Richard Linklater truly is a gem of modern cinema. Not only are his films adroit illustrations of the magic that lurks within filmmaking; they are also imaginatively fresh alternatives to the Hollywood blockbuster material that often dominates the box office. His distinguishing style and attitude have established him as an underground director working with those above; bridging the gap between mainstream and experimental cinema through a combination of naturalised dialogue, wandering plotlines, colourful characters and mesh of Hollywood A-list stars. Yet, the real success of Linklater’s filming lies in his versatility.
Some of his pictures resemble a modest and benign exterior, oozing quality as they ebb on, whereas other productions adopt a chaotic and innovative appearance to present the audience with incredibly unique viewing experience. Linklater is the advocate, or perhaps pioneer, of the slacker ethos – promoting the act of slacking not as an unproductive and wasteful activity, but one of creativity and pure thought. His cinema has provided the acts of observation and quiet interrogation with an essence of intellect that cannot be rivalled, and the following presents a list of some of his best work to date.
1. Slacker (1991)
The rumblings amongst the independent film scene during 1991 caused by one of Linklater’s first cinematic efforts named Slacker can be seen in hindsight as a significant sign of things to come. The unorthodox style and attitude of Slacker immediately turned heads in the underground filmmaking community upon its release, and can be seen as the benchmark film to which the form of many of Linklater’s follow-up efforts can be traced. The swirl of intrigue caused by Slacker stemmed from the way in which Linklater directed, wrote and starred in a film that appeared to break textbook rules; defying Film 101 in its refusal to remain with a certain set of characters; instead casually ambling on to take in different people in different places.
Slacker’s exclusive quality is its refusal to commit to character-building rules; not neglecting any of the cast, but simply observing them for a certain amount of time before shifting elsewhere. A whole host of colourful characters are watched, including an anarchist, a conspiracy theorist, a taxi passenger (Linklater himself) and a hippy; all discussing a variety of subjects such as social issues, politics, and life itself. Linklater took the casual, meandering, eavesdropping style of Slacker and incorporated it into the likes of Dazed & Confused and Waking Life later in his career, and its elongated dialogue came to be recognised as his own personal cinematic stamp.
Indeed, whilst Slacker stands alone as a curiously compelling filmic experiment; for those looking into Linklater as a filmmaker it is essential viewing. Not only does it establish the director’s filmic roots, but it is also demonstrative of his skill and style even in his relative inexperience. The film has gone on to influence the likes of other filmmakers (Kevin Smith has often made reference to its inspiration), and can be considered a valuable nugget of independent filmmaking.
2. Dazed & Confused (1993)
In a similar vein to his first feature Slacker, Linklater’s 1993 teenage biopic Dazed & Confused flits plotlessly across a plethora of teenagers on the last day of school, watching their behaviour and listening to their conversations. Carelessly drifting through one afternoon and night; the film has an aimlessness about itself that is echoed in the behaviour of its teenage protagonists. A bushy-haired Ben Affleck stars as an obnoxious bully, and Matthew McConaughey features as a slimy southerner, but the real star here is Wiley Wiggins, playing a freshman who – after the standard paddling initiation procedure – is taken under the wings of the graduates, looking up to them with bright and hopeful eyes throughout.
A sincere snapshot of young life in seventies America, Dazed & Confused is both refreshing and liberating in its refusal to simply exploit teenagers as props for cringe-worthy sex-disasters like many other films about adolescents so often do. The film portrays an accurately wide variety of teen personalities – some dumb, some intelligent, some angry, some laidback – but has time for them all. Declining to poke fun at puberty, yet refusing to become bogged down in nostalgia either, Dazed & Confused simply exists as an intimate observation of a memorable mark on the timeline of a teen – the end of the academic year.
For some it’s the last day of high school forever, for others it is just beginning. But Linklater’s film doesn’t yearn for or regret these years, it simply relives them as they were; days of existing between childhood and adulthood; unsure of the future, unsure of themselves, unsure of how to behave – simply dazed and confused.
3. The Before Trilogy – Before Sunrise/Before Sunset/Before Midnight (1995, 2004, 2013)
Richard Linklater’s ‘Before’ trilogy covers three films, spans eighteen-years, follows two people, takes place in three separate countries, earned two Academy Awards, and contains countless amounts of conversation. Inspired in its satisfaction to simply sit and listen to an intellectual and good-natured man and woman conversing with one another, the Before series grows with its characters – depicting young hope, blossoming love and search for self-discovery and content.
The two leads of Jesse and Celine are played wonderfully by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy respectively, who have terrific chemistry right across the series. The first act of Before Sunrise shows how they meet; sharing the same train ride through Europe. An instantaneous, quirky chemistry pushes them along into the lounge car together, where they get to know one another and their nervous smiles turn gain warmth and affection.
They discuss and reflect, politely exchanging obligatory questions before delving deeper into one another’s lives, steadily and unhurriedly learning more about the other, and also themselves. Jesse convinces Celine to alight with him in Vienna, and the two share a remarkable night together wandering around the city. As their time runs out, the two agree to preserve the night’s perfection in their refusal to switch information, instead agreeing to meet at the same place six months later.
Before Sunset reveals that this encounter never occurred, but Jesse and Celine do meet again nine year later in Paris; both not entirely fulfilled by their lives and still deeply nostalgic about their shared night in Vienna. Before Midnight signals a significant third chapter as the two are married with twin girls, yet their ideas of fantasy and stimulating conversation remain ever-present.
The intelligence of the series lies in its identification of perfect imperfections, unanswerable questions and desire to understand the notion of soul-mate or significant other. Linklater’s meandering style is reflected in the couple’s aimless strolls through European cities; and each instalment in the Before trilogy depicts a strange beauty and happiness in walking and talking. Even making an appearance in a scene in Waking Life, Jesse and Celine are some of the most richly drawn characters in Linklater’s cinematic world.
4. Waking Life (2001)
One of his most thought-provoking films to date, Waking Life sees Richard Linklater at his most philosophical, his most curious, and arguably his best. Through application of interpolated rotoscoping – a technique involving filming as usual followed by animation drawn over the top of this footage – Waking Life achieved a breakthrough in animated cinema. With this film, Linklater attempts to capture the essence of dream state whilst pondering life; creating a new world that defies ideas of conventional filmic direction and space.
An unnamed protagonist played by Wiley Wiggins moves between a wide variety of settings and philosophical conversations with academics and intellectuals, never knowing where he is going or why he is going there, all-the-while seemingly unable to wake up from a never-ending dream. Each philosophical interrogation in Waking Life has no one true answer, but rather multiple possible answers; allowing for a fluidity that matches appropriately to the style of animation; with every aspect within the frame being both fluid and constantly in flux.
An absolutely unique viewing experience that draws on the style of Slacker, the approach of Dazed & Confused and the contemplative nature of Before Sunrise, Waking Life even goes as far as to reintroduce previous Linklater characters; with Wiggins possibly a graduated and grown-up version of the teen from Dazed & Confused, and Before characters Jesse and Celine even making an appearance. Of course, they may not be who we think they are. The film is engulfed in a woozy vagueness that ensures nothing is ever certain. Waking Life is an area of unlimited possibility and astonishing interest, hypnotising in its refusal to be categorised and one of the most interesting cinematic experiences offered by one of America’s most interesting directors.
5. Tape (2001)
Based entirely within a Michigan hotel room, Tape runs like a play and looks like a nineties home video. A far-cry from typical Linklater film on its surface, the film comes to simulate the director’s idealised style as it wears on; becoming consumed by deep-meaning dialogue. Resisting the aspect of queasy handheld camera, Linklater retains the washed-out aspect of camcorder filming but accompanies it with a steady hand, allowing for an unblinking eye that inexorably pins the characters between the hotel walls.
Starring just three performers, Tape tells the tale of Vince (Ethan Hawke), a scatty drug-dealer from Oakland who has checked into the room to come and support his high-school friend Jon (Robert Sean Leonard), an aspiring director whose first film is due to screen in a festival the next morning. Jon arrives at the room to thank Vince for his support, and as the two begin to reminisce about life, it is clear that an unaddressed elephant resides in the room.
They eventually arrive on the topic of Amy (Uma Thurman) who arrives in the film’s final third, and it is revealed that both men have a history with her. What everything boils down to is a tape that Vince has secretly made, a recording that threatens to change their lives forever. Vince seems a little sneaky on first-viewing, but cunningly prepared in retrospect. And that’s what makes Tape so impressive. Everything is decisively in the moment, so much so that there is no time to guess what comes next, let alone consider it.
The growth of these characters within the real-time context of ninety-minutes is incredible; a variety of emotions and accusations fly around the room, continually changing the attitudes of both the audience and the characters themselves. Linklater’s soft-zooms and whip-pans sustain the pressure and tension put forth by the absorbing knife-edge dialogue, which is exerted superbly by each of the performers.
Linklater has utilised Hawke in a variety of roles throughout his career, but the actor really excels himself here, giving an astonishingly natural performance with first-rate delivery. Thurman shifts from innocent to icy, and Leonard’s portrayal of a pretentious director looking-down on his old friend is both authentic and skilful. Tape is a story about determining the past, and the ramifications this will have for the future, but the film’s execution remains resolutely in the present: spontaneous, happening and authentic.