Real-Time Compliant Narratives: Inside the Films of Richard Linklater

Richard Linklater has been a constant filmmaker since the 90’s and its Indie revolution.

His continued work to bring new ideas and stories to life created a collection of films that ranges from documentary to tv. These films each while unique both to each other and the larger populous of American films, also follow certain themes. One such theme that runs from the start of Linklaters Indie career to his present-day iteration, consists of his thoughts on the importance of time and moments.

Linklater uses his films to promote the importance of the moment, of every moment. Time becomes an ever-present aspect of the narrative that Linklater manipulates by showing the different ways in which time works. Time can be drawn out as shots that hold onto every moment, others it flits by jumping from decade to decade. Each new use of time is meaningful regardless of the inexact counting of the seconds. His films never try to pin time down to countable quantifiable numbers, but instead follow time as moments shared connecting to others.

The interplay of real time and filmic time is perhaps the most interesting and complex parts of his films. Where most filmmakers simulate the passage of time and play with rearranging time, Linklater chooses to create foreword moving, real-time compliant narratives that themselves push and pull time to the advantages of the ideas within the film. His Before trilogy and Boyhood (2014) take place in the real world having connections to era specific ideas and trends, while also playing with time to tell a very different story and narrative.

These films use real time and filmic time to express the idea that certain moments are more important than others. Moments that shape us or change us are mundane, but they are powerful and they are pivotal to our happiness. Another central idea to this theme comes from the connections we make with others. Looking first at Before Sunrise (1995) staring Ethan Hawke, Jesse, and Julie Deply, Celine, as two young people meeting on a train. They quickly find that they enjoy talking to each other and wish to spend as much time as possible together. With the few hours they do have, the couple chooses to aimlessly walk around Vienna, stopping to eat or discover a new aspect of the city.

Before Sunrise Film Still

While their discussions are long and drawn out the audience watches every aspect of their journey through the city from landmark to landmark. What should be an impossible to accomplish list of sites appears to be a simple jaunt through the city. There is no way they should have been able to be in all those places in one day without the use of public transportation, which they only use once. Especially when you consider that they stop for coffee, they spend some time in a record store where they listen to an entire song at least, and they spend the last two to four hours in a park.

As roughly ten hours is smashed into less than two hours of film, time becomes a very important third character. The moments shown in full are important. The long moments of the couple browsing the record store and the entire song that they listen to in total silence act as instances where little moments are in fact very large and important. Every long moment is a new point where the couple falls in love. These small moments live out in real time as the sun is the only definitive measure of time passing. Even if clocks appear there is no reference for viewers to know when it all started or how long is left.

The audience knows that when the sun rises the fairytale that the two created will end. Though at first, they create this stipulation as a way to spend some time together before they forget each other completely, they soon realize that they do not want the night to end. The rays of the setting and then rising sun become ticks of a clock counting down. Deadlines are perhaps the easiest and most used technique in film writing to create tension and move the plot forward to the climax, but in Before Sunrise there is not definite clock, and while the viewer and the characters always hear the ticking in the back of their mind, the clock is not important, the end does not matter. Time becomes real and looming as much as it stretches out and waits for the couple to discuss their ideas of feminism and poetry.

Before Sunset Film Still

The next film in the trilogy, Before Sunset (2004), takes a very Italian neorealism approach. Firstly, the movie picks up nine years after the events of the first film, both in real time of production and the filmic time of the characters. Right from the start the passage of time pops up in the change we see in the characters. They are no longer the young man whose hair is long and who wears a leather jacket, nor the young lady whose wearing a t-shirt beneath a spaghetti strap dress with a jacket around her waist. They have matured. Jesse is a famous writer who wears sports coats and a nice watch, while Celine is an environmentalist who wears practical heals and a nice black blouse. They talk about their new wrinkles and changing ideas, and all the while are setting up the passage of time; real time. The same time it took the young crowd who first watched Before Sunrise to find themselves in similar places and positions of age and ideas to watch Before Sunset.

The filmic time of the second film appears to be real time. Every conversation flows from one into the next seemingly unedited, but it’s very apparent that the journey the couple takes may once again be impossible for the maybe two or three hours they have before Jesse’s must leave. The audience misses nothing though. Every new location seems to pick up where the last left off, and nothing about their journey is cut down or short. They smoke a cigarette in real time, they walk an entire path in real time, they are seen going up every single step to Celine’s apartment, not a single one is cut. This works because the audience knows from the start that the couple has no time to be together and yet they are. Every moment is a new moment when it could all be over; the true and final end. The addition of so much real time creates tension in a new way that wastes not a single gesture or word from the characters.

These films hammer in why every moment, even the small ones, are important and can become big memories or moments, which the second film reminds us of almost immediately by playing back short seemingly forgettable clips that are obviously very important to Jesse and his memory of Celinè. Before Sunset steeps every moment in drama and importance and real time. It is important that the audience can watch as the cigarette gets smaller and smaller: the first instance of counting down time. It is important that every step up a set of stairs is taken to build tension and show character. For a film that gives up not a second to be filled in by audience imagination, there is not a seconds reprieve from character reaction.

Before Midnight Film Still

For the final film showcasing two people in love talking about things, Before Midnight (2013) adheres to standard filmic vs real time the most. This film again jumps nine years into the future and the couple has once again matured and aged. The timeline of the film is far longer than the other two, as it spans a 12 plus hour day. It does go back to jumping from place to place and showing time through the sunlight, like the first film, but it truncates its long moments to specific areas, with short spans of movement and travel in between.

The meat of the ideas from the film come from people sitting and talking, which usually spells demise for a scene unless crafted wisely. For three films majoritively about people talking about things these characters and ideas are so interesting it is okay that the last half hour of the film consists of Jesse and Celine arguing in a hotel room. The discussion and thus the time revolve around a much more solid and center discussion in this film. As the day progresses so does the discussion about Jesse wanting to move back to the states to be with his son, which Celine is against for many reasons including the new job she wants to get. This discussion starts at the top of the film, is brought up every now and then throughout the film, and then at the climax we wonder if it will be the reason this couple splits up.

Time becomes a lot more stable and defined. The moments are more spread out and revolve around more important people and discussions and events. Time is still present, both real time and filmic time, and they work together how audiences expect them to, from other movies, but still continue to memorialization the small moments that Linklater establishes in each of these films.

Boyhood Film Still Image

Boyhood (2014) is the culmination of Linklaters manipulation of real and filmic time. The twelve years the movie spans are twelve very real years, that are played out through real time. Through the use of cultural context, the film can bounce from one year to the next creating a narrative about the passage of time while still playing into Linklaters obsession with teaching the world that the best moments of life are the smallest. This time around Linklater trades the sun for mise-en-scene to represent time and its passing. The music of Britney Spears, and High School Musical tell you exactly what year it is. If the songs do not clue you in, then the evolution of clothing, the events of the time, the foam bead pillows, the references to the Great Recession, will create a map of the past twelve years that you will be able to follow.

While the film is less about people walking and talking there are still instances where big life discussions or even small events happen on simple walks with people. These scenes of talking and walking are so important, because they are the moments where people connect. This group of Linklater films are not about traumatic events that change people, it is about people who change people. Boyhood becomes a study of the events that shape us and the people that make those events occur. Our mother may be the most constant part of our life, teaching us everything we know about how to function as human or like that friend we knew in middle school may ride her bike home one day with us and suddenly we learned a new thing about relationships and friendship. These are what the little moments add up to, connecting to people and changing or being changed by people. The Before Trilogy shows two people constantly changing each other over almost thirty years and thousands of miles apart. Boyhood shows a more mundane side where the people who flow into and out of our lives are just as important as the constants.

At a time when most filmmakers were and still are playing with time and the structure of a timeline, Linklater refuses to go any way but forward. He looks for the connections behind the finely crafted narratives of action. He follows the belief that action is character and interesting character could smoke a cigarette and talk and audiences would still want to see that. Linklater also adds the most interesting displays of time that are both real and distinctive to eras and general moments, without ever really giving exact measures and dates of time. Ultimately, Linklater likes to show connections and misconnections of people just moving through time, and he does it in a way that sometimes goes against everything filmmakers are taught, but he never fails to create great films, because somehow he is able to capture what it’s like to be a person. The devil is in the detail and Linklater only cares about the details of time.

Maranda Davis

Maranda is a Las Vegan writer and recent graduate of Texas Christian University. She has a degree in Theatre with a minor in TV, Film, and Digital Media Studies. Her passions are writing, theatre, and Youtube. While one day she hopes to write for TV and film, she currently is working on writing plays of many genres and styles.

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