Though recently feted with some of the best plaudits of his career for the excellent Boyhood, there was a fleeting, indeterminate moment in the early to mid-1990s when the filmmaker Richard Linklater seemed to be not simply a celebrated director, but the embodiment of an ethos, for many people in the city of Austin. His 1991 film Slacker had unwittingly captured an untapped zeitgeist that inhabited the University of Texas and its surrounding neighborhoods, a purely local vision of random, streetwise eccentrics that nevertheless found quick resonance across the country in other college towns and beyond. Linklater’s next film Dazed and Confused (1993) confirmed his instincts as a self-taught filmmaker and as an intuitive social observer, with his laconic camera style and ear for natural dialogue capturing seamlessly the surreptitious oddities and enduring truths of growing up during the 1970s—and, for that matter, growing up generally. But if you were from Austin, these two films, only his second and third, were also graced by a shock of recognition. Though fictional by definition, they resonated like documentaries.
Slacker was released nationally the summer after I graduated from high school, but talk had already been circulating in some quarters about this strange, independent film about Austin, shot down near UT and its vicinity, particularly around Guadalupe, locally known as the Drag—a boulevard of stores and dives that stretches along campus, creating a rough equivalent to Telegraph Street in Berkeley, say, or Franklin Street in Chapel Hill. I still remember sitting in a senior English class with my teacher, a noted aficionado of B-movies, explaining how a former student—someone I knew in fact, though not well—had been asked by Linklater to be in his film. She had declined at the time, much to her regret afterward. (If memory serves, she was asked to be in the bookstore scene involving the JFK assassination conspiracy theorist.) Since Slacker had not yet been released, this rumor had little meaning for me at the time. But after seeing the film, I could identify with the regret.
If you grew up in Austin, especially during the 1970s and 1980s, when it was still a small regional city recovering from the Lyndon Johnson presidency and with little national bearing thereafter, UT was an entry point for the rest of the world. From the suburban vantage point of northwest Austin where I lived, UT, and Guadalupe more specifically, presented a kind of urban grittiness and cultural ferment that one imagined elsewhere, outside of Texas—in places like Los Angeles, perhaps, or even Greenwich Village—with its record stores, used book shops, street front music clubs, student bars, and aging Tex-Mex joints. Much of the scene present then has since vanished. Antone’s, a famous blues venue, which once hosted a late night jam with Bono, the Edge and local legend Stevie Ray Vaughan (no kidding: I remember reading this in the Austin American-Statesman, during The Joshua Tree tour), has long since moved on, though its record store still survives across from the club’s original location. Sound Exchange, another record store I went to, often just to browse, ever short of cash, is also gone. The building it was in still displays outside a scaled drawing of Daniel Johnston’s new sincerity graffito “Hi, how are you?” as a relic of its music past. A then-rare vegetarian restaurant, Martin Brothers, is but a memory, as is Quackenbush’s (better known as Quack’s, featured in Slacker), a coffeehouse where I had my first cappuccino circa 1990. The Tamale House, a corner Tex-Mex takeaway, was also a fixture, well known for cheap tacos well before they became the hipster food-truck phenomenon they are today. Above all, the café Les Amis, also in Slacker, presented an archetype of what urbane European café culture with cigarettes and outdoor seating could be like, despite the withering central Texas heat. Local sophisticates, real and imagined, would reside there. Also long gone: replaced, obscenely for former denizens, with a Starbucks.
Linklater preserved much of this milieu, this unofficial history that dwelled at bus stops, amid bookstore aisles, within trash-strewn sunlit alleyways and between cigarettes. Indeed, beyond this physical geography around UT, his film assiduously captured the wayward personalities that once populated its sleepy streets, restaurant tables and old houses converted into co-ops. To read the characters’ names in Slacker on IMBD is to encounter not people so much as minor existential states of being: Running Late, Walking to Coffee Shop, Dostoyevsky Wannabe, Been on the Moon Since the Fifties, Anti-Traveler, Happy-Go-Lucky Guy, Scooby Doo Philosopher, Old Anarchist, Has Faith in Groups, To Be Buried by History, and so on. These misfit characters, who felt absolutely real in the film, spoke a language I wanted to learn. They inhabited a kind of unconventional worldliness that I wanted to understand, that I had seen firsthand wandering through the same stores and cafes, and which suggested an endless array of secret knowledge: postwar Japanese cinema, European experimental fiction, black radicalism, the Seventies punk-rock movement, alternative spiritualities, nineteenth-century philosophy, and third-world revolution in Latin America, among many other things. It felt heavy. And still unknown.
Against many cinematic depictions of college life and its aftermath, Linklater celebrated knowledge in Slacker, especially its strange, even screwball, incarnations—half-baked Weltanschauungen, often literally so. Yet he did not pursue such a theme in some patronizing or bland, afterschool-special kind of way, but in a manner that took personal obsessions seriously, however idiosyncratic, without apology. Rather than rehashing the familiar tropes of drinking, drugs and sex as defining criteria, what you knew defined you. It felt validating. Though these common tropes have since preoccupied his films (as they did my young adulthood), it felt reassuring at the time that there were other forms of identification, other ways to be cool.
Watching Linklater’s latest film Boyhood brought back these sentiments. Mason Evans, Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) is a boy who grows up in Texas. He has loving (if divorced) parents, and, as with all children, his life is dictated by their lives—their presence and absence, changes in partners, changes in jobs. Mason moves around as a result, joining new schools, making new friends, and, by the end of the film, finding a semblance of identity, even if it still remains in medias res. More life opens up, still more to come. That is the essence of childhood—its progressive modes of enclosure and, eventually, escape.
And yet it is everything. The primary conceit of the film is that it was shot over twelve years to enable viewers to see childhood (at least a version of it) in real time, with Linklater annually working with Coltrane as the actor himself grew up—a much-discussed technical aspect, which similar to Slacker’s mostly nonprofessional cast and undisturbed natural locations, gives the film a documentary feel. Though dramatic scenes are staged, it is unclear at times when Coltrane is acting and when he is simply being himself. Taking on the risk that this method could become a mere gimmick or result in an uninteresting character study—indeed, Linklater’s casting of his daughter as Mason’s sister can be viewed as strategic, hedging his bets that the film could have become Girlhood—the result is an uncanny account of what it means to grow up: both the magnitude and the ordinariness of what it means to live, to arrive at a place of autonomous selfhood.
The manipulation of time in cinema is nothing new, of course. After image-making in all its diversity, the editing of time is the sine qua non of film. But unlike, say, the radical self-awareness that a director like Chris Marker brought to the issue, Linklater has sought a kind of naturalism in Boyhood by both documenting the passage of time and, through unobtrusive editing, leaving it as undisturbed as possible. Further enabling this approach, developed over a number of his films, is the subject matter that Linklater has typically gravitated toward—children, teenagers and outcasts. These social groups, if always present, are nevertheless perpetually misunderstood. They require time—their own time—to be grasped.
This observation explains the approach of blurred genres, hovering between fiction and documentary, frequently undertaken by Linklater. Indeed, he shares a surprising affinity with Martin Scorcese in this regard, despite the sharply contrasting tones and energy in their respective filmographies. Each has a sociological feel for place and a shared interest in popular, though often marginal, subcultures, along with the impulse to explain (and legitimate) their dynamics visually—in Scorcese’s case, best seen in Mean Streets (1973) and Goodfellas (1990), but also at hand in The Wolf of Wall Street (2013). Yet if Scorcese facilitates a type of hyper-kineticism through voiceover, music and editing to propel his narratives and gain omniscience over his material, Linklater has been content to let the unhurried rhythms of life take over, whether his characters are talking in bed after sex, getting stoned on a high school football field or walking through Paris in the diminishing light of late afternoon.
In this sense, the working premise of Boyhood appears less as a technical innovation than as a provisional means for Linklater to consummate a guiding principle that has spanned his entire career. Its daring rests in its “slow” filmmaking attributes, marking an accrual of experience and the attainment of an understated style refined over the past two and half decades. Boyhood constitutes something like a Rosetta Stone for his film work thus far, with its suburban locales, child heroes, errant adults, a crackpot professor (with tenure) at a 24-hour restaurant, among many other elements. But most of all, it imparts an unstated philosophy in much of Linklater’s work: life is self-explanatory, if you give it time, if you observe and listen closely.
Linklater does undertake one experiment in Boyhood that contrasts with much of his preceding work. From the introductory shot of Mason, lying in the grass at school, staring at the sky, to his concluding solitary drive out to West Texas for college, much of the film depicts Mason in thought. In fact, Mason is the least talkative principal character in any of Linklater’s films. Other people speak to Mason constantly—his sister (Lorelei Linklater) sings Britney Spears to him, his father (Ethan Hawke) appeals to him about the illusions of George W. Bush and his alcoholic stepfather (Marco Perella) violently berates him at the dinner table. Above all, his mother (played by an exceptional Patricia Arquette), after worrying about him, assuring him and loving him throughout the film, ultimately confides in him, in a profound scene near the end, as perhaps the only man, after three failed marriages, who might understand her and grasp the meaning of her life.
Mason listens to all of this. He takes it in, and, though often inquisitive, he reveals little over the course of the film about what it all means, or might mean. Not only is he the opposite of his loquacious dad but he is the exact opposite of Jesse, Hawke’s character in the Before series, who seems to have an idea about everything and a concurrent need to announce it. Mason is also a counterpoint to Linklater’s talkative nonconformists in Slacker, Jack Black’s spirited teacher in School of Rock (2006), and the fringe idlers in Waking Life (2001) and A Scanner Darkly (2006)—all of whom express the assumption that conversation, relating in this everyday fashion, is life itself.
Mason, in contrast, is comfortable with silence. His budding interest in photography—its individualism, its speechless, observational nature—confirms this. Linklater, by extension, also appears more comfortable with silence, with its ability to communicate certain states of mind as well as—and, at times, even better than—stream of consciousness dialogue. Indeed, Mason arguably becomes quieter as he matures. To return once more to the final scene with his mother, Mason, who is then about to leave for college, listens attentively to what she is saying, the worst day of her life (her words), a moment where Arquette acknowledges the inevitability of her death—the only moment, aside from an early scene, when the truth of mortality emerges in this film that is all about life. Mason responds by assuring her not to worry. Mason and Linklater defuse the gravity of this moment, a moment of acknowledged adulthood, by offering up the prosaic, even naïve, response of a young man unsure of what to say—a mundane reaction, but one that accurately reflects Mason’s still-evolving capacities as a son, a person still making the transition to being an adult.
This approach that depicts childhood and its intrinsic limitations, yet without condescension, is strikingly reminiscent of Terrence Malick’s recent work in The Tree of Life (2011), a film that is also coincidentally located in central Texas. Malick, like Linklater, similarly has deep roots in Austin. And Malick has always displayed empathy for children and youth, even granting omniscient authority to their views, whether through Holly (Sissy Spacek), the young criminal-narrator in Badlands (1973), or Linda (Linda Manz), the similarly young laborer-narrator in Days of Heaven (1978). The Tree of Life is essentially about boyhood and its unspoken legacies, a film that dwells on the thoughts, sentiments and silence of its main characters. In Boyhood Linklater reveals many affinities with Malick in this regard, and, if unacknowledged before, a broader set of shared traits can be discerned—a concern for place, for the marginalized, for the tempos of daily life. Differences remain too, for sure. If both display a deep love of European cinema and have attempted to apply its techniques to an American context, Malick is more likely to do so visually, with B-roll footage of tidal sea grass (The Tree of Life) or an image of a boy holding his arms in the air in bright sunlight (The Thin Red Line) that call to mind Andrei Tarkovsky’s films. Linklater, in contrast, tends to reference his influences structurally, with Before Sunrise and its sequels drawing from the fluid narrative formats of Eric Rohmer. The conversations between Jesse and Celine (Julie Delpy) are significant in this regard, the casual interplay between Jesse’s chatty optimism and Celine’s more considered and cerebral manner appearing to capture in dialogic form Linklater’s own Euro-American sensibility.
I recently had the opportunity to see Linklater and Coltrane speak at the Texas Book Festival in Austin. The occasion was the release of a new book of photographs and essays about Boyhood. As with most events of this kind, time was too short, the sound was bad and there were too many people to grant any sense of intimacy. Linklater did discuss at length, however, his motivations and process for doing the film. In terms of concept, his idea of shooting over twelve years was, prima facie, well received by producers, but when asked by them what the film was “about,” he had no clear answer. Similarly, when asked about script writing, Linklater said he knew what the final shot would be ten years before production would end, but he did not know what the dialogue would be in the climactic scene between Mason and his mother—those lines had to reveal themselves over time. Linklater further remarked that making Boyhood was akin to making twelve short films rather than a single one, and that this process usefully enabled revision and gestation, in addition to a lingering sense of productive uncertainty. When asked by a member of the audience if he was ever afraid that, in the end, people would not find Mason’s story very interesting, Linklater firmly replied, no, he believed in the power of the camera—of cinema—to make any life interesting, if you focused enough time and attention on it.
I watched Slacker again several years ago, and it struck me as a time capsule—similar to the documentary feel it imparted the first time I viewed it, but with the added difference of over two decades, with many of places in the film now gone, as cited earlier. The car dealerships on Lamar that are in the backdrop of a scene with Frank Orrall (of the band Poi Dog Pondering) at G/M Steakhouse have since become prime real estate. An REI and Anthropologie now occupy that space, as well as the flagship store of Whole Foods, which used to be a trippy hippie institution of Old Austin during the early 1980s, but is now, of course, a global corporate behemoth that straddles the Atlantic. Walking into a coffeehouse on the Drag these days, you’re more likely to hear careerist students concerned about grades or a patron talking over his cell phone about sales figures and financial investments than political theories of the oppressed or the philosophy gained from getting stoned and watching afternoon cartoons. (Scooby Doo Philosopher was right about our economy of bribery, by the way.)
All films are ultimately an epitaph to a particular time, place and mood, with Linklater’s achievement in his second picture being his skill at seizing an ephemeral, homegrown authenticity before it disappeared. As suggested at the start, Linklater himself represented this ethos of a local, DIY ferment—not only through his character sketch of Should Have Stayed at [the] Bus Station (his role in the opening to Slacker), but through his autodidactic, stayed-in-Austin, decidedly un-Hollywood persona. He had the same presence at the book festival. Indeed, Linklater sharply contrasts with another Austin persona, Lance Armstrong, who introduced another ethos to the city in the 2000s—one literally and figuratively dependent on artificial enhancement, which regrettably displaced for a time the purer ethical vision held by Linklater that disregarded individual competition in favor of the virtues of collaboration and the forms of truth that can emerge from democratic filmmaking.
For sure, one should not confuse the sense of insouciance often witnessed on screen with the labor involved in creating that impression of casual indifference. By many accounts, Linklater is anything but a slacker, and his productivity attests to this. Still, as mentioned briefly in passing earlier, Boyhood has unwittingly captured another zeitgeist—a contemporary cultural trend centered on the local and an attendant appreciation for slow, deliberate craftsmanship. This movement has so far centered on the literary and culinary arts, but Linklater, following a select few like Michael Apted, has applied this approach to film. It promises a form of resistance to the visual exhaustion found in a range of movies, from popcorn franchises, such as The Avengers, to the higher brow, but no less energetic and visually restless, directing of Scorcese, Alejandro González Iñárritu, and others.
Linklater himself has not verbally articulated such a method, but he doesn’t need to. In the final sequence of Boyhood, we watch Mason venture with some new friends into the deep canyons of Big Bend in the remote reaches of West Texas. The beauty of this moment resides not simply with the fluid shots of high sandstone walls cast in the fading, golden hour light of day, but with Linklater’s precise visual juxtaposition of this geological time with Mason’s own story. In a manner akin to (yet far more subtle than) Malick’s cosmic montage in The Tree of Life, we understand immediately the fleeting significance of the individual life—of life generally—against this backdrop of enduring, endless change.
Directors may seize moments, and moments may seize directors. But Richard Linklater also appears content to let time—the ethic of time, and its universal lessons—have the upper hand.