Director Crash Course: Richard Linklater
Back in 2016 I started a new series to my blog and twitter page titled ‘Director Season’, a monthly challenge whereby I attempt to watch the entire oeuvre of a chosen director.
With Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Guillermo del Toro, and the Coen Brothers given the special treatment, I was able to discover hidden gems and watch a handful of movies that I REALLY should’ve watched by now.
Since then, ‘Director Season’ has been given a facelift. Now titled ‘Director Crash Course’, I’ve restarted the challenge, and with Paul Thomas Anderson tackled back in July, I spent August focusing on the wonderful work of Richard Linklater; a filmmaker I have a new-founded adoration for. The aim of this article is to round up my thoughts for each of the films I watched in August and to present my personal favourites from Linklater.
Although IMDb credits It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books (1988) as Linklater’s debut feature, for many, Slacker is where it all began. Linklater’s low-budget, beautifully mundane depiction of a group of bohemians in a single day in 90s Texas is an inspiring piece of indie filmmaking, proving that creativity is not dependant on budget or studio backing.
Not much happens in Slacker, characters come and go, storylines evaporate into nothingness; but that’s the whole point. Linklater simply observes the extraordinary actions of the ordinary civilian, from a UFO enthusiast to a JFK conspiracy theorist, in their everyday lives. As such, there is a palpable social realist eye to the events unfolding, particularly the guerrilla-esque, documentarian cinematography on display. Linklater seamlessly travels through the narrative with minimal cuts and transitions, the camera following the misfits as they travel through the warmly lit streets of Texas.
It’s not a film I would revisit anytime soon, nor has it particularly aged well, but it’s a film that I’m glad exists.
DAZED AND CONFUSED (1993)
Dazed and Confused is a timeless coming-of-age tale shared amongst an ensemble of social misfits and high-school stoners.
The film is seeping with nostalgia, melancholy, and authenticity, with its impeccable dialogue helping to illustrate the final day of school before summer. The excitement, the unpredictability, and the anxiety of starting something new is expertly addressed in the film; emotions that are at the heart of every living person.
But above all, it has a true ‘feel-good’ vibe that makes for a fun, energetic cinematic experience. Linklater borrows from his feature debut Slacker; the ensemble of compelling characters, the storylines that seem meaningless, the blurring between real and cinematic timelines, and expands upon them to create what is a profoundly thought-provoking story. Such energy is channelled through the film’s killer, rock-filled soundtrack, one that I will find myself listening to for years to come.
I will remember Dazed and Confused for the rest of my days.
BEFORE SUNRISE (1995)
Well, where do I start?
Perhaps what I love most about the first entry in Linklater’s ‘Before’ trilogy is how character and place are intricately linked. People come and go but their experiences will always linger on. A couple’s laughter, their romantic embraces; they fade into memory. But for Jesse and Celine, Vienna will always be there. Their deep conversations about love, past relationships, the mannerisms that will inevitably become annoying; they all take place in a city that will always be theirs. But above all, their love for each other is real, one that blossoms by open dialogue and a genuine sense of connection between the two characters, and of course, Hawke and Delpy themselves.
Not many films have the same effect on me that Sunrise has. Many would argue that it takes multiple viewings of a film for it to be considered as a favourite, but after just one viewing, this is undoubtedly a favourite of mine. What a truly transcendent piece of cinema.
Although SubUrbia isn’t as ground-breaking nor as charming as Linklater’s previous ‘slackers in reality’ projects (particularly Dazed and Confused) there’s an undeniable sense of self-depreciating anger seeping through the cracks of Eric Bogosian’s story; anger pointing toward societal entrapment and the divide between fame and normality.
Linklater’s trademark ‘kitchen-sink’ direction, the grainy cinematography with long, dialogue-heavy takes, the focus on the characters and their personal quirks; is reliant on the performances, and thankfully, the ensemble cast is bursting with charisma. From Ribisi’s constant grumbles and Zahn’s drunken outbursts, SubUrbia is driven by these characters – and Linklater understands how to blend them together without feeling overly convoluted and incoherent.
SubUrbia is hard to pick out, but if you can get your hands on a copy, then I’d advise giving it a watch.
WAKING LIFE (2001)
By far Linklater’s most peculiar project, Waking Life tailors around the experiences of an unnamed main character who journeys through the dreamland via lucid dreaming. On his mind-bending journey, he encounters a roster of strange individuals whom question the values of life and the philosophical and existential ideologies that come with it: life and death, free will and determinism; notions that linger forever in the human mind.
Through Linklater’s mesmerising, rotoscoped animation, we become the dreamer; with his thoughts becoming ours. He merely exists in his dream world, listening to the rambles of those he encounters; the philosophical and the victimised, the rational and the irrational. He doesn’t challenge what he hears but just listens – his curiosity manifesting into a journey of existential self-discovery, as clichéd as that may be.
Waking Life, for some, will pass by with no sense of penetration. It will, like the dreamer, just exist; fading into nothingness. But for others, the film with change the way they perceive the world. For me, my experience falls dead centre between this threshold. I accept and appreciate its existence, and I also apply the many ideologies from the film to my own life; yet I fear I will never have the urge to watch it again. For a film that runs for just 99 minutes, it felt much longer; much heavier. A slight deviation of attention with result in a state of confusion, and sadly, I felt my attention slowly slipping away as the film progressed.
BEFORE SUNSET (2003)
Linklater’s second entry to the ‘Before’ trilogy is just as wonderful as the first, and I can’t express in words how much of a personal connection I felt to this sequel. The loss of romanticism in love, the feeling of what could have been, the fear of settling; these are all emotions that everybody in a long-term relationship consider at some stage of their lives.
Where Before Sunrise sets up this promise of romanticism, Sunset has the bravery to introduce the realism of Jesse and Celine’s relationship. They don’t meet 6 months after their mesmerising night in Vienna, instead they move on with their lives. Jesse has a wife and son; Celine works as a humanitarian in love with a war journalist. Yet when they meet once again 9 years later, their spark is reignited. Hawke and Delpy become Jesse and Celine, the pair morphing into their roles with a true sense of connection and raw authenticity.
Linklater somehow manages to find the perfect balance between hopefulness and realism; humour and melancholy. As the final scene fades to black, I found myself teary eyed. Was it with hope? Or was it with an unexplainable tint of sadness? Well, isn’t that what love is?
A SCANNER DARKLY (2006)
Linklater’s second animated feature, A Scanner Darkly, is an expertly crafted adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s novel; a story of existential crisis and voyeuristic surveillance.
It’s also a story of manipulation, coming in the form of Dick’s compelling, detailed characters; a catalogue of individualised creations that all have their own motives, whether it’s Robert Downey Jr’s sociopathic James Barris or Winona Ryder’s manipulative Donna Hawthorne; they all bring something unique to the table. This, of course, is a true testament to the performances on display and the preciseness of the post-rendered animation – with Linklater placing an onus on physical expression through the eye-catching cartoonish feel.
There are moments where the film becomes heavy with foreshadowing and subtle detail, but that only adds to the change of direction in the film’s final moments; a denouement that will undoubtedly encourage multiple viewings. I can’t wait to watch it again.
Linklater’s mockumentary about a former funeral director who shot his lover dead in Texas is much lighter and far more comedic than the actuality of the event itself, and the ethical implications of such a contradiction is enough to warrant discussion.
The film itself is utterly bonkers. Jack Black is tremendously cast as Bernie Tiede, the beloved funeral director who ‘fooled’ an entire community with his charm and generosity, whose malevolent actions are, as the tag line suggests, ‘so unbelievable that it must be true’. Funnily enough, however, I never once thought that these characters were based upon real people. The moment archived photographs of the real Bernie are shown on screen during the film’s closing credits, I found myself in a state of shock. “How on hell could this actually happen?”, I found myself asking.
Such disbelief is heightened through Linklater’s questionable decision to make Bernie as a comedy, albeit a black comedy. The humour is dry and relies solely on the ignorance of the characters themselves, which raises the issue of whether Linklater is sympathising or mocking them. I feel that for the average viewer, the ones from the outside looking in, this is a charmingly raucous story; but for those involved in the event, will find that the story criminally undermines the severity of Bernie’s actions.
I, however, found myself chuckling along. Perhaps I shouldn’t have; but when you have Jack Black at the forefront of such a project, you’d have to be dead inside to not find it amusing.
BEFORE MIDNIGHT (2013)
Linklater’s beautiful ode to love in all its truest forms comes to an end with Before Midnight; a nostalgic, melancholic, and most important of all, real depiction of human relationships.
Where Sunrise was brimming with hope and romanticism for Jesse and Celine, their relationship matured and blossomed 9 years on in Sunset. Now, in Midnight, the harsh realities of mature romance come to the fore. Now roaming the sweeping landscapes of Greece with twins almost two decades since their first meeting on that train bound to Vienna, Jesse and Celine’s relationship is tested like never before. The prevalence of parenthood is accompanied with conflict and compromise, flirtation and feud; the palpable friction between the pair slowly slipping through the cracks.
Said conflict culminates in an emotional implosion set in a hotel room during the film’s final moments that can only be described as perhaps the realest argument ever depicted in cinema. Hawke and Delpy bounce off one another in a way that most couples do, with little triggers resulting in overly catastrophic outbursts and the most minuscule of facial gestures emitting the wrong message. It’s hard to watch, as if you’re a child watching on as your parents yell and fight.
I can’t put into words how much I love this trilogy. Sunrise, Sunset, and Midnight act as the vicious cycle of love itself; the promising romance, the blossoming relationship, and the inevitable darkness of growing old together. If this isn’t the end, then I can’t wait to see the next chapter of Jesse and Celine’s journey. Even if it does mean watching them ramble on about the meaning of life in the lounge of a nursing home.
There’s not much more to say about Boyhood that hasn’t already been said. Filmed over a 12-year span depicting the Bildungsroman story of a boy and his journey through adolescence; this is a coming-of-age tale like none other.
The use of cinematic time in Linklater’s films has become somewhat of a recurring motif in his works, but in Boyhood, it’s taken to another level. The film simply observes the actions of Ellar Coltrane’s Mason, and thus forces the viewer to watch on as he progresses through life; hurdling over the barriers that rapidly approach. The issue of family dysfunction is profoundly prevalent throughout the film’s entirety, with Mason and his older sister being raised by a compassionate single mother who struggles to juggle abusive partners and achieving her own aspirations.
Ethan Hawke’s Mason Sr. provides a momentary rest-bite from the struggles his kids face at home; taking them bowling and buying them gifts. At first he seems like the conventional immature and incompetent teenage father, but like Mason Jr., he goes on a journey on his own; working backwards, as it’s referenced in the movie. In truth, Mason Jr. isn’t the only character that has his own story, it’s very much a family piece. The family unit, albeit tested at times, stay firm as one; moving together through life together as time relentlessly passes by.
It’s a miracle that this film exists. For Linklater and his cast to dedicate 12-years of their lives to this project is a cinematic achievement that exceeds all expectations; a monumental achievement that requires a meticulous amount of patience, precision, and preparation. How anybody can have nothing but admiration for this project is beyond my understanding.
EVERYBODY WANTS SOME!! (2016)
Everybody Wants Some!! has been labelled as the ‘spiritual sequel to Dazed and Confused’, and it’s not difficult to see where the similarities lie. Like his 1993 classic, Everybody Wants Some!! is brimming with charm and charisma; helped by Linklater’s eye for realist dialogue and the incredibly delightful cast on display.
Linklater has a distinct ability to create a sense of genuine, off-the-cuff chemistry between his cast members, and with this, it’s no different. It’s so impressive that with an ensemble cast of mostly unknown actors, Linklater’s catalogue of characters all feel distinctively different from one another; each of the members providing something new and original to the table. The humour between them all is unprecedentedly hilarious throughout the film’s entirety, with special mention to Glen Powell’s Finn and Austin Amelio’s Nez; who remain at the forefront of the laughs every time they’re on screen.
Without the charm and charisma from his ensemble, Linklater’s film would undeniably fall apart, but there’s not a second of this film that doesn’t make you ‘feel good’, heightened, I think, by the equally as delightful 80s aesthetic that is captured here.
If you want a feel good coming-of-age story helmed by a master of the genre, Everybody Wants Some!! is the film for you. I loved every second of it.
LAST FLAG FLYING (2017)
Linklater’s latest film, a story of ex-veterans who rediscover their friendship after the tragic death of Doc’s (Steve Carell) son, is by no means the strongest project on his ever-impressive resumè, but it’s a provocative, heavy-hitting piece of work.
The rekindled camaraderie between the long-lost veterans result in a heartfelt and inspiring trio of performances. At times, Fishburne and Cranston act as an angel and a devil on Carrell’s shoulders, both providing contradicting advice. Cranston is terrific as the heavy-headed Sal, the ‘devil’ in this instance; and Fishburne is equally as compelling as Mueller, a calm and collected vet-turned-priest whose optimism finds itself battling against Sal’s growing cynicism.
Last Flag Flying undoubtedly sheds light on the hypocrisy and corruption of the ‘heroic American soldier’ philosophy of Western culture; American sons being killed for what they believe in labelled as heroes, Eastern sons being labelled as terrorists for the same fate. It’s a controversial issue, but Linklater handles it with a true sense of objectivity; showing both sides of the debate from Cranston’s Sal and Carell’s Doc.
And that concludes my Linklater journey! Below you will find the list of films that I was unable to see this month, and my top 5 Linklater films.
• It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books (1988)
• The Newton Boys (1998)
• Tape (2001)
• Bad News Bears (2005)
• Fast Food Nation (2006)
• Me and Orson Welles (2008)
My top 5 Linklater films:
1. Before Sunrise (1995)
2. Before Sunset (2004)
3. Before Midnight (2013)
4. Everybody Wants Some!! (2016)
5. Boyhood (2014)
That was way too difficult…