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Entries in kara vanderbijl (76)


In Which It Must Have Been Quite The Night We're About To Have

Clock Struck


Before Midnight
dir. Richard Linklater
109 minutes

All my friends are getting married or moving in together. A friend's wedding is an incredibly high moment, not easily replicated by later life events. We forget about people after they commit collectively to kitchen utensils, as if we'd prepped their bodies for a journey into the afterlife with grave goods like KitchenAid mixers and monogrammed towels.

Those who have followed Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) since the beginning of their ambling, bantering European romance will leave the latest installment of their story, Before Midnight, with slower steps and some disappointment.

Not because Richard Linklater and his leads fail to deliver; on the contrary, this year’s film outdoes its predecessors Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset (2004) in the complexity of its script, the beauty of its location, and the sincerity of its performers. The collaboration between Linklater, Hawke and Delpy feels like improv. It is in fact a carefully crafted script, replete with tiny gems of insight into the main characters, their friends and their lives.

Caught up in the dialogue, you can pick out the stories that surely trickled down from personal experience and those that were born out of imagination. Against the backdrop of the Greek isles, the film unfolds as an intimate glimpse not only into the story that we've come to love but also into the minds of those who created it. 

But this is hardly a film to dive headfirst into the romantic frenzy that characterized the first two chronicles of Jesse and Celine's story. Rather, it explores what happens after the fairy tale has ended. They fell in love in one Viennese night twenty years ago and rekindled their romance ten years later in a Parisian afternoon. When we left them last, Celine was singing Nina Simone over a cup of tea and Jesse was twisting his wedding band nervously, about to deliberately miss the plane back to his wife and son in Chicago, about to begin the life with Celine he's been dreaming of. 

Now, nine years into whatever they began that afternoon in Paris, Jesse and Celine are nearing the end of a six-week vacation. They have seven-year-old twin daughters, who doze in the back of the car as the family drives back to their vacation home from the airport, where Jesse has just dropped off his son, Hank. It's hard for Jesse to say goodbye; they've had a good summer together, but Hank lives halfway across the world with a depressed mother and he's growing up fast. 

Their farewell mirrors the one Jesse and Celine shared in Vienna, so many years ago. Granted, it's not romantic, but Jesse's desire to connect with his son obliterates the distance between them and reckons fiercely with it at the same time. The teenager answers in monosyllables as his father asks him questions about the upcoming school year and tries to set up a weekly skype date. 

Jesse and Celine's original dilemma wouldn't exist today, and the gently ironic, numerous references to digital relationships make this very apparent. But it's also clear that genuine contact between people is difficult, or absent. As he watches his daughters play in the sea, Jesse receives a text from his father that his grandmother has died. The news is instantaneous, but the ability to be physically present in that crucial moment is impossible. And doesn't knowing something the minute it happens, yet being completely helpless in the face of it, seem like even more of an injustice? 

The goodbye with Hank is the background of Jesse and Celine's first dialogue, a long, unedited shot of them sitting in the front seat. As Jesse shares his misgivings about being so far away from his son, Celine debates taking a new job in the government. Celine is worried that Jesse will ask her to move to Chicago so that they can be closer to Hank, when she already feels as if she has sacrificed so much in being his companion and a mother.

Their conversation is as lively, frank and funny as it has always been, peppered with the philosophical musings that endeared them to us so long ago. At the same time, they've been cookie-cut into a shape we've never seen them assume, although it's a shape we're familiar with. They're talking about schedules. They're talking about parenting. They're interrupted by ringing cell phones. They're struggling with the day-to-day of a seasoned relationship, one that has passed beyond its original ardor into something different. 

Before sunrise and sunset, it took only the two of them to create a third space in which their interaction and growing attraction for one another had space to flourish. It didn't matter if they were strolling through a park or sitting at a sidewalk cafe. Now, despite the natural beauty of the island, the reclusive vacation home and the small village tucked into the hills, the world has invaded Jesse and Ceiine's space. Their friends book a hotel room for them, complete with a bottle of wine and a couples' massage, so that they can get away together and spend a romantic evening, but they spend most of it arguing. 

I think it is probably difficult to reach forty without messing up in some large way, or at least believing that you have ruined your own life even if it has gone exactly as you thought you wanted. Both Jesse and Celine are struggling with this in their own way: Jesse because he feels more and more like an estranged father, and Celine because she feels as if she has given up the best parts of herself to motherhood.

She's insecure, asking Jesse whether he'd still pick her up now, a "fat-assed middle-aged mother". She's fiery and morbid like we remember her, but she has also grown more vulnerable. Delpy parades through the hotel room bare-breasted for a good ten minutes: at first, she is Aphrodite, the lover, sharing a close moment with Jesse. As it escalates into an argument, she becomes a symbol of the indignant mother, then Liberty Leading the People, her Sorbonne post-feminist dreams fizzling into mere theory as she and Jesse tease out their very physical differences. Celine has been so many things and wants to be so many things and Delpy literally embodies them all with poise.

I wanted there to be more moments of peace in this film. I wanted there to be less shouting. More than anything, though, I wanted their fights to be about something bigger than themselves. Doesn't it blow your mind that anybody would want to be in a long-term commitment with anybody else? Is anybody immune to the fights about dishes, and laundry, and who's picking up who and who didn't wash their hair out of the sink this morning? Celine and Jesse aren't even married. Avoiding the giant clusterfuck of marriage has saved them from absolutely nothing.

with linklaterIt would be easy to point at Before Midnight and say, "Here. Here is an example of why long-term commitments don't work. It's all roses and strolls through beautiful European cities in the beginning, but in the end, nobody knows how to make it work." I am tempted to believe this myself. We don't know how it ends. We don't know whether the couple is able to compromise. It seems like this fight, these differences, might be the end of them.  

But like Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, Linklater's latest is simply a brief glimpse into a relationship. It's a fleeting moment. It might be true that you cannot sustain romantic passion forever. But it is also true that you cannot sustain rage forever. It's too hard on the heart. We are rarely privy to this part of the story, to what happens later, when we've willingly launched ourselves into the loss of our freedom that is loving another person. The daily ins and outs, disagreements, and pleasures are what our first connections, hopes and dreams move towards. This is a film about wanting the quiet moments in between the extreme highs and lows.

Like Celine said in Before Sunrise, "I believe if there's any kind of God it wouldn't be in any of us, not you or me but just in this little space in between. If there's any kind of magic in this world it must be in the attempt of understanding someone sharing something. I know, it's almost impossible to succeed but who cares really? The answer must be in the attempt." 

Kara VanderBijl is the managing editor of This Recording. She is a writer living in Chicago. She last wrote in these pages about taking things for granted. She tumbls here and twitters here.

"Let Me Go On" - Matt Simons (mp3)

"I Will Follow You Into the Dark" - Matt Simons (mp3)


In Which We Have Seen Our Reflection On The Morning Dew

For Granted


For a long time after I moved to Chicago, I didn’t experience the city any other way than walking through it or riding the trains from one end to the other. I had very little money to do anything, and I didn’t know anyone except for my relatives, so I would pass by coffee shops and restaurants and bars and stores and I looked through windows and talked my way into this city by imagination. I tricked myself into believing that it was all open to me, that it was my choice to remain on the outside, to know the city as a pop-up book of glass facades and closed doors and empty space behind them. 

Observing rather than experiencing gives every event, every new acquaintance, an air of absolute novelty. Even the simplest things become luxurious. When I visit a new restaurant, my joy is unparalleled. As I soak up a new atmosphere, notice the details, appreciate the presentation or fragrance of a dish I’ve never tried, I can’t even imagine returning to this moment or wanting to replicate it. Every sensation is unique. And I wouldn’t want it any other way. 

I’m afraid of becoming the sort of person who takes things for granted. Who returns, again and again, to known experiences without any sense of wonder, without being as fully satiated as the first time. I’m nervous to try new things that I know I’d enjoy because I don’t know if there is enough in me to appreciate them fully. 

When I first started drinking tea, I put a lot of sugar in it. Little by little, until I was tipping only a few grains into the steaming cup, I cut it out. I cut away what was distracting me from experiencing it fully. I feel the same way about difficult circumstances and the truisms we tell one another to make it through them. Cutting away any attempts to make sense of an often senseless (for pleasure or for pain) world allows me to seek peace amidst all my conflicting emotions: hurt, joy, anger, confusion. I am not supposed to feel only one thing. I am not supposed to quiet the cacophony. 

Several weeks ago I had the privilege of visiting a restaurant that has quickly become part of Chicago’s foodie mythos. As fragrant, beautiful dishes were brought to us from the kitchen, as the wine flowed and the candles flickered and a collective, satiated sigh bubbled above us like so much champagne, I thought to myself, “This is what Chicago means to me,” and this sentiment was no less true the next morning when I stood in front of an industrial stove in a women’s shelter and stirred a vat of bean soup that smelled rich and homey and comforting.

There was a slim stainless counter between me and the women I served, but there might as well have been a wall, because I will never not feel things like “guilt” or “fear” or “privilege” and despite all my best intentions these feelings, these narrowing words, separate us.

In both instances I was given a glimpse of a world in which I do not belong: one, because I do not have enough, the other, because I have more than enough.

When I feel overwhelmed by all that there is to see and do, by the person I need to be, I imagine myself sitting on the crowded outdoor patio of a small restaurant in Southern France. We drank crisp cold red wine and ate a simple tomato salad with vinaigrette. The air was salty. There was nothing more or nothing less than these things. It was exquisite. There is nothing more required of me than to be completely present in this moment. 

Kara VanderBijl is the managing editor of This Recording. She is a writer living in Chicago. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here. She last wrote in these pages about Mad Men. She tumbls here and twitters here.

 "Gold" - Sir Sly (mp3)

"Ghost" - Sir Sly (mp3)


In Which You Should See What You Look Like

Equally Offensive


Mad Men
creator Matthew Weiner

This is war. If the reference to Dickens' novel didn't tip you off, the frantic trench-digging in Sunday's episode should have. It's a battle between men and women, between peaceful protesters and the police, between the two factions at the newly-named Sterling Cooper & Partners, between the East Coast and West Coast. 

On radios and television sets, the 1968 Democratic National Convention drones in the background. While Don, Roger and Harry fly off to California to have a meeting with Carnation over instant breakfast, Ginsberg and Cutler break into a political dispute in the creative department. Cutler has the upper hand from the beginning, but only because Ginsberg gets too fired up and calls his boss a Nazi. 

Joan has what begins as a date and ends as a business dinner with Avon's new head of marketing, when she sees an opportunity to stick her foot in the door in accounts. "What makes a good agency?" he asks her. Joan bullshits her way through the initial pitch, picks up the bill and charms the man's socks off. Feminists across America yelled in ecstasy.

But Joan's victory is short-lived when Ted wants to send Pete and Peggy to meet with Avon without her. "You'll get all the credit," assures Pete, but from the look on Joan and Peggy's faces, we know that's not how it's going to happen   even if Pete wasn't, well, Pete. Joan decides to take matters into her own hands and schedules a lunch with Avon, to which Peggy is invited while Pete is not. Peggy warns Joan that she's walking on thin ice, but it's too late: Joan's rocking her powder blue suit and ordering coffee for the whole table. 

Nobody's rooting for Joan or Ginsberg more than I am, but this week both of them underestimated what they were dealing with. While Ginsberg put up a good fight, calling Cutler a Nazi was just uncalled for. In general Ginsberg seems a little bit overwrought. I'm not sure what's happening, but his usual neurosis is being replaced by a sort of mental distress. Like Pete, he's the thermometer measuring the general atmosphere in the agency, predicting where the wind will blow next. His breakdown before the meeting with Manischewitz is troubling.

It's high time that Joan got to show off her skills over the table rather than under it, but she failed to take into account the fact that although she's been working in the business for a good number of years, she hasn't acquired all the know-how she needs in order to connect with clients. Joan has poise and confidence, and is immediately ten times more likable than any of SC&P's account reps, especially Pete. Yet the lunch with Avon is halting and awkward, especially when she swoops in and steals the limelight from the more-experienced Peggy and makes cringeworthy generalizations about the cosmetics business.

Peggy is right to be irked, especially when Joan accuses her of not being supportive and then (ugh) of having slept her way to the top. It's not the double standard that bothers me here (after all, Joan did sleep with the Jaguar client in exchange for a partnership) but rather the fact that Joan doesn't understand that you've got to start at the bottom and work your way up, even if you've been in the business for a long time or you've slept with Roger Sterling or you're a partner at the agency.

Not only did Joan jeopardize her chances of being trusted with future opportunities, but she might have lost SC&P's opportunity with Avon. In the end, as much as I (and everybody else) want to make this about womenz issuez, it's more about good business practices and understanding your own professional limits. Not everyone is cut out for every job. That is, unless you're Bob Benson, in which case you're being promoted for making mistakes and also becoming a sort of scary den mother to the unruly creatives. While I don't think Pete, Ted or Cutler were right in any of these incidents, I know that Joan and Ginsberg and pretty much every other old SCDPer need to watch their backs if they're going to make the inevitable cut. 

It seems like Don's been able to keep it in his pants since Megan's tearful injunction that "something must change" between them, and the two share a couple of cute, flirtatious moments over the course of the episode. But the internet thinks that Megan Draper is going to end like Sharon Tate, and it would seem that something sinister is brewing. Don, Roger and Harry attend a party in California and Don smokes hash; during his high, Megan shows up in a hallucination and leads him out to the pool where he falls in and stops breathing, at least momentarily. Megan's appearance is followed by Dinkins, the soldier Don met in Hawaii way back in the first episode, who has since gone to Vietnam and died. Don wonders at the man's missing arm. 

"Dying doesn't make you whole," replies Dinkins. "You should see what you look like." Don turns around and sees himself floating face-down in the pool. 

The references to death, particularly suicide, and the rampant drug use are what have been holding a rather disparate season together. The two go hand in hand; if the restless abandon of a high or a trip induces more creativity in some, it gives afterlife experiences to others. We've got to wonder what it'll do to Pete, who's so angry with the way things are going at the agency that he steals Stan's joint at the end of the episode. Hopefully he'll chillax, but it is more than likely that his descent into drug use is a sign of the end times; I'm starting to believe that Bob Benson (did I mention that he's a newly-appointed member of the all-important Chevy account team?) is the leader of a suicide cult.

An uneasy truce settles over the agency as the new name, Sterling, Cooper & Partners is chosen; everyone except for Roger Sterling and Cooper fall under the umbrella term "Partners". Seems a strange word for a group of people whose interests really only align when it comes to Chevy. At least that part of the business is going well. Chevy has finally signed off on creative, but so far, only Ted has been permitted to see the car that the agency must try to sell. It is as illusory as their future.

Kara VanderBijl is the managing editor of This Recording. She is a writer living in Chicago. She last wrote in these pages about Mad Men. She tumbls here and twitters here.

"Oh, Look At Me Now" - Jo Stafford (mp3)

"I'll Never Smile Again" - Jo Stafford (mp3)