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Archive for October, 2013

Beyond the end of story

(If you have not watched Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight, I recommend not reading this post)

There is a reason why we don’t write stories beyond the end of the movies. We like to think that the hero, having been (re)united with the love of his life after overcoming incredible circumstances, will get married and merrily remain so. We like to think that the world saved from the brink of destruction will forever be in peace and prosperity. We want to believe in happily ever after.

I love Before Sunrise and Before Sunset. I actually came across Before Sunset first when I was living in Paris three years ago. I didn’t expect much from the movie description but fell in love with the movie quickly. In the age of high budget movies with large casts, extensive special effects, and overcomplicated stories with oversimplified realities, Before Sunset was an incredibly welcome change.

After discovering Before Sunset, I of course watched Before Sunrise as soon as possible. It may be that as a single expat living in Europe, the subject matter resonated with me. Who wouldn’t want an evening/afternoon to change how they see the rest of their lives?

Besides the elegant execution of creating a movie with mostly dialogue between two characters set in a short timespan, I love the fact that the movies are set in real time, spaced nine years apart (why they didn’t bother to wait ten years is a mystery to me).

So when Before Midnight came out in the theaters, I saw it as soon as possible. The movie had the same qualities as the previous two movies: beautifully crafted dialogue with few rich characters. I liked the movie. I want to love the movie but there is something that’s eating me away, both with what the movie represents and how it ends.

Because I watched Before Sunset before Before Sunrise, I never enjoyed the suspense of wondering if Jesse and Céline will ever reunite as they promised in the movie. While I know a lot of people did not like the unresolved ending, I loved how Before Sunset ended with Jesse listening to Céline as the camera faded to black. When so many movies end positively and conclusively, it was a beautifully ambiguous ending.

It’s not that I let my imagination go wild and started envisioning what happened to the two protagonists after the credit roll. In both movies, there was comfort in knowing that there was a future, that there is a story in which their lives could unfold in so many ways.

In the first fifteen minutes of Before Midnight, that beautiful ambiguity was destroyed (I avoided any previews or film descriptions before watching the movie). To be fair, Before Sunset did the same to Before Sunrise as well, but this felt different. It was the story after the happily ever after: marriage, kids, holiday in Greece, etc. The beginning of Before Midnight is already what we wanted to happen after Before Sunset.

To be honest, this all caught me by surprise. I thought the movie was going to be about meeting nine years later with their lives having progressed independently, but then I realized that would be too similar to Before Sunset. I’m pretty sure my expression actually looked like the emoticon 😮 during the scene when Jesse enters the car and the camera pans to the back seat to show the twins.

The movie itself was wonderful with elegant dialogue, especially the scene where the group is eating dinner under the setting sun. However, The fight that ensues with it’s gritty execution was too real. At points, it was painful to watch. This was the love that developed over eighteen years, from that chance meeting on the train to Vienna in 1995. Do we really want to taint it with what is all too real? Can’t we at least keep our imaginations purer?

The ambiguous ending, like the previous films didn’t help either. In the previous films we were left to question if the two will ever get together. Now we are left to question if the two will split up.

I hope they will make another sequel in the series. It’s not that I’m hoping for something more conclusive, but something more hopeful. I have no idea how a sequel would be set, reconciliation? (After nine years?) Peace of old age? (Probably too early?) Death of either character? (Too extreme?) Reminiscence? (Set in Vienna again?)

The series have surprised many times in the past, so I have faith that I will be surprised again. I just hope that Before Midnight won’t be the last of the series.

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Have you left the world a better place than you found it?

One day while traveling in Belfast with my mother back in August, we took a full day tour with Paddy Campbell’s Black Cab Tours where the man himself showed us around Belfast and the North Antrim coastline. It was definitely not a cheap tour, not something I can afford if I was traveling alone.

The tour was split in two parts, the first through West Belfast which was the epicenter and hotbed of the Irish conflict, better known as “The Troubles.” The second part of the tour was outside of Belfast to some of the more touristic and famous sites such as the Giant’s Causeway and Bushmills Distillery.

While the second part of the tour was my original intended destination, the first part of the tour turned out to be much more interesting. Paddy, a man somewhere between his mid-fifties and mid-sixties, has been driving his cab for over twenty-eight years, through The Troubles years. He took us to both the Protestant (Loyalists, loyal to Britain) and Catholic (Republicans, wants a united Ireland) neighborhoods stopping at the different murals painted on the side of houses and walls.

Mural 1

Mural 2

Mural 3

This may seem like one of those tours where the tour guide shares his personal experiences through troubled times, but it’s not. Paddy’s goal is to present the conflict as neutral as possible since he believes that the uninitiated mind can easily be persuaded to believe in one good and one evil. “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter,” he said.

Paddy didn’t share his origins until the tour was nearly over and he kept the tour as factual as possible, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t emotional. The conflict is very much part of his identity as it is with the city. With the way he carried himself and the tattoos on his arms, I also got the sense that at some point in the past, he was more involved in The Troubles than the average bystander, but I could be very wrong about this point.

If you imagine Belfast to be a war-torn city with derelict buildings and other scars of conflict, imagine again. While I’m sure there’s been plenty of repairs and improvements since the 1998 peace treaty, this is no ghetto. Walking around the city is perfectly safe during daylight hours and outside of few out of place walls and gates, this city is like anywhere else in Europe. You wouldn’t believe that the generic looking and fully functioning Europa Hotel is the most bombed hotel in the world or that car bombs regularly lined the sides of the downtown streets. Places like Rio de Janeiro and Lima felt much more dangerous than Belfast.

Back to Paddy.

At some points in the tour the conversations seemed less like talking to a tour guide and more like listening to an old man reminiscing back on his life. He talked about why the conflict inevitably started (organized discrimination) and what could be done to prevent more future violence (better integration and impartial education), all of course his own opinions. While reflecting upon the changes that happened, he stated something very memorable to me: “I think my kids have had a better starting point in life than I did” (this is not the exact quote as I don’t remember it verbatim).

Have you left the world a better place than you found it?

Of course most of you, like myself, are nowhere near the end of your lives to answer this question, but maybe it’s something we want to think about as we carry on.

Throughout most of human history, very little changed, and we affected very little. Generations after generations lived very similarly. We now live in a world of rapid change and unparalleled capabilities. We can now leave permanent effects on the global environment. We’ve built increasingly complex financial institutions to borrow from our future selves. Never have we had so much power to affect the starting point of generations of people that will follow us.

While asking this question to an individual is interesting, the real difference is when we ask the question to generations of people of a certain country, ethnicity, or the world. Have the people who come before us left the world a better place for us? Will we leave the world a better place for those that follow?

The question isn’t just environmental or economical. It’s also political, cultural, philosophical, and ideological too. For example, multiple generations of Europeans have left their societies in wreckages after devastating wars, but they’ve also left a culture of resilience and an appreciation for peace that have become the ground work for where Europe stands today. Generations of Americans have left the notion of the American dream and the unparalleled optimism that results from it, but the hypercompetitiveness and the lack of appreciation for social security/solidarity may actually be harmful these days.

Sometimes I feel that our generation in the developed world are at a handicap. We will be dealing with the environmental and financial damages that’s becoming more apparent while living with the unreasonable expectation of continual economic growth in an increasingly competitive global world. Simultaneously, we are burdened with nostalgic messages of how the past used to be better than the present, something I would argue is a fairly new phenomenon. Someday I may write more on this matter as the idea of intergenerational conflict has been looming in my mind as I read about youth unemployment in Europe and the increasing cost and burden of healthcare.

We don’t have to leave a better world than we found it. Unless you believe in karma and reincarnation, once we are gone, we are gone for good and the problems will be someone else’s. We can be selfish all we want, but somewhere in human history we developed the ability to be selfless and have empathy for each other, even amidst the bloody conflict of The Troubles. Let’s not just live by each other, but also by those that are following us.

Thanks for the food for though Paddy.

Paddy: If you somehow managed to find your way to my little blog and this post, and I got it completely wrong, let me know and I’ll make changes.

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