Before Sunset

Few movies have the boldness to be both utterly romantic and painstakingly realistic, holding our emotional response in some sort of excruciating stasis between hope and despair, made all the more raw by the immensely empathetic nature of the lives and thoughts and feelings of the two central characters. This movie came out in 2004, a year before I first visited Paris, and now the two are inextricably linked in my mind. I cannot visit Shakespeare & Co without imagining that heartbreakingly casual reconnection between Jesse and Celine, nine years in the making.

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In an age when it is all to easy to give audiences exactly what they want, Richard Linklater has become a master at the slow burn, engaging us whole-heartedly in bare-faced dialogue that is at the same time both lyrical and recognisable, carrying us along an ebb and flow of intimacy and smokescreen that seems, if possible, to be even more genuine than our own personal experiences.

Before Sunset is the central movie in a trilogy of exceptional films, each made exactly nine years apart and each one a continuation of a conversation between two characters who seem at the same time made for each other while also unreachably different. In 1995’s Before Sunrise, Jesse and Celine first meet by chance on a train to Vienna and spend a night walking its cobblestone streets talking life, love and art.

There is no hidden agenda in this movie. There will be no betrayals, melodrama, phony violence, or fancy choreography in sex scenes. It’s mostly conversation, as they wander the city of Vienna from mid-afternoon until the following dawn. Nobody hassles them.

– Roger Ebert on ‘Before Sunrise’

After promising to meet again in six months’ time, we as an audience are left hanging for nine years until we rediscover them as they rediscover each other over a day in Paris, gently edging toward revelations about the questions we desperately want to know: are they married, are they happy, are they meant to be together? The third iteration came another nine years later, in 2013’s Before Midnight, where we discover what has become of them since that fateful reconnection on the banks of the Seine.

Will there be a fourth film in 2022? We both hope and fear it to be so. Such is Linklater’s remarkably uncontrived effect on his audience.

Filmed in long uninterrupted takes that trick us into the feeling of real-time, these movies are dialogue journeys that take us on a winding path through all the beautiful and tragic ideas we have always wondered but rarely voiced.

All three movies make grand use of their European city backdrops, incorporating history and geo-social landmarks into the narrative, making the trilogy that much more beautiful and entrancing. After the first movie, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy joined the production team as writers, adding an indispensable layer of realism to their onscreen relationship.

The movies have consistently scored exceptionally high on IMDB, Meteoritic, Rotten Tomatoes and even Roger Ebert. They are timeless, beautiful, deep and entangling, and you will find yourself revisiting them again and again.

If ever there was a fitting narrative tribute to the phases of the sun as paralleled in the waxing and waning seasons of life, it exists in these three films.

 

Elise Janes

The Ubiquitous Three Acts: A Marriage of Chaos and Construct

So in our previous two discussions (here and here) we have seen that form is an immensely complex and fluid concept, but at its core may simply be a multifaceted way of telling the same story over and over again.

A scan of popular and historical forms reveals certain trends in the way we construct narratives, not only within discrete societal frameworks and but across all cultures and eras. But is that the whole story of story?

Of course not.

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Deconstructionism

Following on from Frye’s and Campbell’s notions of literary structure based on cyclical mythic forms we see the inevitable counter-movement developing in the French philosophers of the 60s and 70s. Jacques Derrida is often attributed as the instigator of Deconstructionism, which started out as a philosophical and literary exercise and went on to influence many forms of art and social sciences.

Derrida delivered a lecture at Johns Hopkins University in 1966 entitled Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences which is often cited as spreading post-structuralist thinking outside of France. He elaborated on those central ideas in his seminal work Of Grammatology in 1967.

Thus Post-Structuralism evolved out of deconstructionist thinking to become the umbrella term for it and other associated theories. Michel Foucault is often referred to as a central post-structuralist, though he himself denied the classification.

Unsurprisingly, deconstructionism evolved into metaphysics and existential philosophies, which themselves emphasise the great unknowability of life, and therefore art.

In a nutshell:

  • People are too infinitely variable to subscribe to any central notion of how a text is received or how the central message is conveyed.
  • The interpretation of a text is influenced by far more than simply the content and form of the text.
  • The message and meaning of a text can be undermined by or run counter-intuitive to the author’s intended ideas shaped by content, form and structure.
  • Pursuing meaning in a text ultimately exposes its contradictions and internal oppositions.
  • Texts and stories are irreducibly complex and unstable.
  • By definition, no text’s meaning can ever be completely known.
  • Fundamentally, humans are too unstable to ever be studied or understood in a complete way, and as it is never possible to escape the structures we find ourselves in, it is therefore not possible to examine them from an external perspective.

In summary, Derrida’s theories propose that the labyrinth can never be fully known because humans are infinitely variable, and as long as we are inside the labyrinth itself we will never be able to critically examine it from an external perspective.

On the surface it may seem that deconstructionism contradicts structuralist thinking, but in reality these two schools of thought form two opposite perspectives from which to view textual meaning and human interpretation. Indeed it quickly becomes clear that both concepts bring to the table essential ways of examining art. So we come to see that while the labyrinth is thoroughly known, it is also thoroughly unknowable.

The three-act journey

Post-structuralism, while immensely fun, does not help us much in our thoughts about form and narrative structure. And through the 80s and 90s, when movie blockbusters became a central part of social culture and the telling of global stories spread far beyond literary texts, we see the emergence of a trend in story-telling based on the twin successes of cultural popularity and audience understanding: the good ol’ three-act structure.

Most people are familiar with the notion of beginning, middle and end. There is a set-up, a development and a conclusion. This notion is basic, if not universal. Why? Well, it seems at its most fundamental to parallel life itself, and that’s a philosophical question for another day. It is so inescapable that you will find even the most non-linear and abstract of narratives will inevitably follow this three-act formation in some way.

This is where applications of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth become incredibly useful in defining structure. Essentially, the three-act structure is approximately twenty-five percent set-up (Act 1), fifty percent development (Act 2) and a final twenty-five percent of climax and resolution. Of course these ratios can be stretched and modified, but this division forms a stable basis for a well-structured story. The second act is then often broken into two halves, the first establishing the decline of the hero’s former state and the second accelerating the transformation by increasing risk and upping conflict, building into the inevitable climax. The resultant four quarters are broken up by three turning points, which often work as a palindrome in terms of character agency, with the second turning point (the mid-point) serving as a reversal of the first turning point decision, and so on.

When compared with the cyclical graphs of the monomyth, it becomes very clear how the two are intrinsically similar. And this basic idea has been elaborated upon by some of the greatest modernthinkers about story structure and narrative design, from professors such as Michael Hauge, to writers like Blake Snyder, to entire theories of work such as Dramatica, and so on and so forth.

Now of course such a broad-stroke approach brings forth a barrage of anti-conformist dialogue about how three-act structures are a construct of society and an over-simplification of truly ‘good’ writing, or further evidence of the film industry dumbing-down what once was a great art form. These arguments may be partially true, but there is little point in being reactionary simply for the sake of it, especially when both sides of the argument may in fact be equally correct.

Interestingly, the three-act concept can itself be interpreted through both the lens of structuralism and deconstructionism. The hero’s journey can be applied to almost any narrative, no matter how abstract or anti-heroic the story may appear at first. Leopold Bloom in Ulysses, Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men: while these characters may at first seem to be the antithesis of self-sacrifice and maturity, even they subscribe, somewhat convexly, to the hero’s journey in a world-specific interpretation of initiation and renewal. Denial of call and movement away from ‘heroism’ can be interpreted themselves as acts of transformation, even salvation of an idea or concept, however hideous and antiheroic that idea may be.

Similarly even narratives that at first seem to thwart the three-act structure because of overly complex or meta subject matter, non-linear chronology or pastiche style exposition can still be defined in a three-act manner, right from Hamlet to Catch-22 to Pulp Fiction. Even other act delineations, such as the two-act, four-act, five-, six- and seven-act formulations can all be interpreted as a play on the basic three-act trajectory.

This all leads us to consider the old chicken and egg conundrum. Do we see three-acts because we want to or because they really are the basis of all well-told stories? Is it simply a futile exercise in applying structure to a vast chaos of widely different interpretations, or is it actually the foundation of the way we perceive, live and retell our stories?

Again, these questions are both fun and important to consider, and again it all comes down to how we can apply these theories to make our stories better, both for critics and audiences alike.

For my part, the three-act structure applied post-composition has been incredibly valuable in helping me to see why certain elements don’t work and how to effectively shift them structurally to make room for a greater development of character or story. It doesn’t mean that I have reworked my entire novel in order to fit a shallow, culture-specific mold, but instead that I have learned to examine my narrative through an age-old framework and use these fundamental ideas of story-telling, both ancient and modern, to help me tell my story in the most effective way.

Yes, sometimes it’s as much fun to break the rules as it is to follow them. But even then, the ‘rules’ are still rules, right?

Or are they?

Therein lies the great mystery at the heart of all artistic endeavour.

 

 

Elise Janes

 

Quid est veritas?

What is truth?

The quest for an answer to this proposition is arguably the driving force behind all human endeavour, sitting at the heart of scientific, artistic, philosophical, historical, cultural and ideological pursuit. Certainly in literature it forms the central narrative drive, propelling action and informing the struggles and motivations of protagonists and antagonists alike. It seems to represent the core struggle and mystery of life’s frustrations.

Significant in literary and historical record, these words are attributed to Pontius Pilate, a question asked during the trial of Jesus of Nazareth in an exchange between the two men that has long been the source of much commentary and analysis.

However one approaches Good Friday, whether it be a day of religious, philosophical or simply social significance, the events that form the basis of our cultural recognition of Easter bear some consideration. As with any historical episode that has become part of cultural identity, the story of Good Friday is as significant for its wider implications as for its immediate context.

Within the many layers of narrative and religious symbolism, Pontius Pilate is one character that lends the narrative a deeper resonance of meaning. Confronted by his subjects, whose laws and customs he did not share, to execute a seemingly innocent man on the eve of their most important religious festival, Pilate faced one of the most bizarre and confusing moments of recorded Roman government.

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Roman prefects were not known for their light hand or mild manners. They were inevitably promoted to office because of their proven military strength, adherence to judicial code, and practical understanding of the intricacies of political strategy and rational decision-making.

Pilate’s apparent disinclination to condemn Jesus is clearly represented in all recorded accounts of the event, but is illustrated most intimately in the canonical book of John where Pilate questions the Nazarene to ascertain a reason for the Jews’ sudden and unanimous call for his death.

Caught between the politically serious accusations of treason, the increasingly violent demands of the crowd, and his personal unwillingness to convict a man who had seemingly done no harm, Pilate asks Jesus point blank: “Are you the King of the Jews?” This is the question that initiates their short but compelling exchange, a conversation that is unlike any other recorded between an accused criminal and the man who legally controls his fate. Far from defending himself, Jesus remains strangely obtuse.

Commentators and narrative adaptations have portrayed this interaction from many different perspectives, some interpreting that Pilate was questioning Jesus in jest or that he was supremely disinterested in the whole proceeding and in the affairs of Jews in general. However other glimpses into Pilate’s nature provided by the canonical, apocryphal and historical records portray him as a man who wouldn’t have hesitated on a conviction had he not had cause to doubt Jesus’ guilt. This belies a much greater political if not personal investment in the situation than some commentators would claim, indicating, in fact, the very opposite of indifference: a deep and enduring reluctance to condemn the Nazarene.

It is this reluctance that leads to Pilate’s persistent questioning, an effort to determine if Jesus does in fact believe himself to be a King. Jesus’ simple but confounding responses eventually elicit from Pilate the startlingly personal and equally rhetorical question: “What is truth?”

The proposition is famously left unanswered. Nietzsche considers this to be further evidence of Pilate’s scorn for Jesus, and yet Pilate’s direct response is to publicly declare: “He is not guilty of any crime.”

Furthermore Pilate attempts a political move to dissuade the angry crowd, by appealing to the ritual of releasing a prisoner on the eve of Passover. In an almost comical comparison he presents them with the choice between releasing Jesus or Barabbas, a convicted murderer. The crowd, as we know, chooses Barabbas.

Pilate continues to try, even then, to dissuade the Jewish leaders, repeatedly stating his lack of conviction and famously washing his hands of the situation in one account. In light of the context it does not seem likely that Nietzsche and similar commentators were correct in believing that Pilate held Jesus in scorn, much less that he had no interest in the man’s fate.

In his last recorded exchange with Jesus, Pilate tries a final desperate question, strange for its superfluity, perhaps in an attempt to clarify Jesus’ earlier statement that his kingdom is “not of this world”, the one caveat that prevented Pilate from ruling a conviction of treason.

Pilate asks him “Where are you from?” but, as John records, “Jesus gave no answer.”

The same void of response is what makes our titular question so lastingly perplexing. For some reason, in this narrative, we see Pilate thrust into the role of the Everyman. A public figure of great authority, and vested with political power, suddenly in a private aside is reduced to the fundamental human condition where he wrestles with the logic and meaning of his own situation.

“What is truth?”

The lack of an answer does not serve to undermine the significance of the exchange, as some have posited. Instead it carries a much more essential purpose: to force us, like Pilate, to continue in the asking.

 

Elise Janes

 

Writing is Work (and other things you need to get over)

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Let’s get down to it. If you want to be a writer chances are you’ve wanted to be a writer since you read your first book/poem/play (probably a book, not many infants learn their ABC’s with Samuel Beckett).

Actually, revise that. You’ve probably wanted to be a writer since you experienced your first really good story, you know, the moment when all the hairs on your arms stood up, and you forgot where you were and who was with you, and you got the feeling that there was a lot more to this grand old life than most people realised.

And chances are that this feeling never left you. In fact as you chose your subjects at school and went on to study medicine and then became a doctor and settled down and had kids and bought a house and took out the rubbish bins and made dinner at night, that feeling followed you everywhere. It never went away.

Most people will never write so much as a tweet in their whole lives and still manage to live an extremely satisfied existence. But that’s not you. And whether or not you come to it late in life after a long career in something else, or you wrote your first play when you were five and never stopped, there are some things that you will need to get over in order to make your writing dream a reality.

  1. Yourself

The first thing to die must be your own insecurities. Easier said than done. And this is something you will have to battle every day for the rest of your writing career, because unless you have the unshakeable ego of, say, Napoleon Bonaparte, those doubts will niggle you every waking moment.

The thing is if you don’t take yourself seriously, no one else will. Don’t apologise for wanting to be a writer. Don’t apologise for thinking that you can be a writer. Don’t mumble when people ask you what you’re working on. If they don’t get it, who cares. You get it. That’s all that matters.

  1. Other people

Just to be clear, no one is going to fully understand your work except you. No one is going to care about your work like you do. When people ask how your weekend was and you say “So busy, I wrote 10 000 words, stayed up all night, so exhausted.” Not only will they mentally roll their eyes, they will immediately compare your sitting on your butt in front of a computer screen all weekend to the fact that they had to take their 8yo to three different birthday parties, their 5yo to soccer, have ten people over for dinner, walk the dog, mow the lawn, get root canal and paint the house.

They don’t give a shit and they probably never will. In fact many of them will resent you for having the courage to try and do something creative. Don’t look for encouragement in others, even in your close friends and family, because many of them will just not get it. And that’s the way it is.

  1. Time

Writing is one of the most time-consuming activities in the known universe. Even if you write 3 000 words a day (which takes most people about 5-6 hours), it will take you thirty days straight to write a 90 000 word manuscript. That’s if you literally do nothing else for a whole month. Add to that full-time work, family, weddings, funerals, sickness, appointments, birthday parties, holidays, and actually having a life (so maybe 1 hour of writing a day if you’re lucky) and it will take you around six to eight months. Add to that research, frequent slow periods, and some moments of despair/writer’s block/questioning the meaning of life, you’re looking at twelve months. Absolute minimum. For a first draft. Then comes the rewrite, editing, reworking, burning it in the backyard and starting all over again, blah blah bah.

The point is it requires serious dedication and deliberate effort to even get a first draft on paper. It will require you to stay home when everyone else is going out. You will have to miss birthdays, dinners, events, holidays, usually to the great offence of everyone around you. No one will understand because the deadline is self-directed, and people rarely respect a self-directed deadline. But if you want to write, you have to actually write. And that takes real time.

  1. Where you came from

Some people are born into artistic families. Most people aren’t. Some people are born into culturally fortunate locations where inspiration and opportunities and contacts abound. Most people aren’t. Some people get recognised in their formative years and get useful legs-up in the creative world. Most people aren’t. These are things you have little control over. But it doesn’t mean they have to stay that way.

If you need to move to a more conducive artistic environment, then do it. If you need to change who you hang around so you can get inspired, then do it. If you need to remodel so you have a useful writing space, then do it. If you need to change jobs, degrees or fields of study in order to get the input you need, then do it. Most people don’t. But you should.

  1. IMG_0512Conventions

The rules state that you have to go to school then go to uni then get a job so you have money to buy a car, get married, buy a house, have a family, go on family holidays, invest in superannuation and retire.

Thing is, you don’t.

Spending two years of your life writing a novel goes against all rational conventions. Do it anyway. You may have to delay other things in your life to get it done. Do it anyway. You may decide that you need to drop out of uni, postpone a life event, or turn down a great job to get done. Do it anyway.

Just don’t get to the end of your life never having tried.

  1. Work

Most writers will actually have to work for money for a long time before they are able to live off their writing. Some writers will never live off their writing. Work will always get in the way. You need to manage it. If you need to get a different job so that you have more time/energy/brain space to write, then do it.

Writing is work. It’s not a hobby. It’s not a fun idea to kill some time. It’s not a phase. It’s not a therapeutic exercise. It’s damn hard work and it’s no less worthy of respect than any other job.

  1. Expectations

If you write always worrying about what other people will think about this or that then you will never put a word on paper.

In order to be true to your genre, characters, story, whatever, you may need to write graphic sex scenes, violence, abuse, morally shocking behavior, drugs, mental and physical illnesses, gosh you may even have to use a four-letter word or two.

Yes, your granny might be offended. Or your colleagues/parents/friends/family. Know what? Too bad. Hey, everyone watches Game of Thrones. Even if they say they don’t.

  1. Security

There may come a time when you decide you need to spend a solid three months on your book. You may need to take unpaid leave. You may even need to quit your job. Again, no one else will understand or care. They will tell you that you’re crazy because a promotion is just around the corner, or that you’re leaving the team in the lurch, or that certain projects won’t happen if you’re not there. In the end, this is your life and your future, not theirs. Work out which one matters most.

  1. Genre

So when you decided to be a writer you thought you would be the next James Joyce. Then you started writing and you realised that all you wanted to write about was guns and car chases. Does that make you a second-rate writer? HELL. NO.

Write what you want to write. Don’t write to win the Booker prize or the Nobel prize or to be the next J.K. Rowling. There are plenty of authors out there who are writing from ambition and I can guarantee that deep down they know they’re not being honest with themselves. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of our most lauded literary minds will lie on their deathbeds wishing they had created the next James Bond instead of ten award-winning lyrical masterpieces.

  1. Other writers

The great thing about finally owning up to your dirty little secret is that you will start to find some like-minded people. You will find workshops, seminars, competitions, writing groups, writing centres, literary fetsivals. You will find beta readers and crit partners and people who just love sharing your work and talking about it. And then you will also find people who are just plain rude or ridiculously elitist or want nothing to do with anyone else because they are the ultimate lone wolf.

In the end, writing, like any creative pursuit, is a small and competitive field and some people are in it to win and don’t care about anything else. They will resent your success and then smugly rub their success in your face. They will use you for a profile boost and then clamber over you up the literary social ladder. So find the good ones and don’t let them go. The rest? Forget them.

  1. What you could have been

Just because you can do it, doesn’t mean you should. People tell me I could have been a singer. I could have been a performer. I could have been a great music director. I could have been a great educator. I could have been a principal. I could have been an actress. I could have been an academic. That’s all great. But I have only one life. And I’m at least going to try to do what I really want to do.

And you should too.

 

Elise Janes