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.