In college, I had this idea for an app where you open up a map of your surrounding locations, and as you move around, you find little bubbles planted by other users. These bubbles, when opened, tell different stories about the place you’re standing on. Think Pokémon GO, but instead of catching Pokémon, you hunt for anecdotes.
The kinds of stories I envisioned for this app were personal and intimate — how one person might’ve met the love of their life during a block screening of Doctor Strange, or how another might have stumbled into a surprise encounter with Anthony Bourdain at a dive bar. I was interested in reading honest and affecting moments, and I suppose part of the appeal was in discovering something magical about each place vicariously through other people. In other words, I knew those moments would always belong to other people, but I wanted to recount them with the same reverence one might have for urban myth or the old haunts of great personalities.
Although this idea never came to fruition, I don’t think I would have conceived it, if not for the lasting effect that Richard Linklater’s Before Trilogy left on me. The three films, as many people have pointed out, have so much to say about relationships and time. They form a profound exploration of space and speak of the ways by which people and places inhabit each other.
Each entry in the series is thoughtfully located to drive thematic undertones, whether they are important to each individual film or to the series as a whole. When Jesse and Celine meet in Before Sunrise, Jesse is about to get off the train passing through Vienna. Inviting Celine to explore the city with him on the eve of his flight home, Jesse repeatedly invokes Vienna’s status as a City of Dreams (given Vienna’s association to Sigmund Freud), performing impressions of the psychoanalyst stereotype and making allusions to their encounter unfolding in some kind of “dream world.” Before Sunset helps to complicate the tensions surrounding their delayed reunion by setting it in Paris, a city popularly associated with lovers. Later, when Jesse and Celine reflect on their nine years together in Before Midnight, it is prefaced by Celine’s fears that Greece, a place “so full of… myth and tragedy”, might bring about a tragic event for them both. As that film unravels, we see how the repercussions of their first encounter bring them dangerously close to the end of their relationship.
More than laying down landmarks for touristy viewers to follow during their own travels, the Before Trilogy makes one conscious of how significant experiences charge places with intimate energies. When Sunrise ends, it does so with a montage that revisits the spaces the characters have inhabited albeit now packed away and empty — as if the people have dissolved with the dream.
How else could these places be important to us, the viewers, if not for the encounters we’ve just witnessed? Interestingly, in his essay “Time Regained”, writer Dennis Lim points out that when Before Sunset opens, it does the opposite by presenting us with the spaces that Jesse and Celine have yet to pass through, setting the table for their long-awaited reunion. To the viewer, these Parisian streets are already charged with the tensions inherent to the film’s premise, even before the encounter has begun.
Ever since I saw these films for the first time in high school, I’ve tried to live with this kind of awareness of place, often clinging to them whenever I recognized something important happening to me. I pictured myself touring these places with my much younger self, one who still has little sense of how these events might affect his way of being in the world. I imagined telling myself spoilers like: “You will be living on the twenty-fifth floor of this apartment building when you turn 22. One of the first things you learn on that birthday is that your grandmother has passed away.” This mental exercise in personal mythology was my way of blowing up the importance of different places, until I could start to imagine the ways people might find despair or happiness in places as mundane and soulless as one’s local McDonald’s.
Even now, given the circumstances, I think less about how home is special to someone like me, and more about how the public space has been radically transformed and re-valued by the present moment. Each time I revisit the Before films, I feel like I approach a milestone that marks the maturity of my encounters with place.
If I ever got that app to work, I would’ve scrambled for ways to reconcile the intimate encounter of other places from one’s own home. Maybe the app idea never was going to fly. On the other hand, my conviction that human encounters permeate every last nook of the world has yet to falter.
Header still via Sony Pictures
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