For the past four years, I’ve been in a long distance relationship. As of two weeks ago, the distance component of that relationship has thankfully come to a close, with my heart and my wallet eternally grateful. But the change is bittersweet, as I’ve also been in something of a long-distance relationship with a city that my person inhabited, having now arrived at the end of my routine round trip travels from my current home in southern Indiana to Austin, Texas.
I only officially lived in Austin for slightly over a year, from 2009–2010. But in four subsequent years of visits ranging from a brief weekend to an entire summer, I developed something of a strange relationship with the city: I saw it through elliptical fractions of time. Each visit to this rapidly growing city required reorientation, as I was forced to understand the differences big and small that have taken place since my last visit. One day Rainey Street was a mostly empty lot with a few great food trailers. The next visit it became a caravan of bars. A few visits later, dreaded condos were being developed.
For nearly anyone who has experienced the city of Austin through time, there is an Austin Then and an Austin Now, with Austin Then forever casting a shadow over the always inferior Austin Now. If any filmmaker has a claim to Austin Then, it’s Slacker director Richard Linklater. But as his recent output has shown – most evidently in the magnus opus Boyhood – the filmmaker is less interested in reflecting nostalgically on the past and more devoted to exploring the impermanence of time, that strange process by which familiar people and places inevitably change.
Cinema offers a strange permanence to images. Through the illusion of the moving image combined with synchronous sound, we can view people and events trapped in time, over and again, as if they’re unfolding in front of us for the first time. We can witness the arrival of a train in 1896, see Chaplin weave through a machine in 1936, or watch Cary Grant seduce Ingrid Bergman in 1946. The old can become young and the dead come to life through watching a film. Despite the vulnerabilities of moving image carriers from film stock to digital cinema packages, films can carry an eternal quality that make figures seem frozen in time.
Yet narrative film is also a fleeting, temporal experience with an anticipated beginning and end. Sure, you can watch Modern Times over as many revisitations as you’d like, but the succession of one image after another also has a destructive quality: as soon as a moment or glimpse has occurred, it has already passed, replaced by another set of images or events. The present becomes an unstable bridge between past and future. Moreover, you can only really experience the movie magic of witnessing a particular great film once: though you can have an evolving relationship with a movie over time, you can never truly go home again.
Linklater’s work embraces and explores this tension between impermanence and permanence. Much of his work is devoted to the practice of revisiting. The director made Waking Life, a sequel-in-spirit to Slacker, on the streets of Austin ten years after that breakthrough film. That film featured the second appearance in his filmography of Jesse and Celine, the couple he would revisit on a 9-year cycle in the Before films. And with Boyhood, Linklater articulated a process he usually creates over several films within one standalone title.
But in this practice of revisitation, Linklater isn’t interested in capturing anything that came before, but rather embracing the possibilities of inevitable change to come. His career has taken a decidedly un-romantic turn in his relationship to the past. After Before Sunset, which had perhaps the most prefect ending of recent memory, Linklater made a film about the compounding trials, difficulties, and, ultimately, joys intrinsic to a monogamous commitment between two spirited souls – the twentysomething soft focus romance and thirtysomething mature reunion is met in Before Midnight with a fortysomething reality check somewhere between the intersections of adult responsibility, gradual distance, years of minor conflict, and enduring romance. This isn’t the Jesse and Celine you used to know, nor could it ever honestly have been.
Boyhood’s first sequence introduces us to a similarly uncompromising relationship to the present’s eclipse of the past. When Mason’s Mom (Patricia Arquette) decides to return to school and give her kids a better life in Houston, she’s notably straightforward, yet never cold, about the transition. She opens her children up to the unfixed, unpredictable reality of adult life, presenting an antithesis of a middle class parenting culture that seeks to capture Every Precious Moment for Facebook to see. The instance that illustrates this best is when Mason (Ellar Coltrane) is instructed to repaint their house’s walls rental-white, and he reluctantly covers the escalating markers of his growing height etched into the wall. Keeping track of change is not without some ironic futility.
This moment I find exemplary of the experience of watching Boyhood as a whole. On the one hand, the film bears the seeming permanence of any film and then some: Mason/Coltrane is there onscreen for us to witness age over 12 years any time we have access to it. But at the same time, the film moves decisively forward in linear time over nearly three hours, making these supposedly permanent moments into memories until, suddenly, we’re far into the future. Watching Boyhood was strikingly similar to my experience in Austin over several years, seeing a city within limited pockets of time somehow both frozen in the moment yet trudging onward towards inevitable change, whether good or bad.
When we speak of great films, timelessness is often regarded as a virtue. Casablanca, we can safely assume, will still be a “great film” in 2042. But timelessness is rather rare and can be an incredibly uncinematic quality for a time-based medium whose look and feel is largely determined by characteristics of industry, technology, and economics.
Slacker is perhaps a perfect example of an un-timeless film, and is a film whose cultural and aesthetic value accrues as the distance between the present and the time of its making grows. It is a capsule of a very specific Austin Then and an example of an all-but-obsolescent form of American independent filmmaking. The un-timelessness of Slacker resonates in the lore around it. Slacker “tours” exist, based in online maps, that are really a tour of absence, where you can explore the retail central where the downtown factory district used to be, and the UT campus Starbucks where Les Amis once stood.
The film’s anniversary is celebrated in town every ten years. Even the supermarket featured in the film is a part of Austin’s cinema culture: it became the site of the Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar, which itself was decimated and recently resurrected into something so so very Austin Now. Yet while Slacker remains a persistent emblem of Austin Then, Linklater’s actual first film, the lesser known It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books, captures an Austin even more Then than the past concretized by his sophomore effort.
To reflect on Austin’s past through a film like Slacker is to perhaps mourn that past, or to at least understand better the tumultuous changes that Austin has undertaken since the late 1980s, through decades of tech and media booms and skyrocketing housing prices. There are serious problems with Austin Now, from the all-consuming corporatization that even exploited its most vulnerable residents to the city’s growing segregation. But choosing not to romanticize Austin Then is not the same thing as giving Austin Now a free pass. Choosing not to romanticize the past is to deal head on with the reality of a perpetually new and regenerative present, with the inevitability of change, and with the impermanence of time.
While a culture of nostalgia resonates around Slacker, it’s not one that the film’s maker seems to share. In Boyhood, Mason visits Austin for the first time at around age 16 or 17. The streets of South Congress are no doubt far different from those same streets Linklater filmed in 1989. But for Mason, it’s his Austin Now that will inevitably become his Austin Then. I love Richard Linklater’s Austin because it doesn’t assume an open preference between Austin Now and Austin Then, but rather explores how one eventually transforms into the other.