Posts Tagged ‘richard linklater’

Slackerposter

It’s weird — when pressed to name my favorite filmmakers, I’m not even sure that Richard Linklater would immediately come to mind, but he fucking well deserves to. I’ve at the very least enjoyed — and frequently even flat-out loved — every single flick I’ve seen that he’s directed.  Sure, longtime readers of this site will know of my absolute and undying devotion to the “Before” trilogy, but BernieWaking Life,  A Scanner DarklyFast Food Nation, and the movie under our little metaphorical microscope here today, 1991’s Slacker (which was, in fact, his debut feature) were all masterpieces in their own right, as well.

I’ve been on something of a Linklater kick lately in preparation for seeing his much-anticipated Boyhood when it opens here in Minneapolis this weekend, but of all the films I’ve revisited, it’s been Slacker that stuck with me the most. In fact, I watched it two times in a row on Netflix the other night (it’s also available in superb DVD and Blu-Ray iterations from Criterion), and it’s kind of been wedged in my brain ever since.

Which may just be evidence of my much-delayed mid-life crisis finally kicking in, but I think there’s more to it than that.

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For those unfamiliar with the basic premise of the story here, rest easy — there isn’t one. Linklater just staged a bunch of scenes around his hometown of Austin, Texas that feature non-professional actors (including himself, in the movie’s opening vignette, as a guy who just got back to town and is taking a cab ride while expounding on some half-baked alternate reality theories) portraying people who were probably very much like themselves — go-nowhere, “Generation X” layabouts with nothing to do and all day to do it.

In fairness, some of the characters we’re introduced to — the JFK conspiracy theorist, the paranoid UFO enthusiast, the young guys rambling on about Freemasons, the elderly anarchist who’s a   fan of notorious bell tower shooter Charles Whitman — are probably the kind of folks you’re only likely to find in Austin (unless you’re looking really hard), but by and large the cast is populated with people we all know, or at the very least all knew, depending on how old you are.

I admit that Slacker hit a good few years before my own “Generation X wastoid” period kicked in, but the long conversations over beers, sitting in bars half-listening to crummy bands no one cares about, and random encounters with other people who aren’t up to much on a particular day are all things I know intimately from  my own experience. Even if I was more into black metal than I ever was “grunge” rock, and even though I never really got with the whole un-tucked flannel shirt look, there’s a definite sense of “holy shit, this was my life” that’s been hanging around in the back of my mind the past couple of days.

Here’s the thing, though — while almost anybody on the “other side” of 40 is prone to trips down memory lane and lengthy internal ruminations on the question of “where the hell did my life go, anyway?,” Slacker gets the whole zeitgesit  of those times so impeccably right that it doesn’t just get the wheels of your memory spinning, it puts you right back there. Sorry, but the more famous relics of “Generation X” cinema like Reality Bites and even Pulp Fiction just can’t do that — which goes to show that as a document of its time and place, Linklater’s little low-budget mockumentary-before-there-was-such-a-thing is an enduring, if entirely accidental, success.

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In fairness, it certainly has its flaws — the spaced-out chick with the supposed Madonna pap smear and the shut-in with all the TVs (both of whom are pictured in the stills reproduced above) are probably not approximations of any sort of reality, even early-’90s Austin, but they’re still memorable and fun characters, and it’s easy enough, for a time, to believe that people like that existed, even if they didn’t. That slight propensity for exaggeration keeps Slacker from claiming the mantle of the definitive media portrayal of “Generation X” — in my opinion, Peter Bagge’s seminal comics series Hate is the holder of that title — but it comes pretty darn close, and really these occasional sidesteps into OTT territory don’t diminish the overall effect of what Linklater’s going for here so much as they simply overdo it (though not to the point where it becomes annoying, thankfully).

As a hindsight-added bonus that can only come from viewing this thing again over 20 years (!) after its initial release, there are a couple of surprising things that stand out : 1) In a very real sense, for good or ill, many of the cultural memes started by “Generation X” never really went away; sure, those of us who were there at the time got older — that’s kinda how life works, I’m told — but “slackers” are everywhere now, they’re just called “hipsters”; and 2) in an equally very real sense, these “slackers”/”hipsters” — at least the commercially astute ones, at any rate — won out. The Austin of 1991 is nothing like the Austin of today, with the monstrosity that is SXSW having basically taken over every aspect of the town’s existence, but that’s proof positive of exactly what I’m talking about. The “alternative” music, movies, and other media that took their baby steps in the early ’90s are the establishment now, and the moguls who run the show at the film and TV studios, record labels, and various other electronic and print “entertainment” and “news” (two terms that are becoming almost indistinguishable from each other) outlets are often former “slackers” themselves whose tastes are very much a product of the times in which they grew up.

This ascendancy of one-time “X-ers” to the top of the media pyramid has its good and bad points, of course — on the plus side side we’ve got the veritable creative renaissance going on at Image Comics at the moment, on the minus side there’s Mumford And Sons — but that’s true of all generations before, and will remain the case for every generation that follows. Still, the simple fact  that a whole wave of people that was supposedly doing nothing has managed to implement its social mores, values, and tastes so widely is pretty remarkable in and of itself, even if a lot of the shit people my age are into is, frankly, stupid, and we’re passing that stupidity down to all those who follow in our wake.

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To bring things back to myself in closing here — hey, self-absorption is supposedly one of the defining characteristics of us “X-ers” — I’ll freely admit that there was something about seeing Slacker again that made me miss those times : the strong bonds of friendship I had with so many people (one of whom has remained a great friend that  I’ll actually be seeing Boyhood with, but many of whom, for various reasons, I’ve fallen out of touch with over the years despite the fact that knowledge of each others’ every move and thought and opinion was pretty much central to all of our existences for a good few years there), the carefree lack of responsibility, the random, entirely unplanned nature of life when you’re that young — but mostly what I miss is the general sense that, whatever may come, tomorrow will take care of itself, so just live in the moment. The older you get, the more you come to realize what starry-eyed bullshit that is, and ya know, that’s too bad.

Even so, Slacker wasn’t constructed with future nostalgia value in mind, and that shows — this is most definitely a “warts-and-all” picture of what it was like to be young and relatively free of attachments during the heyday of the “X years.” There are a lot of annoying assholes, boring blowhards, self-important know-it-alls, and wanna-be-smooth-talking bullshit artists to be found in this film, and watching them in action in their “native element,” you come to realize that not only did you know a lot of people like that, you may very well have been one yourself.

Hell, maybe you still are (and maybe I still am — it does take a certain amount of ego to randomly assume that people you don’t even know might be interested in what you have to say about movies, or comics, or books, or politics, or anything, after all).

Still, for my money that’s the surest sign that Linklater crafted something pretty remarkable — and enduring — with this film : it’s honest enough to admit that the characters, situations, and time period that it portrays are all very far from perfect, but it’s enjoyable enough to make you miss it all anyway.

 

 

 

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When I got back to the US after spending 18 or so months abroad in 2005, Before Sunset had already come and gone from theaters the previous year, and to be honest, my first reaction to it was to be a bit perplexed by the whole idea. “Never saw that one coming,” I thought to myself — but I knew I had to see it. Yeah, as I said last time, I couldn’t really picture any other ending for Jesse and Celine apart from one where they absolutely had to have met up again six months later and lived, as the saying goes, “happily ever after,” but here we were, nine years down the road, with the real (well, okay, not “real” — it is a movie, after all — but you know what I mean) story of what came next. Fortunately for me, my very good (to this day) friend with whom I had seen Before Sunrise had missed this one in the cinemas, as well, so just a few days after getting settled back into my house, with almost no furniture in place, and my TV and DVD player only having been hooked up a matter of hours earlier, we kicked back and did a little marathon viewing session of both films back-to-back.

The first thing I was taken aback by was how much of an emaciated meth-head Ethan Hawke looked like this time around, and Julie Delpy looked to be bordering on “unhealthy thin” status as well, but no matter — for the next hour-and-a-half or so we were back in their lives, and they were back in ours, and even if everything wasn’t gonna be perfect, it was all gonna be good enough.

Which isn’t too bad a summation of Before Sunset as a whole, with one added caveat — “good enough” can be pretty damn beautiful in its own way. Jesse’s an author know, touring Europe to promote his new book, an obviously-autobiographical account of two strangers who meet on a train, spend an evening in Vienna, and fall deeply, passionately, and completely in love. Then never meet again. Or maybe they do. The novel’s ending is deliberately ambiguous.

Sound familiar? Anyway, on the last night of his tour he happens to be giving a reading/signing in Paris, and Celine shows up. They have just enough time, it seems, to grab a cup of coffee before he’s on a plane back home, and the motif of “stolen time” that they should never have had in the first place that runs through the first film is definitely pressed even further this time around, as events unfold very nearly in real time and every minute our two long-separated lovers spend together is one that pushes the envelope of their “real lives” even further out of shape.

I have to be honest — on first viewing this ultra-compressed time frame gave things a very rushed feel that I wasn’t terribly “in to,” but  I’ve subsequently grown to appreciate its utility as a story-telling device more and more. Jesse’s got a wife and son back home, but it’s a sham marriage where they’re both just going through the motions, while Celine, who now does some sort of unspecified work for an environmental organization,  has a boyfriend who works as a photojournalist and is basically gone all the time. She couldn’t make it back to Vienna to meet him all those years ago because her grandmother had just died, while Jesse showed up and couldn’t find her, even going so far as to post missing persons flyers around town in hopes of tracking her down. And that “missed meeting” has informed and shaped the course of their lives every bit as much as the time they actually did meet.

Once again,  Richard Linklater’s superbly subtle eye ensures than the camera is in exactly the right place for maximum dramatic impact with every shot, but giving the proceedings an even more naturalistic flow here is the fact that there’s no Linklater/Karen Krizan script to be read — rather Hawke and Delpy were allowed to “get in character” and create their own dialogue for these people they knew so well. It works like a charm, and the whole thing feels like nothing so much as an expertly-filmed conversation between two old lovers that unfolds as they hurriedly stroll through the streets of Paris. Every second counts. Every word counts. Ever movement and expression counts. Everything counts. Even if it’s delivered with the more practiced nonchalance that most of us acquire as settle into what life is rather than dream about what it could be.

With both characters now in the early 30s, those possibilities of which I speak have narrowed considerably compared to last time around, but I think that’s the whole unfolding theme of this entire series — learning to find a place for dreams, and for love, in a world that whittles away the chances at achieving both as the years go on. A search for beauty and truth and meaning by projecting our hopes and ideals into visions of a world that we wished existed inexorably giving way to a life where we can still, hopefully, search for — and maybe even find — beauty and truth and meaning in a world that already exists.  It’s painfully obvious that both Jesse and Celine have never really “moved on” from their one magical night together, and that they’ve both dreamed of an existence where they were able to meet again ever since. Jesse’s stumbled into a responsible “family man” life simply because he saw it as all that was on offer anymore, and Celine’s carefully walled herself off from real emotional connection with others simply because it all hurts too much when they inevitably leave. Both are hopelessly infatuated with a memory, yet torn apart by it at the same time,  and are  now presented with a very rare opportunity in life — the chance to rekindle that memory, actively, in the present day, and maybe — just maybe — build on it. They both share the unbreakable bond of one moment in time that’s authored every moment since. And now, finally meeting again after all these years, wouldn’t ya know it — they’re in a hurry.

Imperfect circumstances for two people leading imperfect lives that have largely been a series of imperfect reactions to one perfect evening. Celine’s completely neurotic, Jesse’s completely resigned to his fate, and yet — the spark is still there. Their time together here is often painful, argumentative, and decidedly uncomfortable, but it all feels so almost unbearably authentic that you can’t help but become just as swept up in it as you were by that night in Vienna.

All of which leads to an ending you can’t help but love, despite the enormous complications you know it will present to both of these characters’ lives. Linklater is obviously trading in reversals with Before Sunset from the outset — showing us still-frame shots of where our couple will go at the beginning rather than showing us where they’ve been  at the end, and swapping out talk of what they want their lives to be with a litany of regrets over what their lives have become, but whereas their first meeting was a luminous evening capped off with a separation, their second is a rocky, tenuous, long-delayed and frankly even a bit faded afterglow that Jesse purposely blows off his flight home to stay in. This is no longer an idealized memory, or a painful reminder of what might have been — this is here. This is now. This is real life with all its flaws and foibles and tragedies and responsibilities. And these two are in in together.

As with all things as we get older, moments of revelation and life-altering decisions become more subtle and unpronounced in their execution, but their impact is every bit as real. When Celine tells Jesse “you’re going to miss that flight,” and he replies “I know,” it’s not tinged with the momentous import of every new character revelation we enjoyed in their first outing, but it sure does resonate at least as much as any of them, if not moreso. These people are grown-ups now. Their actions matter. And our reactions to them are consequently more complex and nuanced. “Dude, you’re fucking your life up big-time here” is answered by “but you’ll be fucking it up even more if you leave.” I was, and still am, elated by his choice, despite its implications, and am eagerly awaiting the next chapter in this story with a burning interest I haven’t felt for any other film in years. Before Sunrise left me in love with an idealized vision; a dream. Before Sunset left me in love with the real world and all the possibilities that still exist within it.

Okay, I admit it : I still like Richard Linklater. Always have and, at this point, probably always will. I dig the hell out of 90s classics like Slacker and Dazed And Confused. I thought A Scanner Darkly was one of the best sci-fi and best animated films in years. And yes, I even enjoy Before Sunrise and Before Sunset (especially the first one). Heck, even School Of Rock is pretty fun stuff all these years later. Sure, my guy Richard was overthrown in a silent coup as the coolest filmmaker working in the Capitol city of Texas some years ago by Robert Rodriguez (or so I’m told), but he’ll always be “Mr. Austin” in my book. And you know what? It pleases me to report that his latest directorial effort (for which he also co-wrote the screenplay), Bernie, shows him to be in fine form.

This little slice of low-key near-perfection centers on the true story of one Bernie Tiede (Jack Black in a phenomenal performance that sees him absolutely inhabiting the character, and also gives him numerous chances to showcase his singing voice on-screen for the first time in years), the more-than-likely-homosexual assistant funeral director of the only mortuary in the small East Texas town of Carthage who seems to take a rather unwholesome interest in comforting the sorrows of the elderly widows he naturally makes the acquaintance of in his line of work, particularly the wealthy ones. He hits the jackpot, so to speak, with Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine, who we just flat-out don’t get to see enough of anymore, and who ably proves she hasn’t lost a step at all here), the less-than-grieving inheritor of the local bank, who everyone in town seems to regard as a grade-A bitch. Hell, her own siblings, children, and grandchildren don’t even have anything to do with her.

She takes a liking to Bernie, though, who proves more than willing to step in and essentially handle all her affairs, both business and personal — but eventually, of course, she proves too much for even a guy of his apparently infinite patience and courtesy to deal with. The Bernie-Marjorie relationship is a complex one, certainly not romantic in nature (that would be too simple), but miles away from the expected gigolo-and-his-mark pairing that you would expect in a film about a guy who kills the old woman he’s living with shortly after she bequeaths him all her assets in her will (I guess I should say “whoops” at this point, but I honestly don’t think I’m giving anything away here). Instead, what we’ve got here in an evolving personal partnership that goes from “get the hell out of my face” to genuine acceptance to warm companionship to the kind of mental and spiritual cruelty and barely-disguised contempt that only over-familiarity can engender. Marjorie goes from wanting nothing to do with her too-damn-friendly would-be best friend to liking him enough to have him accompany her on all her travels to trusting him enough to take care of all her financial dealings to jealously monopolizing all his time and cutting him off from everyone and everything he loves (he’s big into community theater and being everybody in town’s best friend) so she can set him to work on the most trivial and dehumanizing of tasks.

So, yeah — eventually Bernie snaps and shoots her four times in the back before putting her body in a meat freezer and going around pretending she’s still alive (and spending her money) for as long as he can. Eventually the gig is up, though, as hard-charging, publicity-hungry, ultra-homophobic DA Danny Buck (Matthew McConaughey, for once not trading on his looks at all and clearly relishing the chance to tackle a role 180 degrees away from his typicalfare) digs in his heels when he smells a rat with Bernie’s “she’s had a stroke and is in a rest home” stories and decides to throw the book at the guy when a search warrant of her home finally reveals Marjorie’s gruesome final resting place.

There’s a catch, though — even though he confessed almost immediately to the murder, the townsfolk wither actively don’t want to believe that Bernie could do such a thing, or they just flat-out don’t care. He’s been recklessly foolish with the old widow’s money, after all, financing the construction of a new addition at the local Methodist church, buying up struggling businesses, treating people to new cars, spoiling their kids with expensive gifts, etc. — so naturally, they all love the guy more than ever. And they never had much time for old Mrs. Nugent in the first place.

It’s in capturing this dichotomy of “normal” life in a hick town “behind the Pine Curtain” followed by how desperate these simple folks are to maintain that sense of normalcy once the balance of their entire collective reality has been upset that Linklater really shines, even utilizing many actual Carthage locals to do documentary-style  interview bits talking about how much they still think the world of Bernie no matter what he might have done. Hell, many still desperately cling to the notion that he’s absolutely innocent despite his own hardly-coerced confession.  It’s a pretty quietly amazing thing to behold, and is handled with an unforced naturalism that retains sensitivity for the town’s situation without ever crossing the line into syrupy sentimentality. In short, Linklater treats this material, and the people involved with it, with the respect they deserve without ever once going to any extra lengths to make them look either quaint, folksy, or stupid. They just are who they are, and this flick is what it is. Sure, it’s a heavily-dramatized script that probably takes a few liberties with the facts, but it feels utterly authentic and he lets  both the story and its players speak for themselves. That may not make for the flashiest of films, but it’s a refreshingly honest one, and in the midst of all the half-billion-dollar CGI-effects-laden soulless blockbusters currently polluting our screens, a quietly engaging piece of cinema that values its own integrity above all else makes for a very refreshing change of pace indeed.