How the influence of existentialist philosophy plays out in Richard Linklater's filmmaking



From Michel Gondrys Mood Indigo: If we win the race, we become the heroes of the story!
  • From Michel Gondry's Mood Indigo: "If we win the race, we become the heroes of the story!"
In a post last week I considered the possible influence of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Katzelmacher on a key sequence of Richard Linklater's Boyhood. I failed to acknowledge, though, how this sequence is also highly characteristic of Linklater. To review, the passage finds a junior high-aged Mason walking and talking with a callous, go-getting female classmate who seems to be romantically interested in him. The scene plays out in a single take that's one of the longest in this 165-minute film; the overt formal ambition (compared with the "invisible" style of most of the other scenes) would seem to hint at some deeper thematic significance, despite the fact that the female classmate will never appear again in Boyhood. Of course, the audience doesn't know that as the scene is happening—and Linklater, as usual, deters viewers from anticipating what will happen next so they might better savor the ever-fleeting present moment.

Only in hindsight or on repeat viewings does the scene feel uncanny. Why is the film cuing us to scrutinize a character who plays such a minimal role in the plot? I think it's to make us consider the possible courses that Mason doesn't take in life. As I noted last week, Mason and the mean girl have a certain amount in common, namely a passion for reading and a heightened sense of curiosity about other people. Yet she displays a competitive streak—trumpeting her superior taste in books vis-a-vis her friends and spreading hurtful gossip about a former friend—that Mason (a boy after my own heart) clearly lacks. Still, it's not implausible that Mason would return her attentions, enter into his first romance with her, and adopt some of her behaviors—become a less sympathetic protagonist, in other words.

Everyone who's seen Slacker remembers Linklater's genial rant on alternate realities that opens the film. Any event we can imagine will play out in a different reality, he says, thereby setting the stage for the rest of his filmography. It's not that things happen arbitrarily in his films, but that Linklater constantly alerts us to how they might happen differently. This sentiment gives his films their poignancy and, on occasion, a subtle sense of dread. Consider the narrative free fall of Slacker and Waking Life, the mutating reality of A Scanner Darkly, or Greg Kinnear's haunting final moment in Fast Food Nation, when his character seems to acknowledge that he's about to disappear from the movie.

Few U.S. narrative filmmakers have been so influenced by existentialist philosophy—even his more playful side owes something to this intellectual tradition. "Sartre said that he never experienced a day of regret in his life," one of the professors in Waking Life reminds us, and Linklater communicates a similar attitude in his light, unemphatic visual style, which seldom privileges individual details over the general flow of events. The extended tracking shot in Boyhood asserts how pleasurable it can be to drift with the tide—and how the tide sometimes turns without warning.

One finds a similar lesson in the year's other major Sartre-influenced film, Michel Gondry's Mood Indigo. Before the film's central couple (Romain Duris and Audrey Tatou) get married in a church, they race their best friends (another couple played by Gad Elmaleh and Aissa Maiga) to the altar in Soap Box Derby cars that appear to move on their own. This development, like many others in the film, reflects the free-form logic of dreams. Once the race begins, it feels as though anything could happen, as the characters themselves are quick to observe. "If we win the race, we can get married and become the heroes of the story!" exclaims Elmaleh's existentialist jazz cat Chick. For a brief moment, Gondry suggests that this may in fact occur—and that, rather than providing an escape from real life, dreams may be the best representation of its exhilarating, terrifying randomness.

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