The long conversation: Richard Linklater on cinema and time

Looking time in the eye with the maker of Before Sunrise, Sunset and Midnight.

:: kogonada

There’s something inherently compelling about seeing human beings age through time. From the online time-lapse videos of faces changing over the course of a year to Michael Apted’s Up series, this process moves us. The ongoing drama of Apted’s films, which have followed a select group of British children into adulthood, is simply the drama of life unfolding. The structure is simple – Apted conducts an interview with the participants every seven years, weaving in B-roll footage that offers the smallest window into their everyday lives – and yet we are transfixed.

Beyond this artifice, however, lie characters – the actors themselves – who’ve aged with us in actual time. More often than not this aging is merely a by-product of a profitable franchise churning out sequel after sequel. (Were it possible, I suppose some of these franchises would freeze their actors in time.) But there are franchises that do necessarily unfold in time, like the recently completed Harry Potter series, which for many felt poignant not only because of its sweeping plot but because they were actually witnessing these characters getting older.

In narrative filmmaking, this presentation of time is more complex, because it is also a re-presentation of time in a fictional context. As well, the artifice of aging has always been a part of filmmaking, whether through makeup, special effects, multiple actors and/or acting itself.

Outside of these mega franchises, there are film sequels in which the actual passing of time plays a crucial role, not as a mere by-product but as a key ingredient. The goal is not to produce the next film as soon as possible but to wait for enough time to pass so the actors can age along with their characters (a sort of filmmaking-as-winemaking). What comes to mind most immediately are the five films of François Truffaut that track the ongoing life of Antoine Doinel over the course of 20 years. The changing face and body of Jean-Pierre Léaud as Antoine are a significant part of this narrative experience. We are not only witnessing the story of an abandoned boy struggling to become an adult, but time itself.

With this year’s release of Before Midnight, Richard Linklater joins Truffaut in offering this rare kind of cinema in which the physicality of time confronts our own existence. What makes Linklater’s narrative unique is that his two main characters, Jesse and Celine, have always been mindful of time passing, even when we first meet them in their twenties, and remain mindful in their forties. This is part of what draws them together – their willingness, or even eagerness, to discuss such things. Linklater unapologetically allows his characters, not only in these films but in his others, to engage with what it means to exist in this world. His cinema is filled with characters who question, theorise and reflect.

For Linklater, the unfolding of life is worthy of conversation and representation. In Before Sunrise (1995), Jesse describes to Celine an idea for a 24/7 cable access television show that would capture “life as it’s lived… a guy waking up in the morning and taking the long shower, eating a little breakfast, making a little coffee and reading the paper.” “Wait, wait,” Celine responds. “All those mundane, boring things everybody has to do every day of their fucking life?” Jesse: “I was going to say the poetry of day-to-day life…”

This idea of day-to-day life being worth watching, as a kind of poetry, gives context to Linklater’s first feature, It’s Impossible to Learn How to Plow by Reading Books (1988), which primarily consists of long takes of Linklater sitting, cooking, eating, doing laundry, taking a shower, driving a car and riding on trains.

There are moments that stand out among this ordinariness: Linklater pointing his gun out of the window, looking at his hands in the sunlight, standing before a mountain range with his friend, watching Dreyer’s Gertrud on television. None of these moments are given explicit meaning within the context of a narrative. Linklater and his gun are not a part of a sinister plot. When he looks at his hand in the sunlight, it is not a turning point in the story. They are simply moments. (The one exception may be the clip from Gertud that Linklater chooses to show, in which the main character describes life as a dream. This is a theme that Linklater will later engage throughout his films, and even here it may be suggesting that these moments are a kind of dream.)

This value that Linklater sees in the ordinariness of life unfolding makes his Before series all the more delicate. He is aware of life’s temporality, of the characters’ temporality, of our own temporality. What I appreciate about Linklater is his willingness to converse about these things, about things that matter. He is rarely coy or apathetic. If we are admonished to write what we know, it is not surprising that Linklater writes about people who are concerned but find pleasure and connection in the discussion of their concerns.

Linklater is at ease partaking in the long conversation of cinema, of what it is or might be (a conversation that is being reclaimed from its academese stagnation of “is” paralysis). For Linklater, it is a question both of history and possibility. It is less about prescription then it is potential. When we spoke, he had just finished wrapping his 12 Year Project, which takes the idea of representing time in narrative filmmaking to a whole different level.

If cinema is also the art of time passing, then Linklater is proving to be one of its most actively engaged and thoughtful directors. Unlike other filmmakers often identified as auteurs, Linklater’s distinction is not found on the surface of his films, in a visual style or signature shot, but rather in their DNA, as an ongoing conversation with cinema, which is to say, a conversation about time passing.

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