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

Press Play By Nelson Carvajal and Max Winter | Press Play July 23, 2014 at 2:21PM

You can feel the heat in the Austin of "Slacker"; you can smell the chalkdust in "School of Rock"; you can feel the night breeze in "Dazed and Confused." And yet the camera here isn’t the aggressive, probing presence of a Scorsese or an Allen or a Lynch.
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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.

This article is related to: Video, video essay, NELSON CARVAJAL, Richard Linklater


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