In Praise of the Unlikely Sequel

Slate's Culture Blog
April 27 2012 1:23 PM

In Praise of the Unlikely Sequel

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Ohad Knoller in Yossi

Photo by Guy Raz.

With an elemental story and tidy 65-minute runtime, Yossi and Jagger (2002) feels decidedly self-contained. The unadorned but tender tale of two closeted Israeli soldiers who conceal an affair, the movie is an early feature from Eytan Fox, a New York-born director who grew up in Israel and has, in his films, glossed gay life against a backdrop of Middle East gridlock. After an hour of simmering tension between the two lovers, tragedy sets in, and the movie comes to a swift close, a simple story told with admirable restraint and poise.

Yossi and Jagger earned some high praise as it made its way through the festival circuit, earning a small but respectable place in the canon of contemporary gay cinema. Then, last week, a new film, Yossi, premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. The stolid, sad-eyed Israeli commander from Yossi and Jagger was back, now a doctor, still closeted and nearly comatose from the events of the first film. A chance encounter begins to change that, and Yossi develops into a tentative story of redemption, now with a melancholic tinge in place of the scrappy energy of its predecessor.

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Sound familiar? An obvious precursor to Yossi is Before Sunset (2004), Richard Linklater’s unlikely look back at two of his earliest characters, a man (Ethan Hawke) and woman (Julie Delpy) who meet again nine years after Before Sunrise (1995), when they forged a deep connection over a single night in Vienna. Like Yossi, Sunset—arguably Richard Linklaker's best movie—revisits characters from a complete story and is in no obvious rush to get them anywhere. In both movies, old characters meander through new experiences largely as if we’ve never left them.  

Though they’re ultimately quite different, both movies are part of a loose tradition of sequels that are driven less by commercial interests than by an abiding curiosity about the fate of characters we didn’t expect to see again. The best such movies tend to evolve in surprising, unintuitive ways.

In 2005, the pan-European hit L’Auberge espagnole (2002), about a crowded house of students in Barcelona, got an amusingly brooding sequel, Russian Dolls. Again the focus is on Xavier (Romain Duris), but the mood has shifted starkly: After seven years, he has failed at everything he’s tried to do. A lesbian friend has to pretend to be his fiance for his grandfather’s sake. Not much happens, and yetlike LinklaterDuris has spoken of making a third film with these characters, no doubt as inquisitive and aimless as the second one.

In 1994, The Endless Summer II, Bruce Brown’s follow-up to his 1966 classic, found two surfers retracing the sublime steps of Mike Hynson and Robert August for another journey around the world. Widely dismissed when it was released, the movie is a goofy relic, but the distance between the two films and today reveals a rich narrative on how surfing has evolved.

François Truffaut committed to Antoine Doinel, his most memorable protagonist, for a total of five films, some long and some short, even though he first appeared in the inarguably complete The 400 Blows (1959). In movies like Stolen Kisses (1968) and Love on the Run (1979), Truffaut traces Doinel’s wayward romantic obsessions over 20 years in what might have been an enduring drive to turn his camera on himself.

Such movies exist even in Hollywood. After a long and tortured production history, Jack Nicholson directed himself in The Two Jakes (1990), a sequel to Roman Polanski’s neo-noir touchstone Chinatown (1974). Nicholson recreates an atmosphere of ominous gloom and provides a curious take on ego, both on screen and off.

An even more mainstream example is The Color of Money (1983), the Martin Scorsese riff on The Hustler (1961) based on a new novel featuring the same central character. It does adopt a standard trapping of sequels to classics—a charismatic, young new foil—but Tom Cruise’s antic performance only highlights the movie’s chief raison d’etre: We weren’t through spending time with “Fast Eddie” Felson. 

What’s the value of revisiting these stories? Typically we lament sequels as industrial products that have no genuine interest in storytelling, even though they’ve become endemic to every major film culture in the world. Yossi shows the limitations of this reasoning. Films in its vein not only expand and challenge our assumptions about what happens after a movie ends, but also channel the creative impulses of filmmakers over time. Linklater couldn’t have made Before Sunset in 1995, nor could Fox have made Yossi a decade ago, and yet neither movie would exist without their rougher, looser predecessors. Watched together, each pair is a singular aesthetic and emotional experience.

Yossi doesn't have U.S. distribution yet, but it's a good bet it will turn up at small festivals around the country and eventually make it to a scattering of urban screens. Do yourself a favor and stream Yossi and Jagger on Netflix before it's released.

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