Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Houston, we have a winner

In 1985, Richard Linklater founded the Austin Film Society. It started as a modest venture, a chance for the 25-year-old Linklater and his cinephile friends to screen films by Ozu and Demme. At the time, Linklater had yet to direct a full-length film; Slacker, a touchstone for the American indie movement, would only release in 1990. It was at the Film Society's theatre that a young man from Linklater's hometown of Houston met him, and asked what he could do to help. The student was Wes Anderson. According to Time's Richard Corliss, Linklater's reply was "Grab a broom."

Three decades later, Anderson and Linklater are together again — linked in the most public manner possible. Their films are frontrunners for Best Picture at this month's Oscars, and both have scored Best Director nominations for the first time. Though the clash was building all awards season, the Golden Globes brought it all to a head: Linklater's Boyhood won Best Picture (Drama), while Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel won Best Picture (Musical or Comedy). Anderson's film leads the Oscar nominations race, with nine nods to Boyhood's six, though Boyhood is the odds-on favourite to snap up the top prizes.

The films in question could hardly be more different. Boyhood is a deceptively simple look at one person's journey from child to young man, rendered unique by Linklater's decision to shoot the film with the same actors over the course of 12 years. It's an intimate, spiky film, filled with the boredom and disappointment of childhood more than its occasional epiphanies.The Grand Budapest Hotel, on the other hand, is a Fabergé egg of a film, set in a world informed by, but much removed from, reality. The tale of hotel concierge M. Gustave and his beloved lobby boy might not be Anderson's most resonant till date, but what it lacks in soul-searching characters it makes up in its evocation of an old world, pre-Nazi Europe that audiences first saw in the films of émigré Hollywood directors like Max Ophuls and Ernest Lubitsch.

That Linklater and Anderson are about to go head-to-head on 22 February is both gratifying and slightly surreal. The Academy spotlight rarely falls on directors who avoid big issue filmmaking and are content churning out modest masterpieces. The fact that these two films are in Best Picture race along with Sundance fave Whiplash and the genuinely weird Birdman could be seen as a hopeful sign that Academy voters might be opening their minds to options other than prestige cinema, mainstream weepies and obvious Oscar bait (in another year, these films might have been replaced by Unbroken or Interstellar). If this is so, it's fitting that these two are front and centre, for these are filmmakers who, even while working within the studio system, have hewed stubbornly to their own path for two decades, leaving behind not a string of hits but that rarer achievement: a body of work.

What Richard Linklater, normally used to flying way under the radar, is feeling right now is anyone's guess. Boyhood was the critical smash of 2014, topping a staggering number of critical shortlists (online aggregator Metacritic places it at number one on 72 separate lists). This was an outpouring of love much deserved but slightly bemusing in its intensity. It's like the critical establishment had just discovered Linklater, even though he'd been doing un-showy, inventive work for over two decades.

When Linklater's Slacker released in 1990, few would have predicted that this strange, ramshackle film — shot with a cast of non-professionals on a truly shoestring budget of $23,000 — would be the harbinger of a major movement. Yet, most people trace the start of the American indie film boom of the '90s to this and Steven Soderbergh's Palme d'Or-winner Sex, Lies, and Videotape. Linklater followed this with the much-loved high school film Dazed and Confused (1993) — which introduced Ben Affleck and Matthew McConaughey — and the equally delightful walking-and-talking-in-Vienna film Before Sunrise (1995). He ranged far and wide in the next few years, trying his hand at animation (Waking Life), period comedy (The Newton Boys) and intense indie drama (Tape).

In 2003, he had the only hit of his career, the Jack Black-starrer The School of Rock. Yet, rather than worm his way into big-budget projects, he continued to jump from genre to genre. All the while he continued to gather Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke and Ellar Coltrane to shoot yearly installments of Boyhood. His reputation — which for years had suffered at the hands of auteurist critics used to seeing patterns in less varied output — grew steadily as his early cult films celebrated their 10th, 15th, 20th anniversaries.
Someone who's never had any shortage of attention from critics is Wes Anderson. Like Linklater, he was born in Houston, Texas — a fact that many would be disinclined to believe, given that Anderson's films give the impression of having been made by a European aesthete and not someone from the state associated with Dubya. At the University of Texas at Austin, he met Owen Wilson, with whom he collaborated on a screenplay for his first film, Bottle Rocket. This heist comedy was to become a cult hit, and Martin Scorsese named it one of his favourite films of the '90s.

With Rushmore (1998), Anderson created the first of his memorable eccentrics — Max Fischer, a precocious child who develops a crush on his high school teacher. This was also the film where the various Anderson trademarks began to fall into place: the British invasion soundtrack, the whip pans, the rueful melancholia, the low-key whimsy and the obsessive symmetry. Underlying it all was the constant search for acceptance and companionship. Family, or the absence of it, was at the heart of The Royal Tenenbaums, The Darjeeling Limited and Moonrise Kingdom. (It isn't as central in The Grand Budapest Hotel — a possible reason why the film was less affecting than some of Anderson's other efforts.)

Working with the cinematographer Robert Yeoman, Anderson developed a filmic style so unique that it became the unofficial template for the American indie. Soon, dozens of films with hyper-articulate, maladjusted characters were being made — it goes without saying that without Wes, there'd be no Little Miss Sunshine or (500) Days of Summer. Anderson, to his credit, has neither called out his many imitators nor abandoned his signature style. His style is so specific that it passed over perfectly into animation with Fantastic Mr Fox, a stop motion adaptation of the beloved Roald Dahl novella, which looked and sounded exactly like one of his live action films.

They might be products of the same Austin arts scene, but Anderson and Linklater are poles apart as filmmakers. Linklater guides his productions with a very light hand, while Anderson crafts his movies with the precision and attention to detail of a fine watchmaker. You can tell you're watching an Anderson film from the first frame (the yellow Futura typeface credits are a dead giveaway), something even die-hard Linklater fans would hesitate to claim about his films. The flipside is that there's a world of difference between, say, Before Midnight and Bad News Bears, while Anderson's films can, after a while, acquire a whimsical sameness.

The one thing these directors do share is a commitment — or determination, or stubbornness — to keep making the kinds of films they want to make. This is why, even though they work within — or in Linklater's case, on the outer edges of – the studio system, they continue to be seen as indie in spirit. This sets them apart from the other remarkable filmmakers who emerged in the 1990s — Quentin Tarantino, David Fincher, P.T. Anderson, Christopher Nolan — directors who continue to choose their projects, but who have moved far beyond the indie-sphere in terms of budget and approach.

On the film website The Dissolve, Jen Chaney, while lamenting the absence of Selma's Ava DuVernay among the Best Director nominees, suggests that Linklater and Anderson's nominations should give hope to those who believe that "non-conformity and unwavering commitment to one's artistic integrity are actually worth a damn in Hollywood". This may sound like an especially serious way to describe directors as unassuming as Linklater and Anderson, but it's hardly an exaggeration. Fifty years from now, long after the memories of The King's Speech and Zero Dark Thirty have faded, we'll still be worrying about Margot Tenenbaum and Olivia Evans, and delighting in M. Gustave and David Wooderson.

This piece was published in The Sunday Guardian.