Toward the end of Roger Ebert's Great Movies entry on Richard Linklater's "Waking Life," the late critic proclaims that "Linklater is a man who doesn't like to be bored and doesn't want to bore us." No truer words could be said about the Austin, Texas filmmaker, who continually challenges himself as a storyteller by toying with narrative conventions.
Linklater's latest, "Boyhood,"is the magnum opus of his narrative experiments. Much has already been written about the magnitude of this achievement, in which the cast and crew filmed the entire feature over 39 days across 12 years. While the film is unquestionably a high point for the director, it's hardly the first time he's forged new cinematic territory. As "Boyhood" hits theaters, we look back at some of Linklater's best narrative-bending efforts.
Nominated for the Dramatic Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, "Slacker" officially put Linklater on the map and epitomizes the unique qualities of his filmography. Essentially plotless and entirely conversation-based, the film follows several Austin commoners over the course of a single day, including a space buff with conspiracies about the moon, an anarchist, and a taxi driver played by Linklater himself. The narrow focus on leisurely, naturalistic conversations about social class, economic woes, and the media, scrutinizes the American vernacular with a scholarly focus. That's a huge reason Linklater's movies are so profound – they put ordinary language on a pedestal, giving prominence and emotional heft to transient encounters. Even more startling is the way in which Linklater moves the narrative forward: characters are introduced or picked up only when they come into contact with the person at the center of the story. This narrative gimmick adds layers of complexity onto a simple premise, allowing the viewer to see the hilarious evolution and fascinating coincidences of conversation. It's a dynamic, rapid-fire slice of life.
"Dazed and Confused" (1993)
Linklater's ode to suburban teenage recklessness takes place entirely during one day in 1976 -- the last day of class at the fictional Lee High School. While "Slacker" also employs a one-day narrative structure, its application is very different here. For starters, it allows the lackadaisical pacing to burn smoothly and exhale a smoke of hazy 70s chillness, made classic by the fresh-faced cast of young stars like Cole Hauser, Ben Affleck, Milla Jovovich, and Matthew McConaughey, whose iconic "Alright, alright, alright" catchphrase is born here through pot-head David Wooderson. More importantly, the framing device allows "Dazed and Confused" to break free from the confines of its genre and rewrite the rules of coming-of-age high school films. Whereas countless movies of its kind take place during the entire last year, "Dazed" skips all this without ever losing the genre's engrossing, nostalgic spirit. All the resonant emotions are here – youthful liberation, the fear of responsibility, the rush of experimentation – they're just buried and exposed in the cracks of the freshmen hazing rituals, the nonchalant pool hall hangout, the kegger, and the late night stoner session that make up this long last day of school. The film remains a classic because the narrative doesn't have you see a coming-of-age plot, it makes you feel it instead. Alright, alright indeed.
"Waking Life" (2001)
The existential "Waking Life" shows the director at his stimulating best by pushing his sensibilities into surrealist territory. The movie's narrative is one continuously looping dream: An unnamed protagonist wakes up, washes his face, walks outside, listens to a philosophical conversation about free will, physics and humanity in general from an everyday person, then wakes up and repeats these actions in another dream. Following the patterns of dreams themselves, the narrative is illogical and scatterbrained, sometimes featuring the protagonist in sequences and elsewhere veering away from him -- notably, in one scene featuring Jesse and Celine from Linklater's "Before…" trilogy during a moment in their lives that could not exist in that series' timeline. But while one can view the movie as vignettes that question the purpose of dreams, the narrative is all the more gripping since it represents the dreams of a singular protagonist over and over again. Therefore, the narrative as a whole acts as a projection of our protagonist's subconscious. There is a real life somewhere in the jumbled mind of "Waking Life,"and the humor, humility, and curiosity of it is exposed in every conversation and dream-within-a-dream. It's confusing, yes, but it turns the film into a puzzle of who the protagonist really is; after all, what are dreams but the manifestation of our deepest thoughts and desires? The surreality of the narrative is tripped out even further since Linklater rotoscoped the entire film, shooting his actors on digital video and drawing lines and colors on each frame afterword. The process makes the movie look like motion capture by the way of water color painting, a visual high Linklater repeats in 2006's "A Scanner Darkly.”
Probably the most criminally overlooked movie in Linklater's filmography (it grossed a mere $515,900 according to Box Office Mojo), "Tape" is an unnerving psychodrama adapted by Stephen Belber from his play by the same name. Similar to Linklater's 1996 comedy-drama "subUrbia," which focuses on a group of teens who spend their time on the corner outside a local convenience store, "Tape" unfolds in real time and is set entirely in one location: a seedy motel room in Lansing, Michigan. Here, drug dealer Vince (Linklater regular Ethan Hawke) and documentary filmmaker Jon (Robert Sean Leonard) recall their high school years and the girl that came between them, Amy (Uma Thurman). After a particularly vile secret is confirmed, it is revealed that not only is Amy coming to the motel but also that Vince has been recording the conversation the entire time. What happens next gives way to a claustrophobic thriller that puts three old friends through the wringer and guarantees none of them come out of it the same. The use of a single location works eerie wonders: The motel room, with its dark brown walls, muggy yellow lamp lighting, and contrasting blue bathroom, acts as a reflective setting that mimics the decaying relationships involved. It also increases a sense of confinement, giving our characters nowhere to run as truths are brutally revealed.
Mark Twain's famous quote, "Truth is stranger than fiction," fits nicely with Linklater's wonderful dark comedy. In the film, a magnificent Jack Black plays the eponymous Bernie Tiede, a beloved Texan community member and assistant mortician who befriends the widowed town socialite, Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine). Their peculiar relationship ends when Bernie murders her and hides her body in the meat freezer, which would be quite the spoiler if the film wasn't based on an actual 1996 murder involving characters of the same name. Wisely, Linklater doesn't make his film about the murder, and instead twists the proceedings by presenting the narrative as a documentary of sorts -- interspersing Bernie's main story before, during, and after the murder with interviews from townspeople on their perceptions of the case. Commentary is also provided by district attorney Danny Buck Davidson, hilariously played by Matthew McConaughey during the early stages of his McConnaisance. It's basically like an episode of "The Office" dipped in a vat of biting morbidity. Yet the divide between fiction and reality is blurred even greater when you're informed that some of the interviews are from actual townspeople who lived through the 1996 case, not actors playing parts. As a result, "Bernie" -- a non-fictional fiction movie about a lovable and deeply disturbed killer -- truly defies any simple categorization. Only a hybrid narrative like this one could support such a wacky true life tale.
"Before…"Trilogy (1995, 2004, 2014)
Like "Boyhood," Linklater's romance trilogy represents a crowning achievement in narrative storytelling. The three films -- each shot, released and set nine years apart -- track the blossoming relationship of Jesse and Celine, played with irresistible chemistry and authenticity by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. In the tradition of "Slacker," the films are extremely minimalist, following the couple as they walk and talk around a particular city over the course of a single day or night, a narrative trick that gives the vernacular of young love the passionate weight of prose by Shelley or Wordsworth. As a whole, the trilogy is a startling look at the natural evolution of relationships. For this reason, it makes perfect sense the first entry, "Before Sunrise," ignites the amorous sparks of first love as the couple meet, share their aspirations and play make believe lovers while perusing around Vienna. On the other hand, "Before Midnight," the final chapter, is the darkest and most Bergman-like, cutting deep as it exposes the pains of failed hopes and regrets. It's here that the pair, now married with children, walk around the ruinous Greek countryside and reflect on and fight the only thing that can ruin them: time. And yet, more than just a relationship study, the "Before…" trilogy effectively shows how characters age and personalities echo over time. The boyish charm of Jesse in 1994, for instance, manifests in 2014 as he struggles to be the father that his son from a previous marriage deserves. And the graceful, independent Celine we first meet on the train naturally becomes the mature, strong-willed mother who refuses to live a jobless life. It's this attention to detail -- and the willingness of Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy to let a relationship grow and breathe over 18 years -- that makes the "Before…" trilogy the most genuine romance in movie history.
"Boyhood"opens today in select New York and Los Angeles theaters and expands nationwide July 18th.