The Films Of Richard Linklater: A Retrospective

The Films Of Richard Linklater: A Retrospective

Given that he’s one of the more diverse and prolific filmmakers out there, it’s been a disappointingly long four years without a new movie from Richard Linklater (“Me and Orson Welles” premiered at TIFF in 2008). Fortunately, the Austin, Texas-based filmmaker is back with “Bernie,” a dark comedy which reunites him with two of his most memorable leads, Jack Black and Matthew McConaughey, that has picked up strong reviews and, opening in limited release last Friday, has been performing surprisingly well at the box office.

With “Bernie” expanding wider this weekend (read our review), it seemed like the perfect time to look over Linklater’s diverse and eclectic career. He’d already made his mark by founding the Austin Film Society in 1985 (which has gone on to be the center of the industy in the Texas city), but since his debut with an ultra-low-budget student film in 1988, Linklater’s tackled everything from romance to westerns and family comedies to science-fiction features, and has delivered more often than he’s missed. There’s plenty more to come from the director in years to come, with the tentatively titled “Boyhood,” a project that’s shot at regular intervals over the last decade, and as well as a handful of brewing projects including “College Republicans” about a young Karl Rove. But until then, now is as good a time as ever to look back.

It’s Impossible To Learn To Plow By Reading Books” (1988)
This one’s tough: shot on Super 8 with shoddy audio and serving as a film school for the young Linklater, it’s difficult to see this as anything more than an exercise to sharpen his skills as an artist. Sporting a fresh bowl cut and skinny exterior, the director stars as a college student preparing to visit a friend in a distant town… and that’s more or less the entire plot of the movie, which focuses not on story but on the mundane moments that make up our lives. These non-events are generally shot from a distance, shown very matter-of-factly, and are mostly banal experiences: doing the laundry, watching television, cooking food, etc. It’s probably the most earnest slice-of-life flick you’ll find and, in turn, requires a very specific mood and large amounts of patience that not everyone has. But there’s still something about the dreary, low-grade film stock that lends enchantment to the movie — a yearning nostalgia for something, be it a more fruitful time or some kind of emotional connection. Strange, too, that this debut feature shows little of what would make him such a beloved director. There’s hardly any dialogue and there are only vague specks of what he’d eventually make his style — but it just goes to show how little someone’s first work says about their eventual career. Anyway, the film itself has its charms, but we’re not sure if it’s even for completists — it was absolutely a learning experience for Linklater and he most definitely went on to much greater things. [C-]

Slacker” (1991)
A breathless shuttling in and out of the lives of Austin’s weirdest, Linklater’s “Slacker” no doubt evolved from “It’s Impossible To Learn To Plow By Reading Books.” Linklater is also present here, as the first of many dreamers, recluses, artists, would-be terrorists, conspiracy theorists, aging anarchists, and countless others plagued by a lack of direction while heralding that aimlessness is a cause to rally behind. One hundred minutes may present vignettes of Austin life, but within that microcosm, most viewers can identify a man or woman after their own heart. It’s an effectively plotless film, similar in that regard to “Dazed and Confused,” although the latter film certainly plays by the rules more so than here. With “Slacker,” we can tune in and out at will as the film never pauses to reflect, but why would we want to? It’s engaging and frequently funny, with Linklater knowingly tapping into our urge to watch people. This is the purest distillation of a “Did you hear what he said?” moment, a fraction of an event that sticks in your memory. Linklater presents dozens of these everyday moments and invites us to participate. The resulting film is notable both for the young director’s trademarks (plot is rarely the focus, the camera tracks its characters but rarely suggests their state of mind) and the fact that it really does work. An auspicious sophomore effort and an integral moment in the 1990s American independent film landscape. [B]

Dazed and Confused” (1993)
Simply put, Linklater’s “Dazed and Confused,” a kaleidoscopic, free-wheeling look at the last day of school in Austin, Texas, circa 1976, is one of the best, most honest high school movies ever made, and one of the very best movies of the 1990s. It’s also the perfect confluence of Linklater’s nakedly commercial tendencies (as evidenced in things like the sunny “School of Rock“) and his more laid back, conversational interests (“Slacker,” “Waking Life,” large swaths of “A Scanner Darkly“), stitched together and interlocked with his encyclopedic love of rock music. To anyone in high school, it’s incredibly identifiable, but if you grew up in Texas, it’s as true, sacred and easily quotable as holy scripture. “Dazed and Confused” has the loosest of plots – it’s basically about a bunch of burn-outs, hippies, and dorks (like the cast of some prequel to “Freaks and Geeks“) and their various activities on the last day of school, leading up to a big blow-out of a graduation party. Linklater nimbly weaves between stories (the jock who refuses to sign an authoritarian oath to stay clean over the summer, a high school lifer terrorizing soon-to-be-freshman, and a graduate who still hangs around for all the wrong reasons), creating a sense of urgency and drive in a movie essentially made of sequences where kids sit around and shoot the shit and listen to music. Immensely re-watchable, it’s also worth noting for its “Fast Times at Ridgemont High“-like collection of future superstars, including Adam Goldberg, Matthew McConaughey, Cole Hauser, Milla Jovovich, Parker Posey and Ben Affleck, all looking like they’re having the time of their lives. You can get high just breathing in the groovy fumes from “Dazed and Confused.” [A]

Before Sunrise” (1995)
Continuing the theme of shooting what he knew, Linklater turned one of his own personal love stories into one of the great indie romances of the ’90s. “Before Sunrise” centres on two characters, the slightly cynical but moreover dreamy romantic American Jesse (Ethan Hawke), and the idealistic but grounded French Celine (Julie Delpy). The two meet by chance and begin talking on a train from Budapest, Celine on her way back to Paris, Jesse on his way to Vienna for 24 hours before he flies back to America. He convinces her to alight in Vienna with him to continue their conversation, and so it begins, a 14-hour marathon conversation (not in real time, fortunately…) which must end, as the title implies, at sunrise. It sounds banal, but much of what they say about life, love, politics et al. is interesting and insightful, and reveals hidden depths of the two young characters still trying to “figure it out”. As their time together runs out, the two decide instead of risking their spark fizzling long distance, to instead meet up in six months in Vienna, leaving a tantalising will they/won’t they to the ending. Linklater took great care with his casting, and he chose well, Hawke and Delpy not only put in fantastic performances, but their natural romantic tension is intoxicating; both actors are also said to have contributed uncredited work to the script, which is not hard to believe, considering the naturalism in their delivery. Between that and Linklater’s unobtrusive shooting style, full of tracking shots and extended takes, its hard to remember what you’re watching isn’t actually two people really having the most important night of their lives. [A-]

SubUrbia” (1996)
Linklater has to be commended for taking on this film adaptation of Eric Bogosian’s play, if only for attempting to critically dismantle the lifestyle he’d observed since his debut. That said, what remains is a very ’90s misfire that feels especially juvenile for all its philosophizing. Town-boy-made-rockstar Pony (Jayce Bartok) returns to the nondescript neighborhood he called home and briefly reconnects with former slacker friends, his appearance forcing them to reexamine their lives. The fact that most of the film plays out in front of a 24-hour convenience store minded by Indian clerk Nazeer (Ajay Naidu), whose accent makes him the butt of several jokes, should give you an idea of the cultural headspace the uniformly strong cast plays in. Giovanni Ribisi leads the charge as malcontent mouthpiece Jeff, spouting regrets about his station, or lack thereof in life, while Amie Carey, Parker Posey, Steve Zahn, Dina Spybey, and a particularly notable Nicky Katt alternately stew or rage. It’s a dated film, and while Linklater doesn’t misstep as a technical artist here, he’s fenced in by the sourpuss subject matter and the film feels unmemorable as a result. However, the soundrack is notable for being a quintessential snapshot of ’90s alternative, featuring Sonic Youth, Elastica with Stephen Malkmus, Beck, Superchunk, The Flaming Lips and more. [C-]

The Newton Boys” (1998)
Ah, the mid ’90s, when indie filmmakers could get away with things that would seem impossible now. After the success of “Slacker,” “Dazed and Confused” and “Before Sunrise,” Linklater mounted a dustbowl-era period piece about the most notorious and successful bank robbers of the roaring ’20s. Naturally, Linklater gravitated to his close associates Matthew McConaughey and Ethan Hawke for two of the four titular brothers with Vincent D’Onofrio and one-time would-be rising star Skeet Ulrich being the other two (this being the era when Ulrich was being touted as the hot new thing on the rise). Co-starring Dwight Yoakam and Julianna Margulies as McConaughey’s love interest, Linklater’s hones in on the four disparate brothers, a mixture of charming and obsessed (Mac), cocky and arrogant (Hawke), taciturn (D’Onofrio) and conservative and moral (Ulrich). While their bold and brash bank robberies make headlines, it’s an ambitious train robbery in Chicago where the long (and rather ruthless) arm of the law catches up with them. While “The Newton Boys” doesn’t have a lot to say, at almost two hours long, it’s surprisingly engaging and satisfying for what it is, but it may have been the beginning of the end for the filmmaker and bigger budgets aside from “School of Rock” ($27 million budget because of its period piece setting), as it underwhelmed at the box-office. [B-]

Waking Life” (2001)
The idea of Linklater tackling an animated film was a fairly unlikely one. Until, of course, it actually arrived, and proved to be the closest he’s come to replicating his debut, “Slacker.” A philosophical journey following a young man (“Dazed and Confused” star Wiley Wiggins) in a dream state examining the nature of reality, the film is in many ways Linklater looking back on his career, with several of his favorite actors (Adam Goldberg, Nicky Katt) and colleagues (Steven Sodebergh, Caveh Zahedi) cropping up, while a cameo from Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy as Jesse and Celine helped to pave the way for “Before Sunset.” And the animation is stunning. Linklater used the relatively uncommon (at the time) rotoscope technique favored by Ralph Bakshi, filming his actors on digital video before having animators paint over them on off-the-shelf Macs, creating a genuinely unique, trippy look for the film that suits is subject matter down to the ground. It’s a shame that the film doesn’t quite have the content to match the style. The almost docu-drama approach leads to some insights, but more often than not, it comes across as the not-particularly inspirational ramblings of a stoned grad student, uninvolving in a way that “Slacker” never was. The existence of the far superior “A Scanner Darkly” a few years later only goes to emphasize that “Waking Life” was an experimental warm-up more than anything else. [C+]

Tape” (2001)
This drama, made simultaneously with “Waking Life,” reads like a filmmaking exercise — made in real time, with the then-new digital camera, with limited sets (a small motel room with an adjoining bathroom) and only three actors, even if those actors are Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman and Robert Sean Leonard. Based on a one-act play of the same name written by Stephen Belber and set in Lansing, Michigan, the motel room is rented by drug dealer and volunteer firefighter Vince (Hawke), who may also have a hot temper and semi-violent tendencies. He’s there in theory to support his high school friend Jon (Leonard), a documentary filmmaker who has a film in a local festival. While the two are reminiscing, an argument about the circumstances under which Jon slept with Vince’s high school girlfriend Amy (Thurman) years ago comes up. Vince coerces an incriminating confession out of Jon, which he catches on tape. Of course Vince has also invited Amy to the party, and the conversation just gets more bizarre and heated from there, ending with a neat little plot twist. This is where Linklater is most at home directing realistic dialogue that is both interesting and insightful to the human condition. He uses the digital camera to great effect, swiftly moving it from person to person, amplifying the emotions as they grow increasingly heated. Adapting theatre plays to film is not the obvious slam dunk you’d think, but “Tape” manages to capture the live feel, while also making the rapid-fire dialogue and limited setting work to the film’s advantage. Linklater also gives the cast room to stretch beyond traditional “movie star” acting with Hawke in particular shining, proving once again that both he and Linklater consistently bring out the best in each other. It’s not surprising that it was Hawke who approached Linklater with “Tape,” and asked long-time friend Leonard and then-wife Thurman to co-star. Intended for TV, it was decided to release the film theatrically based on the final cut of the film, and it joined “Waking Life” at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival.  [B-]

School of Rock” (2003)
Possibly the most purely entertaining of Linkater’s films, “School of Rock” was an unexpected smash, grossing more than $100 million (four times its original production) and cementing Jack Black‘s place as a bankable comedic leading man. What’s more is that the film succeeded without ever losing Linklater’s particular point of view, visual playfulness and noted obsession with rock music. The central concept of “School of Rock” has “commercialized drivel” written all over it – a flunky wannabe musician poses as a substitute teacher and ends up teaching his students how to rock, hard – but thanks to a sly screenplay by Mike White and creative guidance by super-producer Scott Rudin, Linklater was able to flourish. One of the best moves he made was to cast the kids first and then rework the characters around the young actors, catering to their strengths both performance-wise and musically. It gives the movie an incredibly robust, naturalistic set of child performances and contributes to the movie’s genial, easygoing, but never simplistic, attitude. (Dutch cinematographer Rogier Stoffers‘ autumnal photography also gives it a deeper level of almost collegiate sophistication; the movie looks like a corduroy blazer with leather elbow patches or a pile of freshly fallen leaves.) A big studio also afforded Linklater to indulge his love of classic rock, with a dizzying amount of artists and profoundly expensive collection of songs (including Led Zeppelin‘s nearly unobtainable “Immigrant Song,” a track Linklater had hoped to use in “Dazed and Confused“). Linklater’s direction is loose, inspired and playful (we love that title sequence), as is Black’s performance, and while there’s been talk for many years of a sequel (White turned in a draft and Paramount briefly announced Rudin and Linklater would return), so far nothing has materialized. Maybe it’s better that way. Nobody likes a rock star who’s performing past his prime. [A-]

Before Sunset” (2004)
Indie romances aren’t usually prime targets for sequels, but Linklater and the stars of 1995’s “Before Sunrise” defied conventional wisdom to create the sublime “Before Sunset.” While most cinematic love stories end with the hook-up, the story’s continuation explores the aftermath of the one-night romance of Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) almost a decade later. The now-older-and-wiser pair spend an afternoon on the streets of Paris, rehashing their Vienna evening from nine years ago, and it’s the rare follow-up that doesn’t just step up its game, but also makes the original deeper and richer in retrospect. The interaction between Celine and Jesse is revealing and real (the moment when the pair share a cab, Delpy trying, unseen, to touch Hawke, but pulling back, is one of our favorite pieces of screen acting), and the intimate script earned Linklater, Delpy, and Hawke an Oscar nomination, and the eternal affection of true romantics who aren’t swayed by Hollywood’s unrealistic output. There’s been talk of late that a third installment might be on the way, but unless they can come up with an ending as perfect as Celine and Jesse dancing together in her apartment to Nina Simone, we’re not sure we want it. [A]The Bad News Bears” (2005)
The Bad News Bears” was a direct response to Linklater’s success with “School of Rock,” but in many ways stands as the antithesis to that film. Whereas the Jack Black vehicle was grown organically from an original script by Mike White, “Bad News Bears” was a naked grab at a commercially viable hit based on a beloved, preexisting property, the 1976 Michael Ritchie/Walter Matthau comedy of the same name. While “School of Rock” had time in development to cater the characters to the kids that they had cast, “Bad News Bears” had a truncated schedule and as a result the child actors feel anonymous, the characters lacking depth and the snappy pacing of “School of Rock” was replaced with a lethargic, nearly two-hour-long running time. It’s enough to make you wonder why Linklater made it at all. It’s not completely devoid of laughs and Billy Bob Thornton riffs on his “Bad Santa” performance to a fairly entertaining degree (“Bad Santa” writers Glenn Ficarra and John Requa wrote the script but it’s got whole swaths cut and pasted from Bill Lancaster’s screenplay from the original). It’s just that it’s the rare dud in Linkater’s oeuvre, even more damning since it was made at a time in his career when he was at his strongest both commercially (“School of Rock”) and critically (“Before Sunset”). We understand that you have to take the paycheck every once in a while, and maybe Linklater saw something interesting that he wanted to do with the project that just didn’t get translated to the screen, but for whatever reason, “Bad News Bears” might be the filmmaker’s most easily skippable movie. [D+]

A Scanner Darkly” (2006)
It’s safe to say that the director’s second experiment with rotoscoping animation didn’t get a proper chance when it was released back in 2006. Faced with production delays, middling reviews, and a release date at the height of summer, the movie never found the cult audience it deserved, despite being a heir apparent to the stoner-approved “Waking Life.” Adapting Philip K. Dick‘s novel himself, Linklater takes the intensive, amusing dialogue sessions that are his custom and coats them in fresh paranoia, creating a bleak sci-fi tale with more than a fair share of noir tendencies. Keanu Reeves plays an undercover police detective set to monitor a supplier of Substance D, a highly addictive hallucinatory drug with a large part of the population at its beck and call. His double life involves living with addicts (played by the enormously fun Woody Harrelson and Robert Downey Jr.) and prodding a self-described coke addict (Winona Ryder) who he assumes to be a highly connected dealer. The only problem? Reeves is now a junkie himself and the damage done to his brain makes it difficult to properly perceive reality or his own being. This leads the protagonist to become an untrustworthy narrator, though interestingly enough, it’s hard to really trust anyone in the film — the government workers who diagnose the condition seem highly manipulative and could very well be lying about everything — which only makes things thrillingly unpredictable. The rotoscope works particularly well for this one — things look and feel real, but there’s just something a tad artificial and suspicious about it. This aesthetic also lead to the “scramble suit,” a full-body disguise which frequently changes the wearer’s appearance every couple of seconds. This thing is a walking metaphor — the destruction of singular identity, the government’s watchdog obsession, take your pick  — but is also, on a superficial level, incredibly disturbing. First time viewers may find that ‘Scanner’ is a lot to take in and some might get lost amidst the knotty plot, but given a second shot it’s a wild ride and a pretty unique view of those Big Brother horrors that sci-fi writers love to go on about. [A-]

Fast Food Nation” (2006)
Whatever you were thinking a narrative feature based on Eric Schlosser‘s best-selling nonfiction book (Schlosser co-wrote the screenplay) might turn out to be, Linklater’s grim, weird, boldly political “Fast Food Nation,” a sort of cattle-mangling equivalent to “Traffic,” probably wasn’t it. A sprawling, Altman-esque tangle with a half-dozen intermingling plotlines, a vaguely sinister, conspiratorial tone, and a climax that features footage of a cow getting churned through a real-life slaughter house (shocking, for sure), it was too wild to be a real Oscar contender and not outwardly pleasurable enough to be pure entertainment. Instead, it was this lumpy, misshapen experiment that, while admirably ambitious, is hard to really love, despite its stellar cast (including, but not limited to, Greg Kinnear, Kris Kristofferson, Bruce Willis, Patricia Arquette, Paul Dano, Ethan Hawke, Avril Lavigne, Wilmer Valderrama and paranoid radio show host Alex Jones), solid direction and beautiful, plainspoken cinematography (by frequent collaborator Lee Daniel). Linklater and Schlosser made a bolder movie than anyone could have anticipated but it was also alienating to the point that it couldn’t get its message across. [C]

Inning By Inning: A Portrait Of A Coach” (2008)
ESPN‘s “30 For 30” documentary sports series (which ran from 2009-2010) is rather grand, with the best entries in the series featuring more gripping drama and high stakes than many feature films. Of the initially announced series, three docs ended up being released on their own, including Spike Lee‘s “Kobe Doin’ Work” and Linklater’s “Inning By Inning.” Linklater’s doc doesn’t have him stray far from his roots and sees the filmmaker focusing on The University of Texas at Austin coach Augie Garrido, the most winningest-coach in the history of NCAA Division I baseball history. While his discipline and ambitions are fascinating — this is a man who could have easily moved to the Major Leagues had he wanted — his story is not overly fraught with conflict or drama. Instead this is a impressive tale of drive and focused vision. Garrido had a true calling from a young age, to teach and coach, with winning as a logical byproduct, not the starting gate goal, which in part is antithetical to MLB’s end game. While winning is important, Garrido’s approach is a philosophical mentoring method and an unwavering belief that a focus on pure baseball fundamentals and teamwork bears victories. And his track record shows, more often than not, he’s right. Garrido doesn’t produce superstars or flashy players, just get ‘er done winning teams and his gruff, but inspiring techniques are aspirational. And while “Inning By Inning” is a faithful and true portrait of the coach that he and his friends and family are likely proud and happy with, it’s doubtful that anyone outside of baseball fanatics consider this a must-see sports documentary classic. [C]

Me and Orson Welles” (2008)
One of Linklater’s more bafflingly overlooked entries is “Me and Orson Welles,” which seemed commercially acceptable enough. A historical comedy/drama about a young man who goes to work for Orson Welles (Christian McKay) in his Mercury Theatre days (around the time of his influential “Julius Caesar” production), it featured none other than “High School Musical” hunk Zac Efron in the lead. But it was crippled by an absolutely terrible promotional campaign (including one of the worst posters imaginable – why is Claire Danes wearing that rictus grin?) and a bizarre, underfunded roll-out (courtesy of Freestyle Releasing) that made it virtually impossible to track down and see. (It’s even hard to find on home video — even though Warner Bros. put it out on DVD, it was sold exclusively at Target.) Even more heartbreaking is the fact that if somebody like the Weinstein Company had been in charge of “Me and Orson Welles,” McKay’s fine performance would have at least been nominated for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar (and just might have won). Instead, he was barely noticed. “Me and Orson Welles” isn’t one of Linklater’s masterpieces, but it’s just as breezy and entertaining as “School of Rock,” with an unexpected emotional punch. It’s worth seeking out…if you can find it. [B]

Oliver Lyttelton, Drew Taylor, Christopher Bell, RP

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Comments

razzle

Before Sunset does not end with Celine and Jesse dancing together. It ends with Jesse sitting on her couch watching her do a little dance and Nina Simone impressions. "You are gonna miss that plane," and then Jesse laughs and agrees. Not trying to nitpick. Just saying.

jimmiescoffee

Waking Life is the shit.

cirkusfolk

I think almost all these grades are pretty spot on. Waking Life is right where it should be and A Scanner Darkly was way better. School of Rock is a new classic while The Bad News Bears was dreadful. And The Newton Boys has been unfairly judged over the years as I thought it was quite enjoyable. Good job.

a

Re: Waking Life's "stoned grad student" talk, I like this quote from the Senses of Cinema review: "On the surface, it may feel hopelessly collegiate and even repetitive, a gaggle of eccentrics with big theories about the nature of existence blended with sociopathic malcontents and inner-journeying slackers. But it’s the resounding certainty behind the statements more than their actual content that counts, the poignancy of so much searching, of banking on this or that theory or notion or idea that promises to Explain It All." The whole piece is great.

Dan

How is Waking Life any less than a B? It earns a higher mark simply based on ambition and originality, let alone the technique and ideas involved. Have you seen another film remotely like it?

Snip

You may enjoy this, based on real conversation in Austin, TX
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=okVvasYt1jo

Head Buckaroo

Did you for real give Tape a higher rating than Waking Life?

whoops

the picture you used for SubUrbia (1996) is from the Penelope Spheeris film Suburbia (1983)

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