Linklater’s Omnipotent Narrative

As Dan Green notes, Long Pauses has a very good post up about Richard Linklater’s films. Darren points out that all of Linklater’s characters are represented in an egalitarian light, but if one is to judge these characters, it is the behavior that is the culprit, not the social status or the circumstances behind it. Life’s the thing, whether it’s the cruel hazing by Parker Posey in Dazed and Confused or even Giovanni Ribisi’s slacker, reduced to living in a pup tent and unable to come to grips with a singular decision, in the underrated SubUrbia (a film that also has the interesting distinction of merging Eric Bogosian’s savage wit with Richard Linklater’s cheery joie de vivre).

I’d like to take Darren’s idea one step further. First off, it’s worth noting that Linklater generally tends to favor long takes, whether it’s Richard Linklater himself rambling on in a cab about the four different roads at the beginning of Slacker or the fantastic shot without dialogue in Before Sunrise, where Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy are secretly looking at each other in the record store. Endless comparisons have been made between Linklater and Eric Rohmer because of this deliberate stylistic approach. And certainly letting the camera roll affords Linklater the opportunity to show life unfolding at its own pace — a cinematic idea remarkably subversive in today’s environment of quick cuts and easily digestible tales.

But where Rohmer allows his characters to get lost within the fine art of conversation (also a laudable goal), unlike Rohmer, there’s a casual concern for narrative in Linklater’s films, almost as if narrative’s the very veneer between audience and characters, existing to offer meaning not even remotely graspable in five lifetimes. If Linklater’s goal is to portray a nonjudgmental view of American life, then there’s the added problem of finding a narrative to tie into, whether it be the titular twist of Waking Life or the dangling question of whether Hawke and Delpy will stay together in the Before films. With Before Sunset, Linklater found a fantastic way out by insinuating fate with a final fadeout.

But I would suggest that what makes Linklater’s films additionally interesting is the way in which his narratives function as omnipotent barriers to unraveling the mysteries of life. It’s taken Linklater a few films to develop this, but his films can now be viewed as bright beacons for multiple subjective reactions instead of a unilateral, preprogrammed response. One can emerge from Before Sunset and start questioning a gesture, a specific pause, or a single line of dialogue and use these to form a working theory about what happens to the characters. The behavior presented is not so much nonjudgmental, but, if we ruminate upon the characters (as most people seem to do), it says more about our judgments of other people.

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6 Comments

  1. What a lovely bit of writing there, Ed.

  2. “But where Rohmer allows his characters to get lost within the fine art of conversation (also a laudable goal), unlike Rohmer, there’s a casual concern for narrative in Linklater’s films, almost as if narrative’s the very veneer between audience and characters, existing to offer meaning not even remotely graspable in five lifetimes.”

    Huh? Are you saying Rohmer doesn’t have a concern for narrative, or that his concern is less casual than Linklater’s? Just curious as Rohmer is one of my favorites.

  3. Yeah, that last sentence is the key, I think. Linklater resists the easy temptation to judge his characters within the film’s world, but our role as watchers is a completely different story. I toyed with the idea of calling Slacker a Rorschach Test in my original post. It’s interesting to discover how many reviewers dismiss the men and women in the film as lazy, unproductive, and self-absorbed. But by what standard?

  4. Derik: I’m a big Rohmer fan too. In fact, I tortured my old roommate with repeated viewings of the moral tales. Depending upon what mood I’m in, “Chloe in the Afternoon” (my favorite Rohmer film) is often named as one of my top 10 films of all time.

    Rohmer is more concerned with the abstract. One can make the case that “My Night at Maud’s,” in fact, is all about the intellectual dialogue and nothing else. Rohmer, to my mind, seems less concerned with structure than Linklater. He’s almost the Antonioni to Linklater’s Rosselini. Does this detract from Rohmer’s achievements as a filmmaker? Not at all. Personally, I think “Before Sunrise” is more of a Rohmer clone than “Before Sunset.” But I’d say the latter film is Linklater seeing if he can shape this huge black fabric of the unknown into something the audience can see the folds of.

  5. To be more specific, Derik, Rohmer can accept the abstract nature of existence, but Linklater can’t; hence, the sort of narrative blanket I’m suggesting he constructs around all of his films. Perhaps this is to appease his own sanity. :)

  6. Thanks for the clarification, Ed. That’s quite interesting. I’ve only seen Linklater’s Waking Life, so have little to base the comparison on. I’ll have to watch a few of his and see.

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