An Analysis of the Depiction of Time in the Films of Richard Linklater
Written by Jocelyn Illing
Richard Linklater is a director who is particularly concerned with time. He is interested in both how we experience time in everyday life as well as how the audience experiences time while watching films. Within his films, Linklater uses different cinematic techniques in order to experiment with time. He plays with the relationship between time in the filmmaking process and time within the narrative. Additionally, he often has his characters comment on the idea of time and how it affects them. But how exactly does Linklater depict time? I would like to argue that time in his films is similar to Jacques Rancière’s (2013) notion of slow cinema and the “time after” which he uses to describe the cinema of Béla Tarr (p. 63). However, I would like to extend this theory, stating that Linklater’s films give off what Rob Stone (2015) terms a kind of “nowness” (p. 67) that is achieved through the arrangement of the films as a continuum, as explored by Rancière (2013, p. 64). Rather than contemplating the past or anticipating the future, both the characters and the audience are concerned with what is happening in the moment. Linklater creates this sense of “now-ness” both through form and through content. In my essay I will demonstrate how Linklater creates the feeling of “now-ness”, focussing on three of his films, Slacker (USA, 1991), Waking Life (USA, 2001) and finally Boyhood (2014), whilst relating them to Béla Tarr’s style of slow cinema.
To begin my discussion, I would first like to go further in defining slow cinema and the time after. When describing the films of Béla Tarr, Rancière (2013) says that they exist in “[t]he time after” (p. 63). The time after “is not the time in which we craft beautiful phrases or shots to make up for the emptiness of all waiting”, rather “[i]t is the time in which we take an interest in the wait itself” (Rancière, 2013, p. 63-64). Within these films, the audiences really feel the sense of time, and experience the difficulties of waiting. Tarr’s work also displays film as “[a] continuum” (Rancière, 2013, p. 64). As Rancière (2013) continues:
There is no story, which is also to say: there is no perceptive center, only a great continuum made of the conjunction of the two modes of expectation, a continuum of modifications that are miniscule in comparison to normal, repetitive movement. (p. 66)
The idea of “nowness” is an extension of this continuum. It allows for the experiencing of the continuous now, and encourages focussing on the moment, rather than dwelling on the past or fearing for the future. The films of Richard Linklater are always moving forward. He achieves this constant flow through the content of his films and through form. Linklater creates characters who contemplate life and experiments with single locations, the long take, and filming duration.
Slacker is such a film that creates the sense of now through both content and form. It is first achieved through its narrative framing. The film takes place over twenty-four hours within the city of Austin, Texas. It follows the “unusual method of cinematic storytelling… in [which] character growth and plot development are highly compressed relative to the timeframe of the story” (Zinman, 2019, para. 2). Because we are not given much time with the characters, we are prompted to focus on what is happening in the moment. As stated by Stone (2015) “Slacker postulates that time is an ongoing, incomplete and eternal moment ripe for perception” (p. 67). The narrative is organized around a continuum of episodic but flowing conversations. Each conversation effortlessly translates into the next. Slacker also achieves this continuum, as well as a feeling of slowness, through its use of the long take. The long take forces us to stay with the character in that a moment. With no cuts interrupting the image, we feel as if we are observing a real person, rather than a constructed film. We are watching them in the now.
The opening scene of the film provides an excellent example of how the film uses its narrative framing and the long take to create the continuous feeling of the now. The sequence begins with a minute-long close-up of a man looking out the window of a moving vehicle. The lighting of the shot is very dark, and we cannot clearly see the man’s face or his view outside of the window. We sit with this image for thirty-seven seconds, and then the title credits appear. During these thirty-seven seconds, we are “stuck” with the man and prepare for something to happen. A cut transitions the film to a shot of the man leaving what appears to be the bus station and walking towards a taxi. The next shot is medium-close-up of the man sitting in the back of the taxi as the driver controls the wheel in the front. The shot continues for approximately three-minutes, with the man talking for the entire length of the shot. His monologue consists of a description of a strange dream he had as well as his musings on dreams and multiple dimensions. After the film cuts to the cab pulling up to a curve, and the man gets out, we watch as he walks down the street. It then cuts to a continuation of his walk, with the camera panning over to a car turning the corner and a woman lying on the street. What follows is another long take, with the camera tracking back as the man interacts with a runner on the street. As the camera continues to track back, it pans over to another man exiting a cab, leading into the next scene. By shooting this scene in multiple long takes, Linklater both forces us to focus on the current moment, and flawlessly leads into the next episode.
Slacker also creates the sense of now and continuum through its content. As Rancière (2013) says regarding the films of Béla Tarr, “[They] always [begin] with the search for the place that can lend itself to the play of expectations. This place is the primary character of the film” (p. 70). With his film The Turin Horse (Béla Tarr, Hungary, 2011), “the character around which [it] was first constructed is the lost tree on the summit of the hill, across from which Béla Tarr had the house” (Rancière, 2013, p. 70). For Slacker, this place is Austin, Texas, the city where Linklater grew up. By staying with this one setting for the entirety of the film, both the characters and the viewers become grounded in the specific moments happening in Austin, and the film continues to flow. The film also portrays a continuous now through its depiction of slacker culture through the process of “dérive or drift[ing]” (Stone, 2015, p. 67). As stated by Stone (2015), “The film’s instinctive pursuit of the present moment marries slackened form to slacker-filled content in illustration of the revolutionary potential of slacking” (p. 67). The characters are all living in the moment and are not particularly concerned about the past or future. They spend the entirety of the film wandering around Austin, having encounters, and talking about everything and nothing. Additionally, the topics of conversation between the characters revolve around different theories on time. From conspiracy theories to comparing television to real time, each character seems heavily concerned with the notion and effects of time.
The bookstore sequence exemplifies how Linklater uses the content within Slacker to foster the continuum. The sequence begins with a long shot of a man walking down the street towards a woman reading a book. As they exchange hellos, the woman looks at her watch and tells the man that he late. With this action she is demonstrating how her life, and our lives, revolve around time. We plan our days, make deadlines, and fixate on the punctuality of our peers. The scene continues with the camera following them down the street. After the woman gives the man’s soda to a homeless person, the man begins to pester her about her actions. What follows is a conversation about cause and effect, and the repercussions of her actions. The woman tells the man that she knows that giving the homeless person the soda is not going to solve all his problems, which prompts the man to begin to philosophize about suffering. As they continue to argue and walk down the street the woman looks at her watch again and acknowledges how late they are for the movie. They decide to go to the next show, two hours from now, and she goes into the nearby bookstore. We then witness an almost four-minute shot of a former classmate coming up to her in the store and talking about his theories relating to the assassination of John F. Kennedy. During these four minutes we can feel her annoyance with the man and how every second feels like a lifetime. It is within this scene that we really feel the effects of the slow cinema continuum.
Linklater’s Waking Life further explores nowness and the continuum through the framing of a dream. As Danijela Kulezic-Wilson (2014) explains, “[T]he film is assembled from loosely connected fragments of conversations, lectures, music rehearsals and soliloquies, all possibly part of Main Character’s…lucid dream” (p. 1). We watch as Main Character wanders around his dream, encountering strange characters who philosophize about life, death and time. Additionally, we see other people who exist in this dreamworld, but who do not cross paths directly with Main Character. Linklater created this dreamworld using the technique of rotoscoping. Rotoscoping is a process in which filmmakers film their actors in real-life and then paint over the images to animate them. According to Kulezic-Wilson (2014), this type of animation was “the perfect medium for conveying the oneiric, elusive feel of [Linklater’s] uniquely cinematic metaphysical enquiry” (p. 1). The rotoscoping technique causes components of the image to move around, creating a psychedelic, dream-like atmosphere. Because of this, when watching the film, it is often difficult to tell where the characters are, but it doesn’t matter; we are to live in the moment with the characters in this dream. In the dream, there is no past or present; there is only now.
I would like to use the false-awakening scene in order to demonstrate Linklater’s use of time and creation of nowness within Waking Life. The camera pulls away from the previous sequence, tilting up to give us a view of the sky, and then pans to and left and tilts, tracking in on a woman who seems to be standing in an alley. As the shot closes in on her face, looking into the camera she asks, “Do you remember me?” The scene then cuts to a close-up of Main Character with a confused expression on his face. The scene continues, cutting back and forth between the woman and Main Character as she tries to explain how they know each other. She leans in to kiss him, and the sequence cuts to a different image of Main Character opening his eyes. The positioning of these two shots together suggests that he has woken up from his dream. However, as the camera pulls back and the main character turns to look at his alarm clock, the truth is revealed: the numbers on the clock are still jumbled, indicating that he is still dreaming, and we are still in the present. This “false-awakening” is addressed again in the final scene of the film in which Main Character encounters a man playing on a pin ball machine. As Main Character approaches the man, the whole room seems to sway, demonstrating the dream-like effect that rotoscoping has on the image. After explaining false awakenings to Main Character, the man proposes a theory that time is an illusion and that there is only one instant: right now. His philosophy mirrors that of the film and all of Linklater’s work: the time is now.
As mentioned above, Waking Life is an accumulation of conversations and contemplations regarding the concept of time and its relation to the human experience. It presents a series of moments occurring in the dream of Main Character. Kulezic-Wilson (2014) describes the film as “a cinematic mediation on the mysteries of existence, consciousness and time” (p. 1). Like Slacker, the characters and the action are confined into a specific setting and moment: Main Character’s dream-world. Although the locations of the characters are slightly ambiguous, we know that everything is occurring within the same time frame of the dream. The episodic nature of the narrative causes the audience to not worry about what is going to happen, but to focus on the now. Additionally, the conversations of the characters prompt the audience to contemplate time in different ways.
One particularly interesting scene is that when Jesse and Céline philosophize in their bedroom. During the scene they discuss the difference between real time and dream time. They describe how when you are dreaming, it feels as if you are experiencing everything in real time. However, one year in a dream equals only three minutes in real life. This concept starts to concern Céline, as she realizes that just a few minutes of brain activity might create your whole life within a dream. She becomes obsessed with mortality, fixating on measuring her life by how years she has left. Jesse and Céline then turn to the subject of multiple dimensions, suggesting that we are all telepathically sharing our experiences. The conversing and philosophizing are aided by the aesthetic of rotoscoping. As they speak, it appears that the shapes within the images are rocking and floating. Watching the figures and objects move brings the viewer into the dream-like state, focusing on and contemplating the things that Jesse and Céline are saying.
Linklater’s two-and-a-half-hour epic Boyhood entangles the concepts of framing and content. Boyhood’s narrative takes place over twelve years of the life of a young boy, Mason, and his family. Linklater’s film takes the classic coming-of-age story one step further in authenticity by filming the story in increments over twelve-years, allowing us to watch the actors grow up. This sense of realism aligns with Rancière’s (2013) argument regarding the films of Béla Tarr, that “The place is at once entirely real and entirely constructed” (p. 70). The actor must be the character, not play them. This is exactly what happens within Linklater’s film. Although the film has a script, the experiences of the characters reflect the actors’ experiences as they age together. In creating this film, Linklater constructs the feeling of the now through his production schedule. Unlike other films which replace younger actors with older ones as the characters age, “Linklater [filmed] the same child actors over 12 years [,] solv[ing] the problem of showing childhood as a series of disparate moments” (Zinman, 2019, para. 6). In doing so, Linklater creates the sense of the continuous now by presenting us with the authentic process of growing up.
Over the duration of the film we watch as the characters grow and change over the years. Each of the “four… main characters struggle[s] with the process of growth and maturation” (Zinman, 2019, para. 13). While the children experience the struggles of growing up and becoming independent, the parents experience the realities of responsibility and, later, the truth of not being needed anymore. However, as explained by Zinman (2019), each character experiences these struggles in different ways: Mason tries to “maintain his creativity”, his sister Samantha navigates the “more generic problems associated with becoming a young woman”, his father Mason Sr. “has trouble growing up”, and his mother Olivia struggles to maintain a balance “between assuming parental responsibilities and being happy (para. 13-14). Throughout the film, the characters confront these issues and eventually find some form of happiness. In this way, “time is sort of a lead character” within the film (Linklater as quoted in Zinman, 2019, para. 25). Time both organizes the narrative and directly affects the characters. We experience the film in the now, watching as the characters both grow with time and question its meaning.
The intertwining of the form and content within Boyhood works to create the continuum of time. As stated by Zinman (2019), “Linklater goes out of his way to disguise the passage of time in the film on a scene-by-scene basis” (para. 26). He achieves this by “not provid[ing] prominent visual clues or other filmic devices such as title cards to mark the passage of time” (Zinman, 2019, para. 26). Instead, Linklater uses the aging of the actors, conversations among the characters, as well as little markers, in order to create a sense of time. For example, early in the film when we are introduced to Mason Sr., we understand the guilt he feels as a father when he realizes how big his children have gotten and how long it has been since they had last seen each other. The children’s grandmother places an emphasis on time as she tells Mason Sr. that “time’s going by.” The flow of time is also achieved through the changing of the hairstyles of the four characters throughout the film. For example, there is a prominent scene in which Mason’s stepfather forces him to cut his shoulder-length hair. This upsets Mason, for his hair is part of his identity. However, his mother assures him that it will grow back. As we see, it eventually does. Finally, I would like to bring attention to the final scene of the film. Mason is now in college and has gone hiking with a group of friends. Sitting on a rock and watching their friends howl at the wind, Mason and Nicole begin to muse about the idea of seizing the moment. Nicole says to Mason, “I’m kind of thinking it’s the other way around…like the moment seizes us.” In agreement with Nicole, Mason summarizes Linklater’s philosophy on depicting time within his films: “It’s constant. The moments… it’s just… it’s like always right now you know?”
Throughout his career, Richard Linklater has worked to define his significant style of depicting time through cinema. The arrangement of time in his films aligns with the slow cinema of Béla Tarr while simultaneously creating a sense of nowness. He achieves this through the rooting of his films to a single location, having his characters contemplate life, and through experimenting with cinematic time. Linklater’s cinema combines form and content to explore the human experience of time, thus prompting the audience to question both how time is functioning within his films and how time affects us in our everyday lives.
Kulezic-Wilson, D. (2014, Winter). Tango for a Dream: Narrative Liminality and Musical Sensuality in Richard Linklater’s Waking Life. Alphaville: Journal of Film and Screen Media (8), 1-16. Retrieved from http://www.alphavillejournal.com/Issue8/HTML/ArticleKulezicWilson.html
Rancière, J. (2013). The Closed Circle, Opened. Béla tarr, the time after. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 63-81.
Stone, R. (2015, Spring). About Time: Before Boyhood. Film Quarterly, 68(3), 67-72. Retrieved from https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/fq.2015.68.3.67
Zinman, R. (2019, July). Richard Linklater’s Boyhood and the problem of aging in film. Senses of Cinema (91). Retrieved from http://sensesofcinema.com/2019/feature-articles/richard-linklaters-boyhood-and-the-problem-of-aging-in-film/
Boyhood (Richard Linklater, USA, 2014). Retrieved from https://calgarypl.kanopy.com/video/boyhood-0
Slacker (Richard Linklater, USA, 1991). Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jB4xlYKAVCQ
The Turin Horse (Béla Tarr, Hungary, 2011). Retrieved from D2L.
Waking Life (Richard Linklater, USA, 2001). Retrieved from iTunes.