The Saturday Auteur
The term ‘self-taught’ can often betray the amount of work that path requires. Inevitably the artists and filmmakers who manage success without a formal education seem to bubble out of nowhere with a unique vision and an idiosyncratic voice. All too often the only way culture can digest these aberrations is to declare it as innate genius. They are something else, and the rest of us must take the path more travelled.
Richard Linklater has always wanted to write. Attending high school in Huntsville, Texas, far from the shiny access of Hollywood, he thought he’d be a novelist. He practised his naive philosophical voice in longhand on reams of legal paper. He got into college on a baseball scholarship before a heart condition stopped him playing. Instead of being disheartened, Linklater found it liberating. Turning his attention to theatre, he eventually railed against the confines of term papers and dropped out, finding work on an oil rig.
It’s significant that Linklater’s journey truly begins with choosing the hard and dangerous manual labour of an offshore rig over the safe and sheltered certainty of academia. It paid better too, meaning that when he returned to dry land, finding his tribe in the over-educated college town of Austin, he could live in relative comfort. He found himself absorbed in film, and overcame the difficulty in finding prints of obscure movies by founding the Austin Film Society in 1985. This was his film school. He was not only rapaciously consuming the works of filmmakers from around the world, he was also finding like-minded people to discuss, argue and eventually collaborate with.
Linklater gathered a motley crew of collaborators from the AFS and began production on Slacker (1990). The film was an unlikely success. It lacks a narrative through-line, opting instead for a tableau of strange characters and monologues reflecting the fringes of the Austin scene. It opens with Linklater himself taking a taxi from the station and intellectualising on alternative realities at the silent driver. He envisions a reality where he stayed at the bus station and met a beautiful woman to illustrate his point before getting caught up in the dream and wistfully stating, “Ah man, I should have stayed at the bus station.”
Slacker’s winding discussions and naturalism went on to influence a number of the new American independent filmmakers, most notably Kevin Smith. For Linklater himself its success brought the opportunity to work within the studio system. Not one to miss an opportunity, he began production on the iconic coming-of-age film Dazed and Confused (1993) that remains one of his best-loved works.
‘Slacker’ by Richard Linklater, 1990
With Dazed and Confused, Linklater departs from his outsider art-house beginnings to take on a genre classic, the coming-of-age film. Once again taking place over a single day, it retains the huge cast of characters and rambling on the nature of existence but gains a sentimental centre. Unlike many films of its kind, Dazed doesn’t present a dramatised single moment of budding maturity, but focuses on evoking the feel of a single night at that cusp before adulthood. The emotional time-travel of this film only grows the older you get. That’s what I love about high school films; “I get older, they stay the same age.”
While it went on to achieve cult success, Dazed didn’t bring Universal the kind of immediate returns they hoped for and Linklater was in the dog house. He was proud of the work though, and took his momentum away from the studio system to put together his most iconic collaborative piece yet.
‘Dazed and Confused’ by Richard Linklater, 1993
After a rigorous casting process, Linklater brought the script for Before Sunrise (co-written by Kim Krizan) to Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke. It tells the story of Jesse and Celine who meet on a train after switching seats to avoid a squabbling German couple. After striking up conversation, Jesse asks Celine to get off the train and spend the day with him in Vienna. Linklater wanted this burgeoning romance to be infused with the voices of his actors. The workshopping process that followed was close to a total re-write. The bones remained, but the characters were heightened as Delpy and Hawke introduced elements of themselves into Celine and Jesse. No idea remained in the picture that didn’t speak for all of them. This alchemy produced a film with a voice both singular and varied.
When Celine says ‘If there’s any kind of magic in this world it must be in the attempt of understanding someone sharing something’, that’s Delpy’s own words in Celine’s mouth, and yet it perfectly captures Linklater’s vision for the picture: the drama of connecting with somebody. The films can be a litmus test for your innate romanticism and as such they can be hard to discuss without giving yourself away, but it would need a hard-faced cynic to not crack a smile as Jesse and Celine avoid each other’s eyes while listening to Judy Bloom in the listening booth.
‘Before Sunrise’ by Richard Linklater, 1995
The first film was magic but with the follow-up, released nine years later, made everything old new again. This was a maturation of Linklater’s experiments with time. His first three films all took place on a single day, but Sunset is 80 minutes of real-time. Sunset is also explicitly about a single day, and the effects they can have on a lifetime. The film explores memory and change as well as revisiting the themes of Sunrise, that of romanticism and cynicism, but with the pangs of missed opportunity and loss of self. It’s often said that Linklater’s films are about time, but they are about much more than that. Time is the tool that’s used to interrogate his characters.
Linklater had another disappointing Hollywood outing with The Newton Boys and once again responded by doubling down on his own vision with Tape, a single room, in real-time, and Waking Life, a story taking place entirely in a dream. The latter pioneered a fresh rotoscoping technique that gave the entire picture an otherworldly fluidity. There are reminders of Slacker’s wide cast of idiosyncratic characters, but here the various viewpoints feel like vaguely remembered snippets. We even visit a sketch of Jesse and Celine, as though the dreamer had been watching Before Sunrise as they drifted off.
Although Linklater went on to have some iconic mainstream successes (School of Rock leaps to mind), he arguably made his biggest splash with his most ambitious, and undeniably most Linklater project. Twelve years in the making, Boyhood follows a single life from childhood to college. It zeroes in on the little formative moments; the crashes that reverberate across a lifespan. Linklater would return to the same actors each year, documenting the development on screen to create a modern filmmaking triumph every bit deserving of its numerous awards.
‘Boyhood’ by Richard Linklater, 2014