David T. Johnson, an associate professor of English at Salisbury University, is the author of Richard Linklater, a new volume in our Contemporary Film Directors series. In this Q&A he discusses the director’s use of music and reveals his favorite Linklater film.
Q: On paper, the subjects of Linklater’s films seem very diverse—Before Sunset, Fast Food Nation, School of Rock, Waking Life, etc. Is there a pattern to how he has chosen his projects?
Johnson: That’s a really interesting question, and it’s actually how I begin the book: how do we compare that moment when Jesse first sees Celine in Before Sunset to the moment when Sylvia takes her place on the slaughterhouse line in Fast Food Nation, neither of which are really at all like the moment when the kids rock out over the closing credits in School of Rock? The answer is, in one sense, we can’t—these are totally different moments that reflect totally different films. So there isn’t a clear answer there, at least initially, but my argument has been, let’s not allow that to stop us from taking these films seriously or talking about them as a group. One of the fascinating aspects of the writing right now on Linklater, for example, even if we look just at the reviews that have been coming out around the release of his new movie Bernie, is how much of it reflects this very idea—that there isn’t a really clear pattern in his work. I think this response has often led to a certain trepidation, on the part of writers, whether journalists or academics or both, to talk about his filmmaking with the kind of seriousness it deserves—that and the fact that humor plays such an important part in so many of the films. And that’s too bad, because it’s meant we tend to undervalue the work that Detour, Linklater’s production company, has been putting out now regularly for over two decades. My own approach has been to say that, like others, I recognize that the movies do not present any identifiable patterns—but let’s push past that and see what else the movies have to say. Let’s treat them seriously and put them into dialogue with one another, while trying to respect what makes each one unique. My entrance into that conversation has been the subject of time, which broadly encompasses many different impulses within the films, even though I try to acknowledge that this is just one of many ways we might talk about them.
Q: What drew you to these films in the first place?
Johnson: I had one of those experiences in my twenties where I realized that several movies I admired a great deal were all directed by the same person—Linklater! And then, while I was in graduate school, I had a friend with whom I’d often talk about Linklater’s movies, but we’d complain that we couldn’t really find any articles or books about his films that treated them at greater length. A few years later, some great material started to show up, particularly online—the online journal Reverse Shot did a symposium on him, with a long interview, that really inspired me quite a lot. But I still felt as though we had not yet reached a point where there was enough critical material on his work. And so I thought that this book might provide an opportunity for us to start to talking even more seriously about the films, and my hope is that others, too, will continue to move that conversation forward.
Q: Where did Linklater’s preoccupation with the concept of time arise?
Johnson: Linklater began by making films that were directly indebted to the avant-garde tradition, which itself was fascinated with time in the work of filmmakers like James Benning or Chantal Akerman (two filmmakers Linklater has cited as direct influences). His first film, It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books, really reflects that tradition (what P. Adams Sitney termed the “structural film”—think static camera shots, often long takes, of a character doing very little that a more conventional film would deem
narratively important). Another important influence was the Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, whose book on filmmaking, Sculpting in Time, Linklater has cited in a number of interviews. And of course, many of his films have frequently been limited to a very
specific amount of time, particularly in the early part of his career—Slacker, Dazed and Confused, Before Sunrise, and subUrbia all take place over roughly twenty-four hours or less. But he has gone in the other direction too, stretching films out narratively over
years and years, as in an experiment he’s currently working on called Boyhood, where he has been filming the same actors over a twelve-year period to make a narrative film about a boy’s growing up in more or less the same amount of years. (I believe he is now in year ten.) And then, so many of the characters themselves talk about time very directly, probably none more so than Celine and Jesse in the Before films. So it is a preoccupation that he has returned to, again and again, and it seemed like a great entrance for me into the films as a whole.
Q: What is your favorite film that Linklater has directed?
A: Before Sunset. It was voted one of the top films of the decade by Film Comment magazine in 2010, and it was a well-deserved honor. Before Sunrise, a film made nine years earlier, is about a young man and woman, in their early twenties, who meet in Europe, fall in love (in 24 hours), and then depart, making plans to meet six months later. Before Sunset is what happens nine years later when the young man, now in his early thirties, is on a book tour in Paris and runs into the woman. What happened nine years ago? What’s happened since? All of these and other questions play out in a fascinating, real-time stroll around Paris in the late afternoon. Since the same actors play the same characters (Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke)—and since the actors have aged as much as the characters—there’s almost a documentary effect within these two romantic films. In fact, Linklater, Delpy, and Hawke—all three of whom wrote Before Sunset (and who also wrote, with Kim Krizan, the first film)—are planning a third film right now that will pick up on the couple, once again, a few years later, to see what’s become of them. Hawke said of the second film that he thought that eventually they might make several such films that would be a kind of “document on love and relationships,” and I think this film bodes very well for their next effort. Plus, it has one of the most subtle but best endings in any of Linklater’s films.
Q: How important is the use of music in Linklater’s films?
Johnson: Music is probably one of the main ways that my own memory connects with these films, even if it is just one part of the entire experience. I always think of Mitch at the end of Dazed and Confused putting on his giant headphones after an incredible night on the town, as “Slow Ride,” by Foghat, fills the soundtrack—one of the most blissful musical moments in any of the films—or, at the beginning of the same movie, Pickford’s car pulling into the parking lot as Aerosmith’s “Sweet Emotion” kicks in. School of Rock, also, celebrates the bliss of rock, whether when the kids perform the title song at the big contest or jam over the credit sequence to AC/DC. So music has certainly served as an important touchstone to my memories with these films, but in general, I’m not sure I
would say that music plays quite the same role in every film—it’s used to different ends, depending on the subject, the genre, and other concerns, and certainly not always involving rock and roll. Two of the other great musical moments, after all, are when Celine and Jesse listen to “Come Here,” the Kath Bloom song, in the record booth scene from Before Sunrise, or when Celine imitates Nina Simone in her apartment, Jesse lying back on her futon, at the closing of Before Sunset (an ending that never fails to knock me out). I also think of an instrumental “They Can’t Take That Away from Me” from the end of Me and Orson Welles, a poignant accompaniment to Richard’s going over the memorabilia of his one week in the theater. And then, to go a little further, some films are notable for the ways they might underplay or withhold music. Tape, for example, derives much of its power from its not using any musical scoring during its heated exchanges—the raw power of those scenes thus turn in part on not being prompted by any cues from the soundtrack. So like the films themselves, the approach to music often varies widely, and that’s part of what makes them so interesting.
Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?
Johnson: I hope what readers take away from the book is a desire to learn more—not just about Richard Linklater and the films he has directed—though certainly that!—but
the cinema more generally and, even further, subjects that would fall under the whole notion of a humanities education, such as cinema, art, literature, history, and so many other fields of study. The humanities tend to get bad press these days—in a climate of economic constriction, why would anyone invest their time in them? And yet that’s precisely the time when we need the humanities, both in and outside the classroom, and I think that’s an idea that these films, for me, very much encourage and take to heart.