2020 Film Essays

Why Criticism: Time After Time, Linklater and Lucas

“Why Criticism” is a film criticism-themed Vague Visages column featuring various contributors.

Whenever friends from abroad ask me about Centre Pompidou, my recommendation is always to visit on an early Monday afternoon when the usual museum crowd is either lunching or recuperating. Ever since the beginning of the strike on December 5, though, every day at Pompidou feels like a Monday afternoon. The “mouvement social” quoted in cancellation announcements for a month exposes the gap between the metropolis’ dashful urban planning and the ugly reality of low-paid workforce living in the not-so-fancy outskirts, practically cut off without a reliable transport. Administration, security staff, logistics personnel, even janitors — these are the people who make the French capital click, and the same goes for a cultural institution such as Pompidou, thus visiting hours had to be shortened, with many screenings simply annulled. It’s truly a pity for an event that was supposed to be the crowning jewel of 2019 — Richard Linklater’s full retrospective, from November 25, 2019 to January 6, 2020.

Still, there is the exhibition. Like it is the case for every filmmaker treated with a special focus, Centre Pompidou organizes a free exposition at level -1, showcasing production artifacts, interviews, personal memorabilia, video installations and poster art. Titled “Le cinéma, matière-temps” (“Filming Time as Material”), the Linklater show occupies the four principal rooms of the exhibition space with confidence and weight, the confidence and weight of a self-aware body of work. With a moon tower replica in the center, automatically teleporting visitors to the discursive field and the chill vibe of Dazed and Confused, the four sections explore various aspects of Linklater’s public image and personal cinephilia: his affiliation with the Austin Film Society, the Zeitgeist of our era with its audiovisual representations and nightmares, aging/growth and the filmmaker’s oeuvre as an auto-portrait.

Walking around this expo feels like stepping into a time machine, with the past 25 years of my life literally condensed into several films that seem to mean a lot to me. Here is my first Linklkater, Before Sunrise, from a decade when my viewing diet consisted mostly of French cinema and Ethan Hawke movies. Here are my rotoscoped twenties, putting Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly under my tongue over and over again; rewatching Before Sunset at a moment when I hesitated about moving to Paris; fond festival memories of Boyhood discussions over a beer. For Pompidou’s general public, this expanse is simply a passage from the intense contemporary art to the toilets, or better yet a neutral, not-too-Instagrammable zone where they can check social media on their smartphones. Overwhelmed by the emotions and the memories of my own past, I instinctively do the same, with my hand automatically unlocking the screen and my eyes diving into Twitter.

Three seconds in, I realize the end-of-the-year/end-of-the-decade frenzy is still at full speed, with George Lucas ruling the timeline. When you think about it, the similarities between Linklater and Lucas are plentiful. Two coming-of-age classics arise from their early career, both rooted in personal experience and sprinkled with nostalgia — American Graffiti is a 1973 movie set on the last day of summer vacation in 1962, and Dazed and Confused is a 1993 movie about the last day of high school in 1976. In this early phase, both Linklater and Lucas drive inspiration from the communal experience as filmers at large, while also maintaining a productive relationship with their low-key cinephilia obsessions, only to position themselves in the middle ground between Hollywood and independence later on. And then, both Linklater and Lucas love sculpting with time — the former chisels on micro level, drawing us closer to the humorous drama of everyday existence, while the latter relies on bold strokes, suitable for a space opera and a really huge screen. So why is Linklater in Pompidou and why is Lucas trending on Twitter?

If nothing else, the digital abundance of the 2010s infected us with the compulsion to build intricate hierarchies based on concocted rating systems and false dichotomies. DC vs. Marvel, Netflix vs. Disney+, theatrical vs. streaming, auteurs vs. society — every day feels like a new crusade, with social-media troops instantly regrouping upon the slightest signal. Unprecedented access to more than 120 years of audiovisual history, yet more and more limited understanding of the context behind these works, gradually lead to an oversimplification, or in other words: much meme, not enough gestalt. In an era where cinephilia is always about performance, both online and in real life, woke buffs feel compelled to assemble their character like in a video game: 60 percent  Scorsese, 23 percent Tarantino, 17 percent Harmony Korine (ironically, all three made an appearance in 2019 with a timeless film). It seems like the smaller the screen, the less the emotional engagement, but I really wish more militant connoisseurs could experience films, and film-watching, as an organic part of their life, not just as a side mission.

In this sense, Linklater and Lucas are by no means antagonists, and should not be positioned at the opposite ends of some imaginary axis. Lucas’ production company American Zoetrope, co-founded with Francis Ford Coppola, has solid positions on the arthouse terrain, with names such as Jean-Luc Godard, Barbet Schroeder, Wim Wenders, Agnieszka Holland, Andrei Konchalovsky and Hal Hartley in the catalogue. His debut feature, THX 1138, is still outrageously underappreciated, as if the sci-fi canon is so cramped only Stanley Kubrick can loom large, and despite the countless proofs of love in all forms of pop culture. The Star Wars prequel trilogy, directed by Lucas himself, is a daring step into CGI filmmaking — what now looks like an ancient artifact from two decades ago appeared in a time where the end-of-the-century anxiety yielded an outstanding cyberpunk crop.

Meanwhile, Gabe Klinger’s documentary Double Play: James Benning and Richard Linklater (a nod from Venice, no less), depicts Linklater as a self-made cineaste, casually wielding a baseball bat against the household name of the New Narrative Movement, and mind you — with the composure of someone who can play all over the field. There is no need to take out the “critically acclaimed” R-rated titles from his filmography and regard solely his PG-13 darlings; his entire work is essentially the meet-cute of feel-good vibes and indie spirit. Still, The Newton Boys, School of Rock, Me and Orson Welles or even Where’d You Go Bernadette (the perfect Christmas movie if it wasn’t released in August) are all masterclasses in casting choices, and of a directorial insight into stardom dynamics.

What is also interesting about Linklater and Lucas is the way they saturate their oeuvre with intertextuality. Again, as someone whose films deal with the all too real minutiae of the quotidian, Linklater carefully stitches his Ameican quilt out of familiar faces and gestures. This is visible in his earlier features, particularly Slacker, as well as in the Before trilogy, where Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke carry on with Céline and Jesse in other projects, even real life. Another example from the Pompidou exhibition — Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke’s black-and-white portraits among photos of Mexican immigrants and meat factories from the Fast Food Nation corner can give a whole different meaning to Boyhood. Lucas’ approach to intertextuality is more straightforward and vigorous, maybe because his artistic intentions must maintain a gigantic cross-media cadavre exquis, always in the making. I can’t wait for the Letterboxd crowd to discover the Akira Kurosawa and Ennio Morricone tributes or the classic anime allusions in Star Wars: The Clone Wars, and for staff writers to see beyond J.J. Abrams’s zest in fulfilling his pioneer assignment, so they can focus on the entire epos as a political commentary for our times (including its seemingly eternal orientalist bias). Linklater and Lucas belong to the same well-greased machinery, both in terms of industry and semantics. Hence, the second Star Wars trilogy is essentially Boyhood, whereas Boyhood contains several Star Wars references as an authenticity stamp for quality father-son time.

This same old-same old generational passage with all trends and hypes that are part of the process can be news only to someone who experiences it for the first time. No matter how you feel about it, the audiovisual canon of tomorrow is being moulded in the latest Christmas LEGO catalogue. Any sentimentality born out of myopic intimacy with the discourse can be cured, that’s right — just look for this tiny lever labeled historical distance. Because what is time but a critical mass of people staring at the handless dial of socio-cultural constructs?

Yoana Pavlova (@RoamingWords) is a Bulgarian writer, media researcher and programmer, currently based in Paris. She is the founding editor of Festivalists.com, with bylines for Fandor’s Keyframe, The Calvert Journal, East European Film Bulletin, AltCine, as well as a contributor to the following books: Cinemas of Paris (2016, St Andrews Film Studies), Eastern Promises (2014, Festival Internacional de Cine de Donostia – San Sebastián), The Bulgarian Nouvelle Vague (2012, Edno). Yoana is also a mentor at the IFFR Trainee Project for Young Film Critics and Sarajevo Talent Press.

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