Magazine article The American Prospect

Sex, Lies, Etc. (the Critics Film)

Magazine article The American Prospect

Sex, Lies, Etc. (the Critics Film)

Article excerpt

SET IN A SINGLE, GRIM MICHIGAN motel room, Richard Linklater's latest film, Tape, has an air of let's-put-on-a-movie spontaneity--and concentration--that's often missing from contemporary American pictures. This refreshing charge derives in part from the film's terse concept (a trio of high-school friends are reunited 10 years after graduation), but it also comes from the low-cost, less-fuss new digital video technology that Linklater is toying with here.

The film's scruffy surface is, though, deceptive. Linklater's dramatic approach is quite sophisticated, and Tape, for all its mumbled dialogue and pseudo-verite camera work, is actually a work of clever calculation, its apparently raw energy drawn from a careful balance of chance and choice, state-of-the-art materials and traditional narrative techniques. And however "ordinary" the people in the film are meant to be, the fact that two of them are played by Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman, downtown glamour couple par excellence, only adds to the sense that Linklater is partly putting us on with the bargain-basement feel of his picture.

Then again, it's no surprise that the actors were hungry for such meaty, uncharacteristic roles. (Thurman, for one, is especially fine when cast against vampy type.) Nor should we doubt Linklater's motivations in making the film quickly, simply, and on the cheap: Of all the so-called American independents who've found mainstream fame in the last decade or so, Linklater has remained among the closest to his underground roots.

Once an aspiring writer who took a job on an oil rig so that he could spend his days reading, Linklater has tried his hand at Hollywood production yet has always returned to Austin, Texas, his hometown, as he has returned to writing and directing for himself and to asking, in a variety of intriguing ways, the same questions that have haunted him all along. These questions range from the anthropological (how do smart, young, underemployed Americans talk?) to the philosophical (what causes time to expand and contract, depending on one's state of mind and the company one keeps?). Lots of American directors have shticks, but few have steep and lasting concerns. Linklater is one of the few whose oeuvre has taken shape over the years as a restless and ongoing search for intricate answers.

LINKLATER'S INITIAL SUCCESS CAME with Slacker, a Zeitgeisty 1991 picture whose fluid, meandering structure was the source of both its charm and its limitation, as the aimlessness of the characters merged somehow with the aimlessness of the film. Slacker worked (or didn't, depending on your point of view) by eavesdropping on the conversations of dozens of twenty-something Austin chatterboxes and drones, and closing with a sobering, slightly sophomoric shot of the camera being tossed off a cliff. The picture then blurred and tumbled, as if we in the audience had also been given the heave-ho.

Godard, too, had ended a movie with the deadpan declaration that the Fin du Cinema was nigh, but--given the nervy brilliance of the film that led up to that announcement, Weekend--somehow we didn't believe him. To judge from the final frames of Slacker, the imminent end (of art, ambition, American culture) looked a good deal more likely. I remember being at once annoyed and depressed by this movie when I first saw it as a recent and, I admit, easily annoyable college graduate. Many other people my age "connected" with Slacker, but it seemed to me to glorify everything lost and self-indulgent about my generation, X. Why, I wondered, was a gifted man like Linklater--himself a few years older than most of his subjects--frittering his talents and wasting his time chronicling the b.s. sessions of these various bozos and bores? The film struck me as embodying all the syndromes (lassitude, anemia, self-absorption) it diagnosed.

Subsequent viewings have softened me on the movie, which is, it turns out, better appreciated as a Max Ophuls--styled roundelay or slow-mo relay race than as a commentary on the inertial state of so many confused young Americans. …

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