It was just a couple of years ago, around the time of “Bernie," that we first ran our retrospective of the films of Richard Linklater. But in the brief period since, he’s made not one, but two films that feel like they, in fact, mark exactly the kind of caesura that should by rights have us looking back in assessment: Linklater’s last two titles deal in time passed and time passing and have slightly transformed the shape of his filmography, certainly bringing us to a newfound appreciation for his insight and intelligence, even though we were fans before.
The first of the two was “Before Midnight,” the third film in the ‘Before’ trilogy which showed us Jesse and Celine a decade on from the events of “Before Sunset,” their new life stage reflected in very different pressures and concerns from those they’d shown before. But the true culmination of Linklater’s impulse to track life changes in more-or-less real time opens this week. “Boyhood” (review here) is a wonderful film, but beyond that it’s an admirably long-sighted project, shot in annual bursts over the course of 12 years, so we get to watch its central character, played by Ellar Coltrane, grow up from a small boy until his first day at college. And so the aging, the minute process of changing and developing independent tastes and thoughts of your own even as your face changes and your bones grow into each other, is not rendered in some sort of 'Benjamin Button’-style CG—it’s not a trick. We get 12 years of a boy’s life in 2 hours and 46 minutes, and the effect is exactly as thought-provoking and exhilarating as that sounds.
We spoke to Linklater in some depth after the film’s Berlin premiere about his preoccupation with time, and the making of such a singular project, but with the film now hitting theatres, and being the undoubted crowning glory of an already highly individual career to date, we couldn’t let the occasion pass without returning to and updating this retrospective. Judged as part of the ongoing continuum of Linklater’s career, it’s fascinating to see the ways “Boyhood” sits in amongst the filmmaker’s recurrent concerns, and the ways it transcends them. Of course part of this may well be fellow-feeling: Linklater is someone we’ve grown up with, almost alongside it feels, and we’d be hard pushed to think of a period in our own lives whose concerns, passions, highs and lows are not somewhere chronicled in his catalogue. But it has taken the undeniable ambition and scope of “Boyhood” to get us to really take notice of what we'd taken for granted, and to see Linklater for what he’s been all along: one of our most adept and insightful observers of American life, with the rare ability to be playful and profound in equal measure. He may contend with some weighty issues, but never at the expense of his lightness of touch. Here's our assessment of his quietly, unpretentiously impressive back catalogue.
"It's Impossible To Learn To Plow By Reading Books" (1988)
This one's tough: shot on Super 8 with shoddy audio and serving as a film school for the young Linklater, it's difficult to see this as anything more than an exercise to sharpen his skills as an artist. Sporting a fresh bowl cut and skinny exterior, the director stars as a college student preparing to visit a friend in a distant town... and that's more or less the entire plot of the movie, which focuses not on story but on the mundane moments that make up our lives. These non-events are generally shot from a distance, shown very matter of factly, and are mostly banal experiences: doing the laundry, watching television, cooking food, etc. It's probably the most earnest slice-of-life flick you'll find and, in turn, requires a very specific mood and large amounts of patience that not everyone has. But there's still something about the dreary, low-grade film stock that lends enchantment to the movie—a yearning nostalgia for something, be it a more fruitful time or some kind of emotional connection. Strange, too, that this debut feature shows little of what would make him such a beloved director. There's hardly any dialogue and there are only vague specks of what he'd eventually make his style—but it just goes to show how little someone's first work says about their eventual career. Anyway, the film itself has its charms, but we're not sure if it's even for completists—it was absolutely a learning experience for Linklater and he most definitely went on to much greater things. [C-]
A breathless shuttling in and out of the lives of Austin’s weirdest, Linklater’s “Slacker” no doubt evolved from “It's Impossible To Learn To Plow By Reading Books.” Linklater is also present here, as the first of many dreamers, recluses, artists, would-be terrorists, conspiracy theorists, aging anarchists, and countless others plagued by a lack of direction while heralding that aimlessness is a cause to rally behind. One hundred minutes may present vignettes of Austin life, but within that microcosm, most viewers can identify a man or woman after their own heart. It’s an effectively plotless film, similar in that regard to “Dazed and Confused,” although the latter film certainly plays by the rules more so than here. With “Slacker,” we can tune in and out at will as the film never pauses to reflect, but why would we want to? It’s engaging and frequently funny, with Linklater knowingly tapping into our urge to watch people. This is the purest distillation of a “Did you hear what he said?” moment, a fraction of an event that sticks in your memory. Linklater presents dozens of these everyday moments and invites us to participate. The resulting film is notable both for the young director’s trademarks (plot is rarely the focus, the camera tracks its characters but rarely suggests their state of mind) and the fact that it really does work. An auspicious sophomore effort and an integral moment in the 1990s American independent film landscape. [B]
"Dazed and Confused" (1993)
Simply put, Linklater's "Dazed and Confused," a kaleidoscopic, free-wheeling look at the last day of school in Austin, Texas, circa 1976, is one of the best, most honest high school movies ever made, and one of the very best movies of the 1990s. It's also the perfect confluence of Linklater's nakedly commercial tendencies (as evidenced in things like the sunny "School of Rock") and his more laid back, conversational interests ("Slacker," "Waking Life," large swaths of "A Scanner Darkly"), stitched together and interlocked with his encyclopedic love of rock music. To anyone in high school, it's incredibly identifiable, but if you grew up in Texas, it's as true, sacred and easily quotable as holy scripture. "Dazed and Confused" has the loosest of plots—it's basically about a bunch of burn-outs, hippies, and dorks (like the cast of some prequel to "Freaks and Geeks") and their various activities on the last day of school, leading up to a big blow-out of a graduation party. Linklater nimbly weaves between stories (the jock who refuses to sign an authoritarian oath to stay clean over the summer, a high school lifer terrorizing soon-to-be-freshman, and a graduate who still hangs around for all the wrong reasons), creating a sense of urgency and drive in a movie essentially made of sequences where kids sit around and shoot the shit and listen to music. Immensely re-watchable, it's also worth noting for its "Fast Times at Ridgemont High"-like collection of future superstars, including Adam Goldberg, Matthew McConaughey, Cole Hauser, Milla Jovovich, Parker Posey and Ben Affleck, all looking like they're having the time of their lives. You can get high just breathing in the groovy fumes from "Dazed and Confused." [A]