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L-I-V-I-N: Richard Linklater (Part 2)

Richard Linklater spoke with

“Do not ask your children
to strive for extraordinary lives.

Such striving may seem admirable,
but it is the way of foolishness.

Help them instead to find the wonder
and the marvel of an ordinary life.

Show them the joy of tasting
tomatoes, apples and pears.

Show them how to cry
when pets and people die.

Show them the infinite pleasure
in the touch of a hand.

And make the ordinary come alive for them.
The extraordinary will take care of itself.”

William Martin, The Parent’s Tao Te Ching: Ancient Advice for Modern Parents

Richard Linklater is a thinker. Spending much of his early working life self-educating via classic books, movies and his own ponderous nature, his writer/director films exhibit a need to communicate—to connect with the audience as much as his characters seek real connection to each other. It’s a common theme throughout his work. In some movies, that takes place front and centre (the Before Trilogy), whilst with others, it’s a thread in a much larger tapestry (Boyhood).

But first, that communication begins with the self. When I look at Linklater’s work, I am always struck by the questioning with which his characters seem to be enamoured—the idea that we are all a work-in-progress, and that there are more questions than answers in this life. They don’t seem to be afraid of asking those questions, of standing in both familiar and unfamiliar scenarios, looking inwards and actively participating in their inner, and outer, world(s). And yes, even the folk featured in Slacker. In fact, many seem somewhat comfortable in their own skin despite not having all the answers, and this sense of individualism and composure is strong within all his works. It’s something that I myself strive for but frequently hinder my own progress. It creates in me a fascination with methodologies that are used to attain that kind of self-possession. I don’t know…maybe it’s a never-ending quest of self-discovery?

Artists, athletes, writers, dreamers. Conspiracy theorists, documentary makers, musicians, activists, photographers. They all appear in the films I have mentioned in Part 1 (for instance: Jesse is a writer, Céline is an activist, and Randall ‘Pink’ Floyd is an athlete). Slacker features so many of all of the above. These characters are all strong within their ‘roles’ to date, but many are striving to be more—or at least questioning where they are now, what might be next, and how to make those direction-changing decisions. Their first connection is with themselves, their inner workings, and the need to look at the status quo and debate it. By the end of the films—Dazed, for example—there is no end montage of ‘what happened next’, no validation that what Randall seeks is found. Wooderson (Matthew McConaughey) may say, “You gotta do what Randall Pink Floyd wants to do man. Let me tell you this, the older you do get the more rules they’re gonna try to get you to follow. You just gotta keep livin’ man, L-I-V-I-N,” but there is no certainty that this will happen—that he won’t simply follow the path that appears laid out for him. However, the possibility and the inquiring is there, as Linklater himself said:

“…every decision you make, everything you do, every class you take…you’re making these choices that might affect who you become or who you are. Maybe you don’t know who you are yet. It’s a transitional time of self-exploration and self-discovery and it seemed very poignant. It never ends, by the way.” [1]

He’s right—it never ends. Even at middle-age (ish!), I can attest to that. Most of his characters are attempting to ensure they avoid roads not taken (be it Mason’s mother Olivia in Boyhood, or Mason himself for instance), and that the decisions they reach are considered from all angles. The articulation they demonstrate takes up much of each movie’s running time, but we follow with curiosity and empathy. Some deliberations are obvious e.g. will Randall sign that paper in Dazed and Confused? Will Jesse risk his relationship with his son, or make his plane in Before Sunset? Will Mason pursue photography despite the effect on his other work in Boyhood? What considerations have led to these moments? What might be the outcome? What will be the ripple effect now, and in the future? “I’m interested in people forging their realities,” Linklater states. [1.2] Some deliberations are esoteric and cryptic—as in Waking Life or Slacker—where there is no clear (traditional) narrative to hold on to, and no character to empathise with completely. Linklater presents some historic, age-old questions in the guise of both a coming-of-age college flick and a philosophical dream documentary—he’s comfortable with each.

Richard Linklater’s Boyhood
Can a mom do it all? (Boyhood)

These thinkers are the kinds of individuals that fascinate and resonate with Linklater himself. The ’80s ended with the realisation that, for ‘Generation X’, there were no longer ‘jobs for life’. This economic change affected educational goals, commitment to a primary career path, and the ability to depend upon a steady salary with any associated benefits. Confusing who you are with what you did was becoming less prominent or important if you were self-assured in terms of understanding the social climate you found yourself in. That’s a lot to take in if you’re still in your teens and the ground is ever-shifting beneath you. But did this cause a division in our generation, with some clinging to a career for fear of losing a job in dramatic commercial uncertainty (industries outsourced; the rising internet challenging established consumer consumption habits; industries blindsided by insider dealings and grand theft embezzlement) and the like? And then others, adapting to a freedom from nuclear family units being the anticipated life path, but becoming stuck in a job you hate because that’s just what you do when you leave education? Too many short-term options from a lack of stability, or too little long-term choices from that same lack of stability?

In response to this vocational and somewhat existential turmoil, Linklater reflected on the late 1980s/early 1990s (and what he solidified onto the screen in Slacker) and explained: “Everyone I met was an artist of some kind, a musician or writer or painter; lovers of life, appreciators, and punk rocker-type people…Nobody talked about their jobs, what they had to do to pay their rent…and that’s like Jack Black in School Of Rock: he’s a guy with a passion. I admire anyone who is just living their life and following what they want to do.” [2] I think that occurs to many in his audiences too. Most of us want to be happy. It sounds like a trite statement to make here, but simply put it’s true. We want to indulge our passions and interests and share them. Life feels too short to do otherwise. But it isn’t necessarily easy or straightforward, especially with the kind of shifts taking place in the economic and cultural worlds at that time (and even now).

This seems to be a commonality throughout Linklater’s work. Characters with passion, with individuality, who are not automatically defined by the job that they do, but who they are as people, and what their creative expressions and ideas may be. If they have a job (and most do), they wrestle with the way it fits into their values and beliefs. There is idealism and realism in confrontation with each other, which is oftentimes a position many of us find ourselves in, but is it the subject of movies without a dramatic backdrop of power ballad montages and oftentimes everything-turns-out-alright-in-the-end closures?

And so it is that Linklater’s characters don’t often reach these conclusions by the end of the allocated running time, but instead talk (a lot) before reaching any sort of resolution (if any). But that debate, that internal dialogue that we all have within us, made audible, is invaluable and a part of the journey. It’s an unusual occurrence in mainstream cinema. Conversations that would normally take around five minutes before it’s onto the next scene can take, well, an entire movie for Linklater! (I will look at time, the most unmistakably prevalent commonality in his work, later in this series). His characters interact with one another at length, often vocalising unspoken obsessions, secret anxieties or inconclusive introspections to others that would barely get screen time within another film, and would certainly be used as a bridge to the next dramatic scene. These characters are often self-possessed, but not arrogant or over-confident; able to navigate the world and their place in it, but not with a sense of entitlement or at the expense of others (some might say the antithesis of the stereotype of the next generation to follow—millennials). Most of his protagonists are curious, often relaxed and laid back, experiencing what life has to offer, knowing that the smaller moments are just as important as the larger ones, if not more so. It may be a sweeping (but positive) generalisation to say so, but wasn’t this what our generation is reportedly known for in hindsight, now that cursory accusations of apathy and laziness have been benched?

“…you look back on your life, and, ‘Why am I thinking of that little moment? Why does that one stay in my mind?’ Nothing extraordinary, just a vivid representation of a moment…When you think back on your life, it really isn’t (about) the big moments.” [3] Linklater, 2014.

Looking back to the quote from Wooderson earlier, about rules to follow, reminds me of one of the core areas that Linklater finds important: free will. OK, things may get messy here. Waking Life explores this on a theoretical basis, with one speaker viewing it as an opposing idea to the laws of physics, of God and the idea of rules within existence—the concept that your life is predisposed to a particular way of turning out. “Think about individuality for example. Who you are is mostly a matter of the free choices that you make. Or take responsibility. You can only be held responsible, you can only be found guilty, or you can only be admired and respected for things you did of your own free will.” (University of Texas: Austin philosophy professor David Sosa in Waking Life).

Linklater never seems to settle on one-way-fits-all in his filmic universe, but invites us to examine the evidence through the obvious, academic view (Waking Life, Slacker) or the natural ‘what is my life to be?’ (Dazed and Confused, School of Rock, Slacker, Boyhood, Before Sunset). The movies may change, but some of the narrative threads remain the same. He believes in free will, “In the end, you’re a sum of your choices” and also admits, “I think I’m an old-school existentialist. I should have been a French film-maker in the late 1950s and 60s…So many of my films are very personal explorations of ideas, things I’m trying to learn more about or make peace with.” [4][5] Existentialism, and finding meaning in a meaningless world being the obvious tagline, seems to be core to many of his works. And in fact, simply through the basic ideas behind the films themselves, can we almost see Linklater’s answer to that uncertainty?

Philosophy becomes art in Waking Life
Philosophy and art combine

Many times, and especially through the eyes of his characters (Boyhood being the clearest example of all, across its time span), Linklater suggests that all moments are important. Not just the large, obviously impactful ones, but the smaller, transient moments too. So many of his films rejoice in these, especially Boyhood. Despite initially talking about cinema itself (during a scene in Waking Life), critic André Bazin suggests that all moments are ‘holy moments’ if reality and God are the same thing. Therefore the closer to reality a film is, could it be closer to God? But if Linklater is an existentialist, and meaning is created by the individual and not imposed by a supreme entity, why add this view in his film? It seems that, if Linklater has made some choices in his life and settled some age-old arguments in his own mind, he is offering viewers the same choice—by laying out the foundations for belief and allowing us all to participate, take up the challenge and invest in life the way that we want to, encouraging individuality, and deciding who we are and how we live.

Are we all individuals, with our free will and core faith and conclusions, or do the values imposed on us from society, stereotypes and labels, create our beliefs? Are we our pasts or our current reality whatever we believe that to be? What of determinism, the idea of cause and effect, and the antithesis of free will? In nature, this is indisputably predictable—A leads to B, etc. Are we predisposed to believe in things because nature determined it? These are heavy questions to ask, especially in the (primarily) commercial world of cinema. As for Linklater? As one of his characters suggests, “I think the message here is that we should never simply write ourselves off and see ourselves as the victim of various forces. It’s always our decision who we are.” (Waking Life). If “dream is destiny,” then could dream actually represent hope and faith, where reality has yet to factor in and determinism can thwart the end result? Linklater himself said that he tends to go with the flow, but has a strong will in terms of what work he does and for who. Where then is he within the maelstrom of viewpoints he discusses?

At this point, let me get off the philosophical track (or I will waffle forever). There are better and more knowledgeable people than I to explore these concepts with—feel free to dive in and get educated (or confused!). Back to Linklater and what his films did for me, especially Waking Life. I spent a great deal of time exploring what my life meant, in some ways looking for something definitive. I almost wanted rules—rules that would help me to navigate the feelings I was having (and lack of feelings) during my ‘existential event’ (referenced here). I felt completely adrift, without a compass or map. It’s difficult to describe, but I would look at the people I knew, the job I was doing, my outlook, my future and would find it alien, incomprehensible, abstract. And then the self-medication began…but that’s not for here. Waking Life was akin to a prospectus for my mind. Many of his other films were expressions of that almost-academic approach, shown as/in real life. I needed that and went on to explore much, much more.

All this is, in essence, to say that many of the questions that are asked throughout Linklater’s output revolve around some specific ideals and schools of thought. Recurring themes of free will, determinism, humanism and existentialism are all visited and revisited, sometimes with direct exposure to the ideas at hand (Waking Life, Slacker), and sometimes in the guise of a fun-filled, comedy-marketed, multiplex-friendly movie like Dazed and Confused. Fundamentally, he is communicating with us through various stories, all that he has considered or experienced. And communication itself—connection between people—is another core ingredient in his work. It’s obviously prolific in his Before Trilogy (the subject of my next article), but it’s pervasive in all of his work.

“…when we communicate with one another, and we feel that we’ve connected, and we think that we’re understood, I think we have a feeling of almost spiritual communion. And that feeling might be transient, but I think it’s what we live for.” (Waking Life)

As mentioned earlier, Linklater’s films involve a lot of discourse: interior monologues made exterior, ideas given a voice, decisions debated, creativity expressed, choices investigated, and anxieties confessed. We are privy to the commonplace and the profound—all in the hope/need of achieving something almost spiritual, as the quote above alludes to. He appears to subscribe to the truism that, as animals, we communicate as all animals do, but as human beings, we do much more than just that. We recognise the past and imagine a future. We build communities and relationships built upon like-minded opinions, feelings and aspirations. As people, we are individual and unique, but so too are we in our relations with others. We want to be seen and understood. Not by everyone—although a lot of people might wish that—but at least by someone. 

“Without the sense of fellowship with men of like mind,” Einstein wrote, “life would have seemed to me empty.” [6]

Neuroscientists have long talked about our need for/to connect with others. It’s been a factor in human survival since the dawn of man. Nowadays, the raw, predominantly physical set of needs (hunting for food, capturing animals or avoiding predators, etc.) has disappeared for most. We are all more capable of self-sustainment, at least outside of economically-challenged areas. But our need to connect and communicate is still paramount. Despite the rise of methods that take us away from physical contact—Facebook, Twitter, and the like—they are still methods of communication and interaction, sharing and validation. Yes, they are open to abuse, bullying and ‘fake news’ but so is open, one-on-one or group communication face-to-face (though the scale is obviously different). We still have an intrinsic need to be ‘seen’. Linklater concerns himself with this need. “It’s not necessarily passive to not respond verbally. We’re communicating on, on so many levels simultaneously. Perhaps you’re, you’re perceiving directly.” (Waking Life).

Physical communication provides much more than cyber-tools can. Intimacy is only partially successful via verbal connection or the written word. Non-verbal communication is also key according to Edward G. Wertheim, Ph.D: “We can reinforce, contradict, substitute, complement or emphasise our verbal communication with non-verbal cues such as gestures, expressions and vocal inflection. Avoiding eye contact when we tell someone we love them communicates something far different than do spoken words, just as a bright smile when we say congratulations reinforces the sincerity of our words.” [7] Linklater may not break this down into so many words, but his characters embody and convey this sentiment with every connection they make with each other, particularly in the Before Trilogy.

Back when Slacker was released, Richard Linklater was almost regarded as a spokesperson for Generation X. Another artist considered to be similarly placed was Douglas Coupland. Both shared a similar viewpoint on individualism, creativity (not just via artistry), and a quest for meaning, communication and understanding in the modern world. For instance, in addition to Coupland’s debut novel Generation X, his third book, Life After God, is also a worthwhile accompaniment to Linklater’s films. Exploring similar concepts and engaging with the reader on a multitude of levels, it’s almost uncanny that, despite their reluctance to agree with the media’s view of them, both were sharing parallel notions of belief in the self, compassion and regard for others, rebellion, and the essence and worth of life. Their voices were (and continue to be) somewhat representative of cultural shifts due to globalisation, improvements in communication and accessibility of information, and the dangers and benefits of the changes to societal structures alongside government’s fluctuating democratic aptitude and decline in accountability.

“The powers that be want us to be passive observers…And they haven’t given us any other options outside the occasional, purely symbolic, participatory act of voting. You want the puppet on the right or the puppet on the left? I feel that the time has come to project my own inadequacies and dissatisfactions into the sociopolitical and scientific schemes, let my own lack of a voice be heard,” says one character in Waking Life, before lighting himself on fire, echoing the televised sacrifice of a Buddhist practitioner/demonstrator during the Vietnam war. The imagery from the ’60s carrying forth into a new dimension of protest, and a desperate need for a voice to be heard amidst change that is seemingly uncaring of the repercussions on the very people it is supposed to be championing. It’s interesting to note the patterns that reoccur throughout history and generations. Is humanity on a perpetual loop?

Richard Linklater makes a statement in Waking Life

Linklater gives direct espousal on politics in Waking Life, Last Flag Flying and A Scanner Darkly, and more subtle commentary in the likes of Before Sunset and Before Midnight (Céline’s occupations and interests for instance) and Boyhood. Whether we agree with the viewpoints as watchers of these dramas or merely listen to the points of view shared with us—usually there are opposing points of view to be gleaned, even within the same scene—is up to us. It’s something that I value in his work—the ability to hear the questions, consider the answers, to almost be talked with and not at. Usually, it’s delivered in the most natural of ways, without undue force or bias. In some of his films, he may seem to just want to hang out with us, but it’s not without subtext.

However, in saying that, some of Linklater’s movies could appear somewhat cold and distancing (Slacker or Waking Life). Some of the content is dry, academic, inflammatory (as with the quote above), and just too meaty to take in through one viewing. He’s often using natural elements in performances and atmosphere to create a feeling of accessibility to overcome this. With Waking Life being more a concept, a journey through ideas, he employs a musical score for one of the first times in his movies (usually the soundtrack consists of source music, cars blasting ’70s rock or background radios filling the air—it’s something that he prefers). A Scanner Darkly uses a traditional score, too. Perhaps it helps to humanise complicated narratives and underscores them with an emotional context? Nothing is obtrusive or intrusive. And no matter the subject of the film, that connection to an audience seems to be something that he desires most, and in that way, he is close to John Cassavetes in terms of his direction and content.

The need for dramatic stakes, for an excess of plot to maintain momentum, seems like anathema to Linklater. There are generally no heroes or villains (well, OK, bat-to-the-arse-crazed O’Bannion in Dazed and Confused surely rates as a villain?), no sudden plot twists to pull the rug from under an audience, no bombs, bullets or bloodlust. This resonates with something the director John Cassavetes has said:

“I’ve never seen an exploding helicopter, I’ve never seen anybody go and blow somebody’s head off. So why should I make films about them? But I have seen people destroy themselves in the smallest possible way. I’ve seen people withdraw. I’ve seen people hide behind political ideas, behind dope, behind the sexual revolution, behind fascism, behind hypocrisy, and I’ve myself done all these things. In our films what we are saying is so gentle. It’s gentleness. We have problems, terrible problems, but our problems are human problems.” [8]

Many film commentators have seen the relation of Linklater to European styles, to the work of Luis Buñuel, Godard, Éric Rohmer; however, the American Cassavetes was known for films to follow real life. Human moments which seem just as in keeping with Linklater as the others more commonly linked to him. “I won’t call [my work] entertainment. It’s exploring. It’s asking questions of people,” stated Cassavetes. [9] Linklater is similarly galvanised, “Even on Dazed and Confused, where’s the car wreck? Where’s the teen pregnancy? It’s amazing we got that movie made. But when you think back, the essence of your life is the little stuff, the little things you remember. I’m really counting on the cumulative effect of all this adding up to something, a feeling, an experience, for it to really mirror the ebb and flow of life. I’ve never really been that plot-y. Plots are artificial. Does your life have a plot? It has characters. There is a narrative. There’s a lot of story, a lot of character. But plot? Eh, no.” [10]

The common difficulties of parenting; the challenges and fruitful rewards of a longstanding relationship; the pursuit of dreams and creative urges; the questioning of beliefs and social pressures; and staying true to oneself are commonalities abound in all of Linklater’s work (and these are only a few of them). He firmly plants his feet in the real world in which we all reside. “It’s almost like personal therapy—how to get through life, how to appreciate your moments,” he has said. [11] For me, he seems to have an almost Buddhist-like take on being in the moment, being present, appreciating where you are, what you are doing, and who with and why. It certainly resonates with me, as I notice now time passing at speed, my life (according to the statistical averages) half done. As someone once said, I am a human being, not a human doing. It’s as much about who we are, as it is about what we do. Waking Life had a through-line regarding lucid dreaming, and being able to take control of a dream whilst we are in it. I wonder if Linklater was also giving us a metaphor, to take control of our dreams in ‘real life’, to investigate further who we are, how we will live, and the appreciation of that personal odyssey?

I believe that his films attempt to look at that, with no easy solutions, but with a big heart, looking in on real people and the attendant struggles and successes. One of the main features touched upon so far—communication, relationships, living life—is at the core of what many consider to be Linklater’s biggest triumph: the Before Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight trilogy. And that’s next.









[7] Edward G. Wertheim, Ph.D, 





Written by Paul Billington

25YL site Business Strategist, dabbling in Marketing and also a writer here too!

Lover of 'Twin Peaks', all things David Lynch, a big believer that 'Big Trouble in Little China' may possibly be better than 'Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey'.

Oh, and bacon is awesome and I miss Sherbet Dib Dabs.

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