Richard Linklater emerged at a vital, if dubious, moment in American film. It is a period I am inclined to describe as the Rick Schmidt era of the American Independent film. For it was Schmidt’s 1989 book, How to Make a Feature Film at Used Car Prices, published by Viking, a major, mainstream American publishing house, that defined that moment as much as the work of any one of its practitioners. Schmidt’s book offered tips on how to make a film for $10,000 or less. It became a bible (or at least a self-help manual) for a generation of aspirant filmmakers who, by 1992, had witnessed the low-budget successes of Spike Lee, Steven Soderbergh, Quentin Tarantino, Linklater himself and, most notably, Robert Rodriguez. The story of Rodriguez’s first film, El Mariachi (1992) is emblematic of this moment. The film was made, the story goes, on a shoe-string budget of $7,000, a sum he supposedly earned by selling his blood and submitting to endless paid medical experiments. Miraculously, this low-budget film found its way to major distribution and launched Rodriguez into the world of economic solvency and big-budget filmmaking. As kids scrambled to apply for credit cards with immodest limits, hoping to replicate the success of inspirational figures like Rodriguez, Schmidt’s book told them how to do it. (1)
The truth always leaks out, however, whether or not it spoils the dream. The version of El Mariachi that made it to theaters in 1992, for example, was improved in post-production after its sale and transferred to 35 millimeter, considerably raising the actual budget of this ‘independent’ film. However, such contingencies did little to sway the Schmidt generation, many of whom began to believe that one could simply make the $10,000 film as low-budget calling-card to mainstream production and distribution. Under the auspices of a culture of so-called maverick independent film, producers and distributors could make a lot of money with very little risk or investment, and the aspirant filmmaker could in turn gain entrée into the world of mainstream filmmaking. This shift in the industry had very little to do with changing modes of production to make better art possible. Lest you think I’m overstating things, try and imagine another period in which a film as thoughtless and styleless as The Brothers McMullen, not to mention the career of Ed Burns, could get made.
Of course, Linklater was a key figure of the Schmidt generation, and the success of Slacker in 1991played no small part in the perpetuation of the increasingly mainstream fantasy of low-budget, narrative filmmaking. However, what remains most interesting about Linklater, as opposed to Rodriguez, is how studiously he has avoided the pitfalls of his own success, continuing to make intelligent, formally innovative films with relatively modest budgets (at least by industry standards). Indeed, Linklater is very articulate about the difference between his own work and those of the Schmidt generation who were merely eager to become the new Spielberg, the new filmmaker as power broker:
…I think there are two kinds of filmmakers—ones that had their little 8mm cameras and their trains and were setting fires and blowing them up and crashing into each other, and then there’re the ones who read a lot and were going to the theater and maybe reading philosophy. (2)
Linklater, obviously, belongs to the latter. His films are marked by strong literary and philosophical sensibilities. Moreover, it is this studiousness that lends his films their formal interest, and that allows him to move away from simply replicating the styles and codes of Hollywood filmmaking, unlike the child who is simply eager to recreate Hollywood’s explosions in Super-8, dreaming about a time of bigger toys and better looking actors.
At the level of form and style, Linklater is both the most subtle and radical of his generation. Like their counterparts in the 1970s—the first film school generation (Scorsese, Schrader, De Palma)—this new generation demonstrated a high degree of cinephilia. And like the ’70s film school-brats, it took this generation a long time to stop merely imitating, or merely name-dropping, their beloved directors, and to begin to integrate that knowledge of film history into a genuinely new style. By contrast, Linklater’s first film, Slacker, not only revealed a sensibility shaped by an immersion in film history, but a filmmaker who was already doing more than imitating his beloved predecessors.
For instance, the structure of Slacker bears a striking resemblance to Robert Bresson’s L’Argent (1983). In this film, Bresson traces the deleterious effects of the circulation of a forged note. The film follows the passing of this forged note from the hands of a greedy, young, bourgeois schoolboy to middle-class shopkeepers, to the hands of an unsuspecting oil worker, who is then arrested, only to lose his wife and child, thus transforming him into a cold-blooded murderer. Following this structure, Bresson outlines a chain of exploitation wherein the greed of the upper classes is linked to the violence of the poor, who consistently pay the price of avarice and class division. But in Slacker, scenes are not linked by the circulation of a forged note. Rather, Linklater’s camera follows whatever person happens to walk into and participate in the ongoing conversation. The camera then follows one of the characters on their way to another meeting/conversation. Like Bresson before him, Linklater refuses to structure his film in terms of conventional character psychology or action, but instead on the movement of an idea. Money is the determining object and idea of Bresson’s narrative; it literally controls what we see. In Slacker, conversation, and ideas themselves, become the determining force of the narrative. However, the succession of ideas that is the narrative of Slacker has an economic dimension as well. Linklater documents a group of people, mostly young, who find each other outside of the space of work. They are idlers; a generation of youths who drift, who prioritize the space of leisure as necessary to the development of ideas—no matter how inane any particular idea might be. It is, in this sense, a strange utopia, one that is articulated structurally as an antidote to the repressive structure of late capitalism so well revealed in L’Argent, the film to which Linklater refers.
Perhaps most prominently, this characteristic of Slacker introduced the very idea of idleness that runs throughout all of his work. But at the same time, it is informed by Linklater’s indebtedness, at the level of form, to European, especially French, cinema. Before Sunrise (1995), for example, bears the traces of the films of Eric Rohmer, of films like Ma nuit chez Maud (1969), where philosophical conversation is set at the fore, and talk replaces action. Before Sunrise is simply about the meeting of two young people (played by Julie Delphy and Ethan Hawke) on a train headed for Paris, who decide to get off in Vienna and spend an evening there getting to know one another. Linklater, however, sheds Rohmer’s preoccupation with bourgeois life. Rohmer’s characters can, because of their class background, afford to be idle; Linklater’s cannot. They are often young, newly independent, and thus poor. Ethan Hawke’s character, Jesse, for example, has to stay up all night because he does not have the money for a hotel room. Still, idleness is just as important to those who do not have the money to be so. In this sense, Linklater’s work is akin the work of Jacques Tati, despite his interest in the content of dialogue, which Tati cared little about. Tati’s Hulot is simply unfit for work, as in Mon Oncle (1958), when he falls asleep in the rubber hose factory, thus setting off a major malfunction in the assembly line. Tati’s films, as his biographer David Bellos has noted, are celebrations of idleness:
His [Tati's] idleness is not an absence of work, but a positive form of social behavior, and a clear pole of value in the world of the film. Idleness has of course long been associated with culture, and with the cultivation of values higher than those of production or enrichment. (3)
The link between idleness and culture, underemployment and creativity, is an idea about which Linklater is quite articulate. In a 1994 interview, for example, he addressed the difference between being lazy and being a slacker:
Daydreaming is a productive activity. Where do you get your ideas from? If you’re working all day, that kind of kills a lot. It’s also about visualizing your ideal world, both the kind of world you live in and also who you want to hang around with and what you want to spend your time doing, what are your ideal physical circumstances. (4)
Slacker, obviously, is explicitly concerned with this. Take, for example, the scene of the young man who is obsessed with television, who sits in front of a wall of televisions and discourses about the virtue of videotape. It is, he says, better than reality, better than the eye, since to see something without a camera is to lack the ability to rewind, slow-down and better understand what happened. A job would kill the lofty and amusing mission of this modern, Austin-based, Dziga Vertov.
Linklater’s recent animated film, Waking Life (2001), picks up where Slacker left off ten years earlier. Waking Life is about the productivity of daydreaming, about the visualization of an ideal world, as Linklater himself put it. Waking Life follows the path of a young man played by Wiley Wiggins (who played the privileged freshman in Dazed and Confused ) as he walks around asking people about, or merely observing others discussing, the relation between dream and reality. The film calls to mind the idea that animated Surrealist thought in the 1920s, namely André Breton’s desire for a reconciliation of dream and reality, his belief in the power of the imagination to produce a superior realm. “Why should I not grant to dreams,” Breton asked, “what I occasionally refuse reality, that is, this value of certainty in itself which, in its own time, is not open to my repudiation?” (5) The reconciliation of dream and reality is effected, in Waking Life, at the level of form. The film was shot on digital video then animated. The figures bear a basic resemblance to those who play them, to how they would have actually appeared in digital video (in reality); however, by animating over these images Linklater is able to shape the world according to what his young character dreams. Indeed, he frees the body from the constraints of time and space, as the final scene of the young man drifting upward indicates. In other words, he grants the dream a certainty that one is always forced to grant reality. Moreover, the very ideas that the characters generate, which have been so central to Linklater’s previous work, often give shape to the images themselves. And at the level of production, it allows Linklater the freedom to explore a mind-bending range of philosophical ideas at the level of form as well (we are left, for example, to contemplate the ideas of thinkers as disparate as Benedict Anderson and André Bazin). Idleness produces an entirely new form of filmmaking.
What is most interesting about Linklater’s concern with idleness, however, is the extent to which he is also skeptical about its limitations. The films are not merely an easy, democratic celebration of The Idea. Rather, idleness is not, it seems, for everyone. Or at least, the line between idleness and laziness is often blurred. SubUrbia (1996) concerns itself with a group of young people in their early twenties who hang out in the parking lot of an all-night convenience store. They spend their time drinking and eating junk food, and developing and exchanging ideas about the ugliness of the world. Here idleness generates hatred, suburban provincialism and violence. Jeff (Giovanni Ribisi), for example, resists change, refusing to see how his girlfriend might benefit from a move to New York to pursue a career in art; he hates his friend Pony, who has become a rock star, for succeeding, despite the fact that Pony’s success simply implies (no matter how absurd he might be) that he is able to earn a living by doing what he most enjoys; finally, Jeff cannot prevent himself from attacking the Pakistanis who own the very deli outside of which he resides. His own lassitude is put in the service of a racist ideology, which equates immigrant-owned businesses with the death of the American labor force—hardly a progressive view of idleness.
Along the same lines, Tape (2001) explores the ill effects of a life lived too long without structure. The film is about three former high school friends who meet up in hotel room. Vince (Ethan Hawke) has come to Michigan, ostensibly, to see his friend Jon (Robert Sean Leonard), who has a film playing in the Lansing Film Festival. Vince’s high school sweetheart, Amy (Uma Thurman), now lives and works as an Assistant District Attorney in that same town. Vince is a beer swilling, drug-addled dealer who has, in fact, come to coerce, and tape, a confession from Jon that he date-raped Amy. Vince has been obsessed with it since he and Amy broke up, wanting only to punish both for what he perceives to be their various indiscretions—Jon, for his sexual violence and Amy for her ‘choice’ to sleep with Jon, having never slept with Vince throughout the entire course of their relationship. Vince is, in other words, someone whose development has been retarded by an idea about this episode and what it might say about him, Amy, and Jon. Interestingly, Linklater shot the film on digital video, a medium often used to hyperbolize the existential bond between the image and the thing to which it refers. Video, in other words, cannot lie. Linklater problematizes video as a medium that provides unmediated access to truth by introducing an uncharacteristic strategy of rapid cutting. The many camera angles not only underscores the shifts in momentum that are taking place in the conversation, but point to video-truth as a highly mediated construct. As a result, Vince’s grand idea, not to mention the moralistic clarity exacerbated by years of idleness, is problematized by Linklater’s editing strategy.
Ethan Hawke’s Vince is, in many respects, the older version of Linklater’s previous idlers. In fact, Linklater’s films represent a very deliberate and subtle exploration of the collective mores of various age groups within adolescence/post-adolescence: Slacker and Before Sunrise deal with the post-college set; Dazed and Confused is concerned with the social rituals of high school, especially the relations between lower and upper classmen; and SubUrbia documents the netherworld of the early twenties/late-teen years of the high school dropout. In providing a finely detailed rendering of the vicissitudes of the adolescent experience, we are also able to see the many shades of idleness—its limitation as well as its virtues. For example, the high school students in Dazed and Confused are in vigorous pursuit of the idle life, but with varying degrees of value. Randall (Jason London) is the school’s star quarterback who refuses the coach’s militaristic demand that he sign a contract promising to stay away from his burn-out friends—an important act of adolescent resistance. On the other hand, when a teacher lets her class out for the summer, the teens get up and leave, ignoring her reminder to them that the bicentennial celebration in which they will no doubt partake is nothing more than the celebration of a bunch of rich white men who once refused to pay their taxes. The pursuit of the idle life here has no redeeming political value; rather, Linklater shows how the adolescent body only moves towards pleasure, failing to see the ways in which they are implicated in, and even grease, social and political structures.
Interestingly, Linklater’s greatest (relatively speaking) foray into mainstream studio-filmmaking, The Newton Boys (1998), is also one his most explicit statements about liberating oneself from repressive social structures and the exploitation of labor. The film is based on the real-life story of the Newton Boys, a group of poor, good-natured brothers from west Texas. In the 1920s, the brothers took to robbing banks on the understanding that bankers and insurance groups are, in the end, the real thieves. Linklater explained his interest in the group as follows:
I’ve always liked the minds of criminals, they seem similar to artists. You’re talking about outsiders in society and how they deal with it and how they justify what they do. I can relate to that. To get my first films made, it’s amazing what you have to do. (6)
In this sense, the Newton Boys are merely extensions of his earlier slackers—only they are extroverts, as Linklater has himself noted. However, their thieving, much like Linklater’s idlers, serves an important social function insofar as they refuse social conventions. Furthermore, it is interesting that Linklater would link crime as a force of social liberation in this project to the role of the artist. For, on the one hand, The Newton Boys is Linklater’s most formally traditional work. Not only is it a genre film, but stylistically it is fundamentally conventional. Indeed, it reminds me of the television Western (of shows like Bonanza) more than the wide-screen Westerns of Anthony Mann that normally inspire young, cinephile directors. The film itself is comprised of short-take close-ups (rare for Linklater), thus sealing its televisual style. However conventional the film might be in terms of genre and visual style, though, its radical face ultimately emerges in the closing credits when we see two of the actual Newton Boys as old men appearing at home and on the Johnny Carson show having lived long, happy lives. Their innocent, cheerful faces seem normal, affable. We are reminded of our sympathy for the characters, and thus real people, that we have seen on screen. What does it mean, Linklater asks us, to sympathize with people who rob banks and live long, happy lives?
Linklater is asking such questions, of course, from within the space of mainstream film production, within an industry not at all removed from the world of banking and insurance. And in this sense, Linklater resembles the key figures of his generation, especially Soderbergh and Tarantino, who have found a way to make exceptionally meaningful films within more popular structures. But whereas directors like Soderbergh and Tarantino finesse genres from within, Linklater tends to drift away altogether. His contemplative films satisfy only the most basic requirements of mainstream production (such as casting stars), and explore the many ideas that cannot simply be contained within pre-existing structures of dominant modes of production.
It’s Impossible to Learn How to Plow by Reading Books (1988)
Dazed and Confused (1993)
Before Sunrise (1995)
The Newton Boys (1998)
Waking Life (2001)
Live from Shiva’s Dance Floor (2003)
The School of Rock (2003)
Before Sunset (2004)
Richard Linklater, “L’Argent” in John Boorman and Walter Donohue (eds), Projections 4 1/2: In Association with Positif, London, Faber and Faber, 1995, pp. 243–245
Glen Norton, “The Seductive Slack of Before Sunrise”, Post Script: Essays in Film and the Humanities, 19, no. 2, Winter–Spring 2000, pp. 62–72
Bryan Poyser, “The Revolution will be Animated: Is Waking Life a Wake-Up Call for Indie Animators?”, Independent Film and Video Monthly, 24, no. 3, April 2001, pp. 11–12
Jon Radman, “Generation X and Postmodern Cinema: Slacker”, Post Script: Essays in Film and the Humanities, 19, no. 2, Winter–Spring 2000, pp. 34–48
Articles in Senses of Cinema
Film Directors – Articles on the Internet
Several online articles can be found here
By Tim Rhys, for Movie Maker Magazine.
Interview for issue 6 of The Idler, September 1994.
You Can’t Hold Back the Human Spirit: An Interview With Richard Linklater
A 1998 interview by David Walsh for World Socialist Web Site.
Click here to search for Richard Linklater DVDs, videos and books at
- Rick Schmidt’s book, it should be noted, has remained popular and in print. The second edition was published in 1995 (in the wake of Pulp Fiction and the reinvigoration of the dream of the independent film that earns one’s million); the second edition, still under Viking, was released in 2000 with a budget expanded to $15,000 to meet the needs of inflation and reliability.
- Tim Rhys, “Interview”, Movie Maker Magazine, http://www.indienews.com/moviemaker/features/linklater.html
- David Bellos, Jacques Tati, London, The Harvill Press, 1999, pp. 217–218
- Richard Linklater”, Idler 6, September 1994, http://www.idler.co.uk/html/interviews/interview6.htm
- André Breton, “Manifesto of Surrealism”, Manifestoes of Surrealism, trans. Richard Seaver and Helen R. Lane, Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 1972, p. 12
- David Walsh, ”You Can’t Hold Back the Human Spirit: An Interview With Richard Linklater”, World Socialist Web Site, March 27, 1998, http://www.wsws.org/arts/1998/mar1998/link-m27.shtml