It’s easy to knock much of contemporary American cinema considering how Hollywood product floods the market. Fortunately, beyond this picture are independent filmmakers who are not only surviving but thriving, working to their own distinctive beat while managing to make movies with significant audience appeal. I can think of no better example than Austin’s own Richard Linklater whose widely released 19th feature Everybody Wants Some!! (http://www.everybodywantssomemovie.com/) opened the city’s South By Southwest Film Festival in March.
Linklater has been trying for years to make a “spiritual sequel” to Dazed and Confused (1993), his iconic drama of late adolescence set on the last day of high school in 1976. Originally titled “That’s What I’m Talking About,” the project stalled for lack of financing in 2009. But the necessary elements came together following the success of his masterwork Boyhood (which should have won the 2015 best picture Oscar). Boyhood ends at the point of entering college and embracing the freedom of young adulthood. That’s where Everybody Wants Some!! begins, at a southeast Texas college campus on August 28, 1980, three days before classes are due to start. The main guy characters are players on the college baseball team.
There’s a semi-autobiographical touch in that Linklater attended Sam Houston University on a baseball scholarship. An English major, he gravitated toward the arts, then immersed himself in film culture. The movie’s storyline is rooted in authentic experience and, drawing on the director’s “Rickipedia” arsenal, nails the period details: the music (the soundtrack is outstanding), the cars, the hairstyles, the clothes, the cultural reference points, the atmosphere in every sense.
The central character, and closest to Linklater’s own, is Jake (Blake Jenner), a freshman pitcher eager to join the team. He’s polite and rather shy, a thoughtful type who also wants to be accepted as one of the guys as he gets settled into the ramshackle house they share. He’s along for the ride as they hang out, check out the fairer sex, and go looking for fun. Linklater has cast a group of diverse and sometimes clashing wisecracking personalities — from an annoying self-centred hotshot (also a pitcher) to a much older stoner whose advice is to “embrace your inner strange.” The baseball coach’s house rules against sex and partying are soon broken with abandon as Jake navigates a boozy testosterone-fuelled long weekend in which he is teased and tested by his new mates. Some of the hijinks are hilarious — the freshmen “batting practice”; the “Manitoba moose” game of doing the “Winnipeg flip” while singing “Oh Canada.”
Amid all the spirited male camaraderie and incessant competitions, however, Jake finds a deeper connection with fine arts major Beverly (Zoey Deutch), the girl who first notices him as the likeable “quiet one” squeezed in the back seat of a car cruising the campus. He pursues her with an intelligence that speaks to a wider horizon on which they are embarking. This isn’t really a movie about baseball (there’s only one scene of the players on the field) as much as it is about a particular moment of passage into adulthood when the future beckons and seems open, when as Jake sees written on the blackboard of his first class, “frontiers are where you find them.” Behind the college pranks, this is the added layer of human observation and self-discovery that Linklater leaves us with in a rambunctiously entertaining comedy made without pretensions by a superb ensemble of little-known actors.
Delving into Linklater’s filmmaking career is the excellent documentary Richard Linklater: Dream is Destiny (http://linklaterdoc.com/) which premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival (where most of Linklater’s films have debuted) and was also a presentation of SXSW. For its Austinite co-directors, Louis Black (a co-founder of SXSW and the Austin Chronicle) and Karen Bernstein, whom I interviewed prior to its last SXSW screening, having the Sundance validation was significant beyond an expected hometown appreciation of the city’s most famous moviemaker.
Linklater is that rare talent who tells human stories touching universal themes while remaining rooted in a specific regional place — namely the progressive liberal environment of Austin — that nurtures his art. That symbiosis is evident from his earliest outside-the-mainstream work — the little-seen self-financed It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow By Reading Books (1988), the Sundance breakout Slacker (1991) made on a micro-budget of $23,000 — to his latest big release reviewed above. The narratives Linklater explores have a resonance with what happens to real people in real situations at real moments in time. Throughout, whether working with studios or not, Linklater has held to an independent vision, earning the respect of actors interviewed for the documentary. “He isn’t willing to compromise” on that, says Boyhood’s Patricia Arquette. “He doesn’t care how Hollywood sees him,” observes Austin-born longtime collaborator Ethan Hawke.
Black and Bernstein provide some background on Linklater’s Texas upbringing and his youthful ambitions to be either a baseball player or novelist, which explains his feel for athletic endeavour along with protean literary and artistic appetites. They don’t intrude further on his private life. Their focus is on the development of his largely self-taught filmmaking prowess. As a college student Linklater fell in love with the movies, helping found the Austin Film Society and creating a supportive, collaborative community out of which emerged the non-conformist ethos of Slacker, a film that connected with a post-Reagan generational zeitgeist.
Moving into bigger-budget productions backed by studios, Linklater had very mixed experiences and results. While the documentary doesn’t gloss over career low points and commercial failures, its emphasis is on the work that has enhanced his reputation. The subtitle “Dream is Destiny” comes from his most haunting and metaphysical feature, the animated Waking Life (2001). Linklater’s process of multi-year collaborations with actors has achieved remarkable results in the “Before” trilogy (Sunrise 1995, Sunset 2004, Midnight 2013) starring Hawke and Julie Delpy, and in the 12-years-in-the-making Boyhood (2014). The flow of time and narrative is so natural that Linklater’s movies often feel improvised, yet that quality arises from rigorous preparation and rehearsing. There’s nothing accidental about his approach.
Secure in his Texas home base, Linklater can perhaps afford to keep some distance from the film business even as he worries about the current difficulties facing independent filmmakers. As he says, “I prefer to spend my time dreaming about stories.”
Although Linklater, 55, is still only in mid-career, his work has already inspired several scholarly books published even before the release of his best films, Before Midnight and Boyhood. As David Johnson observes, Linklater has an exceptional ear for the rhythms of language and speech, for how his characters talk (and they talk a lot) and experience everyday existential moments. Time itself, the flow of life moments and the spaces in between, is a major character in and subject of his films. This is expressed most explicitly in the musings of Waking Life: “We don’t live in the past or the future but always in the present moment, the eternal ‘now.’ . . . There’s only one instant and it’s right now, and it’s eternity.” Moreover, a key theme for Linklater, writes Rob Stone, is that “when allowed the time to express themselves freely, most people find a spiritual quality within themselves that suggests a potential for transcendence.”
Waking Life was notably for its use of “rotoscoping,” an animation technique akin to a computerized camera-pen that transforms live action into images with the appearance of a “lucid dream.” Linklater’s only other animated feature, A Scanner Darkly, an adaption of Philip K. Dick’s science-fiction dystopia, was less successful.
Overall Linklater remains essentially optimistic about the human prospect as can be seen in his celebration of cultural non-conformity and in a questioning and questing spirit that offers imagination and reflection as alternative priorities to those of a competitive capitalist society. While his work is seldom overtly political, he has said “there’s a rebellious, subversive streak in everything I do.” In issue terms that’s most apparent in Fast Food Nation (2006), based on Eric Schlosser’s exposé of an exploitive industrial food system. In interviews Linklater has attacked such corporate behaviour as “sociopathic.” More generally, argues Johnson, his films “often engage in an ongoing critique, progressive in nature, related to the darker side of consumerism, market economies, and the workers who make those systems possible.”
Austin has been a very congenial place in that regard. Notes Rob Stone: “The importance of Austin in the work of the filmmaker is that it is not just a location, but a representation of an alternative state of mind and lifestyle to that of the country that encloses it.” (While I was staying in northeast Austin for SXSW, I noticed the number of lawn signs supporting Bernie Sanders, the socialist contender for the Democratic presidential nomination. My filmmaker hosts jokingly referred to the area, popular with artists, as the “people’s republic of Texas.”)
The protagonists in Linklater’s films are mainly young, or young at heart, who resist being captive to conventional constraints, who, as Stone puts it, “build identities based on literary, philosophical and pop culture references, classic tracks, friendships and the ache of romantic possibilities.”
As Linklater himself ages, it will be interesting to follow how his cinema evolves. What is clear so far from his cultural humanism is its contribution to exploring the moments in people’s lives that make meaningful connections possible.