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VIDEO ESSAY: From SLACKER to BOYHOOD: Cinematography in the films of Richard Linklater

VIDEO ESSAY: From SLACKER to BOYHOOD: Cinematography in the films of Richard Linklater

In the late fall of 2001, in a movie theater in New York, I
fell asleep during Richard Linklater’s Waking
Life
. Strangely enough, I think he might have welcomed that response. Or
at least his cinematographer’s camera would have. We’ve posted viewers’
reports of sleeping
during films before at Press Play, but this was a different
sort of sleep, guided, in a sense, by the camerawork. Cinematography occupies a
strange place in Linklater’s films. While the movies are, on the one hand,
quite speech-driven, which is to say that the dialogue characters say to
each other sometimes forms the entire story, as in the Before… trilogy, we cannot
say that watching one of his films is not a visual experience as well. But it’s
a curious sort of visual experience. At the time I fell asleep during Waking
Life
, I wasn’t dozing off out of boredom; it was out of comfort. Just over a
month before I saw the film, the World Trade Center had collapsed. Despite the
fact that New Yorkers were charging ahead with their lives all around me, the
air still smelled like burned flesh. I needed some relief. Sitting down to watch Waking
Life
, with its delicately drawn characters floating gently through their
delicately drawn world, brought a sense of reassurance, a sense that, in
artistic works, at least, one might dwell without fear of imminent harm. All
that would take place here, after all, was that characters would talk to each
other, and the camera would watch them, or rather would display them, moving in
the flickering manner of animated figures, easily, relaxedly. The figures on
the screen would move forward in their way, and I, in my seat, processing the
film and the events taking place in the world outside the theater, would move
forward in my way, in a spirit of peaceful coexistence. There was solace, there, but there was also engagement, of a kind. This is, indeed, the
way the camera has functioned in Linklater’s films from his earliest works
onwards. It doesn’t force itself on you, and yet nevertheless it brings you in.
The intimacy, for instance, of the “You’re gonna miss that plane” scene in Before Sunset would be far diminished if
it weren’t for its sense of strange stillness, created by the sensitive use of
the camera. You could say it’s a Taoist lens—it does very little, at least
little that we notice, and yet we feel utterly immersed when we watch this
director’s films. You can feel the heat in Slacker’s
Austin; you can smell the chalkdust in School
of Rock;
you can feel the night breeze in Dazed and Confused. And yet the camera here dosn’t have the aggressive, probing presence of that of a
Scorsese or an Allen or a Lynch. The cameras of Linklater’s numerous cinematographers–Lee Daniel, Pete James, Tommy Pallotta, or Maryse Alberti, or Rogier Stoffers, or Shane Kelly, or Dick Pope–share the characteristic of operating on a softer register, trying
less hard to get our attention than they might. And yet films like Boyhood would be far diminished without their sense of visual
scope, of the hugeness of the Big Bend, of the quietness of a Texas lake, of
the plainness and innocence and perplexity of a boy’s face, in close-up. Watching these films becomes an experience of gentle exchange, rather than spectatorship. And what do we, the viewers, get out of it? A sense of living differently, for an hour or two.–Max Winter

Nelson Carvajal is an independent digital filmmaker, writer and content
creator based out of Chicago, Illinois. His digital short films usually
contain appropriated content and have screened at such venues as the
London Underground Film Festival. Carvajal runs a blog called FREE CINEMA NOW
which boasts the tagline: "Liberating Independent Film And Video From A
Prehistoric Value System." You can follow Nelson on Twitter
here.

Max Winter is the Editor of Press Play.

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