton) would ever say a word. Feelings of desolation, the tragedy of existence, and loss. The peep show scene and the color pink for girlish innocence, and the furry sweater I’ve always wanted to have. Travis speaking with his former lover through a telephone, looking at her through a glass box. Aren’t we also watching through a glass box? The booth is where sex work is supposed to happen but the scene is everything but that. It’s confessional, and we see the rupture and repair of human connection. She never sees him through the box, therefore, his face is the only place we feel for the impact.

I know well the shake into reality after leaving the dark room of the movie theatre. There’s no greater feeling than to be speechless for a while, maybe smoke a cigarette to think, let it sink in. The types of movies that can’t be washed away, even when we forget the words. How electrifying it feels to think, to feel, to find solace in characters’ inner examinations of life in a still verdictless existence. Oh right, my cinema companion. “So what’d you think of the movie?” That’s when our conversation begins and the palm inside begins to open. Listen.

by Audrey Alunan

Audrey (she/her) is a writer from New York City. She loves disco, art history, and psychoanalysis. Some of her favorite films include HeathersThe Conformist, and Wings of Desire. You can find her on Instagram @sus7.0 and Twitter @level10sus

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