How I saw a movie without seeing

The chase in Duel.  Photo courtesy: Universal Television

Remember Jaws? The movie still sends a shiver down my spine. The opening beach sequence is still vivid in my memory. I stepped into Steven Spielberg’s world of movies through this chilling thriller. Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Raiders of the Lost Ark only increased my interest in Spielberg’s craft.
Fear, the fear that gnaws at our bones, was the engine of Spielberg’s early movies. I found it fascinating. So when some friends huddled together one afternoon to discuss movies, my contribution was on Spielberg: how he thrives in portraying the fear of mere mortals, ordinary people struggling to stitch together a life.
“So you haven’t seen Duel,” one of my friends said.
“No, I haven’t heard about it either,” I replied.
“The fear factor you said is brilliantly portrayed in it,” he said, adding that it is a Tom-and-Jerry game without the comical interludes played out on a highway.
Sreekumar was a compulsive story-teller. He doesn’t need an invitation to launch into one of his narrations on books or movies. Duel obviously delighted him. And he was quick to figure out that there was an audience.
For the next hour, Sreekumar turned Spielberg, narrating how a road rage turned into a breathless battle for life. Sreekumar’s narrative skills are admirable. Mimicking the truck’s ear-splitting horn and harping on the details of the sequences at Chuck’s Café, he fleshed out the scenes with his words and actions.
Rapt in attention, we followed every word that tripped off Sreekumar’s lips. His hands would come up when describing the speeding truck looming behind the Plymouth and his body swerved when the vehicles came around the curves at great speed. He brought to life a cat-and-mouse chase gone wrong.
And the finale. It was so beautifully described that when he stopped, there was silence.
“Beautiful,” one of us said.
It sure was. So good that I badly wanted to see it. But I never could, for years. The images from Sreekumar’s narration remained etched in my memory. Almost as if I had seen the movie.

*  *  *

More than 30 years later I watched Duel. I was dumbstruck at the clarity of Sreekumar’s description. I knew what was coming, how the scenes will turn out. But there was more to young Spielberg’s precocious skills. The frames, the juxtaposition of the truck and the car, the subjective shots, the use of spaces in the frames, and the pace were breathtaking.
It was not just a movie about terror on the highway. It is a commentary about lives of ordinary people.
I realised that in his attempt to focus on the businessman car driver’s inability to spot the trucker, Sreekumar left out some crucial elements — parts that threw light on the driver’s frailties.
The truck was, in fact, a trailer. Visually and metaphorically it made a huge difference. The car driver’s telephone conversation with his wife was never narrated, and that held hints on some of his traits. More crucially the fight at the café, it was not emphasised enough to show the car driver’s physical weakness. And his botched school bus rescue was completely missed. They mattered in the end.

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Three shades of love

Julie Delphy and Ethan Hawke take a walk through the island of Peloponnese, Greece in Before Midnight. Image credit: Sony Pictures Classics

In 2013 Before Midnight arrived. Nine years before that there was Before Sunset. Go back another nine years, and you get Before Sunrise. They form an unlikely trilogy, a saga of love over 18 years.

I was in the prime of my youth when I watched Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise. I fell in love with it. I loved the plot, characters and the acting. The story spanning less than 12 hours was riveting: a romance between two strangers in their early 20s who meet on a train. Jesse (Ethan Hawke) impulsively asks Celine (Julie Delphy) to get off the train, and they talk and walk through the streets of Vienna at night, discovering each other and falling in love before parting. She had a Paris-bound train to catch, and he had to fly home to the United States.

Ethan Hawke and Julie Delphy make imaginary phone calls in a Vienna cafe in Before Sunrise. Image credit: Columbia Pictures

It could easily have been boring. Imagine two people talking about mundane subjects of boyfriends, girlfriends, music and death for almost the entire length of the movie. Here’s where you admire Linklater’s script, dialogues and filmmaking. The long sequences capture the flowing conversation, and you almost feel as if you are eavesdropping. The movie stayed with me. And the train journey struck a personal chord.

Years later, I came across the sequel. I also learned that the story of Before Sunrise was based on a similar personal experience. The sequel, Before Sunset, was born out of the Linklater’s attempt to translate his experience into a story. He drafted in actors Hawke and Delphy to co-write the script for the sequel.

Ethan Hawke and Julie Delphy catch up on their lives during a ferry ride in Paris in Before Sunset. Image credit: Warner Independent Pictures

So when Before Sunset came, I was very curious. Did the American and the French student meet after six months, as they promised? Paris? What happened at Vienna? Jesse and Celine had moved on in life, matured into responsible adults. After the unexpected reunion, they walk through the streets of Paris and ride a ferry, catching up on their lives. And he has a plane to catch, before sunset.

The approach and treatment are strikingly similar to the first film yet there was something very different. Hawke and Delphy subtly lift their characters to a new level. The two may have gone separate ways, but the connection is apparent even after a nine-year gap: you find it in their smiles, laughter, looks and the whole body language. I found myself willing them to rekindle their love.

Linklater kept alive the mystery and chemistry of romance in the first two films, and he could have easily turned the third into another fable of love. Instead, he chose to make Before Midnight into a brutal dissection of a midlife crisis, collaborating again with Hawke and Delphy on the script.

Set in Peloponnese, Greece, Jesse and Celine are in the forties, their love and life worn out by the ravages of time. The dancing eyes, impish smiles and endearing dialogues gave way to furtive glances, sneering looks and barbed verbal attacks. Insecurities and annoyance bred by a life together spring to the surface as they spew vitriol revisiting one bitter memory after another. It was so superb and so vicious that several times I wondered whether it was the same couple who ignited their romance with unsaid words and kept alive their love with a yearning to be with each other.

At one point, Celine asks if Jesse would invite her to get off the train if they had met at this minute. Jesse’s response reflects the reality of the struggles that love must overcome to survive.

Before Midnight is a brilliantly crafted movie. To me, it is the best of the trilogy. Each of the three films is unique, but together they represent the best love story.

In real life, Linklater’s romance fizzled out. His muse died in an accident in 1994, a few weeks before he started filming Before Sunset. He learned of Amy Lehrhaupt’s death only in 2010, long before the work on Before Midnight began.

Such is life!


This article was first published in in 2014