A Day in the Life

Quentin Tarantino has proclaimed the biopic the film genre that least rouses his interest.  To make a movie that chronicles the life and times of a particular individual is, he assures us, not something to which he intends to expend his talents.

Tarantino does, however, permit himself an addendum on this subject:  He could be persuaded, in the right circumstances, to undertake a work of historical drama that concerns a particular event in a particular man’s journey from the cradle to the grave.  A day in the life, as it were.  A singular moment to reflect all the others.

What a curious conceit it is that by spending a mere hour or two in another’s company, one can be made to feel as if having peered into that person’s soul.

On this point, allow me to draw your attention to Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight, the new movie starring Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke that checks in on the relationship that began in 1995’s Before Sunrise and rekindled in 2004’s Before Sunset.

Like all great film romances, the one in the Before saga fills its adoring audiences with a real sense of insight into what makes its characters tick.  After three films whose subjects started as 23-year-olds and are now 41, Celine and Jesse (Delpy and Hawke) seem as much like real people as any fictional couple in the cinema.

What makes this more intriguing still is the fact (easily overlooked) that none of the three movies encompasses more than 24 hours of Celine’s and Jesse’s lives.  Before Sunrise begins in the evening and ends the following morning, while Before Sunset and Before Midnight both exist within a single calendar day.  They are mere snap shots—the most fleeting of glimpses into the comings and goings of strangers.

The catch is that these are no ordinary days.  Rather, they are the moments of high drama—major turning points, in some cases—that command our attention in ways that a more typical slice of life might not.

The arresting third act of Before Midnight, in which Delpy and Hawke lay down their emotional cards in an elegant hotel room, is the sort of domestic squabble that we do not normally witness in real life, although we know bloody well that it really happens.  Even the most seemingly harmonious duos are susceptible to the occasional battle.  The days of wine and roses are even shorter than we might presume.

These fairly commonsensical facts have never not been true, but we might spend an extra moment or two reflecting upon them in light of the recent news—which, in point of fact, is neither news nor recent—that the U.S. government has granted itself the authority to tap our phones and read our e-mails whenever its heart desires.  Privacy as we know it, already in a highly fragile state, is rapidly becoming a thing of a past.

While reaction to this so-called revelation has hardly been uniform, an alarmingly high number of citizens have essentially shrugged off the prospect that whatever privacy they had left has been forfeited in the name of fighting evildoers.  The refrain “I’ve got nothing to hide” has become all too common in the national lexicon.

On this particular claim, I can only stand back in awe.

If you can genuinely assert that you would feel no discomfort were everything you say and do to be secretly recorded and splattered across the front page of the New York Times, then please accept my congratulations.  You possess a level of self-confidence to which I can only daydream.

True, even with the powers now attained by the National Security Agency, it is fairly unlikely that a typical American will find his most sensitive personal business nationally broadcast without probable cause.  But the point is that it could be, and there would be very little one could do about it.

If one is prepared to surrender more and more of one’s civil liberties, this is the sort of culture one will need to accept.  When you say, “I have nothing to hide,” realize that soon enough this will become literally true:  You will not be able to hide anything, even if you want to.

Celine and Jesse’s midnight fight will no longer be between just them, and we will no longer feel like eavesdroppers in witnessing it.

Indeed, we will not require the penetrating power of film to peer into the lives of others.  We can simply ask the government.

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