Richard Linklater's latest film, Bernie, exhibits the same frustrating faults that mar many of the director's 15-odd films. The boring visual style. The single-speed pacing. The lack of urgency and bite. And yet—as happens with every Linklater movie—I strolled out of the theater feeling just a tick more affection toward humanity than I'd felt on my way in. This is especially remarkable given that Bernie recounts the tale of a convicted murderer who shoots an old woman in the back.
I've now watched nearly every minute of film that the 51-year-old Linklater has directed. I've suffered through juvenilia like the Super-8 noodling of It's Impossible To Learn To Plow by Reading Books, in which Linklater documents himself riding on Amtrak trains around the Western United States. I've swooned (or, rather, reswooned) over minor masterpieces like Dazed and Confused and Before Sunrise/Sunset. I've gotten weird with talky brain-benders like Slacker and Waking Life. I've gone mainstream with midcareer kiddie flicks like Bad News Bears and School of Rock. And I've come away from it all with a truckload of affection, and a great deal of respect, for the auteur from Austin.
Few would mention Linklater alongside the all-time directorial greats. Yet his films are always tremendously charming, and they have brought me much cinematic joy. Dazed is among the more winning, honest portrayals of high school ever made. Its depiction of a turning-point adolescent night still hits me at gut level, conjuring similar evenings from my misspent youth. Whenever Matthew McConaughey, as Dazed’s Wooderson, slo-mo struts through a pool hall to the strains of Bob Dylan’s “Hurricane,” I recall those legend-in-a-small-pond Woodersons from my own past. And I can still remember stumbling out of the theater after watching Before Sunset: Linklater fades out on Julie Delpy in her Paris apartment, swaying to Nina Simone, and I was left dizzied with thoughts of relationships that never were and of paths not taken.
After a childhood spent in nowheresville East Texas, followed by an aborted college stint, Linklater worked briefly on an oil rig before at last gravitating to Austin in the mid-1980s. Once there, having discovered a passion for movies, Linklater pretty much invented that city's still-thriving cinema culture. He co-founded the Austin Film Society while still in his mid-20s. He immersed himself in film theory, reading voraciously and hosting screenings of obscure art-house fare. He directed his own no-budget shorts, and then later his own no-budget, full-length features.
When the self-financed Slacker miraculously entered the national consciousness in 1991, Linklater was branded—alongside Canadian author Douglas Coupland—the voice of Generation X. The movie's title seemed to capture the shruggy whateveritude of post-Reagan youth. The weirdo dropouts who slouched through its frames preached dead-end concepts like "intensity without mastery," and argued that "withdrawing in disgust is not the same thing as apathy."
But it was never the director's intent to encapsulate some sort of societal moment. Linklater, young cineaste, fan of Fassbinder and Bresson, was mainly jazzed by the notion of screwing around with formal structure. He made a movie with no protagonist, its scenes linked by the gossamer continuity of characters brushing past each other on the streets of Austin. There was no conflict, no resolution. Even the film's biggest champion—producer John Pierson, who helped secure Slacker's eventual sale to a studio and its nationwide release—has admitted he dozed off during his first viewing.
What saved Slacker, and has fueled Criterion re-releases and such, is the warmth and accessibility beneath its mannered architecture. Linklater’s spirit of experimentation never overshadows his commitment to meet the audience halfway. The characters are characters—raconteurs, nighthawks, dharma bums. The pop culture riffs are on par with those of Linklater contemporary Quentin Tarantino: references to Madonna's pap smears, and dissections of the socio-religious underpinnings of the Smurfs and Scooby Doo. We eavesdrop on wacko, wide-ranging conversations about ex-girlfriends, muscle car engines, Leon Czolgosz. The dialogue is full of whip-smart rants on obscure topics. It feels like the curtain’s swung open on a fascinating subculture of overeducated nutters.
Within Slacker is embedded the mix of obsessions that has defined Linklater's subsequent work. He is: 1) bored by the bounds of traditional three-act narrative structure, and classic protagonists; 2) entranced by the gift of gab, and by the literate, barstool monologuist who can cast a spell over everyone within earshot; 3) fiercely sympathetic to the outsider—the freak, the fringe; 4) spiritual, and engaged with big ideas.
This is perhaps our most Buddhist filmmaker—in the sense that he is forever meditating on the present moment, the impermanence of it, the effort to mindfully inhabit it. The first four films Linklater released—Slacker, Dazed and Confused, Before Sunrise, and SubUrbia—are all constrained by 24-hour time-spans. Tape unfolds in 80 minutes of real time, and never ventures beyond the walls of one small motel room. Waking Life occurs largely within the confines of a single lucid dream, and a pair of its interlocutors attempt to achieve what they term a "holy moment," staring silently into each other's eyes.
Linklater savors ideas and theories—sometimes sharp and compelling, other times a teensy bit dopey—with the open heart and absence of cynicism that only autodidacts seem capable of mustering. He drops a casual reference to Rupert Sheldrake in a director's commentary track. Yes, Waking Life tackles the sorts of epistemological questions (are we characters in each other’s dreams?) you likely grew irritated with by the second week of your college epistemology class. But Linklater manages to address them forthrightly and unpretentiously, with a sort of windblown, Texas mojo that is less faculty lounge twaddle than campfire tale. At least two of Linklater’s films make reference to James Joyce’s Ulysses (another 24-hour narrative) and, like Joyce with Leopold Bloom, Linklater seems intent on finding the heroic within the quotidian. He celebrates small-town philosophers, high school gods and goddesses, and nobodies who step outside the culture and do their own thing.
To be sure, his résumé is littered with films that fail to achieve orbit. Both SubUrbia and Tape are adapted from plays, and add little value to their source material. (Strangely, both also feature small-town prodigal sons—men who escape the boonies, achieve some measure of creative success, and then make a return visit to mixed reviews from their high school pals. One wonders whether Linklater endured a scarring East Texas homecoming at some point.) Fast Food Nation drones along and never quite makes us care that we're eating crap meat and exploiting illegal immigrants to butcher it. Me and Orson Welles unwisely places faith in the acting of Zac Efron.
If there is a consistent weakness in Linklater's directing—beyond his haphazard, visually disappointing aesthetic (it’s hard to name an arresting image from any of his films, other than every single shot of Julie Delpy’s face)—it's that he is incapable of conveying menace. The Newton Boys, for example, is about a team of armed bank robbers who end up in prison, and yet the film unspools as a jaunty road trip. Bernie manages to turn cold-blooded murder into lighthearted joshing. His films never crescendo, never scare or jolt. Linklater has suggested that Bernie is his East Texas version of Fargo. But it lacks that movie's ratcheting tension and bloody wood chipper. Linklater has zero desire to stage a graphic re-creation of a murder. He’s just too darn amiable, and his films amble along like a daydreaming ranch hand. In Bernie, his true interest again lies in creating a protagonist-free structure, telling the story through talking-head interviews that capture the recollections of drawling townspeople.
Increasingly, in the latter half of his career, Linklater has experimented with actual talking-head documentaries. Inning by Inning: A Portrait of a Coach profiles the University of Texas’ Augie Garrito, the best college baseball coach of all time. Linklater uses the film mostly as an excuse to delve into the spiritual aspects of baseball—the clearing of the mind, the even-keeled approach to the long season, perfection through repetition, making peace with perpetual failure. But then Linklater has always had the soul of a documentarian. He loves personal stories and revelations—they are the building blocks of Slacker and Waking Life. Even Before Sunrise/Sunset seem to spring forth largely from the autobiographies of Linklater and his actors, Delpy and Ethan Hawke. Those films are as romantic as movies ever get, but are also a unique project in the annals of sequeldom: The decade that separates the films brings a depth to the characters that stems from the real-life maturation of the actors. (Linklater is also working on a mysterious 12-year project in which he records a single actor starting at age 7 and maturing through puberty and adolescence.)
Like a regional documentarian subsisting on grants, Linklater has scrambled to keep working on his own terms. He keeps things cheap, making two- and three-character movies. He employs clever tricks to subvert the need for special effects—the rotoscoping of Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly allowed him to achieve big-budget visual ideas for very little cash, with the initial filming done on cheap video and then later tarted up by animators. By pushing costs down, and staying in Austin, Linklater has maintained remarkable indie freedom. He refuses to be pigeonholed, ranging from romance to sci-fi and everything in between. He is the eternal outsider: Even his children's films, Bad News Bears and School of Rock, ultimately teach kids to harbor reflexive scorn for the establishment. I’d guess Linklater made these films in part because he’d become a father, and in part to remind folks that he’s still capable of helming multiplex fare. But they’re also just a damn good baseball movie and even better rock-and-roll flick.
The first character we see in Slacker is the director himself, musing over alternate realities, wondering what might have happened had he stayed at the bus station instead of hopping in the taxi that carries him into Austin and sets the film in motion. Surely, he can envision himself still working out on that oil rig, his film career a fantasy out of a lucid dream. Linklater owns a Bally Fireball pinball machine—the kind with a spinning disk in the middle that launches the ball on unpredictable trajectories—and it, and other pinball machines, have popped up in the background of a few of his movies. With its strange combination of vigilant intention and random fate, pinball might be the perfect metaphor for Linklater’s cinematic project.
See Seth Stevenson's rankings of Richard Linklater's movies.