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The Films Of Richard Linklater: A Retrospective

Photo of Oliver Lyttelton By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist May 2, 2012 at 12:37PM

Given that he's one of the more diverse and prolific filmmakers out there, it's been a disappointingly long four years without a new movie from Richard Linklater ("Me And Orson Welles" premiered at TIFF in 2008). Fortunately, the Austin, Texas-based filmmaker is back with "Bernie," a dark comedy which reunites him two of his most memorable leads, Jack Black and Matthew McConaughey, and it has picked up strong reviews and, opening in limited release last Friday, has been performing surprisingly well at the box office.
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Richard Linklater

Given that he's one of the more diverse and prolific filmmakers out there, it's been a disappointingly long four years without a new movie from Richard Linklater ("Me and Orson Welles" premiered at TIFF in 2008). Fortunately, the Austin, Texas-based filmmaker is back with "Bernie," a dark comedy which reunites him with two of his most memorable leads, Jack Black and Matthew McConaughey, that has picked up strong reviews and, opening in limited release last Friday, has been performing surprisingly well at the box office.

With "Bernie" expanding wider this weekend (read our review), it seemed like the perfect time to look over Linklater's diverse and eclectic career. He'd already made his mark by founding the Austin Film Society in 1985 (which has gone on to be the center of the industy in the Texas city), but since his debut with an ultra-low-budget student film in 1988, Linklater's tackled everything from romance to westerns and family comedies to science-fiction features, and has delivered more often than he's missed. There's plenty more to come from the director in years to come, with the tentatively titled "Boyhood," a project that's shot at regular intervals over the last decade, and as well as a handful of brewing projects including "College Republicans" about a young Karl Rove. But until then, now is as good a time as ever to look back.

It's Impossible To Learn To Plow By Reading Books

"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-]

"Slacker"
"Slacker"

"Slacker" (1991)
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

"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]

Before Sunrise

"Before Sunrise" (1995)
Continuing the theme of shooting what he knew, Linklater turned one of his own personal love stories into one of the great indie romances of the '90s. “Before Sunrise” centres on two characters, the slightly cynical but moreover dreamy romantic American Jesse (Ethan Hawke), and the idealistic but grounded French Celine (Julie Delpy). The two meet by chance and begin talking on a train from Budapest, Celine on her way back to Paris, Jesse on his way to Vienna for 24 hours before he flies back to America. He convinces her to alight in Vienna with him to continue their conversation, and so it begins, a 14-hour marathon conversation (not in real time, fortunately...) which must end, as the title implies, at sunrise. It sounds banal, but much of what they say about life, love, politics et al. is interesting and insightful, and reveals hidden depths of the two young characters still trying to “figure it out”. As their time together runs out, the two decide instead of risking their spark fizzling long distance, to instead meet up in six months in Vienna, leaving a tantalising will they/won’t they to the ending. Linklater took great care with his casting, and he chose well, Hawke and Delpy not only put in fantastic performances, but their natural romantic tension is intoxicating; both actors are also said to have contributed uncredited work to the script, which is not hard to believe, considering the naturalism in their delivery. Between that and Linklater’s unobtrusive shooting style, full of tracking shots and extended takes, its hard to remember what you’re watching isn’t actually two people really having the most important night of their lives. [A-]

This article is related to: Features, The Essentials, Richard Linklater, Bernie


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