In the wake of Boyhood’s lackluster haul at the recently held Academy Awards — it won only one Oscar, despite six nominations — I’ve been thinking about the film’s writer/director Richard Linklater.
Boyhood was a momentous task in which Linklater gathered the same group of actors together for a few days each year, for a period of 12 years, and filmed the story of a kid growing up in Texas. Thus, the actors aged at exactly the same rate as their characters.
It’s an original approach, to be sure, but not unexpected from a director like Linklater, who has quietly become one of the most important American filmmakers of the last quarter-century.
His career began in earnest with the release of Slacker in 1991, which created a mosaic of life in Austin, Texas, in which the camera followed one weirdo after another as they ambled through town, occasionally bumping into one another.
With this film, Linklater established many of the trademarks that would colour his subsequent film career: it took place within one 24-hour period, it had no traditional plot, and it allowed its characters to talk and talk and talk.
His more polished second film, Dazed and Confused, is about a disparate cross-section of teenagers out for a good time on the last day of school, 1976. The various high school sub-groups (stoners, nerds, jocks) are all accounted for, but the dialogue is so idiosyncratic that the characters transcend their clichés to become individuals:
“I’m just trying to be honest about being a misanthrope,” says one nerd to another.
Dazed and Confused also happens to be the greatest party movie ever made. From 1995 to 2013 Linklater released three films, nine years apart from each other — Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight. They feature Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy as Jesse and Celine at nine-year intervals of their lives — a taste of Linklater’s real-time aspirations realized with Boyhood.
They meet, fall in love, and part ways in the first film, meet for the second time in the next film, and are mired in marital strife by the third. Though they undergo changes from film to film, their penchant for pontification remains — which is somewhat over-the-top. Still, any filmmaker who lets their characters pontificate is a minor revolutionary these days.
Waking Life (2001) is a groundbreaking flick in its own little way. The actors where fi lmed fi rst and then animated, giving the onscreen characters a trippy, lifelike vibe. This aesthetic choice compliments the film’s “plot” well, in which a man drifts in a dream-like state while contemplating philosophical concepts.
Who else makes such movies? All the films mentioned above (even Dazed and Confused) feature intelligent characters and aim for subtle moments of human truth at the expense of contrived plot points. If Linklater’s films seem unremarkable, it is because they are designed to seem that way.
His goal isn’t to grant us an entertaining reprieve from the boredom of life; it’s to show us that life isn’t boring at all.