Richard Linklater (Contemporary Film Directors Series)

David T. Johnson,
Richard Linklater (Contemporary Film Directors Series)
University of Illinois Press, 2012
ISBN: 978 0252078507
US$22 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by University of Illinois Press)

“… a sense of the present as possibility, potential energy not yet become kinetic (or the inherent kineticism of waiting itself)” (53).

Such a statement, drawn from the middle of David T. Johnson’s monograph on Richard Linklater, might very well summarise the preoccupation at the centre of Linklater’s oeuvre, a preoccupation with the peculiarities of time, the curious dialectic between experiential moments of animation and inanimation in all their prosaic and radiant dimensions: lovers wandering the streets in the bliss of dérive (Before Sunrise, 1995; Before Sunset, 2004), kids hanging on the corner waiting for life to start happening (SubUrbia, 1997), the multiple and spontaneous philosophical happenings occasioned in Waking Life (2001) that indeed intensify the ruminations on time whose hip and garrulous seed we see in the Gen X masterpiece Slacker (1991).

And again, Linklater’s preoccupation is with the potential for these moments to be given life on screen in ways that would deny them neither their richness nor their banality. Linklater’s preoccupation, therefore, is with the temporalities peculiar to the lived, but also with the temporalities peculiar to cinema itself. Certainly it is Linklater’s incessant return to personal, existential moments yoked to a cinephile’s understanding of the moment of cinema that Johnson seeks to accent throughout his admirable contribution to James Naremore’s Contemporary Film Directors series. And certainly it is Johnson’s accent upon this peculiar trait of Linklater’s that grants his critical investigation the authority of the rigorous director-oriented approach that Naremore has long advocated, albeit in a tenor that in no way intimidates.

No doubt readers and engaged cinemagoers of the last two decades have been waiting long enough for a monograph dedicated to the mercurial (but always affable) figure of Linklater, a filmmaker as comfortable considered the epitome of the ‘indie’ filmmaker of cult and sleeper hits as he is the ‘studio’ filmmaker of broad-appeal, summer-circuit fare. Despite Linklater’s films enjoying some popular prominence, there has to date been only one book-length study dedicated to the director[1] . After posing several interesting questions as to the reasons for this dearth – the unusual pattern of Linklater’s oeuvre, Linklater’s ambivalence towards academic discourse, or the relatively recent emergence of Linklater as a cinematic figure – Johnson marks his desire for his book to take its place alongside a growing body of scholarship on the director “in a longer serious conversation about Linklater’s films that recent writing suggests is only just beginning” (5).

Indeed, what Johnson’s comprehensive coverage and sharp eye undertakes to do here is to draw out Linklater as a ranking auteur, to excavate that pivotal signature that would allow its subject to fit snugly alongside other directors treated in Naremore’s series. The Coen brothers, Steven Soderbergh, and to a lesser extent Jim Jarmusch[2] stand out as similar directors whose creative restlessness has seen them straddle the arthouse and cineplex circuits and whose idiosyncrasies lend themselves to criticism that would adopt an auteurist approach.

Astutely, Johnson flags up early the tendency in contemporary film studies to “view director studies with skepticism”, noting that this book “is unlikely to convince readers otherwise” (3). Johnson nevertheless proceeds to advance a compelling critique of Linklater’s body of work as offering a coherent and “particularly satisfying trajectory” (2-3). Johnson begins by canvassing the extant literature on his subject and finds that critics do indeed detect a consistency amongst Linklater’s films despite their diversity of subject matter and generic topos. Be they romantic melodramas, political critiques, studio comedies, or lesser known or less distributed works possessed of a marked ‘experimental’ approach, Johnson successfully argues for their overarching attachment to an exploration of temporality.

Johnson locates his own treatment of Linklater’s work as one concerned with aesthetic pleasure, with “recent writing about cinema that does not regard such pleasure with suspicion” (5). In a word: cinephilia. And it is this concept that begins Johnson’s discussion of Linklater’s films on their own terms, as films caught up in and exhibiting the cinephile’s “self-consciousness about their own influences” (6). Johnson nominates, amongst others, Bresson, Tarkovsky, Dreyer, Godard, and Akerman as exercising their influence on Linklater’s films (5-6), but also notes the films’ and their protagonists’ broad concern with art, books, films, music and other texts, reaching out to encompass literature, philosophy, media and more. Finding in Linklater’s films a kind of generalised tenderness for culture, both canonical and ephemeral, including but extending beyond cinephilia, Johnson takes this trait as a kind of textual or diegetic mirror or guide for his own investigations of a filmmaker for whom he clearly reserves his own cinephiliac admiration.

In the span of this compact book, hewing close to his subject, Johnson presents a more or less chronological canvass of Linklater’s career. Starting with what Linklater himself calls his unofficial “graduate thesis film” (130), It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books (1989), now re-released and packaged with Linklater’s breakthrough Slacker, Johnson detects here, even in these early films, tendencies that would continue to mark the later Linklater. Johnson’s involved analyses reveal Linklater’s penchant for idiosyncratic narratives, loquacious characters, a compositional minimalism, and that curious sense embedded in the best road-movies: the horizonless trajectory, an energetic potential coiled in the present moment.

This last marks that most prominent of Linklater’s traits, “a fascination with temporality, particularly in attending to the present, even if such attendance is impossible to sustain, potentially naïve, and, at times, even dangerous” (7). Johnson traces this fascination throughout Linklater’s career, from his early works in suspended action through his studio breakthroughs and up to his most recent works. Latterly, Me and Orson Welles (2008) embodies for Johnson the Romantic sense of a passion that condenses in an ‘attendance to the present moment’ but it is Linklater’s adoption of digital video, beginning with Waking Life and Tape (2001)[3] , where Johnson finds Linklater’s ‘attendance to the present moment’ transposed into an exploration of the present moment in terms of a politics of cultural and technological adoption. That is, an exploration of the possibilities of digital cinema.

The compressed, improvised and digitally-filmed chamber-play Tape was inspired by the possibilities emerging from the Dogme ’95 movement, specifically Vinterberg’s Festen (1998), and it is indicative of the coherence of Linklater’s oeuvre and his open-book approach that its preoccupation with temporality (a single night narrative, the vagaries of memory) is predicated upon the contingencies of the digital medium. On the other hand, the loosely-structured, episodic quasi-narrative of Linklater’s Waking Life enacts the oft-returned-to ‘moment’ that consists in Linklater’s collaborative and improvised approach to many of his films, forging an epigrammatic chapbook of a film that took advantage of another emergent process, digital rotoscoping.

That Linklater, in the extensive and illuminating interview that appends Johnson’s book, characterises his innovative, digitally rotoscoped feature Waking Life as his “kitchen-sink movie” (137) is interesting for this reviewer because it recalls avant-garde animator (and rotoscoper) Robert Breer’s characterisation of his approach to filmmaking as a “kitchen sink approach”[4] . It seems that in the final analysis, above and beyond any specific inclination to figure temporality, existential or otherwise, it is Linklater’s willingness to trawl diverse genres and scenarios, a willingness internalised and enacted by his narratives and characters, that gives us the specificity of his signature: it is Linklater’s openness to phenomena, a rare geniality, that makes his viewers fall in love with his films.

With tone and content well-pitched between academic exegesis and general interest, Johnson has here successfully communicated what might be described as the cinephiliac glow that emanates from Linklater’s films, regardless of their specific affinities, generic or otherwise. Johnson succeeds in his hope that his book, involving itself in the spirit of Linklater’s films, wherein characters “take the notions of intellectual curiosity and humanities-based inquiry seriously”, starts rather than forecloses a conversation about Linklater (125). There is no doubt that this book will foster wider participation in this crucial conversation. Moreover, attaining the mark of any good piece of film criticism that would approach its subject on the terms of a mutually acknowledged cinephilia – most acutely in evidence in Johnson and Linklater’s conversations – readers will find that reading this highly engaging and accessible book engenders a desire to delve further into the world of an important director whose works are only just beginning to receive the critical attention they deserve.

[1] Thomas A. Christie. The Cinema of Richard Linklater. 2nd ed. Maidstone, England: Crescent Moon, 2011.

[2] Jarmusch cannot be said to have enjoyed the level of mainstream success enjoyed by the Coens, Soderbergh, or Linklater, but it is this reviewer’s opinion that his take on experiential and cinematic time certainly resonates with Linklater’s works. See, for example, Mystery Train (1989).

[3] The unorthodox and rapid-fire production of Tape began while Waking Life was occupied with its extensive, post-production Rotoshop (digital rotoscoping) process. They premiered at Sundance within days of each other. See Johnson 61-62.

[4] Sandy Moore. Robert Breer. Filmmakers Filming 7. St. Paul, Minnesota: Film In The Cities; Minneapolis, Minnesota: Walker Art Center, 1980. 10.

About the Author

Daniel Cape

About the Author

Daniel Cape

Daniel Cape is a PhD student in Animation Studies at the University of Sydney's Power Institute. Working with a cohort whose seminal publications have helped define the field of animation scholarship, Daniel's thesis examines the implications of rotoscoping and motion capture for the ontology of the cinematic image. Daniel will be presenting his research on Richard Linklater and the digitally rotoscoped film A Scanner Darkly at the world's first international conference dedicated to Philip K Dick: "Worlds Out Of Joint: Re-Imagining Philip K Dick" in Dortmund, Germany, November 2012.View all posts by Daniel Cape →