The Film Philosopher
“So many teen movies turn adolescents into sex-addicted, jock-strap wearing jackasses, but Linklater refuses to do so.”
By Jesse Sisler, DePaul University
Anyone who argues that philosophy is dead is probably looking to the wrong medium.
What was once proposed in essays is now expounded in television shows and movies using meth, booze and other vices. Vince Gilligan gave audiences an in-depth exploration of a desperate man’s psyche in Breaking Bad, one of the many existentialist dramas populating channels like AMC and HBO in recent years.
On the big screen, the philosopher king tells his stories intimately and with little flash. Rather, Richard Linklater uses characters that are no more extraordinary than us, and tells stories that rarely travel beyond a twenty-mile radius.
Linklater’s films are minimalist, one of their many strengths. By focusing the lens on a group of high-schoolers in small town Texas, a young man travelling through a lucid dream or a young boy’s family over the course of twelve years, Linklater forces the audience to think about what his characters are saying. Even the insanely fun Dazed and Confused, the type of movie that has no business sticking in the audience’s head for longer than twenty-four hours, always manages to do so.
What makes Linklater’s films so wise? It’s his care for characters, particularly the young ones. Even the pot-smoking, underage-girl-hitting-on Wooderson from Dazed offers a glimpse into the psyche of small town American men.
Each scene in Waking Life asks the audience to constantly be on its toes for whatever gem one of the dream characters is going to spew next. In Boyhood, Mason and his sister essentially become amateur philosophers by the end of the film.
Brian Floyd and Mitch Kramer are no philosophes, but they’re valuable in a different way—they’re relatable. Even asking the audience to see Brian Floyd as a philosopher seems like an insult to “Pink” himself, but it can’t be avoided. Linklater’s characters are acting out his philosophies in scripted form, à la Socrates.
Dazed and Confused, Boyhood and Waking Life all work so well as philosophical pieces because they treat their focal characters like the philosophers that teenagers are. So many teen movies turn adolescents into sex-addicted, jock-strap wearing jackasses, but Linklater refuses to do so. In his movies, the adults are often as, if not more screwed up than the teens they try to control.
Dazed and Confused could so easily have fallen into typical teen comedy garbage, but instead it is revered as a classic, a quintessential piece about the seventies. If Linklater had written every part in the style of Ben Affleck’s O’Banion, the movie would have been something completely different. Each character, though, has different motivations and worldviews.
Brian Floyd, not yet eighteen, is caught up in a mid-life crisis of sorts. He ponders the point of his existence, and ultimately creates his own philosophy, a destiny not chosen for him by his elders. He decides he might play football, but if he does, it’ll be his way. Like his buddy Don says, they aren’t going to be high schoolers forever, but while they are, they should do it the best way they possibly can.
Through Wooderson, Linklater presents us with the downside of the “my way” philosophy. Wooderson is a hedonist, but not a complete hedonist. He does help others score booze and girls. His goal is to fulfill his own urges, but he wants to do so with others.
Both Floyd and Wooderson could have been complete caricatures, Floyd drifting into melodrama, Wooderson being a complete asshole. Linklater, though, through his empathy for these characters, creates something more.
Floyd is someone every high schooler can relate to, yet still unique. A lot of us know a Wooderson, but he is still remembered as Wooderson, not “that guy from Dazed and Confused played by Matthew McConaughey.” He is specific to the situation, setting and the era.
In Waking Life, the main character (that’s what he’s listed as on IMDb) drifts through a lucid dream, uncovering philosophical nuggets from other characters that may or may not be projections of people from his life. (We don’t know because all we are presented with is his dream.)
With its odd pseudo-animation and shticky premise, in any other director’s hands the film would be written off as self-indulgent.
Again, though, because the main character is a teenager—played by Wiley Wiggins from Dazed, no less—the pretension is mitigated.
If the main character had been a brooding forty-something going through a mid-life crisis, it wouldn’t be a fun movie to watch. Because the main character is an adolescent, the audience sees these characters and discovers new meaning with him. It makes perfect sense that a teen would self-induce a lucid dream and seek knowledge. When you are a teenager, seeking abstract knowledge is perfectly normal, whereas older people doing so seems out of place. Of all his films, Waking Life may be the best example of Linklater’s grasp of the teenage psyche.
Boyhood is a bit of an outlier in this discussion, because the adult characters are doing just as much learning as the young ones, which is what makes the film such a triumph.
Again, through his own experiences as a child and a father, Linklater nails what it means to be a person with a constantly evolving mind in a constantly evolving world. The children ask abstract questions with no filter, and the adults seek knowledge through experience.
My favorite example of the former is when Mason is sleeping over at his father’s and he asks if there is magic in the world. Mason Sr. thinks for a moment, not quite sure how to answer the question for a child whose innocence is still intact. He tells Mason that there is magic in the world, and uses whales as an example: giant sea creatures with a heart the size of a car. This is the perfect answer for a Linklater movie. No, there are not elves and wizards, but there is magic in real life.
Ultimately, the ability of children to find joy in small things is what makes them the perfect vehicles for relaying Linklater’s philosophy. For children, staring at the sky is a life-affirming experience, just as lying in bed after a night of partying with upperclassmen is for teens.
From time to time, adults need a reminder to enjoy the simple moments, and that’s exactly what happens in Boyhood. For Linklater, kids hold the answers adults are seeking.