Dick Heads: Gary Indiana on Richard Linklater's A Scanner Darkly
Indiana, Gary, Artforum International
LOQUACITY IS Richard Linklater's metier: Regardless of how much or little action occurs in the course of his films, his characters talk incessantly, sometimes brilliantly, about what flumes up from their brainpans and how they perceive what goes on around them. Their emotional composition defines itself in the timing of cross talk, interruptions, witticisms, asperities, and perfunctory displays of affection. At times, they almost resemble real people, in films like Dazed and Confused (1993) and The School of Rock (2003)--zany people, equipped with one or two signature habits, tics, idiosyncracies.
It may not be all that limiting that Linklater's people seem generic, in many cases canned, like studio laughter. What comes out of their mouths is unpredictable, and their verbiage creates a particularity that enlarges them, belying the "type" their physicality and surface demeanor suggest. Linklater undermines the ostensible premises of his movies by applying a can opener to his characters' heads.
He is, unquestionably, the Dostoyevsky of movie dialogue, however flighty and paper-thin his interdigitating narratives appear to be. The repressed and unconscious yodel forth from caricatural druggies, deadbeats, quotidian "romantic couples," high school bullies, nerds, rapacious cheerleaders, authority figures, bourgeois parents, cops; even when they're uttering boilerplate banalities, there's something defective and unsettling in their delivery, tense evidence of a yawning abyss between what they articulate and what's really churning through their minds.
Sartre once noted that nobody is just a waiter. Linklater has embraced this indisputably true and, for some, uncomfortable realization. Everyone in his movies has something slightly more to say or exhibit than convention prepares us for, and flashes a premonitory twitch of being something other than he or she ostensibly is. If Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke "meet cute" in Before Sunrise (1995), their peregrinations through Vienna quickly drain any taint of cuteness from the curiously weighted, visually lighthearted romp they've embarked on. They learn everything about each other without finally knowing each other at all. The spontaneity of their short liaison ensures that the profound and the meaningless will merge in steamy evaporation.
Linklater's portraiture is a lucidly convoluted illustration of the talking cure. His films, however alluringly shot and stocked with savvy actors, suggest a non-visual cinema almost as drastically withholding as the films of Guy Debord. Linklater's first "animated feature," Waking Life (2001), can be an optical ordeal for viewers allergic to the artifice of hand-doctored frames that obliterate naturalistic photography. Still, the least palatable features of this far from perfectly "reinvented cinema" are rescued from sketchy facility and silliness and given acrobatic grace by fluidly gripping language. The spectacular aspect of Waking Life is its deceptively stingy afflatus of visual information. Its often etiolated or muckily daubed imagery provides its characters' metaphysically tail-swallowing chatter more clarity and direction than undoctored cinematography possibly could.
Linklater's madeleine is a vagina dipped in high school cafeteria tea. His films are, in a highbrow sense, boys' films, and he seldom renders a female character whose salient features appear above her neck or below her brassiere, but at least he's conscious of this limiting fixation, and the burnouts, blabbermouth slobs, and insatiable potheads who usually typify the male gender in his movies illustrate the pathology he's inscribing with laudable self-awareness. Before Sunrise and Before Sunset (2004) almost avoid making Julie Delpy into a sprightly but stereotypical gamine, but Delpy herself is a cliche, albeit an intelligent one, so limited in range that Ethan Hawke gobbles both films down to the gizzards, even with his most fatuously overworked mannerisms. …