Deconstructing Directors: Richard Linklater And The Art of Filming Life

The concept of mimesis has been discussed since the time of Plato and Aristotle in ancient Greece. In short, mimesis is the theory that art imitates life. And one of the most telling instances of mimesis in film can be found by looking into the long career of Richard Linklater. Few modern directors have approached filmmaking in such an honest manner. As the mind responsible for Dazed and Confused, Boyhood, and the Before trilogy, Linklater films are truly one of a kind for a plethora of reasons, but the most prominent is how they easily pass as an authentic look into reality. And his debut feature film, Slacker, is a perfect representation of this type of career path he would follow as the years went on.

Slacker may be the ultimate “slice-of life” style film, and does so in an extremely inventive way. Rather than have one main character exemplify a generation, Linklater instead uses a massive ensemble to showcase the range within that generation. The film constantly shifts its focus to a new character, which is somehow always present in the scene prior. As such, a specific narrative is nonexistent, although there is a central theme rooted throughout every eccentric stream of consciousness delivered. At its very core, Slacker is a direct representation of the environment Linklater grew up in; mainly because these characters’ theories or ideals seem too bizarre and quirky to be fictional.

It’s also interesting to note how similar each vignette is in terms of structure, yet wholly unique in most other aspects. No characters are listed by a name, but rather, the “problem with the world” they are discussing. And as these characters drone on and on, there is always a listener who never has much to add. Linklater is acutely aware of the peculiar conversations, and treats them as such. A few scenes are comprised of one long-take where a one-sided discussion takes place, before a passerby takes control of the next scene. There’s no time to reflect, or even respond. And the reason being is simply because if reality doesn’t allow time for a singular moment to stop and be picked apart, then neither will the film. With Slacker, Linklater is more concerned with all the branches of life going on around Austin rather than one sole event.

Richard Linklater on Dazed And Confused
Richard Linklater on the set of DAZED AND CONFUSED.

Even from his earlier work, Linklater has never been one to build towards a specific climax. On the contrary, some of his characters may not even go through a change by the time the film is over. The reason isn’t due to unfulfilling writing, but rather, due to a snapshot of life not always being all that is necessary to fully break a character down; and that’s perfectly normal. Yes, the powerful superhero or the evil antagonist in a blockbuster film is riveting to watch when they reach a breakthrough in their plan. But Linklater is more interested with following the innocent bystanders caught in the crossfire and how the minutiae of their daily lives plays out. And this attention to everyday folk, some changing while others remaining the same, is what paved the way for Linklater’s cult classic, Dazed and Confused.

Taking place over the course of a few hours in May of 1976, Dazed and Confused masterfully portrays an era that is long gone. But the brilliance of this film lies within its fundamentals. While the 70’s were long ago, these characters that inhabit the film remain deeply relatable. For Linklater has an innate ability to portray humans in the most naturalistic ways imaginable. Before the viewers are able to meet the ensemble of Dazed and Confused, it’s easy to point out the jocks, the freshman, the stoners, the older crowd, etc. Most people remember high school in some way, and Linklater takes his specific memories of that time, and makes them universal for the audience, which is no small feat. But being able to hone into that specific feeling is what propelled Dazed and Confused to become one of the greatest teen films of all time.

Richard Linklater and Cate Blanchett
Richard Linklater and Cate Blanchett on the set of WHERE’D YOU GO, BERNADETTE?

With a very minimalistic method of filmmaking, a Linklater film truly feels like a glimpse into another reality. It’s clear the filmmaker has a keen eye for detail, as all of his films are massively detailed that each nuance feels authentic. And due to many of his scripts being improvised or rewritten based around the experiences of the actors, the vibe present becomes reaffirmed. For example, Boyhood, the film that was made over the course of 12 years using the same actor, would regularly be altered to work in actual life experiences of the growing actor. It’s changes like these that make a Linklater film feel like a documentary that has morphed into a narrative driven film, although plot is hardly ever the primary focus. It always revolves around his characters.

For this reason, Linklater feels like an anthropologist trapped in the body of a renowned director. This observation shines a new light on the constant exploration of the human condition and experiences that Linklater is so interested in documenting. More often than not, he is infatuated with those who don’t have a set path they are following. Wherever the wind takes them, they will follow, and Linklater will surely be following them with camera in hand. For example, take Matthew McConaughey’s Wooderson in Dazed and Confused, the mid 20’s townie who still parties with teenagers. In any other film, his character would be chastised for immaturity and the failure to move past the “glory days”; yet Linklater was able to turn him into a cultural icon. Linklater certainly doesn’t justify his actions in the film, but by no means does he demean anyone who has followed a similar path.

This observational approach over a judgmental one is what separates Linklater from so many others. Those that live their lives one day at a time are rarely understood. They’re never given a moment to speak their minds, and when they do, they are usually looked down upon in favor of something more studious. In an interview, Linklater stated, “Slackers might look like the left-behinds of society, but they are actually one step ahead, rejecting most of society and the social hierarchy before it rejects them”. With Slacker and Dazed and Confused, the filmmaker wanted to simply put something fresh on the big screen, and judging by his career, it seems audiences wanted to see a different side of the world as well. Linklater’s influence has spread far since Slacker, and hopefully it continues, if only to regularly bring in a new voice to listen to from the expansive world.

Linklater’s most recent film Where’d You Go, Bernadette? is currently playing in theaters now, and our review of the film can be found here.

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Alex Papaioannou
Alex Papaioannou
Born and raised in New York. I've always loved all things pop culture, but my true passion lies within film. And the only thing that I love more than watching movies is writing about them! Some close runner-ups are: food, the Yankees, and hip-hop.

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