Richard Linklater has been on a hell of a hot streak this past decade. A Best Picture nomination for Boyhood; a third flying visit to Jesse and Céline in Before Midnight; the criminally underappreciated true crime story Bernie; Me and Orson Welles, helmed by ORWAV favourite Zac Efron; and the trippily rotoscoped paranoid neo-noir A Scanner Darkly, not to mention his latest, Everybody Wants Some!!. That’s a fine selection to have as highlights of a director’s entire career, never mind putting them all within such a short period of time.
And time is so very important to Linklater: it’s a constant figurehead in almost all of his films right from his debut Slacker, and this will undoubtedly continue in his future output. Slacker, released in 1991, was one of the starting points of the burgeoning American independent film scene. Produced on a microbudget of $23,000, it is a plotless meander through the city of Austin, Texas over the course of 24 hours. Beginning with Linklater himself catching a cab into the city and philosophising about a dream he had to the driver, the camera then flits and floats from person to person as they cross paths and interact with one another.
Each segment usually lasts just a couple of minutes, though that is more than enough time for Linklater to paint a distinct portrait of each subject. They all meld together to form a brilliantly observed slice of life for Generation X-ers in the early 1990s (the title actually went on to popularise the term ‘slacker’ itself). One of the elements of the film that made it work so well, however, was framing the events over a 24-hour period. More than just providing a practical beginning and end point, it lent the film the sense that this was just an ordinary day in the lives of these people – not a collection of the most interesting moments after following characters for an extended period of time, just a regular day like any other. This framing device is carried over to his next film, 1993’s Dazed and Confused. The first scene actually includes a timestamp – ‘Last Day Of School, May 28th 1976, 1:05 PM’ – to definitively place the story in the Bicentennial summer of the United States.
While Dazed does have a little more narrative structure than Slacker, it retains the same loose feel, and continues the effortless flitting between a diverse yet fully fleshed-out cast of characters as they interact that caused such a stir in Slacker. Rather than being a contemporary commentary on youth in America, however, Dazed and Confused transports us to the mid ’70s, a time full of hotrods and rocking soundtrack material. However, by following these kids nearly 20 years prior to the time it was made, we can see that the same hopes, fears and dickheads like Ben Affleck‘s character O’Bannion are universal, crossing generations. The way the film captures youth is nigh unparalleled; the carelessness, the openness to new experiences, the pretentiousness and the awkwardness, but most of all the freedom and total lack of responsibility, all tinted with just the slightest vignette of looming adulthood being as forcefully ignored as possible.
Interestingly, Linklater’s latest offering Everybody Wants Some!! returns to the Dazed and Confused formula. Set in the weekend before classes start at a 1980s college (complete with a countdown timer at the start of each scene) and centred around a group of freshmen, it’s a spiritual sequel to the high school summer setting of Dazed and Confused, showing the college days those characters may have gone on to experience in a couple of years’ time. It’s curious that Linklater has chosen to revisit the style of a film he made nearly 25 years ago at the outset of his career for the immediate followup to his most critically acclaimed outing so far. Returning to an ensemble cast of characters as opposed than just one person and his immediate family, taking place over the course of a single weekend rather than the behemoth undertaking that was Boyhood’s 12-year-long shooting schedule, it feels almost as if Linklater is giving himself a directorial holiday by returning to a time he hasn’t visited in a while – a personal reward for so successfully completing his hugely ambitious pet project. And, judging from the hugely positive reception it has had so far, a reward for us as well.
Before Sunrise (1995) changes direction from this earlier style somewhat, featuring just two characters whom we follow continuously for several hours as they spend a night wandering through Vienna. Once again Linklater imposes a time constraint on his characters and observes them just going about their lives, but the difference between observing the interactions between a large cohort of characters and just two people is marked. Rather than learning small tidbits about a larger group of people, as realistic and relatable as they are, Before Sunrise affords us an incredibly in-depth examination of two people as they share details about themselves with one another. It’s intensely voyeuristic yet simultaneously relaxed and laidback: you never feel like you shouldn’t be watching. Jesse and Céline are opening up to one another despite being total strangers, and Linklater invites you to share in the experience with them as an unseen observer.
SubUrbia (1996) wasn’t even a film that Linklater wrote, having been adapted by Eric Bogosian for the screen from his original play, but it once again follows a group of kids over the course of a day being kids and contemplating their futures – the man just can’t resist. The film’s worth a watch (it’s still a Linklater film after all), it just never connects or comes together in quite the same way as Dazed and Confused manages to, and you come away feeling like you’d rather have rewatched that again instead. 2001’s Tape, on the other hand, is an interesting experiment in the potentials of digital filmmaking at the turn of the century.
Much like Mike Figgis’ Timecode, Tape plays out in real time (though not all in a single take like Figgis’ film, nor does it split the screen into four quadrants). It’s much darker than a lot of Linklater’s output before or since (even the true crime murder story of Bernie is pretty lighthearted), being about a rape gone unpunished, and it stars Ethan Hawke as a drug addict (though, like SubUrbia, the film is another adaptation of a preexisting play). While the two films are often left by the wayside in discussions on the director, it is nonetheless interesting to note Linklater’s continued interest in playing with the concept of time in cinema during this period.
Before Sunset (2004) is quite possibly one of the most unexpected sequels ever made considering just how perfectly formed and self-contained the first instalment was. The fact that Linklater dropped it on us almost out of the blue with no fanfare only added to the surprise. This approach makes perfect sense when you think about the plot of the film, however: Jesse has written a hugely successful novel based on his night in Vienna with Céline almost a decade before and is doing a reading in a Paris bookshop which she actually attends, completely taking him by surprise. Jesse never really expected another encounter, and neither did we as filmgoers. The return works fantastically well as we rarely get the opportunity to revisit characters who have aged in real time, and then have the years that passed laid out bare before us. Just like Before Sunrise, we follow the couple as they wander through a European city just talking with one another, from the inane and everyday to more philosophical musings.
Nine years is a long time, but hardly long enough to entirely change someone at their very core – Jesse and Céline both are and are not the same people as when we first met them, and neither are Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy or Richard Linklater, and it’s just fascinating to see such real human changes explored through fictional characters. So when in 2013 we were treated to Before Midnight, yet another truly unexpected surprise visit to the couple a further nine years later, it once again felt both immediately different and comfortingly familiar. With its protagonists approaching middle age, it explores the lost idealism of youth, the compromises one makes to be with someone and the losses and gains of growing older, a totally natural progression from the previous two films.
And then there was Boyhood. You must have firmly set up home under a rock for the past few years to have missed the discussion about the process of making the film. Linklater charted the life of the central character Mason from 2002 until 2013, essentially filming a dozen short films of around 15 minutes in length covering a year in his life, then stitching them together into a feature film. It’s a mesmerising process to watch, Mason literally aging before our eyes, experiencing things we all share in as well as his own unique personal stories that make him who he is. The process allowed for freedom regarding the narrative and characters as well, with the real-world experiences and tastes of the actors influencing the fictional characters they portrayed: Mason’s interest in photography in his teens, for instance, came from the real interest actor Ellar Coltrane had developed at the time.
Mason’s onscreen sister Samantha is played by Lorelei Linklater, the director’s daughter. At the beginning of the project she essentially demanded to be involved, but lost interest in her early teens to such a degree that she requested her character be killed off (something Linklater refused, feeling it would be too drastic a life event to portray), before her interest was rekindled in her late teens and early adulthood. These attitudes and emotions are reflected within the film itself: Samantha is surly and difficult in her early teens, whilst Mason is quiet and insular, before they both become more outgoing and well-rounded as they reach adulthood.
The parallels between Boyhood and the Before films are many. The sheer ambition and dedication of shooting a single film over more than a decade demands respect, regardless of how the final product may have turned out. The fact it happens to also be a mesmerising and truthful representation of everyday life, that freewheels through the entire spectrum of human emotion, makes it all the more impressive. Arguably, however, even more interesting than a 12-year-long shooting process is the cycle of the Before films that resurface every nine years like cicadas. We will have to wait until 2022 to see if Jesse and Celine’s story will feature another instalment, but if it does then long may it continue. A fictional parallel to the long-running (and truly brilliant) Up series of documentaries (that has revisited a group of British children every seven years since they were seven years old) is a magnificent concept, and there are few better directors to undertake such a project as Richard Linklater. Roll on 2022, 2031, 2040, and on, and on…