For a generation-defining film, Slacker is a bit of a bore. The meandering, aimless, over-philosophizing tone of the film doesn’t resonate now as it would have in 1991, when Richard Linklater’s debut feature—with its endless characters, car crash and Madonna’s pilfered pap smear—quietly revolutionized independent filmmaking, for better (structural risk-taking) and worse (unknown writer-director as star).
But Linklater is a genre-stepping, convention-defying, expectation-besting filmmaker. He can do family films, coming-of-age films, poignant romantic films and inventive animated films. He’s made a western, a sports movie and a single-set DV feature based on a play. He turned his adolescence into one of the best films of the 1990s.
Consider his contemporaries and you begin to understand why you haven’t noticed his greatness, overshadowed as it is by the flash of his peers: Fellow Austinite Robert Rodriguez alternates between ultraviolence (Desperado, Sin City) and family fare (the Spy Kids series). Quentin Tarantino has forever made the world unsafe from ego-soaked video store clerks with no original ideas. Kevin Smith has cheerfully played down to his plentiful fanboy audience his whole career. Wes Anderson’s overstyled films substitute irony for heart.
Linklater is not a perfect filmmaker by any means. He still has the tendency to emulate Slacker, dumping long-winded explanations about trifles into movies as recent as Before Sunset, the otherwise remarkable 2004 sequel to his one-night-in-Vienna chatfest Before Sunrise. A lot of the problem with that is Ethan Hawke, a Linklater favourite who’s been in six of his movies. Perhaps it’s an unshakeable aura left over from Reality Bites, but with his greasy hair and perpetual grad student pretentiousness, Hawke often comes off like a smug blowhard. (The saving grace of the Before films, now and forever, is the enchanting Julie Delpy. Fin.) It’s the philosophical drivel that drags down parts of the visually arresting Waking Life, for which Linklater pioneered an animation technique called “rotoscoping,” where dozens of animators painted over a digitally shot film. (He employed the same technique in July’s A Scanner Darkly, a freaking science fiction entry that further expands his repertoire.)
He is not a master of plot—Slacker, Dazed and Confused, SubUrbia, Before Sunset, Before Sunrise and Tape all take place in a 24-hour period. The kiddie comedy School of Rock, Linklater’s most watchable film because there is no place for diatribe, and last summer’s remake of The Bad News Bears both follow a standard screenplay structure—reluctant hero finds redemption by helping children overcome obstacle.
But what he’s great at is worth so much more than those ultimately minor details. He’s a master of time and place, squeezing every tonal, aesthetic drop out of locations small—the Anytown USA corner store parking lot in SubUrbia—and large—a sweltering Parisian afternoon in Before Sunset. Long before Zach Braff’s iTunes playlists were winning soundtrack Grammys, Linklater’s Dazed and Confused companion was one of the first to utilize the soundtrack as both marketing tool and great record. He takes chances on unknowns, favouring authenticity over names—putting a real peewee baseball player in Bad News Bears; tripping across a teenaged Wiley Wiggins in Austin and giving him the lead in Dazed; casting actors from the original theatre production of SubUrbia in the movie. When women aren’t central, which is too often, he at least gives his male leads a challenge—Joan Cusack as Jack Black’s foil in School of Rock, Joey Lauren Adams refusing to take Jason London’s poor-me shit in Dazed, Amie Carey calling Giovanni Ribisi on his in SubUrbia.
This fall sees the release of Linklater’s Fast Food Nation, his adaptation of the Eric Schlosser book detailing the often horrifying details of a cow’s journey from pasture to plate. It’s an Issue Film, which means he’ll finally be taken seriously as a filmmaker of consequence, because you’re not an artist if you don’t have an identifiable message.
But that’s ridiculous. It’s Linklater’s everyperson films—the ones that capture a night out, a great date, an enlightening conversation, a shared drink, the universals— that endure as indelible portraits of ourselves, reflected in the eyes of the best director in America.
A Scanner Darkly opens in July.