Every art form has pieces that seem to encompass and dismantle everything that came before them. Generally speaking, these pieces are large and demanding and loud—the shifting of tectonic plates doesn’t generally happen quietly. In the world of film, for example, The Birth of a Nation and The Ten Commandments were great clanging epics, with casts as large as small cities. The Godfather spanned generations in an effort to tell the story of America. And both Bonnie and Clyde and The Wild Bunch proved with visceral force that blood and violence were indispensable parts of the American cinematic experience.
And then there’s Slacker. Outside of John Cage’s 4’33”, Rembrandt’s The Night Watch and Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, maybe no art form has ever had as subtle a revolutionary moment as cinema did with the arrival of Richard Linklater’s breakout film. Released in 1991, this unassuming portrait of life in Austin, shot and performed by amateurs for less than $25,000, was a wake-up call to Hollywood that felt more like a wake-up whisper: It wouldn’t have minded if you hit the snooze button and went back to sleep.
With its pop-philosophical script, shaggy tone and complete absence of anything resembling a plot, Slacker helped usher in a new golden age of American independent cinema. But unlike Do the Right Thing; sex, lies, and videotape; or Stranger Than Paradise, it wasn’t incendiary or controversial or cynical or ironic or knowing. Instead, it reveled in speculations and optimistic uncertainty. Like some vagrant anthropologist, Linklater follows dozens of characters through a single day in Austin, eavesdropping on their meandering monologues about life, dreams, art, government conspiracies, extraterrestrial life and, most memorably, the cultural value of a Madonna pap smear.
For Linklater, the observations of unfocused nobodies are worth as much as any king’s pronouncement, any star-crossed love affair or any bloody battle. As one of the characters states in his later animated dream journey Waking Life, “There’s no story; it’s just people, gestures, movements, bits of rapture, fleeting emotions. In short, the greatest story ever told.”
Since Slacker, Linklater has blurred the line between his arthouse modesty and Hollywood box-office ambition, dabbling in one world before drifting off to the other, achieving a level of success no one could have predicted back in 1991. I don’t know what other directors working today could pull off Before Sunrise, A Scanner Darkly and a remake of The Bad News Bears, but I imagine the list is pretty short.
But even when he’s working with big budgets and big names, Linklater keeps coming back to the idea that first motivated him: The product isn’t what’s important; it’s the process that matters, the moment when individuals dare to be creative. Take Jack Black’s Dewey Finn in School of Rock. He’s a clown whose passion for music far outpaces his talents, but when he belts out one of his ridiculous songs, he’s being as emotionally honest and aesthetically daring as any genius who ever lost himself in the ecstasy of what one Linklater character calls “the holy moment.”
Linklater’s latest is Me and Orson Welles (out on Nov. 25), and it makes a certain perverted sense that the laid-back director who insists on staying in Texas would make a movie about the type-A boy genius of Hollywood, whose own passion for creativity and independence was just as consuming as Linklater’s, but who took a far more rigorous and classical approach to his work. Like Linklater, Welles was fascinated by the possibilities of the artistic moment, when desire, imagination and opportunity come together. And though their careers followed different trajectories—Linklater started small and worked his way up to commercial success, and Welles started huge and slowly collapsed into obscurity and experimentalism—movies like F for Fake and The Chimes at Midnight are as odd and willfully idiosyncratic as anything Linklater has shot—both directors value the act of creation above everything else.
Me & Orson Welles imagines the week leading up to the opening of Welles’ Mercury Theatre in 1937, when he was preparing to unveil his production of Julius Caesar. Soon The War of the Worlds would follow, then a call from Hollywood and Citizen Kane, perhaps the most seminal work—the holiest of all holy moments—in movie history. Unsurprising, then, that Linklater, who wouldn’t know how to act grand or classical if he wanted to, chose to make a movie about the moment before the moment, when Welles’ creative genius was just coming into focus, and the world, without knowing it, was about to enter a new era of cinematic possibility.