The concept of time and its relation with memory has been mused on and pondered over by several artists over the millennia. Yet, while everyone from Tom Waits to Marcel Proust has had a few words on the slipping by of life, no one has been able to create art dealing with the subject quite like Richard Linklater. Over his prolific and confoundingly interesting career spanning almost three decades, Linklater has captured the passage of time perhaps more honestly than any artist who attempted before him. Linklater understands that to truly be able to understand time and its effects, one cannot look at time as one whole, grand concept, but rather, one should look at the people who exist inside the boundaries of mere hours and days. After all, how better to understand an entire ocean, than to look at the fish that swim inside it? With films like the Before trilogy, Boyhood and even his most recent work, Everybody Wants Some!!, Linklater has crafted films that do not deal with memory and time but rather seem to function as actual memories, existing in a space that seems both defined by time and yet not bound by it at all. Richard Linklater is less a filmmaker than he is a visual memoirist, a fictional documentarian building a sort of laid-back life philosophy through each film of his.
His impeccable debut film, Slacker, took place throughout an entire day in a small, Texas college town. Linklater’s camera meandered from oddball character to oddball character with no palpable sense of direction, often floating out of windows while a character is in mid-speech to follow someone or something else. This strange anti-story storytelling method allowed Linklater to capture intricacies and gloriously interesting mundanities of the town and life in it that could not be captured in a traditional film. Things of no consequence happened, people said things that were quickly forgotten about, time passed. By all means, Slacker should have been the most un-cinematic cinema to ever grace the silver screen. But it wasn’t. It was, is, entertaining, original, and oddly heartfelt. It felt real.
With his next film, Dazed and Confused, Linklater tightened his lens to a specific set of characters but didn’t abandon the wonderful meandering approach he used in Slacker. Here, he followed a group of teenagers on the last night of high school as the navigate parties, predatory seniors, and life itself. Whereas with Slacker Linklater was trying to capture the hazy feel of an entire day, Dazed and Confused paints a vivid and authentic portrait of what it feels like to be a kid freed from the fetters of school. Those hours that follow the final clang of the dismissal bell feel as if they exist in their own dimensional plane. Yet, when the sun begins to rise and the cheap beer begins to wear off, one begins to wonder where those once endless hours have gone. Dazed, more so than Slacker, was the first of Linklater’s many films to deal with time and memory in a way that is wistful and somewhat idealized, but not overtly so. Hopefulness instead of saccharine sentimentality pervades.
With his Before trilogy, Linklater portrays the ever-shifting relationship of two random strangers, Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy), who meet on a train one day in Vienna and then embark on a rambling and pseudo-intellectual journey through time and love. Before Sunrise is as hopeful and quietly exuberant as Dazed and Confused, successfully capturing the power of a single summer night while simultaneously getting what it’s like to be wonderfully infatuated with someone. The follow-up, however, finds the two protagonists meeting after a nine years of seeing none of each other. They are older, scarred by the jagged passage of time. Yet, the hope for the future is still there, and the film ends with Jesse missing his plane to stay with Celine. The third film in the series, taking place another nine years after the second, is somewhat more forlorn and weathered in tone. This shift in tone seems somewhat strange on first glance, but really, it isn’t all that disparate from what Linklater was doing with his earlier films. The end of high school he filmed as a glorious and celebratory affair. The spark of first love he filmed as it is remembered, hopeful and beautiful and somewhat naive. With marriage, and the continuous passage of time, Linklater again portrayed it as we experience it: sad and kind of painful, though not without its moments of joy. Perhaps that is where Linklater has succeeded most in his movies, portraying time as it feels, not as it is. This is part of why his 2014 twelve-years-in-the-making passion project, Boyhood, worked so tremendously. It wasn’t because the film was shot over such a long span of time, although that didn’t hurt, but it was because Linklater understands how human beings experience time, and more importantly, how they remember it. Boyhood was nothing but the same fictional life documentation Linklater’s been doing for years blown up to a grand scale. There is no plot, no real sense of direction, only time.
I once heard someone disparage Richard Linklater because his films “were not filled with striking images.” Film, the disparager opined, is an inherently visual medium. What this person was trying to get at was that Linklater’s movies do not have grand, breathtaking compositions like those of Terrence Malick or latter day Paul Thomas Anderson. That is an admittedly correct assertion; however, positing it as an insult toward Linklater is really just a blatant misunderstanding of his body of work and what he’s trying to do with said work, as well as a very restrictive interpretation of the “film is a visual medium” claim. Film is indeed a visual medium, and Richard Linklater, more than most of his contemporaries, certainly understands this. Linklater was never trying to make any grand visual compositions in his films. All he ever was, and is, trying to do is capture life in all its remarkable mundanity, to make the past feel present and memories feel alive. As Linklater’s character in Waking Life said: “There’s only one instant, and it’s right now. And it’s eternity.” With his collective body of work, Linklater has captured that instant, created a sort of cinematic eternity. He invites us, the stoners and slackers and lovelorn, to bask in the ephemeral, follow the meandering conversations from street corner to cafe and back again, finding meaning in the meaningless.
Featured Image: Orion Classics