This Gentle Universe: The Films Of Richard Linklater

Jacob Knight explores the entire filmography of one of our greatest working American auteurs.

Richard Linklater is a familiar filmmaker. That's not meant to imply that the Austin, Texas auteur is a household name (despite many of his pictures’ studio pedigree, he's mainly discovered notoriety via the art house). Rather, Linklater invites you into his characters' lives, welcoming the viewer the same way a gracious host would a guest to their private party. The universes he creates become your home as much as they act as shelters for the writer/director's fictional associates. It's this peculiar sense of filmic politeness that molds safe spaces for the audience to understand the same affecting life lessons imparted upon those existing within his meticulously detailed microcosms. You are here now. Can I get you a beer and/or joint to go along with this living room philosophy?

Whether it's the darkened alleyways of Vienna, the deafening hallways of Lee High School, the dilapidated bedrooms of a college baseball dorm, or the shredded classrooms of a private school turned musical shrine, Linklater smoothly transports you to that specific place and time. The entirety of his filmography could be categorized as “hangout movies” – slices of relaxed non-narrative that find profundity in minutia. For Linklater knows that the weightiest realizations of one’s life don’t necessarily come during the “big moments” we experience and endure (weddings, deaths, trauma). Instead – it’s the quiet instances of epiphany that might pass the individual by if they aren’t acutely attuned to what’s occurring in the moment. Yet even if these tiny pieces of poignancy fly over your head, Linklater isn’t here to scold you for missing out. It’s almost assumed that you’ll catch it the second time you sit down with his work, once the Criterion Blu drops and you’re already accustomed to the rhythm of the specific track he’s jamming out to.

Possibly the most impressive aspect of Richard Linklater’s work is that this tender temperament translates to the many different types of films he crafts. Over the course of nearly three decades and eighteen features, Linklater has hopped from autobiographical time capsule to big studio family filmmaker, all while keeping his signature disposition intact. Even those who create conflict within his films are treated with an ambivalent air of forgiveness. The biggest asshole and the heroic lead are filmed with the same soft lens, bathed in golden Texas sunlight for maximum comfort. “We’re all friends here,” his camera seems to say, “and even if we aren’t, we should at least show some sympathy toward these wayward jerks.” Because when you break down Linklater’s body of work, judgment has no place within its barely defined borders. All that truly matters is the experience, and what the individual ultimately takes away from living through it.

I. The Nostalgia Artist

Richard Linklater possesses the unique ability to cause a viewer to yearn for a time period in which they may not have existed themselves. The autobiographical duology of Dazed and Confused and Everybody Wants Some!! act like cinematic distillations of wistful memory, through which the audience can traverse precise formative recollections. Dazed and Confused reeks of patchouli oil and stale weed, as Led Zeppelin covers are riddled with seeds and stems, the record playing on some off-screen turntable. Beyond these period specific details, Linklater channels universality that exists in every epoch. He appreciates the moods of growing up nearly everyone experiences; confusion, fear, joy and acuity that only comes from having been there and recalling the gut feelings that come with taking your first step on school grounds, being paddled by a fascist bully, or kissing that initial infatuation under a blooming summer sun. Yet it’s the combination of these era essentials with these shared emotions that render Linklater’s films all the more truthful. The specifics breathe life into the sentiment.

As much as Everybody Wants Some!! is billed as an '80s “spiritual sequel” to Dazed and Confused’s '70s school daze, it almost seems more thematically linked with Linklater’s epic, twelve-year-spanning coming of age classic, Boyhood. Where that film left Mason (Ellar Coltrane) sitting with a pretty girl and waiting for the drugs to kick in during the first weekend before college classes begin, Everybody Wants Some!! continues that through-line by introducing us to the writer/director’s take on Animal House. Again, it’s the notion that far more lessons are learned outside of the classroom (during another kickoff weekend) that amalgamates with Linklater’s ecstatic reminiscence, delivering enough pathos to fuel five “growing up” pictures. It’s a memory mixtape; the rocking soundtrack (which features Devo, The Knack and Rod Stewart) becoming a thematic motif, shuffling a crew of college baseball players (standing in for Linklater’s own time at Sam Houston State) from scene to scene. Linklater again delivers distinct detail (in this case the tunes that defined this decade), but utilizes each performance that the boys attend (a disco, a honkytonk and even a punk mosh pit) as a different skin for the guys to try on for size. Just like Mason is about to discover after his high wears off, college is the place where so many young people define their identities, and Linklater weaves this refrain into the film’s OST, again effortlessly establishing era while simultaneously conveying common axioms.

One of the biggest triumphs of Linklater’s career is the time capsule he inadvertently created whilst crafting his Sundance breakout, Slacker. Linklater didn’t set out to make a movie that “defined a generation”, yet ended up doing so by applying an ethos to his characters. In interviews, the writer/director explicitly states that he didn’t intend for the term “slacker” to carry a negative connotation. To Linklater, “slacker” was simply a way of life not too unlike '50s beatniks – a willful reality that led to a person getting off of their couch and interacting with art and the world around them, often creating connections haphazardly. This didn’t involve having a traditional “career”, but also wasn’t a call to inert laziness. The Slacker tenet is reinforced by Linklater’s lens, which becomes a character unto itself, following one individual until abandoning them for the next, encountering conversations and monologues that range from Madonna’s pap smear to assassination conspiracies.

What we’re watching isn’t so much a series of vignettes, but a way of life that permeated '80s/'90s Austin (where being “weird” truly was a badge of pride – before the condos and gourmet coffee shops pushed out the peculiar) and the whole of Generation X. To live as a “slacker” was art – a definition of the individual in the face of growing corporate influence. Revisiting Slacker in 2016 is like jumping into a time machine and not only seeing a city that doesn’t exist anymore, but also a snapshot of youth who took advantage of their era to create an experimental mode of existence that can arguably no longer be enjoyed. Without knowing it (or really even trying), Richard Linklater longingly captured history, only to toss his camera off a cliff and bring distinct closure to the “now” of the late '80s/early '90s.

Even in a misfire like SubUrbia, we’re watching as a generation seems to be anticipating their “moment”. Adapted from a stage play by Eric Bogosian, SubUrbia seems like a response to Kevin Smith’s Clerks (whose own film was inspired by Slacker); a “Waiting for Godot” style bit of talkiness that finds a group of misfits gathered around a convenience store, clockwatching the arrival of their hometown boy turned rock star. It’s a natural extension of the commitment to idleness found in Linklater’s initial opus, only now he’s also creating a dialogue within his own generation of independent artists. You can see Linklater’s polite refusal to enlist in a 9-to-5 rat race via the embracement of his art running through other Miramax-era auters. Writer/directors Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino were also raised within communities where hanging/working at the video store, comic shop or local mini mart was essential to the culture. They were just the kids who took off their name tags and started speaking to the influences they found within their environment, allowing their work to become the means through which they communicated the anti-ambition of an age.

II. The Mad Scientist

Linklater dropped out of Sam Houston State to work on an oilrig in the Gulf of Mexico, where he read novels and watched movies at repertory theaters while on leave in Houston. He fell in love with the cinema of Robert Bresson, Yasujiro Ozu, Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Carl Theodor Dreyer and decided that he wanted to become a director, integrating these influences into short films he began to shoot on a Super 8 camera. He utilized the savings he amassed to buy a projector and editing equipment and moved to Austin, where he enrolled in the local community college in order to study film. Together with Slacker and Dazed and Confused cinematographer Lee Daniel*, he founded the Austin Film Society; an organization dedicated to showcasing the rare and experimental pictures that inspired Linklater and others to become artists. It was a DIY riff on the New Hollywood stories of the '70s, where filmmakers like Martin Scorsese recalled watching the French New Wave and wanting nothing more than to make their American counterparts.

You can still see Richard Linklater introduce movies at the Austin Film Society today (as Artistic Director), where he and programmer Lars Nilsen will rap during Q&As about just why each of these movies are so important to the form as a whole. Yet beyond presentation, what Linklater’s continuing work with AFS gifts the audience is a glimpse into how these seemingly disparate ingredients worked to become a personal cinematic stew. Linklater is an insane chemist, mixing elements that he loved while peppering in his own life experiences, resulting in a filmography that is wildly varied in terms of formal application yet thematically sound. If Whitman was correct in that he contained “multitudes” as a human being, Linklater is the creative embodiment of the poet’s sentiment – restless, ever expanding and free of inertia, always striving to push the medium forward while maintaining his distinct voice.

It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books is both the genesis of Linklater’s body and a manifesto. Sporting less dialogue in eighty-five minutes than Slackers entire opening monologue, Plow finds Linklater essentially playing himself, traveling around, engaging in encounters with strangers and mundane day-to-day activities. It’s a proto-Slacker non-narrative that never quite stumbles upon wisdom like Linklater’s first masterwork, but is a great prevue of not only the drifting, unstructured, rise and fall rhythms that would come to dominate his work, but also his general outlook on life. A person can only hope to appreciate existence through the words of another, but it takes actually walking out your door and interacting with other individuals (even during their inconsequential routines) for the true breadth of possibility to be explored. Cinema is the dialect of dreams and desires, and Linklater is conversing with the viewer even when his first movie operates in near silence.

“Hey, are you a dreamer?” the man on the train asks Wiley Wiggins’ unnamed protagonist in Waking Life, Linklater’s first completely rotoscoped animated feature (a technique he borrowed from both Ralph Bakshi and Max Fleischer). What follows is a trademark bit of navel gazing, in which the stranger wonders if those who say dreams are dead are merely misunderstanding that the language of the dreamer has somehow been removed from the general collective consciousness. It’s one of the most perfect moments contained within Linklater’s filmography, because it vocalizes the pontifications that Waking Life visually represents. By shooting his entire film digitally and then having every scene painted over by different artists (using off the shelf computers), Waking Life achieves an aura of reverie that has yet to be matched.

The constantly shifting tableaus and styles invite the viewer to step into the headspace of another woolgathering human, all while the usual cast of misfits wonder aloud how they fit into this gentle universe. The film becomes a refinement of wonder; a grand experiment performed by a mad scientist trying to bottle trances and then project them onto the screen. Linklater would re-employ this method of animation when producing Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly– meeting that particularly heady science fiction text halfway in an attempt to adapt the unadaptable. Whether or not either of these movies are a success depends on the viewer’s ability to give themselves over to Linklater’s oblique visions, but even those who find the style beautifully insufferable have to admire the noble abstract attempt.

Tape – Linklater’s single location, conversational nightmare of sexual politics – was an early advancement in the usage of digital in the arena of low budget independent filmmaking. Again adapting a play (this time by Stephen Belber), Linklater is toying with technology in order to churn out a talky ethical dilemma, but does so by making the scenes feel fast and loose, when really they’ve been meticulously blocked and rehearsed. Tape is often forgotten when discussing the dawn of digital, but Linklater utilizes the infant technology to his advantage, placing the viewer inside of a dingy Michigan motel room as three individuals hash out a dispute from their past. Immediacy is the name of the game during the scant eighty-six minute runtime, but Linklater is yet again a champion at making the audience feel welcome, even as the proceedings become unbearably tense. It’s another perfect example of the artist investigating new ways to create an inhabitable space, while still ensuring we’re not uncomfortable exploring what’s happening inside.

III. The Family Man

Given the inclusivity of his work, it makes sense that the "crowd pleasing” portion of Linklater's filmography would lean toward family movies. So many of Linklater’s films feel thematically tethered to the idea of development (be it spiritual, intellectual, amorous or otherwise), that a predisposition to providing entertainment that can be collectively enjoyed along the way is completely natural. The Newton Boys is Sunday afternoon matinee fare that can be watched with your dad, where Fast Food Nation is a narrative adaptation of that non-fiction work your mom keeps bugging you to read. In-between are accessible smile machines like School of Rock and Bad News Bears; formula pictures that go down like comfort food thanks to a sincere desire to provide 100 minutes of fun with a humanist core.

School of Rock is easily the best of this bunch -- a breezy repurposing of Jack Black’s "Tenacious D" goofball guitar hero persona that finds him playing teacher to a classroom filled with wide-eyed budding musicians at a stuffy private academy. It's a "snobs vs. slobs" tale (which fits nicely alongside Linklater's baseball remake), where lessons are learned by both Black's immature imposter (responsibility!) and the kids he gets to create a connection with (personal expression!). But it's the journey that leads to these educations that counts, as we can predict the finale from the time the first frame rolls. Linklater again discovers magic in tiny interactions and observations, while even trying to tap into the freak flag of an otherwise uptight supervisor (Joan Cusack). Like the rest of the artist’s unassuming greats, the conflict is almost all internal, as these axe-wielding, R&B belting tykes are tasked with shrugging off the shackles of both parental and institutional expectations in order to try and walk a more freeing path.

Me and Orson Welles is certainly the Linklater movie whose modest charms have gone mostly overlooked and unsung. Connecting back to the auteur’s undying love of cinema and the art's history, he discovers the ultimate "mentor" in the medium's existence. Orson Welles is undoubtedly a titan, whose shadow has been cast across history from the moment Robert Wise completed editing Citizen Kane. But Linklater brings this God down to Earth and finds his mortal essence. How does he achieve this? By again choosing to focus on a lesser-discussed moment in the man’s story, completely removed from the big screen. Me and Orson Welles is one of the great movies about the stage ever made, and doesn’t shy away from how many collaborators resented Welles. However, their bitterness stems from a characteristic that makes him a perfect fit for Linklater’s body of work. Welles was constantly interacting with the world around him – staging his famous Mercury Theatre productions on Broadway, starring in radio programs, writing his monumental films, and indulging in a spirited social life. His was a lifestyle of consummate engagement, to the point that he often had to nap between jobs in a hired ambulance.

Me and Orson Welles views the movie’s namesake through the eyes of Richard Samuels (Zac Efron), a young actor who is hired as a mascot by Welles and rises to a speaking role. He is star-struck by the artist, but believes Welles when he promises his cast that they will make history together. Linklater again introduces us to a microcosm, steeped in backstage lore. We’re shoved into the deep end of rehearsals, romance, and the drama of it all, peppered with the same casual observations the director brought to his own autobiographical comedies. But it’s Christian McKay’s performance as Welles that makes it a great cap to Linklater’s unofficial “mentor trilogy” (which includes School of Rock and Bad News Bears). Like all of the teachers Linklater’s lens is drawn to, McKay’s Welles is a con man, able to talk actors into doing his bidding just by confidently extolling the virtues of art and himself. This confidence is a quality Linklater obviously values, as it becomes the greatest gift these men own as they embolden future generations.

There's a critical tendency to regard these easygoing slices of entertainment as "minor" works; possible paycheck pictures that keep Linklater commercially viable while he quietly cranks out more personal, adult cinema. Yet these films fit right in with the rest of Linklater's output, to the point that they seem handpicked in order to simultaneously jive with the collective while creating a subsection of their own within the body. There's a reason we've never seen a Richard Linklater summer blockbuster or his attempt at an action/adventure film (The Newton Boys is too lethargically paced to count). His playfully cozy sensibilities just don't lend themselves toward those types of commercial projects. Some will call this wheelhouse definition "lazy" or "artistically unchallenging", but it feels more like recognition of voice and how that particular artistic inclination lends itself toward producing docile diversions. In a way, every movie Linklater makes is "minor"; not qualitatively, but in how they even approach amusing one's self. Explosions, gun fights and car chases are busy and overwhelming, where handing a kid a guitar and watching him discover the beat of his own drummer can be just as thrilling in its own right.

IV. The Time Traveler

When Richard Linklater retires, the defining element of his filmography will be how he depicted the passage of time, and the ways in which it affects the human beings who navigate these years, either rejecting the changes that come with age or embracing that we never stay stagnant. Similar to how Linklater is able to transport to different time periods, he also provides snapshots of lives that tell us everything we need to know about a character in a specific moment. The trick then becomes how the auteur piles these “photographs” on top of one another, creating an authentic album that’s flipped through, a natural progression of both personality and the world that surrounds said individual. Best of all, Linklater never sticks with one time traveler, always providing pairs in a conscious effort to compare and contrast the ways in which the years move these migratory spirits.

Linklater’s Before trilogy is the most obvious example of this particular fascination. Beginning with Before Sunrise, we meet Jesse (supreme Linklater collaborator Ethan Hawke) as he rambles around Europe. On a train from Budapest to Vienna, he meets Celine (Julie Delpy), a French student who he connects with on a level so deep that the two end up spending the entire night together, wandering the Austrian streets and discussing everything from the innocuous to the very nature of love itself. It’s classic Linklater – the idea that a brief encounter can change your life forever, the ideas and emotions shared so intimately that they sear themselves onto your spirit, destined to reemerge during moments when you least expect them. Before Sunset picks up nine years later, as Jesse travels the globe to promote his novel (cheekily titled “This Time”) in a Paris bookstore. Of course Celine is there, and the two spend a day together, the tension of their broken vow to meet again six months after their initial encounter hanging over every word they utter to one another. They are both in relationships now, and Jesse has a son. However, neither can shake the fact that maybe theirs was the greatest connection of all, and that their every move has led them back to this point – a reconciliation that is both a reckoning and a reawakening.

The simplicity of the first two films (which are essentially nothing more than talky strolls captured with a steady camera) is what makes them magical, and sets the stage for Before Midnight, the wrinkle in this otherwise agreeable love story. Midnight finds Jesse and Celine together, vacationing in Greece. It’s the tail end of summer, and the conflict between the two revolves again around the choices that they didn’t make. Only instead of wondering if they should’ve hopped that plane (or missed it entirely), Linklater presents the troubling question that faces every couple: should we even be together after all these years? Along with Hawke and Delpy (who both helped pen the script), the director realizes that maturity comes with a price, and that not all relationships are meant to last forever. Were Celine and Jesse supposed to only exist as shooting stars, burning brightly against a black sky before disappearing into the cosmos forever? Or were they always supposed to be together, a spark that ignites and acts as a guiding light for the both of them through both good times and bad? Growing apart is much easier than growing together, and the two must decide whether or not their time together has run its course.

Unlike Celine and Jesse, sometimes people don’t have a choice but to grow together. As much as Boyhood is about Ellar Coltrane’s transition into manhood, it also provides us with the greatest equipoise character in the entirety of Linklater’s filmography. Patricia Arquette’s single mother watches as her son and daughter (Linklater’s own spawn, Lorelei) develop before her eyes, all while she attempts to navigate her own rocky, unknowable path of shitty step dads and career options. While the Before trilogy gives us one of the greatest cinematic representations of a relationship, Boyhood brilliantly shows us that growing up doesn’t stop at eighteen. Both time and the developments it brings are ceaseless, and Arquette gracefully becomes an avatar for the difficulties of adulthood, bending but never breaking beneath the numerous pressures she faces while trying to help ease her children into the world, knowing that one day she will no longer be there for them. Linklater never explicitly addresses the idea of death (again avoiding the “big moments” one would expect from this sort of movie), but instead lets Arquette convey the despair that accompanies observing one’s offspring as they prepare to fly the coop. One day this house will be empty, but you do all you can to leave a mark on your kids’ lives.

As much as one can extoll the virtues of Linkater’s artistic contributions, it’s hard to ignore the real world impact one of his films had on an individual’s existence. Bernie chronicles Carthage, Texas assistant mortician Bernhardt “Bernie” Tiede (Jack Black), a locally loved man who was convicted of first-degree murder in the case of 80-year-old millionaire Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine). Sentenced to life in prison due to the crime’s perceived premeditation, Bernie made such an impression on the community around him that the district attorney requested a change of venue in order to secure a fair trial. Though Linklater’s mixture of narrative and faux documentary is undeniably hilarious (and perhaps one of the most accurate big screen depictions of small town Texans ever created), it also clearly shows how time can be cruel to even the most unassuming (if still dangerous) individuals in our neighborhoods.

Having viewed the picture, Austin-based attorney Jodi Cole met with the director for further information on the case. After sitting down with the real life Tiede in prison, she began work on a habeas corpus petition, raising issues not addressed in his previous appeal. Tiede was released from his life sentence on $10,000 bail in May 2014, with the condition that he live with Linklater in Austin. Panola County prosecutor Danny Buck Davidson (played by Matthew McConaughey in the film) eventually agreed that Tiede was wrongly sentenced and deserved a lesser punishment. Linklater’s movie not only revealed the brutalities of time, but bought a fresh chance for this once adored man to perhaps make up for the wrongs he committed in the past – an opportunity rarely experienced by most on this planet.

*As well as Austin Chronicle editor and SXSW founder Louis Black, UT film Professor Charles Ramirez-Berg, and film programmer Chale Nafus.

Buy your tickets to Richard Linklater's Everybody Wants Some!! here!