Two Variety critics agree on the director's best movie — but not until after an epic ramble about Kierkegaard, 'Speed' and Milan Kundera.
JUSTIN CHANG: Andrew, if you’ll allow me a brief (sort of) digression before we get down to business: A few nights ago, as part of our foolhardy mission to rank the films of Richard Linklater, I watched “Waking Life” for the first time since I’d seen it at a college screening in 2001. Back then, we were both sophomores at USC (though we didn’t know each other at the time), and presumably of the ideal age and mindset to groove on the film’s kaleidoscopic visuals and similarly trippy discourse. I recall having been more bored than seduced at the time, though I’m happy to say that my very different reaction following this second viewing — which began around midnight, all the better to cultivate the optimal bleary-eyed dream state — was enough to move “Waking Life” a few notches up my own list.
At a certain point late into the movie, our impressionable young hero (played by Wiley Wiggins) meets a stranger who mutters cryptically in passing: “Kierkegaard’s last words were ‘Sweep me up.’ ” It’s a blink-and-you-miss-it encounter, and yet it drives home the eerie sensation — one borne out by the picture’s closing scenes — that “Waking Life,” its title notwithstanding, is very much a film about death. No less than David Lynch’s “Mulholland Dr.” (also released in 2001, truly a landmark year for head-trip cinema), it occupies a hallucinatory dream-space located between this world and the next — which is to say, in that surreal nether-realm between life and death.
I mention this, Andrew, not merely because you’re probably the only colleague I can imagine dropping a reference to Kierkegaard without batting an eye. As I think we’ll both agree, over the course of his astonishingly prolific and varied career, Linklater has become one of our most thoughtful, adventurous and consistently interesting filmmakers, and also — despite his lively sense of comedy and generally warm view of the human condition — one of the darkest. Because time is Linklater’s great subject (no less than Wong Kar Wai, he is an artist obsessed with the passage of time and the persistence of memory), some of his finest movies are marked not just by a deep sense of loss, but by a profound awareness of how cyclical that loss is.
You feel that in the climax of “Dazed and Confused,” a generational touchstone that peers backward without a trace of nostalgia, and which feels ever more like a time capsule for having captured Matthew McConaughey and Ben Affleck and Parker Posey and Joey Lauren Adams, all fresh-faced and on the cusp of stardom. Linklater’s extraordinary new film, “Boyhood,” memorably climaxes (if that’s the word) with Patricia Arquette bemoaning her empty nest and her own encroaching mortality. I’m still not entirely sure what that “sweep me up” moment in “Waking Life” means, but if it’s an existentialist’s omen of death, it also seems to capture the effect of Linklater’s finest movies: They sweep us up, not in an escapist manner of speaking, but to a place where we are all the more acutely aware of the joys, pains and frustrations of our own finite everyday lives.
ANDREW BARKER: Though he quotes him in “Waking Life,” I don’t think Richard Linklater would have gotten along too well with Soren Kierkegaard. Sure, Kierkegaard’s proto-existentialism, dialogical style and conflicted Christianity might seem to make him an ideal sparring partner, but his bone-deep angst would never jibe with the laid-back Texan bonhomie that gives even Linklater’s bleakest works a sense of pervasive warmth. (In that sense, Kierkegaard probably would have hit it off with Eric Bogosian, screenwriter of what we both agree was one of Linklater’s most misbegotten films, “SubUrbia.”) And yet, flipping through my old copy of Kierkegaard’s “Either/Or,” I see an underlined phrase that might as well serve as the director’s personal motto: “Of all ridiculous things, the most ridiculous is to be busy.”
So where better to start talking about Linklater than that most gloriously unbusy point in our lives: college. Like you, I first encountered “Waking Life” as an undergraduate, and was tickled by the way it so perfectly re-created the experience of daydreaming during a lecture, or napping in the school library. Watching it now, the effect is even more profound, and not without a tinge of sadness.
As you say, Linklater’s great theme is time, and he has become the most sensitive articulator of nostalgia in contemporary cinema. Excessive nostalgia is one of the most diabolical scourges of our era — I’ve been so busy reading lists of “things only ‘90s kids understand” that I’ve hardly had time to browse through the dozen or so essays written about the 20th anniversary of “Speed” — but it’s easy to forget that nostalgia is supposed to represent something deeper than idle reminiscence. In its Greek form, nostalgia is all about suffering, the impossible yearning to reclaim something that is lost. I don’t actually miss boring college lectures any more than I miss “Speed,” but I’m aware that I’ll never again be the 19-year-old who can doze through them, or the 12-year-old catching “Speed” with my father at the multiplex, and this awareness causes me inexplicable pain.
Plenty of filmmakers are attuned to this pain. What really distinguishes Linklater, I think, is his ability to evoke it in the present tense. You see it early on in “Boyhood,” when young Ellar Coltrane paints over the hash marks on the door frame that measured his height — he knows he’s losing something important here, but it’ll be years before he understands exactly what. “Before Sunrise,” probably the most romantic film released in my lifetime, is entirely obsessed with present-tense nostalgia. Jesse (Ethan Hawke) first coaxes Celine (Julie Delpy) off the train by appealing directly to her own anticipation of future regret for not getting off the train. Toward the end of the film, as sunrise approaches, the two lovers stop to “take pictures” of one another in their minds, already missing each other even as they’re standing an arm’s length away.
In his 2000 novella, “Ignorance,” Milan Kundera tackled this phenomenon with great precision, asking of his heroine, “How could she feel nostalgia (for him) when he was right in front of her?” The answer: “You can suffer nostalgia in the presence of your beloved if you glimpse a future in which your beloved is no more.”
This is exactly the type of nostalgia that informs and darkens all of Linklater’s great films, even “Dazed and Confused,” which I would argue has more than just a trace of nostalgia. It may not be mired in the sort of obvious nostalgia for the era of “Slow Ride” and bushy teenage mustaches that characterizes Buzzfeed listicles, but what else would compel Randall “Pink” Floyd (Jason London) to make that last wee hours trip to the football field? Why else do the seniors keep talking about their graduated predecessors as representing some lost, golden high school era? Even Cynthia (Marisa Ribisi), with her passionate plea to stop thinking of the present “as some minor, insignificant preamble to something else,” is quickly and hilariously rebuked by the notion that all existence is but preparation for death. (Life of the party, indeed.)
In the spirit of Jesse and Celine, we could probably volley these ideas back and forth for another 90 minutes, but let’s get down to brass tacks. Preparing to make my Linklater list gave me a wonderful excuse to revisit old favorites and catch up on films I had missed, even if some of them, like “It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books” and “The Newton Boys,” are probably only of interest to dogged completists. But even in the least of his films, the half-baked experiments and halfway attempts to go mainstream, Linklater’s great themes and quirks always stand out if you look closely enough.
For example, there’s not too much to recommend his 2005 remake of “Bad News Bears,” possibly the most generic work in his entire ouevre. And yet, the film is all but saved by the presence of then 13-year-old athlete Sammi Kane Kraft, who tackled Tatum O’Neal’s old role. In casting the 12-year-old hotshot pitcher, a journeyman director might have looked to the Disney Channel’s bullpen of teenage starlets, but Linklater instead called upon a girl with zero acting experience who could actually throw a mean heater, and the film completely comes to life whenever she’s onscreen. I can’t think of another contemporary director who does such great work with amateur actors, even when the work that surrounds it isn’t always up to snuff.
What were your biggest discoveries in your catchup period? Any hidden gems or themes that you found hiding in the margins?
CHANG: One of the pleasures of revisiting Linklater is that you soon realize he’s directed many more good movies than bad ones — it says something that “Slacker,” his still-remarkable and hugely influential 1991 sophomore effort, doesn’t rate higher on our respective lists — and I’m in complete agreement with you that even the less-than-inspired entries show telltale traces of his m.o. That’s true even of a wanly likable period entertainment like “The Newton Boys,” his failed early attempt at a Hollywood breakout hit. You can just about see what attracted Linklater to the story of a charming, shambling, non-violent gang of brotherly bank robbers who fell into their criminal calling almost by accident, even if you wish he’d channeled his time and talent in a more interesting direction.
He did just that a few years later, of course, with the one-two punch of “Waking Life” and “Tape,” though I didn’t catch up with the second half of that double bill until just a few days ago. And I’m glad I did: “Tape” may be minor Linklater, a three-character theater piece shot on cruddy-looking digital video that reminds you, painfully, of all the movies shot on cruddy-looking digital video that have come and gone since. Yet even if the morality play feels a touch over-rigged, the performances remain juicy and lacerating, the editing switchblade-sharp, the staging a thing of wonder. In much the same spirit as the “Before” movies and “Boyhood” (though to markedly different effect), “Tape” delivers that uncanny sense of a filmmaker boldly pushing against the limitations of narrative cinema, imposing radical formal, temporal and spatial constraints on himself in order to transcend them.
Even when he tackles something closer to straightforward narrative — as he does in the problematic “Fast Food Nation,” essentially the laid-back Linklater version of one of those hydra-headed social-issue pieces like “Traffic” or “Syriana” — you can sense the director’s inner humanist/conversationalist at work, enlivening characters and plot points that, in the hands of a cooler, more calculating filmmaker, might have come off as pawns and ciphers. The result doesn’t entirely work, but it’s a flavorsome concoction nonetheless, and there’s no doubt that, as a piece of anti-McDonald’s agitprop, it comes straight from the heart. (Relevant anecdote: When I sat down with Linklater a few months ago to talk about “Boyhood,” at one point his assistant informed him the vegetarian lunch item he’d ordered was no longer on the menu. “Bastards!” he said. Then he ordered a tofu stir fry and grumbled, “I hope they still have their veggie burger.”)
What else? Dude, lay off “Speed,” a movie so enduring it inspired its own 12-years-later Sandy-and-Keanu nostalgia trip in the form of “The Lake House.” Speaking of nostalgia — and to add just one more thought to your staggeringly rich analysis of how that particular concept works in Linklaterland — I must say I had a curious reaction this time around to “Before Sunrise,” a movie I liked well enough when I first saw it years ago, and which this time pushed me to the brink of tears. In addition to that present-tense nostalgia you describe, I found myself actually getting nostalgic for my first viewing — one untainted by knowledge of everything that was going to happen, all the frustrations and compromises and disappointments they were about to endure by spending the next 10 years apart, and the 10 years after that presumably bickering nonstop.
Which brings me, in a roundabout fashion, to our personal picks for Richard Linklater’s best movie — and given how many respectable options we have in front of us, I’m surprised and delighted that we wound up making exactly the same choice. Now, I am on record as having claimed that “Before Midnight,” the third film in the series, represents the richest and fullest installment of this romantic saga. I still think that’s true, insofar as middle age and its discontents naturally give the characters richer, fuller material to work with than their preceding life stages. This is a movie that thrives on the illusion that we’ve come to know this couple as deeply and intimately as they know each other; familiarity breeds not just contempt, but razor-sharp emotional warfare of a sort that recalls Bergman’s “Scenes From a Marriage.”
And yet. Ten years ago, “Before Sunset” struck me as the movie that quietly pushed Linklater to a new level of mastery, and the fact that it’s now the middle child of a trilogy somehow makes it feel even more special. Positioned between the beaming optimism of “Before Sunrise” and the harsh disillusionment of “Before Midnight,” it’s a wistful Parisian pas de deux between erstwhile lovers who are too guarded, too wary of further heartache, to confess until the very last minute how much they still mean to each other. If “Boyhood” is by far Linklater’s most jaw-droppingly ambitious temporal experiment, the real-time brief encounter of “Before Sunset” remains his simplest and most resonant; never before has a clock ticking away in the background sounded more ominous. In roughly the length of time it takes two people to wander from the sixth arrondissement to the 11th, Linklater orchestrates a quietly wrenching suite of emotional epiphanies that feel all the more powerful for taking place beneath a completely believable veneer of naturalism. The movie is a radiant melange of sunlight and shadow — sad and hopeful, casual and momentous, modest and altogether perfect.
BARKER: The “Before” films are all thoroughly sui generis, but the first and third more or less follow well-precedented patterns. “Before Sunrise” is at heart a rather simple love story, flush with feeling and color. “Before Midnight” is a domestic melodrama, pitched halfway between Rohmer and John Updike. But “Before Sunset” is a rarer bird: The film starts by abruptly giving its two protagonists the one thing they want most, then spends the rest of its deceptively relaxed running time forcing them to ask themselves, in arias of increasing desperation, “Oh shit, what now?”
That’s my official reason for putting the film at the top of my Linklater list. And yet I’d be remiss not to mention just how personal the entire “Before” trilogy has been for me over the years, and “Before Sunset” is the most personal of all. Jesse and Celine are roughly a decade older than me, and their various sojourns to the cinema always seem to arrive at precisely the right time, providing invaluable previews of what might lie ahead for me. I was a teenager when I saw the first, and it acted as an alluring advertisement for my impending adulthood, sure to be filled with freedom, romance, travel and provocative conversation. I saw the third with my wife within days of returning from our honeymoon, and it functioned as a stern warning that even the most storybook relationships require clear-eyed strength and honesty to weather the storms of middle age and parenthood.
“Before Sunset,” however, arrived at a particularly important juncture in my life. When I saw it, I was living in Las Vegas, having recently dropped out of college, broken up with a girlfriend, quit the band I’d been playing with for half a decade, and jettisoned most of my possessions. I was sharing a shabby one-bedroom apartment with three people, sleeping on the floor of a walk-in closet, and working a nugatory minimum wage job in the worst casino on the Strip. (Don’t bother looking for it; it’s currently a vacant lot.) A year prior, I had been applying for post-grad fellowships and recording an album. I wasn’t entirely sure how this had happened, either.
It’s quite unlikely that Linklater, Delpy and Hawke intended “Before Sunset” to serve as a sort of “Scared Straight” for wayward twentysomethings, but that’s precisely the function it filled for me, sparking a stark series of epiphanies. Contrary to what “Before Sunrise” might have lead me to believe, the universe does not in fact act as an infinite ATM dispensing chances for adventure and personal growth, and you can easily overdraw your account. Flash decisions made in moments of heedlessness can suddenly become pivotal points of your life. As Paul Westerberg sang, sometimes opportunity knocks once, then the door slams shut.
And yet, “Before Sunset” is anything but a hopeless film. The possibilities for transcendent, transformative experience still exist long into adulthood, you just have to work much harder for them, and they don’t come cheaply. In order to meet Celine for the first time, all Jesse had to do was choose the right seat on the right car; to meet her a second time, he had to write a bestselling novel about her and plan a European book tour on the off-chance that she might show up. The practical consequences of Celine missing her train in “Before Sunrise” were minuscule; the potential consequences of Jesse missing his plane in “Before Sunset” are enormous. But that doesn’t mean all is lost.
As for me, I might have navigated my way into a somewhat dark place, spurning opportunities I would never have again. But I began to realize that life had plenty of wonders left in store for me, they just weren’t likely to drop into my lap while I was moping around playing pool in a Vegas dive bar. In the years that followed, I escaped a city where I was desperately unhappy, found a career, met the love of my life and married her. It would be terribly glib to suggest that a movie can be credited for all of this, but it certainly wouldn’t have happened without the change in perspective that the movie helped provoke. In its own weird little way, that movie changed my life.
But that’s more than enough personal memoir for one day. Perhaps the most unfortunate side effect of ranking Richard Linklater’s rich body of work is that, after having assembled a list, you realize with horror just how low you’ve placed his two excellent collaborations with Jack Black, “Bernie” and “School of Rock.” For most filmmakers, these would rank as career highs, and “School of Rock” is a particularly wonderful little film.
I’ve never met Linklater, and know little about him personally, but it’s hard not to see Black’s protagonist Dewey Finn as a skewed self-portrait of the director himself in his “Slacker” days: Making up in enthusiasm what he lacks in expertise, an unlikely leader rallies his misfit corps of amateurs to create a piece of gloriously imperfect collaborative art with no obvious commercial appeal, all for the sheer pleasure of creating it. Of all of Linklater’s heroes, Dewey may be the silliest and most deluded, but he’s also the happiest, and the film’s credit reel performance of AC/DC’s “It’s a Long Way to the Top” is perhaps the most joyful single scene in his whole filmography. Looking at Linklater’s more recent projects, “Boyhood” and “Bernie” might be the most obvious sequel candidates, but I would kill to see him get this particular band back together.
CHANG: So would I, but that could just be the nostalgia talking. Enough blather, it’s list-sharing time. And after that, let’s go play some pinball.
1. “Before Sunset.” So close to perfect, we might as well just round it all the way up.
2. “Dazed and Confused.” Locates a sweet spot between George Lucas and Francois Truffaut that no one else would’ve even thought to look for. Sometimes mistaken for a simple period comedy, it’s actually the most astute study on the habits and rituals of the American teenager ever commissioned by art or science.
3. “Waking Life.” Despite the frequency with which it’s called “the dream factory,” Hollywood has always been surprisingly reticent to embrace the language and logic of actual dreams. Here’s the rare film that isn’t, luxuriating in the disquieting vacillations between tedium, terror, voluptuousness and hyperreal beauty that characterize our unconscious lives. It’s also the rare film where, were you to briefly fall asleep in the middle of a screening, your experience would only be heightened.
4. “Before Sunrise.” As mentioned in our dialogue, now without the qualifier: The most romantic film released in my lifetime.
5. “Boyhood.” A cinematic experiment of astonishing boldness and sensitivity, “Boyhood” is like an epic Wagnerian opera composed entirely of Siegfried’s pensive wanderings through the forest. It can’t quite manage to go 166 minutes without hitting a few bum notes, but neither could Wagner.
6. “Before Midnight.” A strange sort of horror movie, where no blood is drawn and words are the only weapons wielded. Phenomenally written and performed.
7. “School of Rock.” Proof that Linklater could work within the most mainstream of family-film frameworks and still produce something entirely his own. Only a truly cold-hearted bastard could make it to the end without smiling.
8. “Bernie.” I’m not sure I’d let convicted murder Bernie Tiede live in my garage. But thanks to this film, I’d probably warmly introduce myself if he ever moved in down the street.
9. “Slacker.” Watching “Slacker” in 2014 is like revisiting “Pulp Fiction” or “Stranger Than Paradise” — the film left such an indelible imprint on the next two decades of American indie filmmaking that it can be difficult to spot exactly what was so special about it at the time. But that’s hardly a criticism.
10. “Tape.” A noble if not entirely successful real-time digital experiment, in which you can see Linklater starting to refine the filmmaking philosophy he’ll employ on “Before Sunset” and beyond.
11. “A Scanner Darkly.” “Waking Life” wakes up with a mild headache, flips through a pretty good sci-fi novel, wonders where to go for lunch.
12. “The Newton Boys.” A misfire, but a generally amiable one.
13. “Fast Food Nation.” Infused with obvious passion, just not much of a movie.
14. “It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books.” An interesting look at Linklater’s style in its most embryonic state, already displaying some of its most distinctive elements. Can’t pretend it was much fun to watch, however.
15. “Bad News Bears.” One of the only Linklater films that could have conceivably been made by someone else, enlivened a bit by its young cast.
16. “SubUrbia.” A sometimes ugly collision of two diametrically opposed worldviews, as the imminently sympathetic, humanistic Linklater never seems remotely comfortable with screenwriter Eric Bogosian’s abrasive cynicism.
1. “Before Sunset.” They’ll always have Paris, and so will we.
2. “Boyhood.” It may take some distance (and several more viewings) before I entertain the possibility that this might deserve to be ranked one spot higher. But it’s not too soon to declare Linklater’s astonishing 12-year experiment a landmark of modern cinema, truly a film for all time.
3. “Before Midnight.” The most harrowing movie in the series, and also the funniest. Searingly great.
4. “Dazed and Confused.” A pitch-perfect ’70s snapshot that feels as fresh as the day it was released — which is to say, it positively reeks of beer, pot, sweat, testosterone, lust, anxiety, ketchup and mustard.
5. “School of Rock.” The kids are more than all right — and Jack Black is a marvel — in a comedy so sweet and ebullient, it even lets the uptight school principal (a delightful Joan Cusack) get down with her inner Stevie Nicks. The band rehearsal sequence, set to the Ramones’ “Bonzo Goes to Bitburg,” might be my favorite training montage of all time.
6. “Before Sunrise.” When Jesse first meets Celine, she’s reading Georges Bataille, who once wrote, “I don’t want your love unless you know I am repulsive, and love me even as you know it.”
7. “Bernie.” One of the director’s weirdest, most surprising efforts: an exceedingly bizarre true-crime story, a hilarious work of regional portraiture, and another remarkable showcase for Jack Black.
8. “Waking Life.” Its delight in its own endless verbiage can be as irritating as it is intoxicating, but its gorgeously mercurial images remain Linklater’s purest, most arresting evocation of a world in continual flux.
9. “Slacker.” Flaking life.
10. “A Scanner Darkly.” Lucid yet enigmatic, and more compelling than I remembered: There’s a near-Cronenbergian rigor to the way this tale of drug-fueled mental breakdown refuses to let you get your bearings. Look out for a brief appearance from Marco Perella (“Boyhood,” “Fast Food Nation”) near film’s end.
11. “Tape.” Did he or didn’t he? A bigger mystery: What happened to Robert Sean Leonard’s movie career?
12. “Fast Food Nation.” Linklater’s characters never stop questioning themselves, which is what keeps this ambitious fictionalization of Eric Schlosser’s book from becoming an overdetermined screed. Also, that final glimpse of the killing floor packs an unmistakable punch. (Full disclosure: I wrote that with eight bucks’ worth of Del Taco in my stomach.)
13. “Bad News Bears.” Inessential, perhaps, but no less enjoyable for it. More movies requiring Billy Bob Thornton to be a horrible role model for children, please.
14. “Me and Orson Welles.” An astonishing Christian McKay makes mincemeat out of Zac Efron in this charming, lopsided flashback to the 1930s heyday of radio drama. I’ll take it any day over “My Week With Marilyn.”
15. “SubUrbia.” SubPar.
16. “It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books.” Humdrum and occasionally hypnotic, Linklater’s first feature reveals his early fascination with the mundane — maybe to a fault.
17. “The Newton Boys.” Not without its charms, but there’s finally something trying about a movie with so much nitroglycerin and so little spark.
(NOTE: In preparing our lists, neither of us saw or considered Linklater’s 2008 documentary, “Inning by Inning: A Portrait of a Coach.” Also, Andrew never saw “Me and Orson Welles.” Slacker.)