Ain’t No Soundtrack Like a NYC Soundtrack

It all begins with a silent panoramic view of New York City and its bridges. And then, as the first bars of the Bee Gees’ “Staying Alive” begin to thump, the camera zooms in on a 23-year-old John Travolta as Tony Manero strutting down a bustling working-class Brooklyn street. Decked out in an incongruous uniform of black leather jacket, open-collared crimson shirt, black flared trousers, and elevator shoes, he’s loose-limbed and square-shouldered, with a jive roll pimping out his step, a nod at every pretty girl who sashays by him and a bucket of paint bobbing at his side. And he’s moving so rhythmically to the music that it takes you a second before you realize the song isn’t actually playing on the street. It’s playing in his head and it’s what keeps him going. It’s how he sees himself: the king of the clubs, a player with a plan, rather than an aimless nobody hastening back to his job at the local hardware store. It’s how he keeps Saturday Night Fever in his everyday life. …

For more of my essay about why music, movies and New York are a ménage à trois made in heaven, check out my Red Bull Music Academy edification, dear Sirenaders.

The Magical Thinking of Before Midnight

I first saw Scenes From a Marriage, Ingmar Bergman’s 1973 Swedish TV series, at the apartment of a man I’d been considering sleeping with for a while. He’d projected it against a wall painted white expressly for our screening, and we sat through about 45 minutes before he shut it off and turned to me. “This is not sexy,” he said flatly, and we promptly fell upon each other like wild dogs. The affair lasted four months, the precise length of time you can date someone before it deepens into something more serious. I wasn’t surprised. We’d consummated the relationship in the long shadow of a film that denied us any shared illusions about love before experience could do that for us.

Before Midnight, Richard Linklater’s third film about the romance of Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) (not counting the couple’s cameo in the director’s animated Waking Life), is the first in this series that smacks of Bergman—that Bergman, in particular. That’s a big old blast of relationship reality. And no matter how well-rendered, it isn’t the movie magic we clamor for even when it’s what we need. I’m not convinced we ever do.

Before Sunrise (1995) began as Celine, a French university student, and Jesse, an American wandering on a Eurorail pass, met cute as strangers on a train. After a bit of banter, the two jumped off in Vienna, reveling in their connection as they chattered on prettily cobbled streets. That film took visual and narrative cues from its 20something stars—magnetic and effusively philosophical—and left us to moon about the road that might stretch before them. Would they regret it if they did not reunite a year later? Would they regret it if they did? It was a perfectly earnest romance for a generation that didn’t earnestly care about anything, and I floated in its reverie for months. Somewhat improbably, it also spawned a terrific franchise (a subversion of the term, yes) built upon all that chattiness: Celine and Jesse were such well-developed characters that they could reanimate without stumbling like scary zombies.

Before Sunset (2004) found them leaner and more resigned, the elapsing nine years having stripped them of more than just baby fat. Jesse was now an unhappily married father on his first international book tour; she, a single-ish environmental activist who was disillusioned both professionally and romantically, at least partly because their reunion never took place. After she surprised him at a Parisian reading of his work, the two took a walk and, along the way, slowly, slightly sadly made their way back to each other. Though the two never actually had sex in this film, it’s far sexier than its predecessor. Because they had already been disappointed by love, life, and each other, their chemistry was more informed, more dangerous and, by the transitive property of sexual attraction, more magical. As the film drew to a close, she was singing Nina Simone as Nina Simone, and he was about to miss his plane back to New York. A perfectly earnest romance about a generation that no longer could afford not to earnestly care about something. I cried in grateful recognition that true connection was still possible, even between a film and myself.

Before Midnight is the first in this series that didn’t make me cry. It is also the first that focuses upon a relationship that not only has had time to bloom but to wither on the vine. It opens at a Greek airport as Jesse, now 41, is bidding goodbye to his son about to return home to New York, where he lives with his mother. The teenager is sweetly patient with his distraught father but also removed: a good kid acquainted with his parents’ failings long before he should have been.

Wrecked, Jesse wobbles outside where Celine, jabbering into a cell phone, waves. They climb into their car, and, while their two golden-haired daughters sleep like tiny Celines in the backseat, begin to talk. Since we’ve just witnessed Jesse’s heartbreak, it’s a shock that the conversation begins with Celine telling him about a new job offer. Enter the sometimes brutal, if necessary, indifference required to sustain daily life in a long-term romance. Continue Reading →

The Church of Harriet the Spy

Fetching your coffee in Williamsburg at 7am on a Sunday morning means you witness a lot of walks of shame. This morning I got caught behind a couple blocking the sidewalk as they ambled to the subway. He was trying, subtly subtly, to hurry them along but she was so lit up in a reverie of Sunday-morning-new-love-this-is-how-it’s-supposed-to-be that she didn’t pick up his cues. When they got to the stop she reached up expectantly, head tilted back and lips slightly parted for a big Hollywood goodbye kiss, but he merely pecked her cheek and patted her back while conspicuously removing his pelvis from the picture. Just like that her face fell, shoulders crumpling as she descended the stairs to the subway, and I shuddered, thinking of the awful self-loathing to which she was also about to descend. I could see the whole thing just from that moment: They’d met online, gone on two dates he’d considered more mediocre than she had, and they’d slept together the night before because of his idle desire to get laid and her powerful need for connection. The guy and I stood together at the corner, waiting for the traffic light to change, and I could feel the relief radiating from him like UV rays. Involuntarily I snorted. It was more of an audible exhale, really, but I confess I’d forgotten anyone could hear or see me since I consider myself invisible when I’m in Harriet the Spy mode. (It’s amazing how often I meet people who’ve never noticed me though I’ve watched them many times.) Suddenly he looked straight at me with the most searing mix of defensiveness and fury, and I–overcompensator that I sometimes can be–smiled evilly right back. The light changed, he rushed away, and I apologetically sent them both a silent burst of peony compassion. O, Sunday morning. Jesus, indeed.

"All, everything I understand, I understand only because I love."
― Leo Tolstoy