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Charlie Kaufman and Hollywood's Merry Band of Pranksters, Fabulists and Dreamers: An Excursion Into the American New Wave
By Derek Hill
Oldcastle BooksCopyright © 2008 Derek Hill
All rights reserved.
'As a filmmaker I trust that there is this core of people that I can communicate with. There's something inside people ... If I'm honest with myself, there is a connection, people will respond to that. If you have to anticipate emotions, create them artificially, you're rudderless. Then you don't know, it's all hit and miss. "I think this will affect people emotionally," but if it doesn't affect you emotionally, you're dead.' – Richard Linklater
Along with David O. Russell, director Richard Linklater is the conscience, the socially aware yet inwardly drawn soul of this loose collective of filmmakers. He is also America's finest, and least acknowledged, action-film director. The action may exist solely in the mind, but Linklater's consciousness-shifting drifters and vagabonds are always on the move telepathically, always searching for a new way to engage life below the radar and on their own terms. Whether Linklater is chronicling the not-so-passive, neo-bohemian slackers that populate Austin, Texas, burrowing deep within the troubled psyche of an undercover narcotics agent who is spying on himself, or going all family friendly with Jack Black being ... well, Jack Black, Linklater is consistently examining the furrowed mindscape of contemporary American life in all its meandering stoner logic and increasingly worrying paranoia, suspicion, and apathy.
The Austin-based Linklater first arrived on the American independent film scene in 1991 with the release of Slacker, a deceptively wayward, low-budget art film that chronicled a day in the life of college town Austin and some of its roustabout, fringe-dwelling citizen-dreamers as they simultaneously fell away from yet aggressively engaged existence. The film was, along with Steven Soderbergh's sex, lies, and videotape (1989), a pivotal moment in the maturation of the so-called Sundance generation. If Linklater's film received far less critical praise (and awards) than Soderbergh's coolly-drawn suburban existential melodrama, time has been far kinder to Linklater's misfits than to Soderbergh's neurotics.
Linklater, who moved to Austin in the mid-1980s, had spent the early years of the Reagan decade somewhat attending an East Texas college, working as an offshore oil rigger, or doing what many aspiring filmmakers do before actually digging deep in the actual physical process of filmmaking – lazing about at his parents house and watching lots of films at the local cinema. Eventually, though, the idea of making a low-budget film himself started to take hold while living in Austin. Like many a cinephile before (the nouvelle vague filmmakers and critics were integral members of film clubs while working for their respective film journals) and after him, Linklater co-founded his own film club in 1985. The Austin Film Society, a non-profit organisation dedicated to regional film, quality fringe cinema, and rarely seen classics, is still very much active today, listing Charles Burnett, Guillermo del Toro, Jonathan Demme, Mike Judge, Robert Rodriguez, Nancy Savoca, John Sayles, Steven Soderbergh, Paul Steckler, Quentin Tarantino, Elizabeth Avellan, and Kevin Smith among its board of advisers. And when not showcasing films, the AFS dedicates itself to overseeing the Austin Studios production facility, and supporting the work of regional directors, among other things.
Much like the DIY aesthetic of American hardcore punk bands such as Black Flag, The Dead Kennedys, Minor Threat, Husker Du, and countless others that roamed from college town to big city back to college town in rundown vans just to play their music with little or no regard for commercial viability, Linklater gambled everything on realising his first foray into feature filmmaking, Slacker. The ultra-low-budget film, after weathering plenty of shrugs and confusion from festival programmers and critics alike, would eventually earn over $1,000,000 from an estimated cost of $23,000. Not too bad for a film where supposedly nothing happens.
With the success of Slacker, Linklater went on to make the underrated Dazed and Confused (1993), a thoughtful, funny, teenage reminiscence set on the last day of school circa 1976 that eschewed many of the typical clichés found in the American high school sub-genre and took a laid-back free ride to a past that has been horrifyingly misremembered and cloyingly sentimentalised by films and television shows alike. The film, distributed by Gramercy Pictures (a subsidiary of Universal Pictures), was dumped into the box-office trough and, unsurprisingly, did not perform well. But over the years the film, which launched a number of future stars or screen favourites such as Ben Affleck, Matthew McConaughey, Milla Jovovich, Joey Lauren Adams, Parker Posey, and Adam Goldberg to name just a few, has entered the cult zone and is arguably a bona fide stoner classic that has plenty of depth swirling through its green haze.
Next came the intimate two-character romance, Before Sunrise (1995), starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, detailed in depth later in this book. A year on Linklater returned to an ensemble cast when he collaborated with New York City-based actor/playwright Eric Bogosian for the 1997 film subUrbia, which centred on a group of wayward 20-somethings who become even more emotionally dissolute when a former comrade (now a rock star) from their group returns to the teen-age wasteland of deserted parking lots, convenience stores, and fast-food joints, further turning a boring night into an irretrievably bad one. Starring Giovanni Ribisi, Nicky Katt, Steve Zahn, and Parker Posey, the film is a far more cynical and darker view of the lost years of youth than Linklater's earlier films (no doubt because the script was written by Bogosian based on his play, though Linklater did work closely with him on the adaptation) and reviews were generally kind. Janet Maslin of the New York Times found the film 'toxically satirical' and felt that 'its murderous mix of junk food, wasted time, petty envy and gallows humor ... [created] ... a truly ghostly view ...' of its desolate locale. The Los Angeles Times critic Jack Mathews, on the other hand, felt that Linklater was treading old ground in his fourth film and that it was 'darker and nastier' than the material we had become accustomed to from the cautiously optimistic Truffaut from Austin.
One doesn't usually think of historical films when Linklater's name comes up, but the director had long harboured a desire to make a film about the infamous though genial Newton Boys, who robbed banks and trains through North America in the early part of the twentieth century and never once fired a shot. Starring Matthew McConaughey, Skeet Ulrich, Ethan Hawke, and Vincent D'Ono frio, the film was Linklater's first substantially budgeted film ($27,000,000) and an opportunity for him to branch out further and show that he wasn't just the guy who made films about college-age slackers. Audiences, unfortunately, stayed away. But some astute critics, namely Jonathan Rosenbaum from the Chicago Reader, proclaimed that the film might be Linklater's Jules et Jim and praised the film's 'astonishing handling of period detail and its gentleness of spirit'. Almost ten years on, the film seems ripe for reappraisal.
Linklater's experimental animated film Waking Life (detailed later) arrived three years later. The digitally shot, three-character drama Tape was also released in 2001 (just a few weeks after Waking Life), based on the seedy play by Steven Belber, starring Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman, and Robert Sean Leonard.
In 2003, Linklater would direct his friend Timothy 'Speed' Levitch, who was the subject of the 1998 documentary The Cruise directed by Bennett Miller (Capote) and would have an equally memorable, though shorter, role in Waking Life, in the short film Live from Shiva's Dance Floor. Linklater would also surprise many by doing the impossible. Not because he didn't have the talent, of course, but because very few would have dared to believe that his next film, School of Rock (2003), would become a major hit. Not a blockbuster perhaps, but impressive enough that the film's success would serve him well with many in Hollywood for years to come. Written by Mike White – who penned and starred in the indie-favourite Chuck & Buck (2000) – and starring Jack Black, the family-friendly comedy extolling the virtues of rock in all its blistering aural confections is far from the 'sell-out' many feared and a perfect showcase for a comedic actor who had rarely been better in feature films. There's a genuine sense of rowdy esprit to it. It's also a film well aware of the 'cute kid' nausea threshold, managing to thankfully pull back from any embarrassments. A strange yet welcome diversion for the filmmaker.
Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy returned to the characters from Be fore Sunrise with a sequel set some ten years on. The film, Before Sunset (2004), is equally rewarding – maybe even more so. Another family-friendly film followed in 2005, this time a remake of Michael Richie's Bad News Bears, starring Billy Bob Thornton in the role of Buttermaker, the alcoholic and cigar-chomping Little League Baseball manager originally made famous by Walter Matthau. Unlike the successful School of Rock, the film barely broke even. Following this in 2006, Linklater made two of his most interesting and timely films, A Scanner Darkly and Fast Food Nation.
Currently, the filmmaker is undertaking his most ambitious project – Boyhood. Though he started filming in 2001, the film will not be finished or seen until 2013 as it chronicles the raising of a child from the age of six to eighteen years of age. Linklater and his principal actors – Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke as the parents, Ellar Salmon as their son – meet once a year to film their 'story', blurring the lines between reality and fiction in the hope of capturing that elusive 'holy moment', a term used by Linklater in Waking Life to describe André Bazin's theory concerning the possibility that film could be a spiritually transformative experience and that the camera is sometimes able to seize on a beautiful flash of truth within the illusion.
Slacker (1991) & Waking Life (2001)
Directed by: Richard Linklater
Written by: Richard Linklater
Produced by: Richard Linklater (Slacker); Tommy Pallota, Jonah Smith, Anne Walker-McBay, Palmer West (Waking Life)
Edited by: Scott Rhodes (Slacker); Sandra Adair (Waking Life)
Cinematography by: Lee Daniels (Slacker); Richard Linklater, Tommy Pallota (Waking Life)
Cast: a whole slew of slackers, dreamers, and mostly non-actors
'Uh, I don't do much really, I just read, and work here, and, uh, sleep and eat, and, uh, watch movies.' – The Anti-Artist states his role in the grand mystery of it all in Slacker.
'Resistance is not futile, we're gonna win this thing, humankind is too good, we're not a bunch of under-achievers! We're gonna stand up, and we're gonna be human beings. We're going to get fired up about the real things, the things that matter! Creativity and the dynamic human spirit that refuses to submit.' – Firebrand Alex Jones likewise states his case in Waking Life.
Slacker is a film that frustrates, mystifies, and bores as many people as it charms others, who find within its absurdist, meandering soul a cinematic reflection of their own under-the-radar college years, or who can relate in some way to the film's ensemble of open books, so to speak, who are tripping, bickering, loafing, but, more importantly, philosophising their way through life. The camera floats around these self-styled Oblomovs, these conjurors of reality, as they impress their uncensored worldviews upon anyone who brushes into their solipsist fantasies, and Linklater – in a hallmark of most of his films – never passes judgement. Not that any of these characters, relegated to purgatory within the margins of anyone else's script, could care less what anyone thought about them.
From the first character that we see – the guy on the bus, played by Linklater, who jumps in a cab and begins inundating the driver with talk of a strange dream he just had about the possibility of a single thought sparking an alternate reality right around the corner – to the final joyous moments when one of a group of youths, equipped with the necessary equipment for documenting life in the moment (Super 8 cameras), gleefully hurls his machine over the cliff, thereby reminding us that life does indeed exist beyond the frame, Slacker is a showcase of people seeking to infuse their lives with meaning. You may not always agree or even like many of the wildly disparate flock of over-and-under-achieving ne'er-do-wells that crowd this 100-minute film, but you have to respect them as they maintain mental sobriety beyond the fringe. As one character, the slightly menacing hitchhiker (Charles Gunning), boasts to a small film crew about his seemingly wayward existence, 'Look at me. I'm making it. I may live badly, but at least I don't have to work to do it'. Not surprisingly, many of the film's most vehement detractors would claim otherwise.
Linklater's La Ronde-styled (sans interlocutor) carousel of wanderers, missing persons, JFK conspiracy theoreticians, aging anarchists, jaded lovers, matricide-minded, beetle-eyed Boy Scouts, shut ins, and other assorted 'everyday people' was first hatched in the mid-1980s, after he had moved to Austin and began doing what any young aspiring filmmaker does if he or she wants to 'break into' the film industry – make films. And Linklater made plenty of them. Mostly they were experimental short film endeavours that were meant to teach him technique and sharpen what directorial skills he had picked up from a steady diet of watching and dissecting films (classic European art house, experimental, and a heavy slab of good ol' prime American cinema), and from reading books on film theory and directors. He was consumed by film, and as Linklater stated in the commentary for his first feature, the Super 8-lensed It's Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books, his life outside of film was a 'void'.
Plow was completed in 1988 and cost around $3,000. It is a curious and confused amalgam of low-rent American existentialism by way of avant-garde filmmakers such as James Benning and the New German Cinema from the 1970s, especially Wim Wenders' adaptation of Peter Handke's novel Die Angst des Tormanns beim Elfmete/The Goalkeeper's Fear of the Penalty (1972), documentary, and experimental underground cinema. The meandering narrative focuses on an unnamed protagonist, played by Linklater, who wanders around his hometown, hops a train and rides up to Montana to stay with a friend, hangs out, and eventually wanders back home where it can be realistically argued that either he or his more verbal doppelganger eventually trips out of the frame of his own story and into the cosmic celluloid mélange of Linklater's breakthrough film. It is in fact possible that the philosophising traveller at the beginning of Slacker is indeed the same character. Linklater would again make an appearance in a similar role at the beginning of Waking Life.
Plow definitely has some tantalising moments – Linklater's character leaving a note for a sleeping young woman he had spent some time with at the train station – and a strange moment when the shirtless unnamed man fires a rifle out of the top storey of his house before embarking on his trip, a significant narrative jolt to say the least. But Linklater refuses to wander down the narrative path of turning our protagonist into some deadpan spree killer, a low-rent Charles Whitman. A narrative like that was not of interest to the then-emerging filmmaker, and though subsequent films would adhere more closely to traditional dramatic structure, Linklater has always been an affable anti-structuralist (not in a strict academic sense) and has always favoured the capricious verbal sauntering that flows from dialogue and character over plot contrivances.
But despite Plow's flaws, it was a significant marker in the cinematic evolution of Linklater, and would serve him well when he burrowed deeper into the more ambitious Slacker. The latter's loose structure and fondness for camera takes that never centre on one character for too long built upon the lessons learned from the earlier film and expanded Plow's vague ideas about isolation and alienation. Unlike the nameless drifter in Plow, who really is empty inside and does not feel any real urgency to connect with anyone outside of his own head, the characters in Slacker cannot stop attempting to connect, much to the dismay of the person being assaulted by whatever emerging reality is crashing down upon them.
Excerpted from Charlie Kaufman and Hollywood's Merry Band of Pranksters, Fabulists and Dreamers: An Excursion Into the American New Wave by Derek Hill. Copyright © 2008 Derek Hill. Excerpted by permission of Oldcastle Books.
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Table of Contents
David O. Russell,