What’s Old Is New

A few summers back, I taught a course on representations of the “American Dream” in novels after 1980. As is the case with most summer classes taught by grad students, the syllabus was a slapdash affair dreamed up while I was finishing my dissertation and stressing about what would happen when the school cut off my funding and health insurance in a few months. So yeah, I readily concede that my reading list (Don DeLillo’s White Noise, John Rechy’s The Miraculous Day of Amalia Gomez, Chuck Palahniuk’s Survivor, and Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad) wasn’t some comprehensive journey through Reaganomics, Clinton’s sexual neoliberalism, and the Bushes’, well, Bushness. It wasn’t meant to be. Mostly, I was just hoping to get some kids living exclusively in their swimsuits in Isla Vista for the summer to read a few books and to think about how we’ve all been set up in this country to have massive expectations that rarely match up with the lives we lead. I wanted them to think about how disappointment, denial, selling out, addiction, and making do are inherent in the American Dream, so that they might, to borrow a bit from Faulkner’s grandest drunk, Father Compson, “forget it now and then for a moment and not spend all of [their] breath trying to conquer it.” If literature really is, as Kenneth Burke claims, “equipment for living,” I was trying to give them some matches to burn down the houses they’ll never be able to afford anyway.

But then many of them didn’t bother to read a damn word of any of the books. So much for productive arson. There were, of course, a few kids who kept up with the reading, and I remember a couple even coming to my office hours every now and then to talk about what whether Rechy is a racist and/or a sexist (no), if they are allowed to laugh at Survivor (of course), and what DeLillo was trying to say (figure it out for yourself). I was already long past the point where I took students not reading personally. I mean, how can postmodern American literature possibly compete with this?

In the second-to-last week of the class, I had to leave town for a couple days to attend a wedding in New York. I had planned to show a movie, Richard Linklater’s Slacker, during the periods I would miss, and since it’s a little long, I anticipated being back in time to watch the end with them. The wedding was great, and my trip to New York turned out to be a memorable one when Hurricane Irene decided to strafe Manhattan and turn the place into a weird party ghost town. It was some serious I Am Legend shit walking through the deserted canyons of the city the morning after the storm. Lingering gusts would pick up the occasional chair and throw it across the street, but that seemed like a reasonable price to pay for a New York minute most would never experience. One problem: my flight back to California was cancelled. This meant that I would miss the end of the film, and given how packed the rest of the summer session would be, I figured I wouldn’t get a chance to talk to the students about how Slacker fit into the story our course syllabus was trying to tell.

Much to my surprise, my students forced the issue and demanded that we talk about the movie. Some hated it and wanted to vent. Others, though, were furious at these kids, and explained why it not only fit into the course, but was a really important movie. One girl who hadn’t said anything throughout the semester was particularly moved by the film, and said that it made her feel awful about all the time she’d wasted not trying to make art. This is exactly the kind of thing I’d hoped the novels in the course would inspire someone to say, but I wasn’t expecting that a plotless 20-year-old film about stoners, nerds, and other assorted weirdos in Austin, TX would speak to them. I put it on the syllabus because it was a movie I loved, and because I needed to show a film.

I now realize that I should have seen this coming. Students (yes, even English majors) routinely tell me that they “don’t have time to read,” and we live in an increasingly visual culture. Hell, even the respected business reporter Felix Salmon recently declared himself “post-text.” He writes:

Text has had an amazing run, online, not least because it’s easy and cheap to produce. When it comes to digital storytelling, however, the possibilities — at least if you have the kind of resources that Fusion has — are much, much greater. I want to do immersive digital stuff, I want to make animations, I want to use video, I want to experiment with new ways of communicating in a new medium. I can do all of that at Fusion.

My summer class was a few years back, but this kind of thing was already shaping my students’ minds. Text is just so boring and, well, textual. Still, I was stunned that a film as loose as Slacker made some of them think about anything other than what they might need to remember to pass my reading quizzes, which one student called “the bain (sic) of my existence” in a course evaluation. I am particularly proud of that one.


About a year ago, I wrote that Steven Soderbergh may go down as the most important mainstream filmmaker of his generation. I stand by this statement, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the Coens or Wes Anderson are in the conversation too. And after watching the trailer for Richard Linklater’s new film, Boyhood, I kind of wish I’d mentioned Linklater in the same breath as Soderbergh. I can’t help thinking of one and not the other. Like Soderbergh, the diversity of Linklater’s projects sets him apart from other directors. While Anderson’s films have a stylistic consistency, there isn’t a “Richard Linklater look” (other than the fact that the guy himself is in his 50s, but looks about 35). He’s made rotoscoped movies, slick Hollywood comedies, a real-time dramatic adaptation, a gonzo travel show, and, for my money, one of the best and most consistent (from film to film) trilogies ever shot. And this list doesn’t include Dazed and Confused, the best movie about high school and salmon-colored pants ever made.

Linklater’s latest film is perhaps his most experimental. Boyhood tells a simple story about a kid between the ages of six and eighteen, but it has taken twelve years to finish shooting. This isn’t due to some power struggle with a studio, as was the case with Kenneth Lonergan’s excellent movie, Margaret. No, this was by design, as the film uses the same child actor, Ellar Coltrane, throughout. Filmed for a few weeks each summer, Boyhood features Linklater’s frequent collaborator, Ethan Hawke, and Patricia Arquette as Coltrane’s divorced parents. Hawke’s role in the movie is particularly interesting, as it means he was involved in two long-term projects with Linklater, including two installments of the Before Trilogy (Before Sunset and Before Midnight) over the course of shooting Boyhood.

As the world becomes more “post-text,” Linklater may be the mainstream filmmaker best positioned to bring the virtues of the novel into film. Hollywood movies have been eschewing long takes in favor of MTV-style quick cuts (Soderbergh is the master of this) for decades now, but Linklater’s process, and his products like Waking Life and the Before Trilogy (which may get even more installments in the future) reveal a commitment to the idea that the fullness of time is integral to understanding relationships between people and ideas. Tweets and shorts are great, but the bildungsroman has been the most durable narrative form because we’re all fascinated by the idea that moments within the thousands of days we’ve lived have determined where we are, and that unknown moments will determine where we will go. The moments need context in order to resonate, and context is what Linklater depicts through dialogue, visual metaphor, and implied scope better than any director today. Watch the trailer for Boyhood to see what I mean.


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