6. She’s Gotta Have It (1986) Spike Lee
Cinephiles looking at the United States in the 1980s might have considered Stranger than Paradise a happy fluke; but when She’s Gotta Have It came out 2 years later, word spread that a movement was building in the cinematic underground. However, Spike Lee was and is no critical darling of the festival circuit: he is a cultural icon and his debut feature She’s Gotta Have It was a popular success, especially with black movie-goers.
The format is a hybrid mocumentary and traditional drama, with some ‘film ’ devices used to question the characters. There’s a mix of film stocks, still-photos used in montage, musical interludes, and a dance number. The story centers around Nola, an African-American young woman who unabashedly desires a rich sex life. She has three lovers, each of whom struggles with jealousy and tries to get Nola to dump the other two.
Like Stranger than Paradise before it, She’s Gotta Have It was a backyard movie. Spike Lee filmed it in his home turf of Brooklyn. Without the outsider’s compulsion to portray the borough as a world of urban decay and desperation, Spike Lee’s Brooklyn was a cosmopolitan place with a vibrant community life.
That inherent sympathy makes all the difference in a movie that seeks to portray a group of people differently from the labels pressed upon them. Spike Lee’s black characters are not exploitation material, but relatable members of a particular corner of the globe.
Linklater would prove to be the rural Texas equivalent in his portrayals of the high schoolers in Dazed and Confused or the high school drop outs in SubUrbia or the bank-robbing hick brothers in The Newton Boys.
7. City of Hope (1991) John Sayles
John Sayles is sometimes called ‘the Godfather of American Indie Filmmaking’ but he has had plenty of success within the major studios as a screenwriter. He is considered a filmmaker who has saved his cinaphilic heart and soul for his own independent films.
But he is not your typical film geek. His priorities keep film style in service of its function: telling stories. He graduated from the notorious “Roger Corman school of filmmaking” by polishing or rewriting schlocky horror flicks. His connection to Linklater is collegial: he serves as an advisor for the Austin Film Society.
City of Hope is set in the fiction New Jersey town of Hudson City. The cast of townspeople includes all walks of life. Police, crooks, politicians, contractors, construction workers, teachers, homeless people, etc. Where Slacker was a passive camera consuming the idle hours of many Austin TX residents’ day, the wide-screen Panavision camera used in City of Hope is more like a plucky reporter, maintaining an active and inquisitive presence in the story.
It pushes into conversations, invades private spaces and public interactions. And why not? There is a lot going on in Hudson City. Murders, arson, domestic conflicts, and even love.
Slacker and City of Hope both came out in 1991 and they both rely on the entrance into frame of new characters to instigate new scenes of action. In City of Hope, the purpose is social and political. We see the urban landscape of Hudson City change under the influence of unchecked capitalism and the criminal life of the town thrive in line with a system of patronage that ties to the decay of the work ethic.
The purpose is to show communities the deleterious effect of civic apathy. Slacker has political tones, but the movement of action is more detached. Reflective of the kind of apathy that hinders collective action in the face of iniquity.
8. The Clock (1945) Vincente Minnelli
This is the film Linklater showed to Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy before they started making Before Sunrise and the similarities between the Before trilogy and this unusual offering in Linklater’s list are striking. It has long takes, but that feature that has become associated with independent cinema was always found in musicals. Despite starring Judy Garland, however, this is not a musical. The long takes are put to purely cinematic ends.
Joe Allen (Robert Walker) is a soldier with a two day leave in New York City when he meets Alice Mayberry (Judy Garland) in a typical ‘meet-cute’ encounter at Pennsylvania Station. Alice agrees to show Joe around the city and they begin to fall in love.
Alice’s roommate chastises her for picking up a soldier on leave, but Alice keeps her promise to meet Joe again under the clock at the Astor hotel. After a comic entanglement with a milkman, they become separated in the subway and have to rush about in order to get married before Joe must return to duty.
The Clock is a musical without musical numbers. The ‘boy meets girl’ plot is executed with no added contrivance, the rebuffs of fortune are not disturbing, and the ending is suitably sentimental. Linklater’s own musicals without music numbers are heavier on the talking and less assured of their endings but they also get boy meeting girl quickly and Fortune is not much harsher with Jesse and Celine’s fate (in the first two) than soldier Joe and his gal Alice.
Judy Garland and Vincente Minnelli had become romantically involved while making Meet Me in St. Louis the previous year. By the time shooting ended on The Clock, they were engaged. Someone should make a movie about that.
9. Au hasard Balthazar (1966) Robert Bresson
Richard Linklater has cultivated his directorial sensibility alongside his curatorial sensibility at the Austin Film Society. The movies he gained access to had a profound impact on his work. Not least of which was the work of Robert Bresson. “I did a series on Robert Bresson, who’s one of my favorite directors, and when the 16-millimeter prints came in, I’d watch them over and over.”
Balthazar is from the Criterion list of Linklater’s “favorite films” which he qualifies as being his favorites of the moment while in a ‘flesh-and-spirit’ mood. All of the films listed are great works of art, but I found few of them to be representative of Linklater’s own antecedents. Except for Tokyo Story, the only movie that really reflects Linklater’s own sensibility as a director is Balthazar.
The story follows the separation of a innocent girl and her donkey and their sufferings. The donkey is sold multiple times and is shown suffering the literal sins of man. Despite the lack of agency to choose his fate, the donkey suffers nobly and by the use of Bresson’s art, with sound and narrative and image composition, the quality of that nobility becomes magnificent.
In his essential text on the cinematic art, Notes on the Cinematographer, Bresson says “My movie is born first in my head, dies on paper; is resuscitated by the living persons and real objects I use, which are killed on film but, placed in a certain order and projected onto a screen, come to life again like flowers in water.” This demonstrates the primary connection between Bresson and Linklater films.
Neither is striving to fix their film into a finished product, predetermined by the structures required by conventional character arcs or plotting. The film is born in the head, meaning as an idea. Ideas have a terrible way of dying in the process of being expressed, but they are revived by contact with other thinking minds.
This cycle of death and rebirth has Christian overtones that fit quite well with the martyrdom of the donkey in Au hasard Balthazar. Even the stridently communist Jean-Luc Godard was touched by the saintly donkey’s troubles.
“[T]his film is really the world in an hour and a half,” he wrote in Cahiers du Cinema.
The following year, Godard married the actress who played the innocent girl.
10. Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) Monte Hellman
Sometimes a film can be too good. In the midst of the New Hollywood boom, Monte Hellman ruined his directorial career by making a perfect road movie. It is existential, hypnotic, sparsely realized, and outrageous in the end. Like Robert Bresson, Hellman dispensed with all but the most essential plot elements and gave movie-goers a revolutionary B-movie.
The two main characters are a ’55 Chevy and a Pontiac GTO. The Chevy is driven by James Taylor (called The Driver) and maintained by The Beach Boys’ Dennis Wilson (called The Mechanic). They are on an aimless tour, on the look-out for street drag races where the wager of “pink-slips” means that the slower driver looses his ride.
The GTO is driven by legendary character actor Warren Oates, a bull-shitter who more than makes up for the taciturn Chevy duo. And because this is a love story about boys and their cars, there has to be a girl to complicate things. She’s called The Girl.
This is one of Richard Linklater’s favorite movies, to the point that he shared 16 reasons to love it here. The main point is that the film creates an “atmospheric experience” as has been said of the best of Linklater’s films. Linklater might incorporate more dialog, but the cinematic tools are there, from Robert Bresson and by way of Monte Hellman translated into the good old boy vernacular of the road movie.
Richard Linklater has drawn inspiration from a long life of curiosity. He is an ardent reader of philosophy, an astute curator of a large film society, and has kept close to his origins when undertaking ambitious projects. Those interested in reading more about Richard Linklater are encouraged to pick up Rob Stone’s book “The Cinema of Richard Linklater: Walk, Don’t Run”.
But if it is true that most great directors have one major obsession around which they create their films, for Richard Linklater it is time: the passage of time (Boyhood), the illusion of time (Waking Life), the bittersweet-ness of time (Before trilogy), the anxiety of time (Dazed and Confused), the abundance of time (Slacker).
Even in films that do not take time as their primary concern, the story is constructed in such a way as to invite the audience to observe from a distance and feel into the passing scenes.
For an art form, as Andrei Tarkovsky describes it, that is composed of “sculpting in time”, we must characterize the force of Richard Linklater’s contribution to the art form as robust and innovative. Perhaps slacking is more productive than previously supposed.
Author Bio: Chris is a sometimes filmmaker and freelance writer living in Colorado. He also likes to convince strangers to part with resources to create cultural events. His favorite directors are Federico Fellini, Kurosawa, Billy Wilder, the Coen Bros., Stanley Kubrick, and Edgar Wright.