Moving Pictures
May 02, 2023, 06:29AM

Linklater Nightswimming

The quiet brilliance taken for granted in the cinema of Richard Linklater.

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Something that’s made Richard Linklater’s films so rich to come back to is what’s most taken for granted as texture, rather than thematically revealing—his quietly brilliant ability to portray people in detail at a very specific place in a very specific time. His portrait of late-1970s teenage disaffection in Dazed and Confused is, for instance, remembered primarily not for the hijinks and dramas, but the cars, the costumes, the voluminous hair. In his whole career, though, no film has been more singled out as being an essential artifact of a moment in time than his mainstream debut, Slacker, a loving portrait of the various punks, perverts, anarchists, misanthropes, or any otherwise weirdo wandering the streets of the Texas state capital on the cusp of the 1990s. It was also a favorite of another Austin-based filmmaker, Alex Jones.

When they first met they talked about movies, and Jones made a point to bring up his favorite scene from Slacker, where a man with blowhorns fastened to the roof of his car rants about giving weapons to everyone to see an explosive violence in the streets, presumably for the sake of its own spectacle. After their first meeting, Jones would riff on that scene in Waking Life, Linklater’s dreamy, rotoscoped reworking of Slacker’s format. Jones is driving down Austin’s main strip, his face turning red as he screams about freedom and humanity, and how people can’t lay down their arms if they want to defend it. His anger is something different than his counterpart in Slacker, though, and when thought of together we see the shift in the American psyche happening in the final decade of the 20th century.

The speech that Kendall Smith, or the “Post-Modern Paul Revere” as his character is credited in Slacker, comes from an underground artist named Jim Roach, according to Linklater. It has a sort of lead-in-the-gas fueled bloodlust that’s become associated with the extreme violence of the 1980s that always stood in contrast to Reagan’s rosy “morning again in America” images. It was an apocalyptic violence, in part fueled by the War on Drugs, and part again from the growing white nationalist movement born out of minds broken by the turmoil of the 1960s. Increasingly, neo-Nazi organizations looked for the moment to trigger a world-ending race war, culminating in the deadliest terrorist attack in US history up to that point.

Like Timothy McVeigh, Alex Jones was further radicalized by the siege in Waco. Although unlike OKC’s perpetrators, Jones wasn’t a neo-Nazi, at least not in name. Jones instead represented a new kind of radical right-wing conspiracist that was only starting to take shape in the wake of the increase in domestic terrorism.

McVeigh and his ilk were trying to dismantle the US government and replace it with a white supremacist state that would commit genocide on Jews and non-white people. It wasn’t a secret, they openly proselytized it (McVeigh handed out copies of The Turner Diaries at gun shows, one of the foundational texts for post-Vietnam neo-Nazism). Jones’ politics were and largely continued to be couched in innuendo. Jones avoids saying “Jewish cabal” but likes “New World Order.” He doesn't say a “white nationalist vanguard” has to bring down the US government, he says “patriots” have to take their country back. It’s enough to normalize his remarkably similar worldview to more mainstream audiences, especially as his audience grew out of the fringes of local talk radio and onto the national stage.

Waking Life came out in the US the month following 9/11. While Slacker was a highly contextual portrait of the early days of Generation X’s adulthood, Waking Life feels unmoored, completely floating through (dream) space and (dream) time. When Roger Ebert first reviewed the movie, he pointed out that it was what people needed in the confusing, terrifying weeks following the attacks that were magnitudes of scale larger than OKC. It was a film about the dying days of dreaming, of people working through ideas and philosophies in what feels like an eternal limbo or even a death-state. It would be a strange twist of fate that Jones would first appear to arthouse moviegoers in a Richard Linklater movie at the same time he was debuting to a new nationwide audience with his false-flag claims about 9/11, themselves a twist on how he approached the OKC narrative.

Jones would appear again in Linklater’s (also rotoscoped) A Scanner Darkly. A remarkable adaptation not just in the content, but in form of Philip K. Dick’s masterpiece about an undercover police officer in a near-future surveillance state who’s investigating himself. One of the only deviations from the novel is Jones’ cameo as a man on the strip mall street corner yelling into a megaphone telling people about how the government’s manufacturing the illegal drug everyone is hooked on before he’s whisked away into an unmarked van. It’s a moment with the kind of winky humor that was a little too saturated in Bush-era satire, although existing as just one scene in an otherwise bleak movie has made it age a lot better than more unrelenting affairs like John Sayles’ Silver City or Linklater’s own (inexplicably Palme D’Or-nominated) Fast Food Nation. It also, in retrospect, highlights what made people grab onto conspiracists like Jones in the wake of unimaginable tragedy.

The security state of the Patriot Act is inherent to Linklater adapting A Scanner Darkly when he did as it was to the Nixonite America that inspired PKD’s paranoia. But the conspiracy was never so secret, as people like Jones might have you believe. It usually happens in the open—governments use tragedy to their advantage, as is well-documented in another Bush-era work, Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine. Events like OKC or 9/11 open the door for the expansion of government powers, in the same way they open the door for people like Jones to reshape the narrative around them, which benefits the perpetrators, which perpetuates the conflict, etc. Perhaps it’s all part of maintaining a state that was born out of a belief in “freedom” but a system of white supremacy. What’s so interesting about these Linklater films is how simultaneously they seem to offer pinpoints in a changing American psychosis and yet upon further examination, highlight how things really haven’t changed (I’m thinking again of di Lampedusa’s The Leopard, “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”). It is less like comparing, say, Dazed and Confused and American Graffiti to look at how much teenagerdom changed in a relatively short amount of time because of the Vietnam War, and more like putting Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause and We Can’t Go Home Again side by side to show that these young people have more in common then they might at first think. The times change, the people don’t, and in the case of the US right, its face often changes but its goals never do.


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