Welcome to Profile, a series which examines the careers of some of the most successful and important filmmakers from across the globe. This week we are looking at Richard Linklater.
Linklater is one of the most successful, refreshingly bright, and essentially indie filmmakers of recent American history. Most of his films deal with a small handful of characters, and are set over one short time period. Others are more diverse and experimental. But even his most mainstream films have that same sweet flavour of his early work; a flavour that transcends a time period or film era, that transcends genre or atmosphere or actors or anything else: a sweet yearning for a simpler time. His films are loving poems to the era he grew up in, and the places he saw. The people he knew are all visible in some form in his filmography, and there is a part of him – sometimes large, sometimes small – visible in all his movies. This is what makes him unique and worth writing about.
One thing the critics seem to be in agreement on is that Linklater has never made a really bad film. He avoids cliches and bad acting, and sticks to solid, well-written screenplays and simplistic direction. His first two films were so gloriously indie that some people were turned off by them, but one is now acclaimed as Linklater’s best film by many, and that is his second feature, Slacker. Slacker came in the wake of the less popular debut It’s Impossible To Plow By Reading Books, and showed that not only was Linklater to be an important figure in the American indie movement, but also that he had a passion for community, and people.
In 1993, he made his third – and easily his most well-known, respected and liked – film, Dazed and Confused, a beautiful ode to a generation of people Linklater loved. It thrust him into the spotlight, but it would be a while before he made something as successful in the mainstream as that film. His next film was Before Sunrise, a romantic drama that is loved and cherished by many. His next film, subUrbia, returned to the roots of such films as Slacker, examining a group of friends hanging out in one place for a short period of time.
His next film, The Newton Boys, slipped past most audiences and seemed rather out of place, but Linklater returned to top form with Waking Life, a video experiment which was shot entirely with low-budget cameras and edited on a Mac, a process during which a special type of record breaking animation was added to the film, achieving a unique, dreamlike look. Critics such as Roger Ebert gave this film heavy praise, saying it examined the strange and beautiful feel of dreaming like no other film. Indeed, some think of it as more of an “existential Inception.” The feel achieved in Linklater’s indie films was revisited with Tape, his last completely independent experiment in both feel and the way it was shot. Using only three central actors, it tracks one night in a motel room as secrets are revealed, and the characters do little more than just talk and talk.
His next feature thrust him into the mainstream ten years after Dazed and Confused. It was The School of Rock, a pleasant family film starring Jack Black. Audiences were surprised, and so were critics. Usually movies of this type were ridden with cliches and almost unwatchable for anyone but very young kids, but here, Linklater makes the film entertaining and rewarding for all audiences, giving characters the depth they deserve and writing them a worthy, entertaining story.
And as if it weren’t enough to prove he could make a great family film, he also showed he could do a great sequel, with Before Sunset, the sequel to his 1995 film, nine years after it was released. He kept his eye on the mainstream, and his next film The Bad News Bears, surprised audiences again by being an actually worth seeing family film.
However, the lightness of these last few films was countered with a darker experiment. Fast Food Nation looked at the ugly truth behind the way fast food affects us as consumers in a way that Super Size Me didn’t quite find before it, and the subsequent Food, Inc. didn’t match anywhere near as well. Then, the druglike feel of Waking Life returned, as Linklater adapted a Philip K. Dick novel to the screen in a clever manner. A Scanner Darkly took a cast of great actors and animated them, with an intriguing result.
For a third time, Linklater made a film that critics expected to hate, but were delighted with. Me and Orson Welles, starring Zac Efron – yes, Zac Efron. In a good film – and startling audiences with its beautiful portrayal of Welles’ early life. However, despite the critics’ favourable reactions, it slipped past the mainstream and took only a brief run in cinemas. His latest film Bernie has not yet been widely released.
Linklater’s filmography has been wide and long. We’ve seen many great films and few flops. I think it’s fair to say he’s a director who we’ve always expected good things from, and who has always delivered. Whether shooting strictly indie or hardcore mainstream, Richard Linklater is one of America’s greatest working directors.
So what do you think? Which films of his have you seen? Which did you love, and which did you hate? Leave a comment below.