VIDEO ESSAY: From SLACKER to BOYHOOD: Cinematography in the films of Richard Linklater

VIDEO ESSAY: From SLACKER to BOYHOOD: Cinematography in the films of Richard Linklater

In the late fall of 2001, in a movie theater in New York, I
fell asleep during Richard Linklater’s Waking
Life
. Strangely enough, I think he might have welcomed that response. Or
at least his cinematographer’s camera would have. We’ve posted viewers’
reports of sleeping
during films before at Press Play, but this was a different
sort of sleep, guided, in a sense, by the camerawork. Cinematography occupies a
strange place in Linklater’s films. While the movies are, on the one hand,
quite speech-driven, which is to say that the dialogue characters say to
each other sometimes forms the entire story, as in the Before… trilogy, we cannot
say that watching one of his films is not a visual experience as well. But it’s
a curious sort of visual experience. At the time I fell asleep during Waking
Life
, I wasn’t dozing off out of boredom; it was out of comfort. Just over a
month before I saw the film, the World Trade Center had collapsed. Despite the
fact that New Yorkers were charging ahead with their lives all around me, the
air still smelled like burned flesh. I needed some relief. Sitting down to watch Waking
Life
, with its delicately drawn characters floating gently through their
delicately drawn world, brought a sense of reassurance, a sense that, in
artistic works, at least, one might dwell without fear of imminent harm. All
that would take place here, after all, was that characters would talk to each
other, and the camera would watch them, or rather would display them, moving in
the flickering manner of animated figures, easily, relaxedly. The figures on
the screen would move forward in their way, and I, in my seat, processing the
film and the events taking place in the world outside the theater, would move
forward in my way, in a spirit of peaceful coexistence. There was solace, there, but there was also engagement, of a kind. This is, indeed, the
way the camera has functioned in Linklater’s films from his earliest works
onwards. It doesn’t force itself on you, and yet nevertheless it brings you in.
The intimacy, for instance, of the “You’re gonna miss that plane” scene in Before Sunset would be far diminished if
it weren’t for its sense of strange stillness, created by the sensitive use of
the camera. You could say it’s a Taoist lens—it does very little, at least
little that we notice, and yet we feel utterly immersed when we watch this
director’s films. You can feel the heat in Slacker’s
Austin; you can smell the chalkdust in School
of Rock;
you can feel the night breeze in Dazed and Confused. And yet the camera here dosn’t have the aggressive, probing presence of that of a
Scorsese or an Allen or a Lynch. The cameras of Linklater’s numerous cinematographers–Lee Daniel, Pete James, Tommy Pallotta, or Maryse Alberti, or Rogier Stoffers, or Shane Kelly, or Dick Pope–share the characteristic of operating on a softer register, trying
less hard to get our attention than they might. And yet films like Boyhood would be far diminished without their sense of visual
scope, of the hugeness of the Big Bend, of the quietness of a Texas lake, of
the plainness and innocence and perplexity of a boy’s face, in close-up. Watching these films becomes an experience of gentle exchange, rather than spectatorship. And what do we, the viewers, get out of it? A sense of living differently, for an hour or two.–Max Winter

Nelson Carvajal is an independent digital filmmaker, writer and content
creator based out of Chicago, Illinois. His digital short films usually
contain appropriated content and have screened at such venues as the
London Underground Film Festival. Carvajal runs a blog called FREE CINEMA NOW
which boasts the tagline: "Liberating Independent Film And Video From A
Prehistoric Value System." You can follow Nelson on Twitter
here.

Max Winter is the Editor of Press Play.

Richard Linklater’s BOYHOOD Recreates the Experience of Reading

Richard Linklater’s BOYHOOD Recreates the Experience of Reading

nullA large part of writing a review is telling what experiencing the work in question is like—the feeling one gets when reading, or watching, or listening,
or looking. This can be difficult, especially in works that reach deeply, that dig
into seldom explored territory. If I say that watching Richard
Linklater’s remarkable new film Boyhood,
which traces the life of a boy named Mason from age 6 to 18 in rapidly
changing segments, is like reading a
book, I need to clarify. The idea is not that the film could be “read” like a
book, each element analyzed to consider how it functions within the work as a whole; that goes without saying. The film, instead, acts on you the way a book
might act on you, which is to say, it doesn’t force itself on the viewer, and
in fact it asks the viewer to force itself on it, to make sense of it, to keep
going with it, and to sit with it, for a while, to see where it’s going. And the film does go somewhere which might remind viewers suspiciously of their own lives.

On the most basic level, we get to know, or at last
understand, Linklater’s characters in a gradual and highly relaxed fashion. In
many scenes, the characters, as they age together in different locations in
central to West Texas, simply sit and have conversations with each other. In so
doing, they teach us about themselves. We learn, through his introspection,
that Mason (Ellar Coltrane) is a thoughtful boy whose greatest spiritual investment will always
be in his own ruminations. His mother, played here with a great sense of regret by Patricia Arquette, reveals herself to be
caring but lacking in judgment, which will sadly shape her children’s lives,
causing them to move from house to house throughout their childhood, sometimes
suffering abuse from their mother’s poorly-chosen partners. In a very subtle
and moving performance, Ethan Hawke plays their father, likable on the
surface, but a near-archetype of a shady, untrustworthy dad. We notice all of
these things, and we pay attention to them, and we think about them, because
Linklater forces us to. There aren’t any exploding cars in the film. No one secretly
turns out to be a robot. There are no musical numbers. One is free, then, to
make observations, to interpret, and to absorb. One might find one’s self
making judgments, of a sort. Though the kids’ father is erstwhile in many respects, he
has far better chemistry with his children than either of the partners their mother
chooses after him.  We watch Mason’s sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) developing from a
mannered, funny child into a cool adult with odd phrasing (when it’s her turn
to make a speech at her brother’s graduation party, all she says is “Uh… good
luck.”), and the difference is noticeable. She’s lost the forwardness she
had as a child, but it’s metamorphosed into something more interesting, or more
deeply rooted within her. These are nuances that are not necessarily always
brought out in films, given so many films’ debt to drama itself, which demands a
structure, a pace, which does not encourage extensive lingering.
Linklater has achieved a strange marriage of two works: one film which tells the
story of a life, and one which tries to be interesting without telling any
story at all. The elements that might interest a viewer here—family dynamics,
the effect of aging, outer and inner growth—require meditation, and they don’t
require the framework of a plot to be meaningful. This is the kind of license taken frequently in literary works–writers from Chekhov to Ann Beattie to Karl Ove Knausgaard have availed themselves of it–but not seen as frequently in film.

The structure here is a very matter-of-fact one–you might miss it if you were weren’t looking, so seamless is Linklater’s deployment of it. As has
been widely discussed, Linklater made the film over a twelve-year period,
taking the actors aside for a couple of weeks each year to film a short segment, a
handful of minutes. The development in the film is based simply upon the
passage of time, a strong reminder that nothing the characters might do could
make the years move any more quickly, or slowly. Mason’s mother refers to this, at
the end, when she cries that she thought there would be “more” before her son
left for college—but as we know, nothing makes the days any shorter or longer.
The time Linklater allowed himself for the film seems to have tinged the entire
venture with a contemplative mood. The years pass without fanfare. The only way
we know the characters have aged, or that time has passed, is by the change in
their appearance. We are forced, then to look at these people, really look at them. We watch the mother
put on weight, slightly, as she gets older; she begins to look more settled, if
not complacent. We watch the childen’s father lose his youthful spark, fill out a bit,
mellow in his mood; his laughs don’t come as quickly, there’s not as much sense
of destructive mischief in his eyes. And Mason grows larger, more
stoop-shouldered, his features increase in size, he becomes less comfortable in
his skin, more self-conscious, his voice acquires the faint rasp of someone
who’s been shouting at a concert for the last several hours. These, then, are
the events we witness, and they become as interesting as an exploding
half-human car might be in another film. This sort of motion, in which inner
changes and developments loom largest, forming the topography of a work, is an example of something a book can do that a film, simply by virtue of the medium, might not do so easily. You sit with a book,
quietly, and read it, and things such as characterization, a description of
someone’s eyebrows, a well-placed phrase, become gigantic. They become large
enough to sustain the work, in some cases, and they may be the things you take
away most from the experience. But this viewer has found that, often, films must offer a slightly greater plenitude of elements to sustain themselves.

In a sense, saying that watching a certain film is like
reading a book might seem critically useless. How can one compare two
experiences that are so radically different, and that access such radically
different parts of the brain? You can’t hear a printed book any more than you
might read a montage out loud. Also, how can one make generalizations like this? And yet, and yet:
everyone approaches artistic experiences from a different starting point. For
this writer, reading is one of the most meaningful, important experiences he
might have—there’s competition for that spot, of course, but it ranks highly, up there with love and food. And so
there’s a little voice in this writer’s head, chattering away as the Linklater
film unfurls itself: Is this as good as….? Is it up to the experience of…? Yes,
I know you enjoy it, but is that enjoyment as great as the enjoyment of…? And if the answer to these questions is yes, the experience of watching Boyhood is equivalent to the satisfaction one has after reading a wonderful, spare piece of writing, which is to say one feels moved and quieted, given a fresh awareness of one’s place in the world, then that is the highest compliment this reviewer could pay the film.

Max Winter is the Editor of Press Play.

An Open Letter to Richard Linklater: Let Jesse and Celine Separate. Preserve Cinéma Vérité.

An Open Letter to Richard Linklater: Let Jesse and Celine Separate. Preserve Cinéma Vérité.

null

[Warning: The essay below contains spoilers for the Richard Linklater films Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before
Midnight.]

Increasingly,
members of my and succeeding
generations have come to understand that marriage might not be the
sacrosanct institution we once believed. It’s not unusual, of course, for
an individual to decide that their plans for their future—for their own
self-development emotionally, professionally, and spiritually—are not
conducive to the sorts of sacrifices a marriage calls for. But recent
generations seem to have put enough thought into this possibility that,
for the first time, the very institution of marriage is in doubt. We know from history, experience, and the Richard
Linklater film Before Midnight that the
ambitions of women can be particularly imperiled by marriage, because our culture still considers
the lion’s share of marital sacrifices to be feminine. One not only hopes
but expects this circumstance to end in the near
future; until it does, it will be the responsibility of each man and
woman considering marriage to ask of themselves this question: Have I
developed in my youth and young adulthood the inner resources to war
with myself over the competing demands of self-realization and marital
compromise without permitting this war to
permanently scar
myself, my mate, our prospective children, and other bystanders? This
is not the same as
treating marriage as a series of silent sacrifices: couples can, do,
and should communicate to whatever degree is necessary to navigate shared
and separate hopes and ambitions. But when dialogue invariably escalates
into irreparable verbal aggression, as happens in the denouement of
Linklater’s Before Midnighta
documentation of several hours of small, unanswered provocations that
predictably explode into a relationship-threatening tilt—the question
becomes not whether a marriage can survive, but whether it should survive.
To this moviegoer, it seemed that Jesse and Celine could, at the conclusion of Before Midnight,
continue in their common-law marriage only if
they developed complex and abiding strategies to turn frustrated
self-realization into productive dialogue. I know from hard experience
that arguments punctuated by “I don’t love you” can happen only a few
times in a relationship—perhaps
not more than once—before cataclysmic damage has been done to the
relationship jointly and to both parties individually. There’s no
evidence either of the partners depicted in Before Midnight
has developed an appropriate strategy for coping with noxious feelings
of entrapment, unless we’re to count the implied infidelity of each
partner as a solution, which of course it isn’t. It’s hard to conclude,
then, from the evidence of the final scenes of
Before Midnight,
that Jesse and Celine’s marriage will continue. One expects, though, that
in nine years of Hollywood and actual time we will discover (in a film
called Before Dying or some such)
that in fact either the well-being of their children, inertia,
couples’ counseling, or a deus ex machina has saved Jesse and Celine from
the dissolution of their union.
nullThe harder question to ask, of course, is whether a relationship such
as the one we witness in the Linklater trilogy should continue. For his part, Jesse makes clear in Before Midnight that he decided, years earlier, that his happiness lay with Celine, for
better or worse, in bad times and good. Celine appears to have drawn no
such conclusion. If nine years of common-law marriage, two
children, and countless shared sacrifices and joys have not
convinced her to either a) choose what happiness she can find with
Jesse, or b) take whatever steps might make such a feeling possible on her part (be it individual and/or couples’ counseling,
substantially more generative dialogues with her partner, or some adjustment of her own or Jesse’s ambitions), there is no particular
reason to think her relationship with Jesse can, will, or should sustain
many more direct hits to its bow. These hits are equally damaging to
Celine and to Jesse, and each year that passes in which Celine believes
her marriage the terminus of all her ambitions is another year those
ambitions are not being realized and she and her mate are suffering the
calamity of being slowly but violently pulled apart.
Relevant to this discussion is a 2012 article in The Guardian,
which featured the reminiscences of a hospice nurse regarding the five
most
common regrets of her dying charges.
The most curious entry to the list—in the nurse’s view, and perhaps in
the minds of many of her readers—was the fact that many of those whose
deaths had been witnessed and memorialized had not realized before
dying that happiness is a choice. The words themselves (“happiness is a
choice”) sound trite, but in fact if there is a significant cinematic
achievement to be found in Before Midnight,
and there is, it is that the movie exhibits better than any before it that happiness is indeed something we either learn to choose during
our lifetimes or do not. 
Of
course, “choosing happiness” is no guarantee of actual
happiness, nor does it prevent isolation, depression, or
self-destruction. What it is, however, is an attitudinal alignment that
says each choice one makes will be made, to the best of one’s ability,
with sufficient self-knowledge to make happiness a marginally more
likely outcome than would have been the case were the decision made
blindly. In other words, to choose happiness, we must
first work diligently at self-knowledge, as those who cannot
or will not know themselves (the good, the bad, the ugly, all of it)
are those who cannot intelligently determine their future likelihood to
produce happiness in themselves or in others. Such individuals only harm
themselves and others in their meanderings, and while we do well to
care deeply about such individuals and to help them on their way, we
also do well to give them wide berth when the time comes to choose a
lifelong partner–at least until they find themselves differently
situated. This is not because such people can’t be vigorously happy, as
they can be; or because they cannot bring joy to others, as depending
upon their circumstances they often will; or because they’re
ill-intentioned, as far more often than not they’re not; but rather
because, of all the institutions human civilization has devised,
marriage most requires as an antecedent the inner
resources to wage productively rather than destructively the war we all,
to some
degree or another,
perpetually wage within ourselves over when and how to sacrifice for
those we love. It is no crime to know oneself an
ill match for the institution of marriage; it is no crime
to not know oneself well enough to protect oneself and another from
an ill-made and ill-fated match; it is, however, a tragedy
to so conjoin and to be so conjoined, and an even worse tragedy to
remain so past the point a change is still possible. And it’s a tragedy
that’s avoidable from the start.
Like
many of my generation, I have both dated individuals facing the same
tough questions as Celine and Jesse and
also wondered about my own suitability for a lifelong commitment. And
like many of my generation, I have suffered at the hands of those
who believed themselves prepared for the sort of long-term union that
was not, in the event, what they really wanted. It will be a poor result
of the remarkable act of filmmaking that is Before Midnight
if the consequent conversations between partners who’ve seen the
movie hinge primarily on whether one or another of the two central characters could have done this or that or avoided doing this
or that to make all well between the film’s two leads. It will be a poor
result because the sort of conflict depicted in the movie, at least in
the lines of dialogue we hear onscreen, is not navigable, and believing
it so only brings more pain and suffering to its participants. 
nullThe conflict between Jesse and Celine is, indeed, impassable, as it was seeded in the identities of both partners when
they first met
eighteen years ago (in Before
Sunrise
) and then reunited nine years later (in Before Sunset).
Both parties made a decision, on those dates, to continue a liaison
with someone whose ambitions and temperament and self-identity were not
compatible with their own; Jesse and Celine, in short, confused lively
conversation with a future. But abiding relationships delve much deeper
into the psyche than mere repartee does, a fact Linklater’s first two
films displayed little enough awareness of to be disconcerting.  
No
blame for any of the above lies at the feet of either Jesse or Celine,
though we could certainly wish that, as a couple, the two had either
seen their initial meetings for what they were—something glorious but
fleeting—or else, in deciding otherwise, developed more resources to
work through what (by the time of the events of Before Midnight) has
clearly become a hardened
disconnect. Anyone who can watch the hotel scene in Before Midnight and not
see a relationship in which this sort of aggression has played out many
times before has never been in a relationship in which this sort of war
of words occurs in the first instance. The accusations and insults
hurled in anger—I hate making love to you; I ruined my life for you;
you’re mentally disturbed; your selfishness makes my happiness a
perpetual impossibility; I cheated on you; I also cheated on you; I
don’t love you anymore—are harrowing and more often than not
relationship-ending. Those who say the movie depicts a couple who’ve
just “grown a bit weary,” or are merely “a little bitter” were clearly watching the movie they’d hoped to see, not the movie they were given by the film’s writers and director.
The central conflict of Before Midnight—the film we actually see, not the film we might wish to see—is one for which an earnestly romanticist
sensibility (as opposed to one of gloomy pragmatism)
can offer only one solution: separation of the parties. It
will hurt their children, likely irreparably, but as Before Midnight takes
great pains to establish with respect to Jesse’s son Henry, such a
wound is survivable. It is, moreover, preferable to a childhood spent
listening to one’s parents arguing (or brooding silently) over acts of
verbal aggression, infidelities, or even (at the extreme terminus of
such a destructive downward spiral) physical aggression waged by one or
both
of the parties against the person or property of the other. It is no gift to seal two characters moviegoers love so much into a coffin of
shared fate neither truly wishes for themselves. It is, in fact, our own
selfishness in wishing for life to be different in the movies than it
is in our own bedrooms and backyards. 
And
so, with the foregoing in mind, I ask—even beseech—Richard Linklater
to divorce these two characters and let each live the life they were
meant to be living. If you want to make a movie that reflects the times
we live in, Mr. Linklater, make a movie in which marriage is not, in
fact, for everyone, and in which no one is forced to spend a lifetime
with someone they see as an obstacle or an albatross rather than a
partner. One wonderful day in Vienna, and another wonderful day in
Paris, do not a lifetime make. Like many my age, I have had such days, I
have even been lucky enough to have many months of such days, and I
know as well as you do, Mr. Linklater,
that
they simply aren’t enough. The day Celine chooses
happiness is the day she leaves Jesse, and the day Jesse chooses
happiness is the day he accepts it and moves on. I don’t want it to be
so, but I know it to be so. I
recognize the bind you’re in—your commitment to cinema verite is at
odds with your own (and Ethan Hawke’s and Julie Delpy’s) abiding
attachment to Jesse and Celine—but the obligation you owe to love,
life, and art takes precedent over the obligations you owe to the box
office, the media, and even your audience.

Seth Abramson is the author of three collections of poetry, most recently Thievery (University of Akron Press, 2013). He has published work in numerous magazines and anthologies, including Best New Poets, American Poetry Review, Boston Review, New American Writing, Colorado Review, Denver Quarterly, and The Southern Review.
A graduate of Dartmouth College, Harvard Law School, and the Iowa
Writers’ Workshop, he was a public defender from 2001 to 2007 and is
presently a doctoral candidate in English Literature at University of
Wisconsin-Madison. He runs a contemporary poetry review series for
The Huffington Post and has covered graduate creative writing programs for Poets & Writers magazine since 2008.