The Romantic Realism of Linklater’s Before Movies

Richard Linklater’s three Before movies depict the evolution of a relationship over time by showing us just three days of Jesse and Celine’s life, each day nine years apart from the others. Through the long, winding conversations the two have, we are easily able to fill in the years in between. Though they’re smarter, better looking, and more charming than we are, and though their conversations are probably more clever and philosophical than our own, we can still see ourselves and our relationships in them – they feel so real. Trying to articulate exactly what I love so much about these movies is hard as my fondness for them ultimately comes down to a feeling more than anything else, but I’m going to try anyways, so let’s start with Before Sunrise.

The movie is an almost ethereal love story between Jesse and Celine in their early twenties, when they are still brimming with optimism and hope about the future. The two meet on the train and hit it off so that when the time comes for Jesse to get off, he asks Celine to get off the train with him to continue their conversation. As they walk around Vienna, they wax philosophical about love, life, and religion reminding us of the 2 am dorm-room conversations we had in college. They are still young and innocent enough to not get bogged down in the daily problems that working adults deal with, allowing their conversations to wind from one abstract concept to another. The scenes in the movie are wonderfully shot – the scene in the music booth was fantastic, the fake-calling was hilarious, the homeless guy was incredibly endearing, and Jesse convincing the bartender to give him a bottle of wine was the thing that only young people in love would try. But what resonated with me the most was their utter infatuation with one another; it reminded me of a special time in my life, of the unique rollercoaster of emotions that you only get with your first love. Though it’s a boy-meets-girl love story at heart, what makes this movie special to me is that there is no traditional conflict; there’s no other romantic interest or terrible event that can tear the relationship apart. It’s simply about two people falling in love with each other, walking around Vienna in long takes, having wonderful conversation; Jesse and Celine’s chemistry is so great that we do not need anything else. The movie has a great ambiguous ending, leaving us to wonder whether the two meet up again in six months. And though Linklater could’ve left it there, nine years later, he gives us Before Sunset.

Before Sunset is my favorite of the three. After nine years, Jesse and Celine are finally brought back together in Paris by Jesse’s book about their magical night together. We quickly learn that the two did not meet up in six months; Jesse flew to Vienna but left heartbroken as Celine, unbeknownst to Jesse, had to attend her grandmother’s funeral instead. The two are now seasoned adults who have grown jaded by their years in the workforce and, as we later learn, their inability to find another person who they connect with as deep as they did with each other. Though their conversations remain philosophical, they are no longer the college-dorm musings of the first movie, but instead remain grounded in the reality of their own experiences. Both characters lie throughout the movie and try and pretend that everything is okay in their lives as they try and get a feel for the other person, but slowly, as the movie progresses and they dig deeper into each other’s lives, we learn the truth. Their lies are layered like onions; with the removal of one lie, comes another lie, until ultimately the character breaks down with the truth. Jesse for example, starts by lying about whether he showed up in Vienna eight and a half years ago, then neglects to mention that he is married with children, and finally does not confess that he is in a deeply unhappy marriage until he breaks down. Celine goes through a similar process where she first presents herself as a careerist, then as an independent person who is okay with a rarely-present boyfriend, before finally revealing the truth. Both still haven’t gotten over their night in Vienna nine years ago and all their relationships since have failed to live up to the ideal of that night. Their lies, through commission and omission, kept their conversation cordial, but as they walk around Paris and talk, they both realize that the chemistry they felt nine years ago is still there. They had become so jaded that they were used to shrouding themselves with lies but now, the walls slowly start to come down and the emotions come flooding out. Those emotions feel so true to the human experience, feelings of everyone else living such wonderful lives while their own is falling apart, of aimlessness, of regrets over what could’ve been and what is. The movie is a concise 80 minutes and though it’s over in the blink of an eye, we feel like we know Jesse and Celine deeply; the movie feels as if we’re catching up with close friends that we haven’t seen in a while. The two scenes where Jesse and Celine break down are master-classes in acting and the movie ends perfectly, with two characters knowing exactly where they belong and experiencing pure bliss. Once again, Linklater could’ve left it there, but instead he plays with our expectations of love by giving us Before Midnight.

Before Midnight is an entirely different kind of love story than the previous two movies. Celine and Jesse are no longer meeting for the first time, or reuniting after daydreaming about each other for years, but have instead been living together for nine years. Their love no longer revolves around infatuation but is instead a deeper, more mundane love, the type of love that all love eventually becomes, which is not to say that it’s a worse kind of love, just different (I’d argue that it’s actually a better kind of love). We spend the first half of the movie seeing them interact with other characters such as their children or their friends in Greece, but when we finally get them alone together, we can quickly see that their conversations are still witty and enthralling. Throughout the first half of the movie though, we can feel an argument simmering in the background and it’s not until they get into their hotel room that tensions erupt. The fight hits close to home because it feels so much like ones that I have. It starts over a rather insignificant thing, but quickly escalates into something else entirely with both sides trying to score points while using unfair, though true, attacks. The argument seems to fade multiple times, but comes back stronger each time until the climax when Celine tells Jesse that she doesn’t love him anymore and leaves the hotel room for the third time. I’ve never had a fight escalate that far (and hope that I never do), but it’s so effective in the movie. We don’t believe Celine because we’ve seen the first half of the movie and the other two movies, but still, it disabuses us of the notion of a perfect love. Movies usually end at happily ever after, but here, we see what’s really after. The trilogy comes full circle, as Jesse and Celine fight like the older couple on the train in the first movie. There’s no such thing as true love, or at least not the true love that movies typically sell us. But what’s left is an enduring love, a love that can withstand withering arguments, one where the other person truly understands the other, a genuine life-long partnership. And so, the movie once again ends beautifully ambiguous, with us left to imbue the ending with our own thoughts and imagine the future in store for the two.

Hopefully at the next nine year mark, Linklater blesses us with yet another sequel. The series feels complete, but it felt complete the previous two times as well. Narratively, it probably makes the most sense for Celine and Jesse to be divorced in the next movie, but, since I’m a romantic at heart, I hope that’s not the case. Regardless, I trust Linklater to do the characters justice and it would definitely be cool to revisit the characters every nine years, like a fictional 7 Up series.

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The Wire, Goodhart’s Law, and the Baltimore Homicide Unit

The Wire is often cited as the greatest TV show of all time, and for good reason. We’re drawn in by the charisma of characters such as Omar, Avon, Stringer, and McNulty, but its ultimate greatness lies in its realistic portrayal of the various forces surrounding Baltimore’s drug scene. By the end of the series, we have a pretty firm grasp on the entire drug ecosystem of Baltimore and how the police, city hall, the drug dealers and users, the media, and the education system all play their part in fueling that ecosystem, making it incredibly hard to solve. In this essay, though, we’re going to focus on how Goodhart’s law explains some of the specific perverse incentives in just one of those pieces, the Baltimore Police Department, by looking at the homicide unit in particular. Marilyn Strathern’s quote does a good job summing up Goodhart’s law and is as follows: “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.” So, let’s go into how that ties to the police department.

Baltimore, like all other cities, needs to measure how well their police department is doing and does so by looking at crime. Yet “crime” as a concept isn’t quantified so in order to measure “crime” we quantify it by counting the number of murders, burglaries and other incidents that we deem bad. And so, we measure police departments by their impact on those numbers; we look at their murder clearance rate and the raw number of murders and other crimes on their watch.

Enter Jay Landsman, the sergeant of the homicide unit, and the quintessential company man. He understands what his unit and his bosses get measured on and does everything in his power to cover his ass and make them look great. How do we measure homicide? Easy, by counting the number of murders. So how do we measure the homicide unit? Also easy, by counting the number of murders they solve, a.k.a. their clearance rate. Though Jay is lazy, a total goof, and certainly comedic relief, he clearly understands that his unit is solely measured on its clearance rate, so he does everything in his power to ensure that the clearance rate looks as good as possible. This is why he’s the quintessential company man. Other characters, like Jimmy McNulty, also understand that the homicide unit is measured by its clearance rate, but he’s more concerned about solving actual crime than departmental optics, which is why he butts heads with so many bosses. So, you might ask, what’s so bad about focusing on the clearance rate? It seems like a pretty good measure of how well the homicide unit is doing to me. And certainly at first glance, you’d be right. After all, it makes intuitive sense to measure the homicide unit by how many homicides it solves, but as The Wire shows, the world is much more complicated and focusing solely on the clearance rate has other disastrous effects.

When McNulty and Lester Freamon finally discover that Marlo Stanfield’s gang has been hiding their murders in vacant houses and want to use departmental manpower to search other vacant houses for bodies, Jay immediately uses his authority to overrule them. The murders are in those vacants regardless of whether the police uncover them, but Jay understands that they won’t count as “murders” unless they’re uncovered by the police; if they just pretend that the murders aren’t there and never uncover them, then as far as the police department is concerned, the murders really aren’t there and the clearance rate remains unaffected. Though 22 murders are eventually uncovered when Freamon finally goes over Landsman’s head and straight to Daniels, we can imagine scenarios in which these murders never get uncovered. Freamon benefited from having someone like Daniels in charge, having Carcetti in the mayor’s office, and uncovering the murders when the statistics could still be attributed to the Royce administration. Without the confluence of all these rare events, the murders probably get buried and the investigation on Marlo never gets opened. Instead of uncovering and trying to solve the Marlo murders, the Baltimore Police Department was incentivized to try and bury the murders to juice their stats, an action that directly contradicts their ostensible raison d’être.

Another example of clearance rate maneuvering is shown in the beginning of season 2 when the thirteen girls show up dead in the harbor. First, the homicide unit tries to get the deaths written off as non-homicide related deaths so that they wouldn’t have to solve the case. When that fails, Rawls pawns the case off to Baltimore County by citing where the bodies were found and when McNulty foils him there, Rawls tries to meet with other jurisdiction heads to get the murders out of his jurisdiction. In an ideal world, unit leaders would devote all their time and resources to the cases they’re given, but because we have to measure their units, what ends up happening is that backroom politics becomes a large part of their job. After all, why spend all that effort trying to solve a futile case that if unsolved will affect your performance negatively when you can just hand those murders off to someone else?

I don’t mean to suggest that police are lazy, bad people who spend all their time on office politics and covering up crime so that they can go back to eating donuts. It’s just the unintended consequences that gets summed up by Goodhart’s law. When the clearance rate becomes the target instead of a measure, it’s no longer a good measure because the homicide unit starts to alter the clearance rate through methods other than solving murders. And that’s the hardest part of solving the issue. We have to measure the performance of police departments in some way so that we can identify whether it’s doing a good job. If we didn’t measure them in any way, we’d live in an even worse world. We can easily see that McNulty is one of the best detectives even if that’s not reflected in the clearance rate just like we can see that the system is quite messed up and that the incentives are often perverse. Yet, can we imagine a better system? The Wire certainly doesn’t offer any prescriptions. Unfortunately, there’s just no better way to measure the homicide unit than by looking at clearance rates. In an ideal world, we would measure the difficulty of cases, and then assign a difficulty-weighted clearance rate, but we don’t live in an ideal world. Assigning a rating for the difficulty of cases would just lead to an even worse system in which police game the weighting system. Ultimately, clearance rates are the worst measure of homicide units except all other measures that we have, and so we’re stuck with it for better or worse.

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The Farewell: Moral Framing in Title Selection

Many great articles have been written about Lulu Wang’s The Farewell but none have gone deeper than a passing sentence into the translation of the film’s title. A lot of foreign films do not directly translate the title when moving from one market to another, and The Farewell’s is no exception as the direct translation of its Chinese title is “don’t tell her”. The two main reasons this is done is to choose a title that will better attract the new market or to avoid having the same title as a movie already released in that market. Movie titles, and titles in general, are the first thing that draws in an audience so plenty of thought goes towards the decision, which is why calling the movie The Farewell in English and Don’t Tell Her in Chinese is so interesting. It’s a choice that highlights the broad theme that runs through the entire movie: the differing moral systems between the two world worlds Billi’s family inhabits.

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The name The Farewell focuses the movie’s English-speaking audience on the individual, and each individual’s personal farewell to the family’s beloved matriarch; the primary farewell emphasized is Billi’s, though we also get to see how various other family members deal with Nai Nai’s impending death. What gets highlighted then is not Nai Nai herself, but everybody’s personal relationship to her, because Nai Nai is the only one who does not know that she has terminal lung cancer. And what resonates most with Western audiences is Billi’s relationship with Nai Nai. Western viewers understand Billi’s deep desire and need to say goodbye to somebody she loves, and her bewilderment and frustration at not being able to do so. They empathize with Billi’s urge to reveal the truth of Nai Nai’s diagnosis and chafe alongside Billi at the oppressive restrictions of collectivistic Eastern society. All this is perfectly encapsulated in the film’s title.

Now consider the Chinese title, Don’t Tell Her. Here, Nai Nai features prominently, and the focus of the Chinese-speaking audience is drawn towards the collective. Instead of grappling with Billi saying goodbye to Nai Nai, they think about how the entire family is working together to try to conceal Nai Nai’s diagnosis from her. They ponder the burdens that have to be shared in a collectivist society and hope for a resolution that doesn’t tear the family apart. The change in title reflects the change in mindset and evokes a different framing.

Billi’s uncle, Haibin, has a beautiful speech that sums up the broad differences between the moral systems that govern the West and those that govern the East. It’s a theme that comes up over and over in the dialogue of the various characters, but in my mind, it all starts with the film’s title. Which makes me think, what am I missing when I watch other foreign films, and does it all start in the title?

The Case for Removing Charitable Deductions

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The Two Kings and the Two Labyrinths — My Thoughts

This short story is Borges’s shortest and I highly recommend reading it; it’ll only take a minute or two. For those too lazy, the summary is that one king has his people construct a labyrinth, one so sophisticated that not even the smartest person can escape from it. Upon its completion, he traps another king in it. The trapped king eventually escapes after praying to God, gathers his army, and conquers the land of the first king, capturing the king in the process to bring him to said labyrinth. The labyrinth has no walls, no doors, and no stairs. It is simply a vast desert. Though there is nothing impeding him, the first king is unable to escape this “labyrinth” and dies of thirst and hunger.

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The deep complexity of something that appears so simple is my ultimate takeaway from the story. Examples related to the theme abound in the world around us. A single rose or a sunset by the water are both so ordinary yet so breathtakingly beautiful. Some of our greatest moments of joy come from the simplest things, such as the small favor a friend did for you when you were going through a difficult period, or that time you and your closest friends got together for a meal and drinks and just talked for hours. And for most people, the most difficult job is managing and influencing other people instead of complex analytical work. Telling people what to do seems simple enough but actually doing so in a way that gets them motivated to do the job and to do it meticulously can be incredibly difficult. It’s why there are so many business books written about how to lead or influence people, and it’s why those who can do so are very well compensated. The story of the two kings itself is yet another example of the theme. It’s so incredibly short and easy to read yet we we can find deeper meaning in it the more we think about it.

Paley’s Misinformed Watchmaker Analogy

Paley, in his 1802 book Natural Theology, provides his famous, elegant watchmaker analogy that argues for an intelligent designer of living things. The gist of the quote is that if one comes upon a stone, one might assume that it had always been there, formed by pure randomness, but if one stumbles on a watch, one would not make the same assumption. One would instead assume that there was an intelligent designer who purposefully created it. Quote below for those interested:

“In crossing a heath, suppose I pitched my foot against a stone, and were asked how the stone came to be there; I might possibly answer, that, for anything I knew to the contrary, it had lain there forever: nor would it perhaps be very easy to show the absurdity of this answer. But suppose I had found a watch upon the ground, and it should be inquired how the watch happened to be in that place; I should hardly think of the answer I had before given, that for anything I knew, the watch might have always been there. … There must have existed, at some time, and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers, who formed [the watch] for the purpose which we find it actually to answer; who comprehended its construction, and designed its use. … Every indication of contrivance, every manifestation of design, which existed in the watch, exists in the works of nature; with the difference, on the side of nature, of being greater or more, and that in a degree which exceeds all computation.”¹

Therefore, because a watch, in all its complexity, must have a designer, living creatures must also have one, with God filling the shoes of the watchmaker. Over the years, the analogy has been repeatedly used as an argument against evolution, though whether Paley would have denied evolution himself is up in the air as he died in 1805.

The analogy fails as an argument for an intelligent designer because though that specific watch may have been designed and created by one man, the watch as a concept was created by countless humans over many centuries. In fact, thinking about the watch from that perspective, the watchmaker analogy is actually a great analogy for evolution. In the same way that living creatures today originated from prokaryotes that became eukaryotes, mechanical watches originated from sundials and water clocks. There was not one top-down designer of the watch because the watch was invented by humanity as a whole. The same applies to the various components that make up the watch or the economy that provides the supply chain for the creation of watches. Nobody set out to design those systems; they naturally arose from the bottom up.

Watches are also just as prone to the forces of natural selection as living organisms. Water clocks and sundials were inferior to the mechanical watch as a method of telling time and became obsolete in the same way that a creature that cannot adapt to a changing environment will become extinct. Funny enough, in our time, even the mechanical watch is obsolete as a time-keeping device and is instead used much more often as a fashion statement or status symbol. Paley assumed that the purpose of the watch was to tell time but it is clear that watches, for the most part, do not serve such a purpose anymore. Did anybody design that change in the watch’s purpose? No, it was just an evolution in culture.

Of course, understanding Paley’s analogy as one in favor of evolution does not solve the most interesting question: the ultimate origin of life. If living creatures came from prokaryotes and prokaryotes came from a confluence of events after the Big Bang, then where did the Big Bang come from? If all of that was created by an intelligent designer, then who designed the designer?We’ll probably never know, but what we do know is that the watch did not come from one watchmaker.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Watchmaker_analogy