The Mysteries of Richard Linklater: Director Finds Lifetimes in Moments

Richard Linklater’s Bad News Bears, from a screenplay by Mr. Linklater, Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, is a remake of Michael Ritchie’s The Bad News Bears (1976), which was such a hit in its time that it spawned two additional sequels and a television series, all of which I managed to miss out of a congenital indifference to the subject. Still, I’m prepared to accept the assurances of my more encyclopedically minded colleagues that Walter Matthau was very funny as the acerbically alcoholic coach of a team of initially inept and fiercely foul-mouthed Little Leaguers, who could trade their coach four-letter word for four-letter word. This burst of impropriety reportedly titillated audiences in the 70’s, and it may do so again because of the seemingly eternal American delusion about the pure and innocent instincts of their children until the evil media and their adult cohorts corrupt them.

In any event, Billy Bob Thornton fits almost seamlessly into the old Matthau role after his hilariously anti-Christmas-spirit exuberance in Terry Zwigoff’s Bad Santa (2003). Mr. Ficarra and Mr. Requa, the screenwriters for Bad Santa, are on hand again to collaborate with Mr. Linklater on the new edition of Bad News Bears.

The results are at best mixed. So why am I leading off this week’s column with a movie, the subject and genre of which I have found singularly unappetizing for all of my adult life? The answer involves a resurgence of my auteurist inclinations. Since I decided recently that I was going to live forever, I figured that I had enough time to update The American Cinema, Directors and Directions 1929-1968 to the 21st Century, beginning with Richard Linklater, whom I am tentatively placing in the category “The Far Side of Paradise.”

Still in his 40’s, Mr. Linklater may have a stab at making my pantheon of English-language auteurs, which takes in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland and the British Isles. Among the other recent auteurs I am following (though sometimes from a great distance) are: Robert Altman, Harold Becker, Robert Benton, the Coen Brothers, Francis Ford Coppola, Jonathan Demme, Clint Eastwood, the Farrelly Brothers, Peter Jackson, Jim Jarmusch, Ken Loach, David Lynch, Terrence Malick, Michael Mann, Errol Morris, Mike Nichols, David O. Russell, John Sayles, Martin Scorsese, Steven Soderbergh, Steven Spielberg, Quentin Tarantino, Gus Van Sant and Terry Zwigoff … but I am still very early in my research.

Part of my motivation in studying the present for clues to the future is to escape the spiritual paralysis of an unforgiving nostalgia for the past. André Bazin (1918-1958) once tried to exclude Hollywood directors from the purview of François Truffaut’s La Politique des Auteurs by invoking “the genius of the system” as an alternative theory to explain the large number of Hollywood classics. I raised my very tentative and respectful objections to Bazin—a film theorist I admired above all others—in my 1963 essay in Film Culture Magazine, entitled “Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962.” This piece of critical writing annoyed Pauline Kael sufficiently to write the much more widely read “Circles and Squares” in Film Quarterly Magazine, launching a 40-year war for which I was polemically unprepared. The trouble was that the cultural establishment seized on the Sarris-Kael imbroglio as a way to keep critical theory out of a “fun” field like movies. Hence, I was suddenly catapulted from obscurity to notoriety without passing “Go.” Now, almost half a century later, I can refute Bazin’s “genius of the system” argument more succinctly simply by asking: If the “system” was responsible for the good films, then who or what was responsible for the much more numerous bad films?

Still, the “system” in Old Hollywood can be credited with giving its employees longer and more copious filmographies than most in the medium can count on today. Mr. Linklater’s comparatively “independent,” catch-as-catch-can career is a case in point. To begin with, his “Hollywood” was Texas, particularly Austin, which enabled him to find his first subject and the genre that established his identity. He was helped also by a technical versatility in the medium that he acquired without much instruction.

Mr. Linklater was born in Houston, Tex., in 1960, and dropped out of Sam Houston State University in 1982 to work on an offshore oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. He later parked cars before relocating to the state’s capital in Austin, where he founded a film society and raised funds to make his first film, a short entitled It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books (1987). Three years later, he released his first feature, Slacker (1991), a series of many brief conversations in constant transit between a shifting mise-en-scène of Austin’s youth culture spinning out of the University of Texas into the outside world. Slacker, widely circulated on the burgeoning film-festival circuit, received a big boost at the 1991 Sundance Film Festival, where it was hailed as a generational call to arms for disaffected rebels without a cause.

His subsequent films were more structured and plot-driven than Slacker, though equally youth-oriented. Dazed and Confused (1993) dealt with a varied group of Texas suburban high-school graduates in 1976. Performers like Matthew McConaughey, Ben Affleck, Parker Posey and Joey Lauren Adams were somewhat lower-billed here, and that new Texas girl, Renée Zellweger, flashed by in an early screen appearance.

Mr. Linklater somehow made his next film, Before Sunrise, in Europe, with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy as strangers meeting on a train in Vienna and falling quickly and perhaps hopelessly in love on his last night in Europe. Mr. Linklater sustains this fragile conceit—very talky for a 90’s movie—with moderate success. But what’s most impressive in terms of Mr. Linklater’s overall career is his ability to shift gears from his collectivist orientation, with its generational alibis, to the romantic humanism of two such sharply etched individuals.

His next film, subUrbia (the title is gimmicked up in upper- and lower-case pretentiousness), was much darker and more despairing, as a group of alienated 20-year-olds hangs out in a suburban convenience-store parking lot, part of an aimless, growing drug subculture. When an old buddy of the group’s—now a rock star—shows up in a limo after playing a concert in town, the pent-up frustrations explode.

With The Newton Boys in 1998, Mr. Linklater suffered his first out-and-out creative setback. In this period crime saga of four Texas brothers who robbed banks across the country from 1919 to 1924, Mr. Linklater was unable to control the tempo of his material and the conviction in his characterizations. In many current “independent” careers, a flop like The Newton Boys could be the last picture for a director without any commercial blockbusters to his credit.

But at this point, Mr. Linklater’s aforementioned technical versatility came to his rescue with Waking Life (2001), an anime-like cartoon shot in video, but even more realistically enhanced than anime itself. The hyper-cerebral script consists of little more than a young man’s philosophical discussions with numerous people he encounters at random. Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy and Steven Soderbergh—no stranger to metaphysics in film himself—are among the real people who appear via their enhanced animated replicas.

One factor in Mr. Linklater’s ability to keep his head above water is his ability to work cheap. After all, Slacker, the film that first introduced him to the world, was made from $23,000. I don’t know what Tape (2001) cost, but it couldn’t have been much even with its respectable cast of Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman and Robert Sean Leonard. It was shot on digital video in a dingy hotel room for all of its 86-minute running time. Can you get any cheaper than that?

Then suddenly and triumphantly Mr. Linklater is back in the system with his first big commercial success in The School of Rock (2003). Off to Paris Mr. Linklater goes to film his brilliant sequel to the 10-year-old Before Sunrise. It is called Before Sunset, and it made the top of my 2004 10-best list. Mr. Hawke and Ms. Delpy managed to be more affecting in the twilight of their affair than they were in its blazing beginning.

And so here we are in 2005, with Mr. Linklater’s Bad News Bears. The important thing is that he has survived and even thrived in a particularly treacherous period in film history. Jean Renoir once said of Leo McCarey that he was the one director in Hollywood who knew and liked people. And I can say much the same for Mr. Linklater, after I think about it a little. This may explain why I liked his version of Bad News Bears perhaps more than I should. There is a moment in Before Sunset in the middle of a long traveling shot in the Luxembourg Garden when Ms. Delpy impulsively reaches out to touch the back of Mr. Hawke’s head while he is turned away from her, but aborts the affectionate gesture when he starts turning toward her. In that short interval, Mr. Linklater has generated the most complex and most intense feelings one can imagine between these two people. It is for such privileged moments that one seeks to unravel the mysteries of directorial style.

There is nothing quite that revelatory in Bad News Bears. But there are many lingerings over communal feelings other directors might pass through more quickly to get to the next giggle or guffaw more efficiently. Mr. Linklater lingers one or two beats longer to let the feelings sink in for an audience. It may not be what the audience wants on all occasions, and it may not work with every story. But I have seen a wide enough range of lyrical expression in Mr. Link-later’s career to accord him an auteurist eminence I seldom encounter these days.

This is not to say that I endorse all the conventional plot contrivances in Bad News Bears. Yet I was a bit surprised by the ending, and wondered both what it was supposed to demonstrate, and how closely it hewed to the original. I remain amused by the complaints of some people less for the profanities uttered by 12-year-olds than for the coach’s exposure of the children to the forbidden delights of Hooters’ waitresses. It reminds me of the indignant mother suing the distributors of the homicidal video game “Grand Theft Auto,” not for all the killings of cops, but for a sex scene hidden among all the homicides. Apparently, it is better for a child to play at shooting policemen than to be exposed to simulated sexual activity.

Finally, let me say, though it has never seemed worth saying, that actors are as much subject to the discriminatory apparatus of auteurist theory as directors. In this context, I dragged myself off to see Bad News Bears despite my misgivings, as much for Mr. Thornton as for Mr. Linklater.

Threesome Hans Weingartner’s The Edukators, from a screenplay (in German with English subtitles) by Katharina Held and Mr. Weingartner, turned out to be an unusually suspenseful film for me because I didn’t want anything bad to happen to the three co-protagonists, Danuel Brühl’s Jan, Julia Jentsch’s Jule and Stipe Erceg’s Peter. Jan, Jule and Peter are three very likeable non-violent revolutionaries who remain bourgeois enough to mess up a potential ménage à trois when Jan betrays his best friend Peter by falling in love with Peter’s girlfriend Jule and she with him. Instead of devising a now old-fashioned communal design for living à la Noel Coward, Peter flies into a rage while Jan and Jule figuratively hang their heads in shame and guilt. Despite the brilliant performances of the three leads, if this were all the film was about, it would not be worth your time or mine.

As it happens, The Edukators becomes by stages this year’s most articulate statement on film about the current disillusion with politics among young people everywhere in the Western world. But what is most fascinating about The Edukators is that it gives the other side, the ruling class, if you will, an intelligent and devilishly ingenious spokesmen. There is no hope of change, the film demonstrates, for people of good will if they insist on retaining a shred of their humanity and decency. Yet the other way has led in the past to Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot.

Unfortunately, movie audiences are traditionally unkind to well-meaning but indecisive characters. So it is no surprise to me that The Edukators is not doing well commercially, even on the rarefied art-house level. Hence, it may not get the discerning customers it deserves. The class warfare starts early with Jule, a waitress in an upscale gourmet restaurant, having to endure the snobbery of a picky patron who complains about the inappropriate glass in which an alcoholic beverage is served. In an American movie, the waitress would retaliate with at least a cutting remark. But Jule needs the job to keep her head above water for reasons that we learn later. So she grins and bears the verbal abuse without raising a storm. She later displays her political feelings by grappling with police as they jostle striking workers on a picket line.

Meanwhile, Jule’s two buddies in non-violent revolution, Peter and Jan, engage in a curious nighttime form of rebellion by invading the temporarily unoccupied homes of the rich, drastically rearranging the furniture and other bric-a-brac (without stealing anything), but leaving behind a cautionary note about the occupants’ “days of plenty” soon coming to an end. Jan is the more cerebral and idealistic of the two, and when he discovers that Peter has pocketed an expensive watch on their most recent foray, he angrily throws the watch out the car window.

While Peter is away on a pleasure trip, Jule loses her job for standing by a fired co-worker. Though she has been sleeping with Peter during her employment, she now turns to Jan for consolation. When he reveals what he and Peter have been up to all these months when they are supposedly employed on night shifts, she asks Jan to take her along in Peter’s place to the luxurious home of a man whose Mercedes she wrecked when her brakes failed. Because her license had been suspended, she was compelled by the court to pay the full cost of the Mercedes, which would take five years to pay on her wages as a waitress. When the owner, Hardenberg (Bughart Klaussner), returns unexpectedly, Jan and Jule struggle with him and knock him out temporarily, sending them into such a childish panic that they call up the cooler-headed Peter to come get them out of their mess.

At this point it is clear that they can’t kill him in cold blood, and yet they can’t let him go either. Jan and Jule are guilty also for having betrayed Peter during their merrymaking in Hardenberg’s mansion and swimming pool. The three tie up and gag Hardenberg, and drive up to the deserted mountain cabin owned by Jule’s uncle. At this point, it becomes clear that Jule, Jan and Peter, like most revolutionaries, are not among the most oppressed of the victims of capitalist globalization, but belong in the ranks of the disaffected intelligentsia.

Hardenberg proves to be a wily captive as he describes his youthful experiences as a German revolutionary, and the sexual experimentation that went on in his commune, and by intimating that Jule, Jan and Peter know all about it, he slyly raises Peter’s suspicions about what went on between Jan and Jule while he was away. This causes a temporary rupture between Peter and Jan. But in the end nothing has really changed in the stalemated power struggle. The point is that I fully identified with Jan and Jule and Peter in their collective political despair. Let’s face it: Things are pretty bad, and they’ll probably get a lot worse before they get any better. Still, having survived the “good old days” of the Great Depression, World War II, and the Holocaust, perhaps I shouldn’t complain.