The Films of Richard Linklater
Richard Linklater arrived on an intercity bus. Slacker, the 1991 low-budget feature that made the twenty-nine-year-old Texan a household name in households that cherish independent cinema, begins with a shot of Linklater entering Austin by public transit and stepping into a taxi cab. Last month, a limo delivered him to Austin's Paramount Theater, for the world premiere of his fifth feature, The Newton Boys."We're kind of trapped in this one reality," Linklater's arriving slacker tells the taxi driver, at the outset of a film whose meandering camera keeps us free of traps. In Slacker, Linklater plays the first of more than 100 characters whose reality is captured and then released, whenever our gaze moves on. "You know in The Wizard of Oz, where Dorothy meets the Scarcecrow and they do that little dance at the crossroads, and they think about going in all those directions and they end up going in that one direction?" he asks, justifying the digressive structure of Slacker. "All those other directions, just because they thought about them, became separate realities. I mean, they just went on from there and lived the rest of their lives É you know, entirely different movies, but we'll never see it, because we're kind of trapped in this one reality-restriction kind of thing."The five not entirely different movies that Linklater has thus far made are variations on an identical anxiety about being trapped in this one reality-restriction kind of thing. According to Yogi Berra, the crouching sage who determined which way pitches crossed the plate at Yankee Stadium: "When you come to a fork in the road, take it." Seven years after emerging as the most promising filmmaker in and of Texas, Linklater, who calls his production company Detour, has parked himself in the crossroads. The bard of open options, he still impresses most by his potential, as if wary of being caught walking down any particular path. And he does it through a one-track fascination with the theme of deliberately uncommitted potential. Like Ingmar Bergman on Faroe Island, Linklater in Austin is the leader of a repertory family that includes producer Anne Walker-McBay, screenwriter Clark Lee Walker, editor Sandra Adair, cinematographer Lee Daniel, and actors Ethan Hawke and Matthew McConaughey. Sedulous slackers, they are dedicated to exploring tensions between intensity and ease. How many sluggards can you squeeze into a film about a crowded day?Based on the true story of brothers from Uvalde who on June 12, 1924 staged the biggest train robbery in American history, The Newton Boys seems a radical departure from Linklater's earlier work. While the previous films are notoriously neoclassical - each confined to not much more than a single day - The Newton Boys sprawls across five years, and (though actual shooting was done around Austin and San Antonio) from Texas up to Ottawa. Another way to gauge the arc from Slacker through Dazed and Confused (1993), Before Sunrise (1994), and SubUrbia (1997) to The Newton Boys is pecuniary: $23,000 for the first theatrical effort (Linklater shot an earlier piece, It's Impossible to Learn to Plow By Reading Books in1988, on Super-8 for a mere $3,000) to $25 million for the latest, a Twentieth Century Fox release. It is true that, though made in 1993, Dazed and Confused is a period piece, an evocation, through music, clothes, and speech, of the final day of high school in 1976. But, opening in sepia, The Newton Boys is Linklater's first extended excursion into history, and automobiles and costumes were meticulously chosen to be appropriate to the period (1919-1924).(Full disclosure demands an admission that I was officially judged not appropriate. Invited to perform as an extra, I was given an appointment for a costume fitting and instructed to arrive clean-shaven. However, my potential as a movie star evaporated when I decided that the scant remuneration for a day's labor as a smooth face in the crowd was insufficient compensation for facial depilation. Envy is not the motivation for any disparagement of the beardless performances of McConaughey, Hawke, and Skeet Ulrich.)By Hollywood standards, Slacker, whose production values are primitive and whose cast is amateur, is not much of a movie. But for those who kept it -- as well as Dazed and Confused -- running for more than a year at Austin's Dobie Theater, it is more than just a movie; it is a generational anthem, the manifesto of a laid-back sensibility. The Newton Boys, by contrast, is very much a movie, but not much more than that. A bus seems a better vehicle than a limousine for Linklater's special art.The Newton Boys is a radiant string of felonious capers, of exploding safes and clamorous retreats, but it is character not plot that drives the other Linklater films. "If there's any kind of magic in this world, it must be in the attempt of understanding someone else," observes Julie Delpy's Selena in Before Sunrise. Linklater has always been drawn to that kind of magic. It is the personalities of the serendipitous lovers during their brief encounter in Vienna that drives Before Sunrise, just as Slacker is a mobile gallery of local eccentrics, and Dazed and Confused and SubUrbia are each thin on incident, which is incidental to the revelation of character. "I forgot what is was like to just hang out," says Pony (Jayce Bartok), the young rock star in SubUrbia who returns to Burnfield, just to hang out with a group of twentysomething slackers. Dazed and Confused provides the opportunity to just hang out with some twenty teen-agers during eighteen hours of a late spring day.Early in Before Sunrise, Ethan Hawke's Jesse shares his idea for a daily cable TV show that would present twenty-four hours of real time in 365 different cities. "It's like a National Geographic program," replies Selena, "only on people." Indeed, it's like a Linklater film, always on people. The Newton Boys is an ensemble piece, but the people are often less compelling than their escapades.Nevertheless, Linklater himself insists on the integrity of his oeuvre. At Austin's South by Southwest Film Festival in March, he emphasized continuities between the earlier films and The Newton Boys: "It's a character piece, like everything else I've done." And he contends that at least two members of the Newton clan, a band averse to an honest day's work, are kin to the lively deadbeats who hang out elsewhere in the Linklater universe: "I think Willis and Joe were slackers." Producer Walker-McBay observes that for all the largesse of the Fox budget, they were limited to about half the cost of an average Hollywood production, and making The Newton Boys - at eighty-one locations in fifty-six days on a mere $25 million - was more difficult than making Dazed and Confused for $6 million. If the Linklater gang has sold out, the price was paltry.Linklater grew up in Huntsville, and sometimes accompanied his mother on visits to the state penitentiary. "I like the mentality of the outlaw," he told Charlie Rose. What distinguishes the Newtons from the slackers in Linklater's other films is the volition with which they violate the law, how carefully they plan their heists. A genuine slacker would not claim, as the real Willis Newton does in documentary footage interspersed among the final credits of Linklater's movie: "We was just businessmen like doctors and lawyers and storekeepers. Robbin' banks and trains was our business." Neither the aging anarchist in Slacker who dreams of "pulling a Guy Fawkes on the Texas legislature" nor any of the layabouts who loiter outside a convenience store in SubUrbia finds anything to emulate in doctors and lawyers and storekeepers. But the business that Linklater conducts in The Newton Boys is to revel in the rambunctiousness of a bunch of handsome men who happen to rob banks. Boys will be boys, even if they are adult felons. "We are just little thieves stealing from the big thieves," explains McConaughey's Willis to Ulrich's Joe. "The banks have been dealing dirt to our people since before we were born." Yet they are hardly Robin Hoods, since the cash that they filch from the rich goes not to the poor but to sate their own gaudy appetites for clothes, cars, jewels, and women.Linklater is not a cinematic socialist; his sympathies have always lain not so much with the oppressed as with those who opt out -- no, drift out -- of the whole oppressive system. So his latest confection, a celebration of burglars as businessmen, is a departure from the first four films, down the road to commercial entertainment. Glorifying bandits as merely businessmen with pistols and panache, The Newton Boys buys into the capitalist culture that Linklater's early work refused. "Ain't this a hell of a way to make a living!" exclaims Willis as the boys begin to loot a train. Linklater has gone Hollywood not by accepting the imprimatur of Rupert Murdoch's studio or spending enough on one project to feed an entire town in Burkina Faso for a year. His new amusement concerns itself less with living freely than with making a living."Freedom's all there is," declares Jeff (Giovanni Ribisi), the former high school quarterback in SubUrbia who preserves his freedom by never exercising it, by remaining in a state of pure potential, dawdling with pals in a parking lot. "Anything is possible." Because deeds diminish possibilities, slackers do nothing but linger at the crossroads. Linklater himself is barely old enough to run for president, and a progress report must surely be provisional for a filmmaker so skeptical of the goal-oriented. Linklater, who co-founded the Austin Film Society in 1985, and continues to live in Travis County, seems committed to his Texas roots. "This town has always had its share of crazies," says a crazy admirer of Charles Whitman in Slacker, about Austin. "I wouldn't want to live anywhere else." Austin offers enough alternative realities not to be a trap for an ambitious filmmaker suspicious of ambition. Linklater's future projects include a film about Texas high school football. He soon will have to choose whether to run, pass, or kick.