A guide to the freewheeling films of Richard Linklater
Primer is The A.V. Club’s ongoing series of beginners’ guides to pop culture’s most notable subjects: filmmakers, music styles, literary genres, and whatever else interests us—and hopefully you. This installment: the work of director Richard Linklater.
When Richard Linklater’s Slacker was released in 1991, there was barely any apparatus in place for independent film, much less a formless slice of life about fringe-dwellers, crackpots, dreamers, and self-made philosophers in Austin, Texas. With an ironic title that hit the sweet spot for conceptions (and misconceptions) about Generation X, the film confirmed, post-Sex, Lies, And Videotape, that an audience existed for low-budget American fare. But it also changed people’s conception of what a movie could be, asking them to coast along on an amiable roundelay without the need for dramatic stakes. Starting with Linklater’s own delightful existential ramble to an airport cab driver en route to downtown, Slacker follows the musings—some absurd, some profound—of a JFK conspiracy-theorist, an anti-government paranoiac, and, in its funniest and most famous scene, a young woman hawking Madonna’s pap smear on the street. (“It gets closer to the rock god herself than just a poster.”) If there’s a common thread uniting this daisy chain of vignettes, it’s an overall sense of profound disconnection, a refusal by young people to participate in a system that will bring them no joy and wither their souls. To outsiders, that refusal looks like laziness—the slackerdom of the title—but it’s the type of political statement that some of Linklater’s subsequent films deliver with more obvious conviction. The eclecticism that defines his career comes through in the glorious final sequence, when the film breaks down and follows local kids who just pick up the camera and have fun experimenting with it. More than 20 years later, Linklater remains in Austin doing just that.
After Slacker became a minor indie phenomenon, the upstart distributor Gramercy Pictures gave Linklater the resources to make 1993’s Dazed And Confused, a bittersweet nostalgia piece about the last day (and night) of school in 1976 small-town Texas, but it couldn’t find an audience for it. When viewers did finally catch up with Dazed And Confused on video—and about half a billion different psychedelic-themed DVD special editions—it became a stoner classic, the ideal background noise for parties and joint-passing sessions. And there’s a good reason for that: The soundtrack is a K-Tel bonanza of hits from the likes of Alice Cooper, ZZ Top, and Foghat; the script is loaded with quotable one-liners, many coming from future stars of tomorrow; and the loose-limbed narrative, only slightly more taxing than Slacker’s, allows for a casual drifting of attention, leading to nothing more consequential than a quarterback asserting his right to hang with his burnout friends and score Aerosmith tickets in the morning. But Dazed And Confused isn’t all good vibes: While Linklater remembers the time fondly and in immersive, hilarious detail, the film is about the often-painful rites of passage adolescents have to endure, from the hazing rituals of the upperclassmen to a scene where the class brain subjects himself to a pummeling rather than resign himself to being “an ineffectual nothing.” Where similar films like American Graffiti attached importance to the end of a night as the end of an era for its characters (hello, Vietnam War), Linklater ends with a cached keg and a lot of vivid memories—many of them sweet, a few that left a mark, and all graced with the benefit of perspective.
Continuing the dusk-’til-dawn rumination of Dazed And Confused, Linklater’s affecting 1995 romance Before Sunrise has the feel of an Eric Rohmer movie, using a lovely and at times magical Vienna backdrop to frame an ongoing conversation between two people. Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy meet on a train: He’s an American traveling from Budapest to Vienna to catch a flight back home to Texas; she’s a Parisian returning home after visiting her grandmother. The two start talking and flirting on the train, Hawke convinces Delpy to spend the day with him, and off they go into the night. The two have great chemistry together, exciting and challenging each other with various theories and ideals, and they embrace the possibilities of their situation as perhaps only impetuous young people can. Watching Before Sunrise means witnessing two people fall in love in almost real time, aided by a city that welcomes their spontaneity with atmosphere and enchanting little detours. To some degree, the two characters are pretentious, and some of their ideas don’t hold up to much scrutiny, but their youthful idealism and unguarded romanticism give Before Sunrise tremendous power, too. They know the carriage will turn back into a pumpkin at the end of the night, but they invest themselves wholeheartedly, leading to an ending so deliciously ambiguous that it sounded like a crime for Linklater and his stars to reunite 10 years later—that is, until Before Sunset turned out to be even better.
A decade after Slacker, Linklater returned to its freewheeling inventory of philosophical musings and comic digressions, but he found a different, more expansive form for it. Collaborating with rotoscoping maestro Bob Sabiston, Linklater shot scenes for 2001’s Waking Life on digital video and handed it over to Sabiston and his team of animators to trace and color the actors and backdrop in a low-fi process that yielded unstable yet malleable and often strikingly beautiful images. The effect lures viewers into a dreamlike state, making them more receptive to the half-profound/half-whimsical ideas that stretch and tear at the fabric of reality. The topics of discussion are as lofty as lucid dreaming and the film theory of André Bazin, and as discursive as Timothy “Speed” Levitch’s verbal tours. And the film’s Linklater surrogate, a dream-within-a-dreamer played by Wiley Wiggins, epitomizes the director’s primary attribute: curiosity. Linklater’s career has always been more receptive than declarative, and with Waking Life, more than anything in his career, he works to convince viewers to open up their minds and take the journey with him. In this case, it’s a pleasure to oblige.
After launching his career with multiple movies set in confined locations and timeframes, Linklater made his first stab at a “big” movie with The Newton Boys, a period picture starring Matthew McConaughey, Ethan Hawke, Skeet Ulrich, and Vincent D’Onofrio as mostly amiable Depression-era bank robbers. Linklater didn’t try to reinvent the Stetsons-and-Tommy-guns genre, and that ultimately may have been The Newton Boys’ undoing, both at the box office (where business was modest) and with the critics (whose reviews were largely mixed). At the time, it felt like Linklater was moving in the opposite direction from the ’70s auteurs: He’d made his offbeat, personal films first, and then his formulaic Roger Corman-style action picture. But viewed away from the context of 1998—when the film seemed like a disappointment to many Linklater fans—The Newton Boys is highly enjoyable, with charismatic performances across the board and real old-timey flavor. And it’s not that out of step with Linklater’s more acclaimed work. Linklater has said he was drawn to this story because it’s a piece of Texas history, and while he doesn’t skimp on the explosions, chases, and gunplay, he’s just as enthused about the scenes where his boys sit around jawing after a job. Had The Newton Boys leaned more on the latter than the former, it might’ve gotten better reviews; had it reversed that formula, it might’ve been a hit. Regardless, there’s a sense of decency to the characters and a level of detail to the setting that make The Newton Boys a fine way to pass two hours.
Since his scene-stealing role as a snobby record clerk in 2000’s High Fidelity, Jack Black has settled into a career where his talents have often been either used too narrowly or squandered in roles that aren’t a good fit for him. But 2003’s School Of Rock, Linklater’s triumphant return to Hollywood after the bitter disappointment of The Newton Boys, is the perfect vehicle for Black’s comic exuberance and faux-bombastic musical chops. Working in the inglorious tradition of movies like Kindergarten Cop or Mr. Holland’s Opus, the film stars Black as a long-in-the-tooth rock guitarist who tries to earn some rent money by taking his roommate’s substitute-teaching job at a snooty private elementary school. When he discovers the kids have musical talent, he starts teaching a surreptitious course in the rock lifestyle, assembles a band, and… well… there isn’t any doubt where all this is headed. But en route to the inevitable feel-good finish, it’s remarkable how much fun Linklater, Black, and a loveable assemblage of child actors are allowed to have, with a lesson plan that includes byzantine Rock 101 flowcharts, wanky rock-star poses, and the all-important power of the G-chord on bass. And beneath it all is the conviction that a simple, stirring rock song can still be revolutionary.
Orson Welles directed Citizen Kane, the consensus choice for the greatest film ever made, so there’s been no shortage of Welles portrayals onscreen. But no one has depicted this titanic figure with quite the gusto of Christian McKay in Linklater’s 2009 film Me And Orson Welles. McKay performed a one-man Welles show off Broadway, and the mix of brilliance and bombast he brings to the role seems right for a man who founded the Mercury Theater at the tender age of 21. Unfortunately, the “me” part of Me And Orson Welles isn’t nearly so compelling: Zac Efron plays a 17-year-old dramatist who gets offered the role of Lucius in Welles’ production of Julius Caesar and experiences the mad genius up close. Based on Robert Kaplow’s novel, the film gets sidetracked by a dull love triangle involving a production assistant (Claire Danes), but it comes alive whenever McKay storms onto the scene and changes history with his radical, anti-fascist twist on the play. It’s best to view Me And Orson Welles like one of those early Marx brothers MGM productions such as A Night At The Opera: You have to suffer through the bland ingénues a little to get to the good stuff.
When the strange case of Bernie Tiede caught Linklater’s attention in 1998, via Skip Hollandsworth’s Texas Monthly article “Midnight In The Garden Of East Texas,” Jack Black wasn’t even on his radar, but it’s impossible to imagine anyone else with the skills to play the role. The 39-year-old Tiede, an assistant funeral director in the small town of Carthage, was convicted to a life sentence for the murder of his 81-year-old companion Marjorie Nugent, a millionaire widow he shot four times in the back. Since Tiede was named the sole benefactor in Nugent’s will, his motives seem clear-cut enough to outsider observers, but as Hollandsworth found in his article, many people in Carthage either didn’t believe Tiede was capable of murder, or believed Nugent, the meanest woman in town, probably had it coming. (The DA moved the trial to another city, for fear of a tainted jury pool.) Linklater’s Bernie is a delicious dark comedy that measures Tiede’s crime against the context of his life in Carthage, where he’s remembered as a sweet man who brought comfort to the grieving, had the most beautiful voice in the church choir, and spent Nugent’s money generously around town. Linklater’s smartest innovation is a chorus of town gossips who are inserted, mock-documentary style, into the movie to offer some rationale to the collective madness of embracing a man who, by his own confession, killed a rich old woman and kept her jammed in a freezer for nine months.
A few years before Slacker, Linklater explored some of the same themes in his 1988 debut feature, It’s Impossible To Learn To Plow By Reading Books. But where Slacker is packed with characters and incident rendered in a variety of styles, It’s Impossible features long, still takes and minimal dialogue, following one restless guy (played by Linklater) as he travels around the country meeting up with old friends. In the DVD commentary track (the film is included on Criterion’s Slacker set), Linklater says he was inspired by the structural films of James Benning and Chantal Akerman, and that he sought to reveal some truth about our existence by focusing on mundanity: people walking, people brushing their teeth, people sitting around, etc. The result is a movie that’s grubby-looking and tedious, and yet whenever the characters actually talk to each other, Linklater’s career-long interest in conversation—especially between intense and/or eccentric folks—begins to flower, setting him on the course he followed more fruitfully with Slacker. Had Linklater never made another film, It’s Impossible wouldn’t have much value beyond its snapshot of middle-American life in the late ’80s. But it’s fascinating as an example of a young, talented director figuring out what works and what doesn’t, as he explores what interests him about human behavior and everyday life. Ultimately, the movie’s title is the best summation of what it represents: a workshop, on celluloid.
Did Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy meet each other in Vienna six months later, as they hastily promised in the farewell scene in Before Sunrise? That was the kind of open-ended question that didn’t need an answer, but Before Sunset supplied one 10 years later—and defied all reasonable expectations by being even more romantic and substantial than its predecessor. In Paris to promote his semiautobiographical novel about their magical night together, Hawke meets Delpy at a book-signing and the two catch up, in about an hour of real time, before he has to catch a ride to the airport. The more time they spend together, the more intimate and revealing the discussion gets, and when they finally talk about what happened on that night in Vienna—and the regrettable years that followed—it stirs up long-sublimated emotions. Now blessed (and cursed) with age and experience, the couple reflects on where their lives have taken them and once again wonder if the two of them have a chance to carry on the conversation. Another ambiguous denouement, somehow better than the last, offers a question mark, but now we trust that Linklater and his cast are welcome to come back at any time.
Eric Schlosser’s book Fast Food Nation was a well-deserved literary phenomenon, a forceful, persuasive assault on a fast-food industry that casts a long shadow over many more aspects of American life than just its diet. But how is it a movie? Even the recent film version of Moneyball, based on Michael Lewis’ nonfiction bestseller, had the inherent drama of a GM turning a small-market baseball team into a winner. Fast Foot Nation is all facts, touring various aspects of the industry and examining the tentacles that reach into religion, education, and employment standards. Linklater’s quixotic attempt to turn Schlosser’s muckraking into the Traffic of low-grade meat isn’t terribly subtle: All those devastating statistics and revelations on the page do not sound natural coming out of characters’ mouths. Yet beyond the speechifying, Linklater’s keen eye offers plenty of compensation, showing an America where the landscape has been blighted by homogenous McCities, immigrants are forced into indentured servitude, and corporate money fuels a status quo that’s deeply unhealthy in more ways than one.
The same year Fast Food Nation came out, Linklater completed and released a movie he’d been working on for several years: a low-budget adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s novel A Scanner Darkly, rendered in the same rotoscope animation Linklater used on Waking Life. Keanu Reeves stars as an undercover police officer investigating the trafficking of a drug known as “Substance D” by becoming a user himself and associating with a group of druggies (played by Robert Downey, Jr., Woody Harrelson, and Rory Cochrane). Though Dick’s story has science-fiction elements—involving high-tech disguises and personality-altering pharmaceuticals—Linklater has said he was drawn to the book because it’s one of Dick’s most personal, based on the author’s own experiences as an addict living with addicts. In essence, A Scanner Darkly is like a cross between Waking Life and Dazed And Confused, following a group of people as they deliver philosophical, paranoid babble to each other while actively pursuing altered states of consciousness. Linklater fumbles a bit when it comes to making the actual plot comprehensible, but he succeeds at making the movie as politically engaged as Fast Food Nation, commenting on a culture where everyone’s been given license to spy and inform on everyone else, even though none of them are really a threat to anyone but themselves.
It was fate that Linklater, a former athlete, just happens to reside in the same city as University Of Texas coach Augie Garrido, the winningest baseball coach in Division I history, because Garrido would not have been out of place as a monologist in Slacker or Waking Life. ESPN gave Linklater the money to make the little-seen but fine 2008 documentary Inning By Inning: A Portrait Of A Coach, and he turned it into a Richard Linklater film, forgoing the expected sports-doc hagiography in favor of a quiet, meditative profile of an unconventional winner. Among Garrido’s more surprising insights is the idea that baseball is about coming to terms with failure; most players bat under .300, which means that most of the time, they’re grounding, popping out, or going down on strikes. Working with young players with fragile egos, Garrido sees his job, in part, as an ongoing effort to keep the inevitability of failure from chipping away at their confidence. Though Linklater does supply talking-head testimonials and highlight footage, Inning By Inning doesn’t have the slick, rah-rah uplift of other ESPN productions. He’s far more interested in Garrido’s ideas, and how they apply to the game of life.
It’s no coincidence that Linklater’s worst films also happen to be the ones where someone else’s voice is much more apparent than his own. After Dazed And Confused, Linklater was certainly well qualified to make a movie about five young burnouts who hang out by the Dumpster at a local convenience store. It’s even possible to imagine 1997’s subUrbia as the long hangover to Dazed And Confused’s all-night party, populated by former high-school buddies who never left town and have no idea what to do with their lives. But the dominant voice of subUrbia is Eric Bogosian, who adapted his own play into a sour, misanthropic, heavy-handed Gen-X screed that’s totally at odds with Linklater’s sensibility.
Ditto 2001’s Tape, another adaptation of a play—this one by Stephen Belber—with many of the qualities that doomed subUrbia: excessive staginess, souped-up melodrama, and irredeemable characters. Linklater took the project as part of InDigEnt, a Dogme 95-style endeavor that offered 10 filmmakers $150,000 apiece to make crappy-looking movies on digital video, which at the time was still the gray tofu to celluloid’s rich filet. Ethan Hawke plays a character who could be one of subUrbia’s layabouts, a 28-year-old marijuana dealer from Oakland who smokes away most of his profits. Hawke comes to Lansing, Michigan for his old buddy Robert Sean Leonard, who has a movie premièring at a film festival, but their reunion, set almost entirely in a hotel room, turns to a past incident in which Leonard may or may not have raped Hawke’s ex-girlfriend. Tape doesn’t lack intensity, and the varying perspectives on what really happened give the film a Rashomon-like quality, but the unrelenting intensity of Belber’s play, combined with the butt-ugliness of the images, leaves a bad aftertaste.
Billed as a “remix” of the classic 1976 underdog comedy, 2005’s Bad News Bears is actually a perfectly entertaining remake, with Billy Bob Thornton ideally cast in the Walter Matthau role as a surly, washed-up alcoholic who manages a woeful Little League team. Though slightly neutered by the need for a PG-13 rating, it more or less carries over the irreverent spirit of the original film without losing too much attitude in the process. But therein lies the problem: Is Linklater’s only goal to introduce the same material to a new generation? By the looks of it, the unfortunate answer is “yes.”
1. Dazed And Confused
Linklater found the ideal structure and subject matter for his thematic preoccupations in this endearingly aimless high-school comedy, which is full of observations about growing up, Texas, authority, makeshift communities, popular culture, and intoxication.
2. Before Sunset
Here, the precocious couple from Before Sunrise finally grow into their outsized personalities, and have another memorable (and gorgeously photographed) day together, simultaneously considering their possible futures while holding on their youth—all as the clock ticks away ominously.
The title and the form of this seminal indie proved deceptive, convincing outsiders that early-’90s young folks were lazy, and convincing some of Linklater’s peers that art (and underground fame) is easy. But Slacker is actually bursting with energy and ideas, arranged far more purposefully than it initially appears.
4. Waking Life
The reductive way to describe Waking Life would be Slacker: The Animated Series, but that doesn’t begin to capture the film’s vivid rotoscoping, or the way Linklater contemplates the nature of consciousness and unconsciousness. Really, this movie is the ultimate late-night dorm-room bull session, given color and shape.
5. School Of Rock
Though this rowdy Jack Black vehicle is more conventional in its storytelling and humor than just about anything Linklater had made to this point, it’s also hugely entertaining, with a rousing misfit-makes-good message that’s very much in the spirit of Linklater’s work, going all the way back to Slacker.