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A Beginner’s Guide to Richard Linklater

on November 01, 2017, 5:00am
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This article originally ran in March 2016. We’re reposting today in anticipation of Linklater’s new film, Last Flag Flying.

Ever felt overwhelmed by a director’s extensive IMDB page? In Five Films is here to help, offering a crash course and entry point into even the most daunting of filmographies. This is your first step toward fandom. Take it.

Perhaps the most distinguishing trait of Richard Linklater’s films is how natural they feel. Linklater’s the master filmmaker whose vision is less defined by his singularity and intensity, and more by his patience, curiosity, and spontaneity. His debut Slacker may seem like an atonal amble across Austin, but the experimental debut shows a director of limitless potential, and in effect, cinematic courage and coolness. Just when you think the film’s pegged down, Linklater throws a curve ball and sneaks in greatness in many forms.

Dazed and Confused is total ambience, addled adolescence taking on universal qualities that, come the closing credits, becomes a film that you hope will never end. School of Rock may be mannered rebellion, but it’s so proud to be loud, and stick its neck out among preppy strangulation. And the list goes on with organically groovy films that sneak in grander meanings amidst seemingly minor forms.

Jack Black, Joey Lauren Adams, Patricia Arquette, Richard Linklater

Photo by Alex J. Berliner/ABImages

Patient and sneakily perceptive, Linklater has defined himself as an eternally unsung hero in modern American independent cinema. He’s a director who’s found a niche by headlining his processes: filmed over x amount of years, or framed with innovative new animation techniques. Yet Linklater’s a director who is inimitable, and whose natural invention allows for timeless rewatching and reinterpretation. Arch and witty, or abstract and outspoken. Linklater has a style all his own.

Yet, who is this Linklater? This self-taught film society punk? And how’d he get so good at making it look so easy?

With his banged mop-top and laid-back Austin weird demeanor, betcha it took you a moment to realize that Richard Linklater is one of the most casually important filmmakers of the modern era. He’s the unexpected love-child of Altman, Godard, and Roy Rogers. Linklater’s based his life’s work around quiet conquests. He is a pragmatic populist as well as a daring and unexpectedly sympathetic avant auteur; a thinker that’s happy to invite you into his parties that’re actually just old friends hanging around with a little too much to drink and a lot of great stuff to express. Because of the diversity of his career, his daring transitions from genre to jaunt, it’s almost a fool’s errand to encapsulate the man in just five films. But boy howdy, will we try.

All right? Alright, alright, alright.

 

–Blake Goble
Senior Staff Writer


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RICHARD THE LEARNER

SLACKER (1991)

slacker A Beginners Guide to Richard Linklater

“Anyway, so this dream I just had was just like that, except instead of anything bizarre going on, I mean, there was just nothing going on at all.

Man.

It was like The Omega Man.” – Should Have Stayed on the Bus, played by Richard Linklater, in Slacker.

There he is. Right there in the opening shot for all to see. And what strange, fascinating things he had to say.

Bordering on hallucinatory, always on the cutting edge, Slacker is Linklater’s great first feature, and it paid off in such huge ways. For just $23,000 (or roughly the price of a compact), Linklater announced his arrival as a fresh voice in indie film, and he’s stayed fresh for over 25 years. Slacker just goes to show that a film can be literally anything and yet nothing. The important thing is that the film is interesting, and better yet, honest. Watching Slacker is like seeing the sum total of years of Linklater’s free-form doodles in the margins, the best intentions of an antagonistic and out-there Generation X photographed and recorded for free fireside chats. In the Criterion collection release, Ron Rosenbaum called the film a “serial digression.” Roger Ebert characterized the film as “almost impossible to describe.” Kevin Smith said this film made him want to direct. But what the hell is Slacker?

In short, it’s a test run, an excuse Linkater for to keep things loose and interesting under the guise of making a movie. Formally, in the most practical and easy-to-understand sense, Slacker was a bebop walkabout around Austin, a mystifying campus daydream about people spitting rants about who-knows-what on a hot day.

One second, Linklater’s doing his best accidental Owen Wilson impersonation while recounting a realistic dream. Soon after, a middle-aged man carrying a glass of murky tea/beer in a Batman t-shirt won’t shut up about conspiracy theories. Conversations crisscross, as the camera hovers from person to person. There are vintage cars and 16 mm reels. One second there’s a brag about Madonna’s pap smear and the next there are politicized rants on handguns. Who cares about plot, characterization, or any of the old-fashioned notions of what constitutes a film? It’s a feeling, an eavesdrop, and perhaps one of the purest of its kind. And what’s most fascinating is that’s there isn’t a single whiff of bullshit in Slacker. That right there is the Linklater key. Obtuse or minutiae-driven as his rabble can get, it never rings phony. Guy’s just got a lot of great stuff on his mind.

Linklater’s made a career out of just acting naturally, and thematically, and that purity of interest is right here and ready to grow. With Slacker’s naturalistic speechifying, Linklater proved his sincere interest in the assembly of a really good film.

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RICHARD THE AMIABLE OBSERVATIONALIST OF AMERICAN CINEMA

DAZED AND CONFUSED (1993)

linklater A Beginners Guide to Richard Linklater

How many films come across as this comfortable in their own skin? Watching Dazed and Confused is like partaking in pure essence: May 1976, the last day of school, the sheer joy of feeling a moment of freedom and even a little power, bottled and ably packaged in a way that can be revisited again and again.

Between Dazed and Confused’s shelf life, unending quotes, and plain replay value (who won’t stop if this is on cable?) here’s the Linklater film that audiences and lovers of Linklater come back to a lot. Ask literally anyone what their favorite Linklater film is, and it’s pretty much gonna be this one. It’s just so ripe with hot-headed feeling, wily drama, and all-around punch-drunk fun that it’s indicative of so many American youth experiences.

But more analytically, Dazed personifies Linklater’s demure, genial qualities. He’s about immersion, about taking the long view. Linklater modernized the Altman style: long stares allowing characters to speak freely, but with a less stringent focus. The more Linklater hangs with these kids, the more truth emerges.

Jason London’s Randall “Pink” Floyd isn’t just a jock experiencing a crisis of popularity, he’s a young dude uncertain of his future. Rory Cochrane’s Slater is not a lost cause punchline, but a genuinely decent dude when he can focus on his friends. And Matthew McConaughey’s all-timer Wooderson is the pervy old dude who warrants so many mixed readings that it’s no wonder people still debate if he’s a tragedy or a triumph in the film. The point being, he is who he is, just keeping on, and he’s definitely not boring. No one here is, and Linklater taps into everyone like a dozen kegs at a big party.

Dazed came out of Linklater’s experiences as a rambunctious teen in Texas. The weed, the wandering, the all-around good time vibe … the movie’s been co-opted as a sort of cult drug film, but Dazed is much more elegant than its amusing façade of hazy days and glory plays.

The elements of style, Linklater’s predilection for discourse, and knack for folks just shooting the shit was fully-formed and functionally delightful here. The mood and mode of Dazed and Confused would show up time and again in Linklater’s free-wheeling narratives about real people, outspoken or average. Linklater loved to look at all the lovely people, with a master touch and an open-minded gaze. Even that prick O’Bannion, well, you had to feel bad for him in the end, because that’s just the way he was.

Dazed bore later works like SubUrbia, a little bit of Bernie, a whole lot of Boyhood, and the newly opening Everybody Wants Some!!.

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RICHARD THE GRAND EXPERIMENTER

WAKING LIFE (2001)

waking life

Here is Linklater at his most giddily, expressively free. Here is Linklater pushing boundaries and getting well-deserved recognition for his innovations in the medium. Here is the Linklater that started to sink in with viewers as a man who makes fascinating experiments.

Waking Life is a tone poem about a young man drifting in and out of surrealistic lectures, ranging from leaden to loopy. It’s a trip in all the beatnik senses, as Linklater combined cheaply shot footage of friends, colleagues, and Austin locals, and then rotoscoped everything with 2001 Adobe-style techniques on store-bought Macs. While this sounds like tracing, and an expansion of the techniques Ralph Bakshi championed in the ‘70s, Linklater’s thoroughly modern, heady twists made a name for his wild side.

People’s faces and bodies constantly cascade, foreground and background constantly compete for placement, and these obviously digitized layers gives the film a dream-state quality. It allows for slick, inventive visuals like a monkey projectionist giving a lecture, or a character floating off into the sky. People transform into clouds, people’s faces change hues like rainbows, and it all serves to represent Linklater and his lead Wiley Wiggins’ shifting mental modes. All of it representative, clever, and without the budgetary or ethical dilemmas one might face in depicting something like, say, a self-immolation realistically.

Linklater was unbound with Waking Life; guided by ambition, intelligence, and a deep appreciation for contemplative thought. What might have been a philosophy master’s thesis on the notions of reality became an ethereal output for technique.

Sarte’s thoughts on existentialism are discussed. Notions of evolution and its many manifestations are brought about via people’s melting mouths. Dream worlds and the consciousness of being. Winding, squiggly lines as metaphors for emotional mindsets. It all sounds so heady, but Linklater cuts the intensity and invites you into his interests with great pleasure through the accessible animation.Waking Life presents a Linklater trying something wholly fresh, and utterly unique.

As far as out-there experimentation, this would not be the last (or first) time Linklater played in long-form creativity. Slacker suggested his will to break form. Five years after Waking Life, A Scanner Darkly used the same digital drawing techniques for scintillating sci-fi paranoia. And not long after all these works, Linklater would soon become known for his long-form experiments, with the Before trilogy and with Boyhood.

The dude commits. Weirdly. Wonderfully.

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RICHARD THE COMMERCIALLY CURIOUS

SCHOOL OF ROCK (2003)

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The charms and educational integrity of Dewey Finn (Jack Black) have been duly noted and are still greatly appreciated. Everyone just loves School of Rock. Who’d have thoughbt that Linklater’s loosey-goosey sensibility could play so well with a Volvo station wagon take on the Bad News Bears model? (We’ll get to that, too.) School of Rock is Linklater’s counterculture, improvisational tendencies playing extremely well within a mainstream setting, and School of Rock might be Linklater’s most-loved classic in a commercial sense. The film’s gone on to become both a hit play and a Nickelodeon sitcom. Maybe it’s just Linklater’s earnestness.

Who else in the age of MTV and a rapidly-thinning Rolling Stone magazine could still make rock music seem passionate and riveting?

The shaggy Linklater mentality was there, and yet it was so clear that Linklater would never make a studio movie unless he was truly interested in the material. His failings with The Newton Boys as a latter-day George Roy Hill cowboy caper felt like the director taking his roots too literally, or not knowing how to handle a production of scale. Perhaps that’s why it’s unfathomable to imagine Linklater helming a $100 million production, or say, a Batman movie. No, Linklater’s mainstream tastes are a little smaller, and a lot less cynical than the recent trend of indie directors graduating to mega-budget brands.

Bad News Bears was the obvious follow-up to School of Rock for Paramount in 2005, and while the film hasn’t hung on with audiences (remakes are just funny that way, aren’t they?), Linklater’s Bad News Bears played out well enough. It felt like outsider stuff, and a carefree way to work within a property. Linklater’s Me and Orson Welles was plagued by talent problems and a bit of gee-shucks awkwardness, but no one doubts that Linklater was swinging for a populist love letter to the art of movies. And Fast Food Nation, with its stars and name-brand source material, didn’t play to big tastes. It felt like a concentrated effort to comfortably address existing work without forcing anything overt onto it.

And maybe that’s just Linklater’s whole commercial M.O. The man takes projects for studios less as an exercise in getting paid and more out of appreciation for or legitimate connection to the material. The commercial value just seems like an afterthought, and it makes Linklater seem all the more honest.

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RICHARD THE MASTER LONG-FORM DRAMATIST

BOYHOOD (2014)

boyhood A Beginners Guide to Richard Linklater

It feels just like yesterday that we as a nation were growing up together, getting into fights, running around all carefree and reading countless headline after headline about that long-gestating project that resulted in Linklater’s instant classic Boyhood.

Dazed and Confused and Everybody Wants Some are spiritually connected across a 23-year divide. The Before films take place over 18 gloriously difficult years of love and marriage. And Boyhood was a pure, simple marvel that took shape over a 12-year filming period. And they all benefited tremendously from focused, prolonged consideration and care.

Boyhood is the jewel in Linklater’s loose-fitting crown. A work rooted in a naturalistic idea, the 2014 film reached an immediate iconic status for its universality. To see what happens while watching a young boy grow over a dozen years is nothing like watching cement dry, or waiting for things to happen in a cage. Linklater loosely constructs these authentic vignettes about a kid doing just that: being a kid. Yet the narrative becomes growth, and not only does that growth affect the people around him, but it moves the viewer as well. It’s a rare privilege to see someone come out of childhood and be okay.

Strong, insecure, and just all-around boyish, Mason (Ellar Coltrane) is the vessel for Linklater’s deceptively simple outline. Just like Jesse and Celine were Linklater’s hubs for discussing relationship, Mason is a long-form tableau of maturity. And Boyhood never manipulates emotions with harried hospital trips or Scooby Doo hijinks.

For a fully orchestrated drama informed and suggested by reality, the film sure feels real. From the Game Boy goofs to the weed-heavy hits in a car, Mason could be anybody, and perhaps that’s what’s so moving about Boyhood. Everyone remembers the pain of getting a bad haircut, or being terrified, or upset by their parents on any given occasion. Linklater had all the time in the world to seek those little details and emotions out, in their purest forms. That’s why Boyhood elicits such a grand response. Linklater, as always, is actually interested in getting to know and care about people. It’s about doing stupid things, and feeling feelings. Just like us.

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