Director Richard Linklater has carved out a nice niche for himself since the heyday of 1990s American independent cinema. His ambling hit Slacker set the decade’s tone for philosophical musings from stoners, students, lovers, academics, and poets at heart. Linklater straddles the line between high and low art, filming hours upon hours of nothing more than verbose dialogue. Yet, time and again, he’s able to make us feel for his characters as they work out the meaning of the universe, the problems in their relationships, and everything in between.
Everybody Wants Some!! has much of what many have come to expect from the director. It’s a nostalgic look at his experiences playing for a college baseball team in Texas: the identity crisis of where to fit in on campus, the never-ending hunt for women, and the brotherly bonds forged in the frat house. It’s more bro-centric than his previous throwback film, Dazed and Confused, based on his experiences as a high-schooler in the 1970s. His last film, Boyhood—also about the male experience of growing up—wasn’t based on Linklater’s childhood. Classroom computers, cellphones, and Harry Potter belong to a different generation, that of Ellar Coltrane’s, but its coming-of-age themes are universal, regardless of gender or age. Getting your first crush, gaining and losing friends, dealing with family problems—it’s just a part of growing up.
In Everybody, the Boyhood generation looks into a not-too-distant past, which may be one reason why not everyone sees themselves in the film. It’s very masculine and aggressive because of its 1980s jocks. Neither Boyhood nor Dazed and Confused feel as weighed down by the testosterone. The characters’ search for “poontang” feels closer to Porky’s or Revenge of the Nerds, until a central romance emerges between our Jake (Blake Jenner) and Beverly (Zoey Deutch)—the one girl allowed enough screentime to develop a character. The film has a juvenile tone; however, it’s not out of place. If this movie is based on Linklater’s college years from decades past, who are we to sanitize those experiences as a product of the current more-progressive culture, where gender and sexuality (at least in some campuses) are less binary than they were 30 years ago?
Another aspect of Linklater’s oeuvre is a sense of place. Everybody, Boyhood, and Dazed and Confused were set in the filmmaker’s home state of Texas, but they’re not in a big town like Houston, Dallas, or even Austin (not for long anyway). The settings are in a Middle America that can be found anywhere in the country. There are no discernible cities or meticulously planned-out subdivisions. This is small-town, small-scale suburbia, which lends itself to a kind of a “good ol’ days” aesthetic. The population is rather homogeneous (save for one or two people of color), and the only culture the townsfolk have to deal with is the counterculture of its time: 1970s hippies, 1980s punks.
This portrait of Americana is reaffirmed by the male protagonists, raised on the “boys will be boys” mentality that allows them to have the playground to themselves. Americana is often portrayed by masculine figures—think of cowboys, pioneers, or even soldiers—more so than female ones. Yet, this pushes half of the American population out of the frame. Consider the country’s non-white demographic and you can get a sense of how limiting this traditional depiction of Americana can be.
I can’t fault Linklater for making beautiful films about his youth, and hell, I enjoyed Everybody for reminding me of my summer living in an MIT frat. What frustrates me is how similar coming-of-age stories about women are not nearly given the same reach as a Linklater film. Our stories aren’t seen as universal; they’re labeled as “women’s pictures.” This then reaffirms the notion that an “All-American” tale is intrinsically a male one.
It’s almost as if we need to leave the States to see stories that vaguely reflect our experiences. After watching the re-release of Isao Takahata’s Only Yesterday, I was shocked that an animated film steeped in the nostalgia of primary school would dare discuss menstruation and the trauma of boys teasing the protagonist. It was apparently too candid: Studio Ghibli’s former distributor Disney decided against importing Only Yesterday to American movie audiences. Last year, Academy audiences nominated Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s Mustang for Best Foreign Language Film, a movie about sisters coming of age into their culture. Céline Sciamma’s Girlhood was also released stateside in 2015—a film about female friendships among black French high-school girls. Is there an American companion to these movies?
It doesn’t seem like many movies about girls surviving high school have made their way to the big screen post-Mean Girls. But some filmmakers like Kelly Reichardt are reclaiming the Americana mantle from its androcentrism. A contemporary of Linklater’s, Reichardt (finally) gained attention in the late 2000s with Wendy and Lucy, a film about a homeless young woman and her dog, and Meek’s Cutoff, her revolutionary look at women on the American frontier. Her upcoming film Certain Women follows three female characters in the American Midwest as they struggle with their relationships. Reichardt taps into Linklater’s Anywhere, USA feel, yet her style is radically different, preferring quiet characters over chatty ones, and inhospitable landscapes that are just as unwelcoming to women as American society. There are no rose-colored glasses here.
But because women in the American film industry rarely achieve sustainability, their ability to produce a body of work as varied as Linklater is limited. We can’t fathom the number of American stories we’ve never heard of before. After watching Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust, I thought of all the hundreds of ethnic enclaves in the States that have never had a coming-of-age story. Daughters of the Dust came out 25 years ago and few dramas centered on black women have been theatrically released since then.
I didn’t grow up in the 1980s, I wasn’t born male, and I never played baseball (women get softball, remember?). But the maleness in Linklater’s film is not too different from most other (straight, white) American filmmakers. I can dig the dirty jokes, laugh at the antiquated misogyny, but also mourn the fact that I have a better chance at watching a movie about a cheerleader, sorority girl, a cultural outsider, or genderqueer character in pornography than I do in Hollywood. Our childhoods aren’t as worthy for the big screen.
10 thoughts on “Richard Linklater, Maleness, and America”
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Yeah, you make a good point.
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