And every breath we drew was hallelujah


When did Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” become a Christmas song? my friend Dan asked recently. I’ve noticed this too, and he’s right that “she tied you to a kitchen chair” feels not quite appropriate piped in for family shoppers. But I can see why “Hallelujah” has made its way onto the Christmas playlist. We want tunes that reflect how we really feel at this time of year: cold and broken, frayed, our strings sympathetically tuned to the song’s longing. (Other feeling-lonely candidates for Christmastime listening: Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Only Living Boy in New York” and Jim James’s cover of “Rocket Man.” Along with Joni Mitchell’s “River” and Elvis’s “Blue Christmas” which are, of course, actual Christmas songs.)


There could be no better place to spend New Year’s Eve, I decided, than the Leonard Cohen room at Hydra Icons guesthouse on this artist-magnet island that exists somehow out of time, where Cohen tried in his way to be free, making a home and love and writing all those haunting timeless songs. This, I insisted, is where I will find inspiration for the new year. Hydra will be the balm to sooth the 2016-sick soul.

It’s been a weatherly challenge just to get here as day to day we’ve had to wait to see if boats can brave the wintry sea. Friends in Athens gently suggest other activities, other holiday venues, but I stubbornly persist. I don’t want to be entertained. I want to be lonely. I want to hike up to the monastery at the top of the island, to commune with donkeys and gulls and the merry band of island cats.

Denizens of Hydra. Photo by Doug Phillips.

Sometimes you want a festive New Year’s Eve celebration. Sometimes you want a solitary sojourn with the one you love.

Happy new year, friends. May it bring you just what you need.

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It’s gonna take a lotta love to get us through the night

As we walked out of the dark movie theatre we had the same complaint. Why so little depiction of Greece? We need more Greece! The Before Midnight crew set up shop there for some time, filming on location in the southern Peloponnese, giving us glimpses of the Kalamata airport, a drive-by of the ruins of Pylos, some lovely scenes of the late writer Patrick Leigh Fermor’s house (see more on the Patrick Leigh Fermor blog), a great walkabout of the village of Kardamyli, a twinkly-lighted bay backdrop to a café at sunset and nearly midnight.  (Readers in Greece: where is that teeny Byzantine church? I loved it!)

before-midnight poster

Despina Spyrou Sony Pictures Classics
Despina Spyrou Sony Pictures Classics

But so much of the film took place inside a rental car and a hotel room (well-chosen, by the way, for its banal luxury). This lent the scenes an appropriately claustrophobic feel, but I was longing for you, Richard Linklater, to let your director of photography, Christos Voudouris, burst in with a bunch of extraneous scenery for a pure pleasure indulgence.  There are so many fans of Celine and Jesse that Before Midnight will be stimulating the Peloponnesian economy in no time but just think how much more you could have done.

Maybe I wanted to look at the backdrop not just because I’m in love with Greece but because I wanted somewhere else to fix my gaze but on the characters. In Before Sunset we’re watching the faces of two people falling in love, gingerly cautious about giving too much away but in every frame and every facial flicker dazzled with their good fortune of reuniting. The Paris they walk through mirrors that, and the long interior scenes—inside Shakespeare & Company bookstore, the café, Celine’s apartment—are the high rather than low points, charming interior scenes that reflect the longing for love, the hopeful reaching out between the two. Like everyone else in the movie theatre in Chelsea, I sighed with delight at the most-exquisitely-perfect ending of Before Sunset.  And when Before Midnight finally opened in Minneapolis yesterday I was there, front row in the balcony, sharing the loveseat and popcorn bag with my beau, for the very first showing.

The Greece pictured looked worn and sad, like the too-realistic depiction of a romance that’s become mundane, a portrayal  of two people who constantly bicker, harbor suspicions of one another, find ways to avoid intimacy. Yeah, I know. Apologies to Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke. It’s not you, it’s me. The film is beautiful, painful, precisely written, so real it feels voyeuristic. What  I’m frustrated with is the failure of our narrative imagination—that we, culturally speaking, can’t seem to find or create a narrative for romantic partnership other than one that peaks at courtship and falls inexorably into boredom and long-simmering resentment.

What if the film opened to reveal Jesse and Celine, nine years down the road, more intimate with one another, taking more joy in one another’s presence? Not holding hands and skipping through the clover, but using language as a way of growing closer and more open rather than as a way of picking each other apart and donning armor. Multiple choice answers: (a)Too sentimental? (b) Mere fantasy?  (c) Just not possible? (d) OK, maybe  possible, but not with children?

Before Midnight romantic pic

I know it’s a form of pathetic fallacy but that Greek landscape would look brighter, more hopeful, with a little tenderness.