In her 2006 summary of the history of debates on authorship in general and in cinema in particular, Pam Cook observes that ‘the function of the author/artist at one time limited to art cinema has extended to popular commercial cinema’ and moreover that: ‘Art cinema could provide a means of critical entry into commercial cinema, not in terms of the confirmation of traditional auteur analysis, but in the interests of understanding the relationship between art cinema and commercial cinema in order to question the conventional division between “art” and “entertainment”’ (1). By ‘traditional’ auteur analysis Cook means the kind of ahistorical approaches associated with the New Wave politique des auteurs, long since out of favour, that accorded to the film director a God-like status transcending industrial and other contextual circumscriptions. Instead, she emphasises the rise of the notion of the author as marketing category in contemporary scholarship. However, her comments about the usefulness of the art cinema author paradigm, most closely associated with the work of David Bordwell, for approaching more mainstream cinemas are acutely relevant to the films of Richard Linklater and to David T. Johnson’s unapologetically auteurist analysis of them (2).
Johnson is well aware of the critical minefield constituted by the authorship debate, as reflected by a shrewd early disclaimer – a prime example of Barthesian ‘inoculation’ (3) – in which he recognises the influence of Romanticism on early director studies and that:
‘this reliance on a format more suited to authors (or auteurs) distorted other subjects, including, in addition to the collaborative nature of a film’s production, the industrial contexts that affect production and reception, the historical moments in which films are made and seen, and the economic and social conditions, as well as the ideologies, that cinema both reveals and obscures. Yet director studies, perhaps more than any other area of film studies, have never gotten as far from its early days as it would have liked; this volume is unlikely to convince readers otherwise […]. (p. 3)
It is true that the chronological structure and search for recurrent preoccupations in Linklater’s oeuvre that bind together this study for Illinois’ Press’ Contemporary Film Directors series (edited by James Naremore) are hardly iconoclastic. However, not only does Johnson’s research represent a welcome departure from the dearth of book-length studies on Linklater; the gesture of bestowing auteur status on a director who has now worked inside the studio system almost as often as outside it remains – while not new – refreshingly open-minded. This is even more the case thanks to Johnson’s refusal to privilege the more ostentatiously personal or technically experimental films over those with a wider address. Such an approach chimes with a utopian streak identified in Linklater’s own work by Lesley Speed, in which the intellectual cannot be separated off from the experiential (4). It also exemplifies very clearly how the idea Bordwell put forward for informed viewers making sense of art cinema through the marks of authorship can function for commercial cinema as well (5).
This is not to suggest that there are no disadvantages to the structure adopted by the study. The film-by-film method of organisation can be repetitive and occasionally it ends up relying on narrative detail or quotations of dialogue; however, Johnson on the whole manages to avoid these pitfalls through a rigorously analytical approach that seeks to constellate films within the broader canvas of the director’s work. There is also something paradoxical about opening with a section entitled ‘Time Is a Lie’, in which Johnson sets up ‘the exploration of temporality’ (p. 9) in Linklater’s work as the study’s master theme (a preoccupation that appears justified by the Deleuzian statement made in a closing interview with the director that time is perhaps ‘the most unique element of film as an art form’ [p. 138]), before proceeding in a format wholly dictated by the strictures of linear time. Finally, notwithstanding Linklater’s acknowledged interest in the subject, one might question the prominence given to temporality over other, related directorial proclivities, which do come through intermittently, such as an interest in the nature of truth (especially pp. 62-3), the importance of cinephilia and allusionism to the films, the director’s critical attitude towards doxa or ‘a desire to resist entrenched structures’ (p. 104) and finally the aforementioned desire to move beyond a dualistic approach to brain and body, with attendant implications for identity construction (see p. 59). On the latter topic, Linklater asks in the characteristically meandering but occasionally gripping interview he gives to Johnson, ‘[w]hat is individuality?’ (p. 144), and the decentred subject is certainly a key concern of more openly philosophically-oriented films like Waking Life (2001) and A Scanner Darkly (2006) in particular. This apprehension would appear to undermine the auteurist approach. Yet Johnson’s take – including the stable architecture provided by the chronological structure – allows him to perform an impressive acrobatic feat. His achievement is to bring together superficially highly heterogeneous films – often by way of detours into literature, fine art and philosophy, from Henry David Thoreau to Andy Warhol and Jean Baudrillard (via numerous film references) – in richly revealing ways.
Not only does Johnson’s personal, almost anecdotal, style fit the study’s stated remit to appeal to a broad readership as well as academics, it fulfils the author’s aim of infecting the reader with his own appreciation of Linklater’s films (p.5).However, this is no adulatory tome shaped by the vocabulary of connoisseurship that permeated New Wave auteur writing: here, intelligent textual analysis is paired with exemplary research – including of production and reception contexts, in such a way as to attenuate any strains of ‘traditional’ auteurism. Furthermore, as indicated, for this reviewer Johnson’s real triumph is to accord lesser-known, under-examined and especially resolutely mainstream works the same status as those positioned more towards the independent or even art cinema end of the critical spectrum. Thus a comparison is drawn between moments of narrative pause in Linklater’s critically acclaimed, idiosyncratic indie romance Before Sunrise (1995) and his earlier critical and commercial failure, the misunderstood $27m western The Newton Boys (1998), to argue for ‘a self-awareness on [The Newton Boys’] part not only about narrative and genre – through such delays, [the film] reminds us of the powerful ways in which both shape our expectations in any given moment – but about history as well’. Through his subtle unpacking of the moment in question, in which the drawing of a gun is deferred, Johnson makes a convincing argument for the text as a kind of anti-western concerned with ‘the illusion of historical inevitability’ (pp. 51-2) that is entirely consonant with Linklater’s more easily recognisable fascination with historicity elsewhere (including in studio film Dazed and Confused ). Similarly, the more recent film Bad News Bears (2005), on the face of it a profit-driven remake of an earlier hit family baseball film series, starring A-lister Billy Bob Thornton, becomes under Johnson’s scrupulous eye an intriguing exercise in cinematic realism and the productive possibilities of creative constraints (real athletes were cast in secondary roles) and a meditation on American identity as predicated on the inability to acknowledge failure as a part of life (pp. 89-92). As for the $35m box office-topping blockbuster The School of Rock (2003), the story of a social dropout who inspires a high school class to excellence through rock music, an interpretation of the film’s exhortation for the kids to ‘melt some faces’ as a defence of the civic function of humanities teaching in the face of the growing corporatisation of the American classroom (pp. 79-80) is both entertaining and perspicacious.
Authorship has for decades been one way to valorise otherwise ‘uninteresting’ popular texts. It may seem that evaluating them through this lens, particularly in the context of a director whose work so obviously runs the gamut from the questioning mode of art cinema (It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books , Slacker , Waking Life , Live from Shiva’s Dancefloor ) through to star-driven, narratively classical fare like The School of Rock, only goes so far towards dethroning existing critical prejudices against mass texts in their own right. However, Johnson’s study illustrates the greater challenges of analysing superficially ‘straightforward’ commercial films than their more self-proclaimedly intellectual counterparts, but also the potentially greater rewards.
David T. Johnson, Richard Linklater, Urbana, Chicago, and Springfield: University of Illinois Press, 2012.
- Pam Cook, ‘Authorship revised and revived,’ in The Cinema Book (3rd edition), edited by Pam Cook, London: BFI, 2007, p.237.
- David Bordwell, ‘The art cinema as a mode of film practice,’ Film Criticism 4:1 (1979): 56-64.
- Inoculation is defined as ‘admitting the accidental evil of a class-bound institution [to better] conceal its principal evil’ – in this case monopoly control over cinephilic critical discourse by a learned minority – in Roland Barthes,Mythologies, translated by Annette Lavers, New York: Hill and Wang, 1972, p. 150.
- Lesley Speed, ‘The possibilities of roads not taken: intellect and utopia in the films of Richard Linklater,’ Journal of Popular Film and Television 35:3 (2007): 98–106.
- Bordwell, ‘The art cinema as a mode of film practice,’ Film Criticism 4:1 (1979): 56-64.