The goal of this “Lessons From” column is to spotlight low-budget films that filmmakers might find educational for the creation or development of their own projects.
In 1991, Richard Linklater released Slacker, a $23,000 independent film in which nothing really happens. The story, composed of a series of vignettes, depicts the lives of an eclectic group of Austin-based bohemians. In the film, a supporting character from one scene will often leave a conversation, followed by the camera, before picking up somewhere else, discussing something completely different, with someone completely new. This baton passing continues for the entire runtime, leaving each character about three to five minutes to make an impression. The film proved an underground success, raking in over one million dollars, and inspiring other independent filmmakers in the years that followed.
Given the film’s low-budget, it might seem that Slacker was Linklater’s first film. However, he had been making short films for a number of years, which culminated in his first feature-length project, 1988’s Super-8 film, It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books. This film, available to stream on The Criterion Channel, depicts the life of an unnamed drifter, played by Linklater, himself. Shot for $3000, Plow pointed to themes that Linklater would explore for the rest of his career, while also creating an avenue for him to develop his skills. Independent filmmakers looking to develop their own skills would benefit from watching the film.
At the time of Plow, Linklater, unsure of how to phrase what he wanted to say about the world, decided to make a film devoid of almost all dialogue. The few conversations in the film are intentionally dull, filled with long pauses, and no attempt to move any “plot” forward. As a result, the events of the film are essentially: 1) An unnamed drifter receives a vague invitation to visit a friend in Montana. 2) The drifter travels to Montana by bus and train. 3) The drifter kills time with friends. 4) He returns to Austin.
Inspired by filmmakers like James Benning and Chantal Akerman, Linklater decided to make Plow less story-driven, and more of a visual experience, in which the viewer is encouraged to lean into the dull, documentary-like depictions of everyday life. Plow certainly tests the viewer’s patience, like the films of Benning and Akerman, but just like their films, “leaning into” Plow can be a meditative or hypnotic experience for any viewer who is willing to put in the effort.
While shooting the film, Linklater took a minimalist approach to ensure that his spending would remain as low as possible. Without ambitions for the film to be shown anywhere, Linklater viewed Plow as an extension of his short films, which he shot in order to work on technical skills (Linklater would make one short film to focus on editing, while another was made for camera movement). Because he viewed Plow as an experiment, and not something to be shown in theaters, Linklater kept his crew small, specifically to one person, himself. Nearly every shot of the film is stationary, on a tripod, as Linklater would start the camera, before entering the frame to act out the movements of the protagonist. Other things, like editing or sound, were also done entirely by Linklater. By the time he started making studio films budgeted in the millions, like Dazed and Confused, Linklater had other people on-set to perform these duties. However, by doing every task on Plow, Linklater learned about the challenges that these people would be facing on a daily basis. In learning about all of these professions, Linklater made himself a more-informed director, which ensured that he was prepared to collaborate with a bigger crew, on a higher budget, with the films that he would make later in his career.
Although he never made another visually-driven, slow-cinema film, Plow signaled Linklater’s fascination with time, and his rejection of typical Hollywood structure. Slacker moves from person to person, with no defined protagonist, or story. 1993’s Dazed and Confused depicts a group of high-schoolers on the last day of the school year, where again, nothing really happens. Down the line, the Before films would depict real-time conversations between two characters over the course of an afternoon. Nowadays, Linklater is well-known for his dialogue-heavy, real-time conversations. As evidenced by Plow, that “real time” depiction has always been there. Linklater just didn’t know what he wanted his characters to say yet.
In the late 1980s, at a time before he was prepared to collaborate, or before he ever had to satisfy studio execs, Richard Linklater made a film entirely for himself, but one that gave him the confidence that he needed when it came time to start sharing his films with a wider audience.