PRINT Summer 2006


Richard Linklater

LOQUACITY IS Richard Linklater’s métier: Regardless of how much or little action occurs in the course of his films, his characters talk incessantly, sometimes brilliantly, about what flumes up from their brainpans and how they perceive what goes on around them. Their emotional composition defines itself in the timing of cross talk, interruptions, witticisms, asperities, and perfunctory displays of affection. At times, they almost resemble real people, in films like Dazed and Confused (1993) and The School of Rock (2003)—zany people, equipped with one or two signature habits, tics, idiosyncracies.

It may not be all that limiting that Linklater’s people seem generic, in many cases canned, like studio laughter. What comes out of their mouths is unpredictable, and their verbiage creates a particularity that enlarges them, belying the “type” their physicality and surface demeanor suggest. Linklater undermines the ostensible premises of his movies by applying a can opener to his characters’ heads.

He is, unquestionably, the Dostoyevsky of movie dialogue, however flighty and paper-thin his interdigitating narratives appear to be. The repressed and unconscious yodel forth from caricatural druggies, deadbeats, quotidian “romantic couples,” high school bullies, nerds, rapacious cheerleaders, authority figures, bourgeois parents, cops; even when they’re uttering boilerplate banalities, there’s something defective and unsettling in their delivery, tense evidence of a yawning abyss between what they articulate and what’s really churning through their minds.

Sartre once noted that nobody is just a waiter. Linklater has embraced this indisputably true and, for some, uncomfortable realization. Everyone in his movies has something slightly more to say or exhibit than convention prepares us for, and flashes a premonitory twitch of being something other than he or she ostensibly is. If Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke “meet cute” in Before Sunrise (1995), their peregrinations through Vienna quickly drain any taint of cuteness from the curiously weighted, visually lighthearted romp they’ve embarked on. They learn everything about each other without finally knowing each other at all. The spontaneity of their short liaison ensures that the profound and the meaningless will merge in steamy evaporation.

Linklater’s portraiture is a lucidly convoluted illustration of the talking cure. His films, however alluringly shot and stocked with savvy actors, suggest a non-visual cinema almost as drastically withholding as the films of Guy Debord. Linklater’s first “animated feature,” Waking Life (2001), can be an optical ordeal for viewers allergic to the artifice of hand-doctored frames that obliterate naturalistic photography. Still, the least palatable features of this far from perfectly “reinvented cinema” are rescued from sketchy facility and silliness and given acrobatic grace by fluidly gripping language. The spectacular aspect of Waking Life is its deceptively stingy afflatus of visual information. Its often etiolated or muckily daubed imagery provides its characters’ metaphysically tail-swallowing chatter more clarity and direction than undoctored cinematography possibly could.

Linklater’s madeleine is a vagina dipped in high school cafeteria tea. His films are, in a highbrow sense, boys’ films, and he seldom renders a female character whose salient features appear above her neck or below her brassiere, but at least he’s conscious of this limiting fixation, and the burnouts, blabbermouth slobs, and insatiable potheads who usually typify the male gender in his movies illustrate the pathology he’s inscribing with laudable self-awareness. Before Sunrise and Before Sunset (2004) almost avoid making Julie Delpy into a sprightly but stereotypical gamine, but Delpy herself is a cliché, albeit an intelligent one, so limited in range that Ethan Hawke gobbles both films down to the gizzards, even with his most fatuously overworked mannerisms.

Each of Linklater’s movies charts the incremental distance between high school and real life effected by the aging process, but little in his earlier work prepares us for Tape (2001), his adaptation of Stephen Belber’s play. The still-raw wounds festering in Tape’s two male characters, Vince and Jon (Ethan Hawke and Robert Sean Leonard), were inflicted in their last year of high school; ten years have passed. Vince, portrayed by Hawke in an electrifying performance as a hyperactive cokehead prone to violent mood swings who’s carried a well-dissembled grudge against his best friend, has saved up his vengeance for the evening before Jon, an aspiring filmmaker, will present his first real film in the Lansing Film Festival.

Tape’s superior banter, typical of a Linklater film, is in this case scrambled with physically aggressive loutishness, from which we conclude, too quickly, that Vince is the same aimless, inadequate asshole he was ten years earlier. The reserved, more overtly mature Jon acquires an aura of victimhood in Vince’s out-of-control presence; yet he’s the one with the guilty secret, and Vince has artfully arranged a confrontation between Jon and Amy (Uma Thurman), who loved Vince but ended up sleeping with Jon instead, on one occasion, at the end of the school year.

Tape is a note-perfect chamber piece in which Linklater gives Amy shrewd, masterfully wrested control of a fraught and unanticipated situation usually assigned to, or attempted by, the males in his other films. Feigning bewilderment at an extremely nasty scene that has clearly played out before her arrival at Vince’s motel room, Amy seems surprised by a few of the particulars that Vince, high as a weather balloon, reveals; but she knows exactly what the setup is, and rather than lending herself to the infantile rituals of masculinity Vince and Jon enact around their memory of her—Vince still infatuated, Jon guilty for what he’s convinced himself was date rape—Amy, with a faked phone call, reduces both men to the hypocritical, terrified cowards they always were.

Linklater probably wouldn’t agree, but I think Tape is far and away the most powerful work he’s ever made—an unforgettably painful, acridly funny, hyperkinetic dance of suddenly reversed assumptions and sedimented bitterness in which men barricade themselves against their wretchedness with selfishness and denial, and a woman, calmly and even amiably, shoves their game in their faces and leaves them staring into the emptiness their lives have been constructed to hide.

This brings us—skipping a few less wonderful movies—to A Scanner Darkly (which opens nationally in July), Linklater’s second rotoscoped feature of live-action footage rendered into Disney-esque artifice via proprietary software updated since Waking Life. The fusion of a superior but typically paranoid Philip K. Dick novel with Linklater’s recurring preoccupation with dopers and crackpots who never stop jabbering, even when they’re alone, would seem like an epiphanic mind-meld, and it is, to say the least, fascinating, though as much for its flaws as its novelties. It’s basically a story of slackers hooked on Substance D, a drug that can cause two lobes of the human brain to part company and make addicts see aphids crawling all over them, among other unpleasant effects.

Keanu Reeves plays an informer whose identity is concealed by a “scramble suit”—never mind—who’s eventually obliged to run surveillance on himself. His house is a crash pad for other slugs, like Woody Harrelson and Robert Downey Jr.; his girlfriend, who’s also his dealer, is played by Winona Ryder.

The animation process is less primitive than that of Waking Life, which is fine in itself, but because A Scanner Darkly couldn’t get financed without stars, the viewer experiences a perceptual problem matching a mental image of familiar actors with their heavily stylized and often glopped-over cartoon transmutations. Dick’s novel is one of his most original books but one of his most confusing as well, and if you happen to nod off for a second—this kind of film can induce narcolepsy in people whose appetite for animation is fully sated by an episode of The Simpsons—some vital piece of the puzzle may flash by unnoticed (several parts of this puzzle are missing anyway); everyone is informing on everyone else; it’s unclear who works for the government and what practical use, apart from conferences between anonymous informants and the authorities, the scramble suits could possibly serve for law enforcement (someone inside a scramble suit registers as a “vague blur” to other people); since most of the characters are perpetually stoned and usually in throes of paranoia, their ability to spend the eon of the void pondering missing gears on a bicycle or the finer points of carburetor repair while suspecting one another of murky conspiracies, A Scanner Darkly is a film best seen after smoking at least one substantial spliff, in which case it’s vastly enjoyable. Much of it has that crisp look that Los Angeles has when you’re driving on amphetamines, and, likewise, it’s a lot easier to follow when you’re not trying to make any sense of it.

Keanu Reeves saves this film from its meandering tendency. His performance as Robert Arctor, a man whose brain has started to atrophy, is the role he was born to play. It helps hold the thing together that he looks more like himself than the others, except in his scramble suit, when he looks a little bit like everybody. On the whole, he seems more human as an animated character than as himself in films like The Matrix. Woody Harrelson is unbearable, reprising all his shit-kicking bumpkin roles, but mercifully scarce; Robert Downey Jr., gibbering like a Burroughsian space virus whenever he appears, grows tiresome as he goes along, but that seems intentional, at least on his part. Rory Cochrane has lost his looks, which works for him in other films, but here the animators have given his lips a repugnantly pursy, overactive fidget; it’s sufficiently icky that they cover him with hallucinated aphids in the opening sequence. Winona Ryder has a different look in different scenes, never looking much like Winona Ryder. As the synecdochic love interest, she plays her character flat. 

It’s a bit queer to refer to these actors by name, since they don’t appear as actors, but abstractions of actors, through the magic of software that pictures them more like sketchy, baggy simulacra. Every now and then, parts of the screen suddenly resemble undoctored photographic images, but this never happens to an actor’s face. It sometimes seems that the animators have taken revenge on Hollywood icons by simplifying them into logos.

A Scanner Darkly is faithful to Dick’s plot-driven, speed-laced narratives, in which characters morph into various things but never develop as characters. Adaptations of Dick’s work have generally streamlined his gnarled and dogged depictions of mental disorders into action pictures; Linklater comes much closer to the real Dick, but that’s not the same as getting close to the real Flaubert or the real Faulkner. At the risk of infuriating his fan club, Philip K. Dick is the kind of superior hack whom cultural relativists would like us to consider a protean artistic force. In reality, he saw what the future’s real unpleasantness would look like—no small achievement—and filled its depiction with little people whose fate is a matter of indifference, their conflicts inconsequent and their lives rather abitrary. This would seem the ideal kind of writing for the movies to turn into miraculously fleshed-out dramas; curiously, sticking to the warp of Dick’s storytelling techniques reproduces the redundancy and tedium of his least important works, and A Scanner Darkly sacrifices much of its potential impact to fidelity to Dick’s minutiae. 

With his eleventh feature, Linklater has either made the headiest movie about dope since Drugstore Cowboy or the fluffiest movie about technology since the era of industrial documentaries—maybe both. Within the baroque limitations he’s imposed on A Scanner Darkly, he has probably made a “classic”—a film you should see because it does something special that you won’t want to look at twice.

Gary Indiana is currently in postproduction on Pariah, a film about Ulrike Meinhof, and Soap, based on the prose poem by Francis Ponge.