Thanks for the Memory
Michael Koresky on Tape
No contemporary American filmmaker poses a greater threat to the tenets of classical auteurism than Richard Linklater. His body of work, endlessly malleable and evolving, is a constant sloughing off of authorial responsibility, an anti-dictatorial oeuvre of economical, communal engagement. Most of Linklater’s works are either adapted from plays (SubUrbia, Tape) or novels (A Scanner Darkly), are the result of rehearsed improvisation with actors professional or non (Waking Life, Slacker), or, at the very least, are the results of fruitful collaborations with commanding performers whose personas almost seem to write the texts themselves—think of Jack Black regurgitating Mike White’s SNL-ready School of Rock screenplay into a nearly stream-of-conscious dance of liberation. As much as that film’s success is predicated almost exclusively on the actor’s charms and his abilities to rhythmically connect with an entire classroom of fifth-graders, Before Sunrise and its world-weary sequel rely quite heavily on the barely concealed alter-egos of Ethan Hawke and, especially, Julie Delpy, to persuade us of their slowly blossoming real-time romances. By so often focusing on characters who spend their screen time spouting their philosophies (on love, sex, rock-n-roll, media, war, and other philosophers), Linklater forces the viewer to ascertain where the director/author’s voice begins and ends. It’s a difficult proposition, and perhaps why Linklater has never been ascended to the highest ranks of American artists, why he had to struggle earlier in his career to crawl out from under the burdensome shadow of the Kevin Smiths and the Todd Solondzs, why his constant career makeovers are often cast off as mere genre experimentation. Rather, Linklater’s work is marked by a nature of generosity, a relinquishing of the stage and a modest struggle to deny authorship itself, a cacophony of voices, other people’s words and stories remolded into freeform riffs and harmonies.
Why this negation of authorship, this challenge to the viewer to locate the directorial identity within endless layers of words, words, words that seem to be coughed up from various throats raspy from pontificating? Perhaps Linklater makes no claims on film because film is time; as reiterated by Caveh Zahedi in Waking Life, the Bazinian notion that cinema is a moment of creation captured, and that real time on camera represents the literal process of man’s conception, seems to haunt this director’s understanding of his medium. Linklater’s output recognizes time itself as a burden and a gift, a narrative crutch that allows for naturalized momentum as well as a means of creating, quite literally, time capsules. The dawn-to-dusk onslaught of Austin dreamers in Slacker; the single, final night of youthful detachment in Dazed and Confused; Before Sunrise’s heart-heavy yet blissful twilight promenade through Venice; the all-night desperation of SubUrbia. Even Waking Life, in which the haywire circuitry of a digital clock is meant to exemplify the narrative’s lack of a temporal anchoring, remains easily likened to the experience of a single night’s sleep; for all of the camera’s floating from one decontextualized setting to the next, the film does not seem to leave one very specific, grounded head space. Before Sunset calls attention to itself as a film about time, not only in its more strictly real-time narrative, but as a way of measuring on film the aging of the human body and the growing wisdom of the mind. “Do I look any different?” asks Julie Delpy to Ethan Hawke, and their subsequent acknowledgements of weight shifts and sudden wrinkles reveal its principals not as characters but as figures captured onscreen for just this singular moment.
Aging. The gradual accruing of wisdom. The terrifying specters of immaturity and stasis. It’s the shag-carpet grunge of Linklater’s 2001 release Tape that paves the way to the sun-dappled Paris afterglow of Before Sunset, an uphill journey from emotional retardation to spiritual solace, from digital-video grime to 35mm splendor. If Before Sunset’s Jesse and Céline’s romantic expectations and social idealism have become rather ravaged by nine interim years of heartache and disappointment, they have only grown more beautiful in manner and ardor. As a contrast, Tape’s two central figures, Vince (Hawke, once again) and John (Robert Sean Leonard) have aged from teenagers to late-twenty-somethings only in the physical sense, their more heavily lined features simply masks for the same hollow contradictions and hypocrisies they haven’t yet shed from their high school days. As with Before Sunset, approximately ten years have passed since the central prenarrative events have occurred. Yet this time, we have no proof of documentation of these defining moments from those earlier days. If 1995’s Before Sunrise doubles as a literal time capsule, a document to unearth as proof that these two star-crossed lovers did indeed meet and consummate their brief yet passionate affair, then the narrative of Tape acts as a desperate means of grasping what is now ineffable, what cannot be captured for posterity, or in this case, proof of a criminal act. Vince and John, preoccupied with whether a rape did or did not take place way back in high school, have no evidence, nothing to rely on apart from their own fallible memories.
Time does indeed stand still in this adaptation of Stephen Belber’s one-act play, a crippling, claustrophobic DV nightmare shot in a solitary threadbare motel room, edited by longtime Linklater collaborator Sandra Adair in a quick, overassertive way as to emphasize rather than minimize the tight, cramped yellowing walls, dirty bedspreads, and cheap curtains. Set in Lansing, Michigan, Tape records the tortuous cat-and-mouse interactions of indie filmmaker John and pot-dealing volunteer firefighter Vince, buddies from high school who can barely conceal their mutual loathing. Belber’s exacting script and Linklater’s uncompromisingly grim video let neither off the hook, each stunted in his own way, each drowning in prankish self-denial. Hawke’s Vince, with his beer-swelled paunch, filthy boxer shorts, and still-threatening frat boy antics, cuts a remarkable figure in relation to the actor’s subsequent, desiccated, world-weary Jesse in Before Sunset. Vince, strutting around like a blind peacock, manages to convince us, for a brief moment, that the well-tailored, less outwardly crass John will be the voice of reason. Yet John, a self-described artist and a wannabe political filmmaker, antagonizes Vince by waxing philosophical and asserting an air of moral superiority. Both of them are marked by habits that seem to have followed them from teenagehood: Vince guzzles beer from a hole poked in the bottom of the can, John boils conversation down to words so carefully chosen as to only mask pubescent insecurity. For these people, time does not progress, it traps, clings, compromises.
Tape operates on a single, inexorable track, its rapid cutting never seeming to miss a beat, ensuring that, though never directly referencing the hour of night, it will function within strict temporal parameters. If his prior film, Waking Life, seemed to some as a desparate intellectual assault, as philosophy without debate, then Tape operates as its polar opposite—debate without philosophy. The earlier film’s beauty of listening is replaced by a smothering world in which conversation is interrogation and friendship is a black hole. Where Waking Life moved as ether, Tape remains hopelessly fixed, and like its characters, fixated on one thing only: time’s inability to heal wounds. Vince accuses John of once upon a time, near high school graduation, forcibly having sex with his ex-girlfriend, Amy Randall. John denies it was rape, just “a little coersion.” Though the act is obviously not caught on tape, Vince tricks John into admitting his culpability, ten years later, in this dingy motel, without telling him that their conversation has been recorded. The threat of revealing the deceptively tiny audio tape’s contents to Amy Randall, who just happens to practice as an assistant DA mere minutes away in Lansing, forces the boys to engage in an endless round robin of anxieties and psychological quick changes: John “evolves” from self-righteous denial to wounded defensiveness to repentant sinner; Vince “progresses” from stoned layabout to jocular hipster to mock avenging angel. Linklater’s recurring tennis-match swish-pans, back-and-forth camera fluctuations from face to face, attempt to catch up with every role reversal, every glint of weaselly determination, in an effort to harness the visual clues that the audio tape cannot grasp.
Each man sees his world in black-and-white—for John, the act of willful forgetting has freed him from responsibility; for Vince, it’s the self-satisfaction of forced remembering that allows him to feel morally superior. We may never truly discover what happened that one night, but the possibility of moving forward, freeing oneself from this hypocrisy and paralysis, these twin beds and bronzed lightbulbs and wood paneling, is presented by a third party. Uma Thurman’s Amy Randall enters, 50 minutes into this 86-minute movie, from behind that single keyhole, the only visible connection to a world outside this room. When confronted by Vince regarding the incident, she seemingly complicates matters even further, denying that she was raped at all (after which John begins to violently insist that he did, in fact, rape her) and rejecting the usefulness of a confession. “I don’t know what you want me to say to you,” she states to John, when he becomes angry that she will not accept an apology. Rebuffing the self-serving machinations of both John and Vince, who operate only in their own best interests and therefore still utilize Amy as a mere plaything, an idea of femininity, a fragment of a human, Amy wields her newfound professional superiority to further turn the tables. Though perhaps not exactly a calming presence, Thurman functions as a slap to the face, one final chance to wake up before drowning in the past. If she can extricate them both from this strong hold of irrational machismo, then time’s death grip may perhaps weaken.
This freeing of oneself from narrative limitations leads directly to Before Sunset’s constrained yet fluid 80 minutes, in which the preservation of time and truth flows between the characters in harmonious balance. Here, human interaction is a belabored root canal, a desperate process of burrowing and extraction. Linklater’s characters frequently dangle on a precipice between the the infantile and the philosophical, and the attempted reconciliation of the two often ends in a dead heat. How much closer to self-actualization will Dazed and Confused’s seniors be when summer is over? Will the fatalistic prattlings of SubUrbia’s convenient store drones lead to any sort of spiritual awareness? Why can Waking Life’s Wiley Wiggins no longer grasp that car door handle to keep from floating into the clouds now that he is grown? Has he learned anything from the panoply of voices that have assaulted his dream life? Have we? Talk may be cheap, but it is nevertheless a precious commodity to Linklater. In Tape, by capturing, literally on tape, a momentary angst existing on the terrible threshold between stunted youth and menacing adulthood, he acknowledges that we can become trapped in our own headspace. It’s cinema-as-hourglass, a countdown to a promised fulfillment that idle chatter can stave off for only so long.