When explaining why he dropped out of film school, Paul Thomas Anderson said “My film making education consisted of finding out what filmmakers I liked were watching, then seeing those films. I learned the technical stuff from books and mags…Film school is a complete con, because the information is out there if you want it.”
Whatever one’s motivation, the joy of uncovering the lineage of a favorite director by watching the films that inspired him or her adds another layer of pleasure to the pursuit of excellent movies. To that end, let’s look at the unofficial ancestors: a list of films that influenced great directors.
Richard Linklater never went to film school, nor did he play with a Super 8 camera as a child. A small town boy from East Texas, he grew up watching the usual movies that were available in small town cinemas. Books were his earliest source of inspiration. He thought he would become a writer until the day he saw Raging Bull. He founded the Austin Film Society in 1985 to satisfy his own hunger for the diversity of cinema.
Unlike the media-savant filmmakers like Quentin Tarentino, Linklater does not weave his cinematic antecedents into the matter and manner of his films. They remain subtextual, and so details that harkens back to earlier films might very well be incidental rather than intentional.
As a star from the break-out indie scene of the late 80s and 90s, Richard Linklater divides auteur filmmakers into 2 categories, “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.”
His own films reflect the latter category. Although he has dabbled in more traditional Hollywood style with School of Rock (2003), The Newton Boys (1998), The Bad News Bears (2005), and A Scanner Darkly (2006), most of Linklater’s films feature long takes with verbose characters intent on waxing philosophic rather than accomplishing another plot point.
His debut feature Slacker (1991) wanders from character to character in service of a sense of place in lieu of purpose. Dazed and Confused (1993) is about one sprawling night of teenage kicks, wherein the characters mostly talk. His Before trilogy (1995, 2004, 2013) are about romance and choice and aging, but these themes are expressed mostly in dialog. Waking Life (2001) is a lot of heady conversations.
Not the style one would expect from a director so influenced by
1. Raging Bull (1980) Martin Scorsese
If any stylism from Raging Bull is to be found in Richard Linklater’s movies, it is the power of the ellipses. The rise and fall of middleweight boxer Jake La Motte includes some of the most devastating footage in a sport movie—and the boxing scenes are pretty good too.
Many directors jump over the most thrilling episode in their story to displace emphasis elsewhere, but Scorsese uses the technique with cunning force. When Jake LaMotte pursues the woman of his affection, the removal of the first wife from the dramatic is taken for granted.
Linklater saw Raging Bull in his early 20s, at what he describes as the perfect time. “It blew my mind. It was psychological, beautiful, poetic, brutal; all those things in one movie. And it was funny, too. Scorsese is underestimated for his humor. It opened my mind to what a film could do.”
Having seen this single Martin Scorsese film, he sought out a book about Scorsese’s process with actors. He read that much of the dialog was improvised over numerous rehearsals and it set the idea in Linklater’s mind that a script needn’t be a well-oiled storytelling machine. The loose structure that allowed the actors to improvise would become his main method.
And so, Linklater did not become the Texan director to follow in Scorsese’s footsteps. That distinction went to Wes Anderson. But as Linklater has put it, “The films you love the most, you’re always a little sad to realize those aren’t the kind of films you’ll ever make.”
2. Die Sehnsucht der Veronika Voss (1982) Rainer Werner Fassbinder
The bad boy of New German cinema made melodramas. And if that’s not ironic enough, this emphatic pessimist had a huge influence on the resolutely optimist Richard Linklater. Fassbinder’s penultimate film Veronika Voss is about an aging actress in the clutches of morphine addiction when a young writer takes an interest in her memories and grows suspicious of her doctor.
As the relationship between writer and actress heats up, Veronika Voss’s dreams of a return to acting are dashed by the debilitating power of her drug addiction.
It is both Fassbinder’s take on Sunset Boulevard and his homage to real life actress Sybille Schmitz, whom he had wanted to cast as the mother in The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972) and whose sordid death fascinated him via the newspaper accounts.
Fassbinder loved tragic women of a bygone era. In discussing Veronika Voss, Fassbinder confessed, “I have a tender feeling toward her—I understand her in all the things she has done wrong. She has let herself be destroyed. Maybe that has something to do with me. You say to yourself, ‘Okay, don’t let yourself be wrecked like that’ but still, it could happen to me. There are people who are just waiting for me to collapse . . . .”
Fassbinder was hugely prolific in his 37 years of drugs, sex, and emotional manipulation. Veronika Voss was the last film he completed, though he managed to shoot Querelle (1982) and his corpse was found with a newly typed script for a film about Communist icon Rosa Luxemburg.
As the only director of the New German Cinema to have extensive training in the theatre, Fassbinder was a child of Bertolt Brecht’s style of theatre that draws attention to its artifice and eschews audience identification. While Linklater opts for a more hands-off style of filmmaking, both self-taught filmmakers came to their art with a love of literature and anarchist sympathies.
Both have sought to make films that have personal obsessions. In the case of Fassbinder, it was the unrelenting crush of society on marginal figures. For Richard Linklater the primary obsession is the passage of time, its affects on memory and our notions of humanity.
Much like our next film.
3. Der Himmel über Berlin (1987) Wim Wenders
Known in the Anglophonic world as Wings of Desire, the arty original that got turned into a decent slice of schmaltz starring Nic Cage and Meg Ryan called City of Angels (1998). Two angels observe the lives of various citizens of a divided Berlin.
It is a romantic fantasy film with an angelic perspective that allows the camera to floats into windows, through the inner thoughts of characters, over walls. One of the angels is tempted to give up the serene existence of his immortality when he falls in love with a beautiful trapeze artist.
Interspersed throughout Wings of Desire is a cinematic rumination of Berlin’s past, present, and future. The angels are there to assemble, testify, and preserve reality, giving a poetic metaphor for the work of the camera in making a film.
This organizing principle of a passive main character who bears witness to the existential struggles of those around him has been used in many of Linklater’s films. Slacker has the same city-wide scope of consideration, and Waking Life centers around a confused young man but his presence is mostly observatory.
While apparently more traditional in structure than his other famous movies, A Scanner Darkly also features a main character who witnesses more choices than he himself makes, and the film as a whole engages in discussions of justice and society in as deep a tenor as Wings of Desire.
Lastly and most crucially, Boyhood (2014) was filmed in 39 days over a twelve year period, granting audiences an unparalleled frame of reference that approaches the angelic view available to the main characters in Wings of Desire. Like the angels in Wings of Desire, the majority of what we are privileged to see in Boyhood is the banal moments of life that when taken in sum are lived just as intensely as any melodrama.
4. Tōkyō Monogatari (1953) Yasujiro Ozu
Tokyo Story is a heartbreaking film that employs no contrivances to break your heart. It follows an elderly couple on their trip to Tokyo to visit their grown children, see their grandchildren, and have their expectations disappointed. The eldest son who is supposed to be a distinguished physician is a lowly neighborhood doctor. The ill-tempered daughter’s children are brats, and she can only exerts herself to get her parents out of her house.
The only person who is truly appreciative of their presence is the widow of their son who died in the war who lives alone. They are carted off to a hot spring resort, where they cannot sleep, and on the train ride home the wife falls ill and dies soon thereafter.
Ozu has little interest in pulling heartstrings or dispensing thrills. His films feature rigorous attention to mise-en-scene, naturalistic acting, and plots that emphasize the sad beauty of the passage of time. We take Ozu at his word when he is quoted as saying “I want to make people feel what life is like without delineating all the dramatic ups and downs.”
Linklater would concur that films made to show life instead of art must gravitate to the minutiae of everyday life. In Ozu, the domestic concern is usually an older daughter needing a husband or the inevitable disappointments of life. Linklater prefers to celebrate the essential power of the small moments in shaping destiny.
Whether it is the course of romance through the Before trilogy’s 9 year gaps, or Boyhood’s twelve year production, the reality is less glamorous than Hollywood would have us believe and also more precious.
5. Stranger than Paradise (1984) Jim Jarmusch
This is the ‘backyard movie’ that started a trend in American arthouse cinema. The backyard is mostly un-pretty Manhattan, with some Cleveland and Florida locations that fail to distinguish themselves greatly from the unremarkable wasteland of the Lower East Side.
The main shift that became a trend has to do with expectations of access and content. In this story of Willie, Eva, and Eddie move through the non-places of their lives, living the non-events of their lives. Audiences have complete access to these characters. Nothing is being concealed about them. They are the ahistorical, all-surface-no-substance inhabitants of an American road movie without the romance of the road.
It is a surface that we don’t easily trust because we have been trained to search for depths, to believe in the romance of the road.
Another key difference that makes Stranger than Paradise an archetypal American indie film is the lack of character development. It is an essential quality in commercial films that characters arc. They are one way that has strengths and flaws, and through their experiences in the story they confront, rectify, or resolve their issues to enjoy a more fully integrated identity at the story’s close. At very least, they must mature!
Linklater’s Slacker was in the same line of indie chic, except the lack of character development was blamed on the characters being time-wasters. Generational stereotypes were deployed. Just to make things interesting, the next film, Dazed and Confused, focused on an earlier generation at a particularly protean moment in personal development.
Linklater has made many films where characters change and where audiences are given more than a post-modern surface to regard. But he has described all his movies as arising organically from the same backyard movie ethos that begat Stranger than Paradise.