David T. Johnson: Richard Linklater (Contemporary Film Directors)
The Contemporary Film Directors series, published by the University of Illinois Press, regularly provides concise book-length studies of the most notable contemporary film directors. Since 2003, the year the series was launched, there have been individual volumes on Abbas Kiarostami, Claire Denis, Edward Yang, Jane Campion, Paul Schrader, Sally Potter, Michael Haneke, Hal Hartley or Jacques Rivette. One of the most recent volumes in the series1 focuses on the work of American film director Richard Linklater. Its author David T. Johnson is an associate professor of English at Salisbury University, Maryland and he also serves as a co-editor of Literature/Film Quarterly, journal devoted to adaptation.
It might be useful to open this review with a short overview of Linklater’s directorial oeuvre. Born in Houston, Texas, Linklater debuted in 1988 with an unusual road movie It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books shot on Super-8. Major success, however, came with his second feature film called Slacker (1991), a prototypical „indie“ produced for $23 000 in Austin, Texas. The film was well-received by both critics and festival audiences (it was screened at the Seattle International Film Festival), primarily on the strength of its ingenious narrative structure which follows approximately thirty characters talking to each other about various topics. Slacker was followed by three other movies that take place over 24 hours or even less: teenpic Dazed and Confused (1993), Linklater’s first studio-financed film; Before Sunrise (1995), a romance set in Vienna starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy; and subUrbia (1996) adapted from a play by Eric Bogosian. In 1998 Linklater directed The Newton Boys, his most expensive movie up to that time. This nostalgic gangster drama, however, failed at the box office and in subsequent years, it was more and more difficult for Linklater to secure financing for his new projects.
His first film in the new millennium was Waking Life (2001), an absorbing example of rotoscoping animation, with a narrative structure similar to Slacker. It was immediately followed by Tape (2001), an intimate drama for three characters shot on digital camera. Between two multiplex comedies about rock’n’roll (The School of Rock, 2003) and baseball (Bad News Bears, 2005), Linklater made a sequel to Before Sunrise, this time set in Paris. Before Sunset stars Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy and takes place nine years after the original film. The technique of rotoscoping was revived in 2006 for a dark adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s dystopian novel A Scanner Darkly (2006). Linklater’s most overtly policital movie to date is probably Fast Food Nation (2006), which exposes the behind-the-scenes workings of food industry. It was followed by an adaptation of Robert Kaplow’s novel Me and Orson Welles (2009) which focuses on several days in the life of a teenager who is hired as an extra on Orson Welles‘ stage production of Julius Caesar. Linklater’s latest film, pseudo-documentary film Bernie (2011) starring Jack Black, was released in April 2012.
What’s really striking about Linklater’s oeuvre is its diversity, which manifests itself in the subjects of the films as well as in their technical and formal strategies. Aware of this „problem“, David Johnson tries to find a commonality among Linklater’s body of work. Even though it wasn’t an easy task, Johnson locates a motif after all, that binds all of Linklater’s films together: the concept of time. The main part of the book, then, focuses on all of Linklater’s movies and particularly their relationship to the abstract category of time. Johnson studies the plot organization, the tension between the plot time and real time (Tape that takes place in real time vs. The Newton Boys which spans several years), the relationship between the past, the present and the future (Before Sunrise and its sequel Before Sunset are perhaps most revealing in this respect), the spontaneity and elusiveness of time (School of Rock among others), the nostalgia (The Newton Boys) or the boundaries between subjectivity and objectivity or sleep and wakefulness (Waking Life).
Even though Johnson favours this particular perspective, he also acknowledges that there are numerous other ways we might talk about Linklater’s films and he is also aware that each of his films is unique, not really susceptible to neat categorizations. The analyses of individual films are rigorous and well-written and together they make a compact whole. Johnson’s comments are persuasive, with lots of examples taken from the films themselves. I also highly appreciate the fact that he includes Linklater’s documentaries in his discussion – namely a short film Live from Shiva’s Dance Floor (2003) and a portrait of Augie Garrido, legendary baseball coach, which premiered on ESPN as Inning by Inning in 2008. The volume also contains an extensive interview with the director, a detailed filmography, a bibliography and an index.
David Johnson’s book is rare and exceptional in the way it might appeal to a large spectrum of readers. Experts on and long-time fans of Linklater will find Johnson’s text fresh and stimulating, while novices, perhaps not familiar with all of the films discussed, might use it as a lucidly written introduction to the work of one of the most remarkable auteurs of contemporary cinema.
- the series was originally edited by James Naremore but in the course of 2011 he was replaced by Justus Nieland and Jennifer Fay [↩]