Sunday, March 14, 2004

...But the legend of the rent was real hardcore!

I'm not the biggest Jack Black fan, but I did know the first time I saw the overactive hobbit/troll in action in the magnificent teen rollerblading action epic, Airbourne, he was going to eventually "touch me, babe." And I felt a similar epiphany the first time I saw Richard Linklater's definitive Austin loser chronicle, Slacker, which for better or worse put a name and a multitude of faces on an emerging subculture of disgustingly observent yet ultimately unmotivated individuals that I soon found myself a part of. This was back in the pre Nirvana daze mind you, pre Pavement and Superchunk's "Slack Mother Fucker," and of course before blogging ruled the ether world.

Linklater went on to nail the experience of my teenage Texan upbringing with an uncanny accuracy in Dazed and Confused and won a permanent balcony seat in the theater of my heart by introducing the world to John Wooderson, the penultimate realization of the hip cat as loser paradox circa 1976, some 12 years before the slackers of Slacker were slacking their days away. And one can only relish the perfect type-casting of Ben Afleck as O'Bannon, the burly paddle weilding asshole with an unlhealthy obsession for teen boy ass. And don't even get me started on Parker Posey...a GODDESS, people!

It was apparent from the start that Linklater wanted to be an arteest in a commercial game first and foremost, and like his greatest heroes, make movies that were both personal and unique to his experience, but also somehow universally accessible and "honest". This would result in the small, but winning French inspired romanticsm of Before Sunrise (a sequal is in the works), the perhaps overly familiar Suburbia, which is essentially Dazed and Confused reset in the mid 90s with post punk values (skip this one and catch Penelope Spheeris's most excellent shocker of the same name for something more worth your while). He officially hit a rough patch with 98's mostly forgettable Newton Boys, which had plenty of charm and arty references but lacked anything resembling real fire. The only thing I really remember from its over 2 hour running time is the end credit footage which features one of the real Newton Boys appearing on the Johnny Carson show or some such 50 years after the fact. This should've been something closer to Butch Cassady and the Sundance Kid, but instead comes off like Young Guns if it were made in the mid 70s by Francoise Truffaut. I know the comparison suggests potential for success, but...think again, pardener. By 2001 things were looking brighter and a lot more interesting. With the help of dozens of Austin area artists, actors and animators (not to mention a few industry heavys), Link assembled and released one of the most perfectly surreal and mind-blowing films of the last decade in Waking Life, an essential DVD purchase for any fan of abstract animation, pocket book philosophizing and a fascination with the boundaries between consciousness and dreams. Released roughly around the same time was the much more alienating Tape. Where Waking Life is a metaphysical, multimedia take on themes originally explored in Slacker, and completely nonlinear-or-narrative in style, Tape, based on a play, features only three actors, spans real time and is filmed on one set using DV. Austin's golden boy (and non UT alumni I might add) getting back to his esoteric roots?

As Linklater was trying to like, keep it real, man, Black was riding his own surge of creative bubbly goo, landing the coveted roll of Barry in everyone's favorite indie jag-off, record-spotting yuckfest, High Fidelity, not to mention a string of hilarious shorts with his folk-metal duo Tenacious D, but soon after there was danger of some serious Jim Carrey-like type-casting with a series of mostly forgettable, but usually fun anyway, teen/slacker comedies that aren't really worth the bandwidth, but Saving Silverman, also featuring the brilliant Steve Zahn, is worth an afternoon cable gander. Funny though how this "stubborn new culture" captured so strikingly only a decade earlier by Linklater was now being commodified and mass-produced for the MTV/Jackass generation like so many dried out Mcsausage biscuit sandwiches.

Fast forward to the year 2003 and the reason I'm blabbering thusly, our man Black and our man Link come together via the bridge of scribe Mike White's most excellent School of Rock, a completely predictable, formulaic coming-of-age romp that snooty assholes like myself are supposed to scoff at, but should actually love and cherish, and sure enough it's an extremely marketable, audience freindly bit of inspired lunacy. In the same way that Linklater reinvogorated the coming of age/teen party flick with D&C, he totally reinvents the inspirational teacher/coming of age genre, a Hollywood staple for some 50 years now, with a the same undeniable truth and power found in The Blackboard Jungle (the first major studio film to use rock music in its soundtrack) or Dead Poet's Society, but none of the high-fallutin self righteousness. Those films, good as they are, are all very astute and touched in partaking their respective paths to academic divinity. School of Rock gives the epiphanies and the heart and soul back to the working stiff, or in this case the gigging loser, Dewey Finn, who's of course anything but stiff here. Black owns this movie from the first time we see him on stage in a smokey rock club, banging his amp, telling the soundguy "turn it up" and then abruptly releasing a hellfire harmony scream into his mic. There's no question that his life is the sacred r n r, and while his bandmates in No Vacancy are growing tired of his antics and mainly just wanna hit it big, or at the very least win the Battle of the Bands, Dewey envisions something greater and more mythical in his tornadic mind. He is an ultimate creation, the archetypal rawk fan and an oblivious con man of great emotional clarity. He may not have "what it takes" in the conventional sense--these sorts rarely do--but with the help of such instantly loveable kids (killer casting), who actually play their own instruments (with a little help from tech consultant Jim O'Rourke!) and good writing where it matters, Black's rousing, over-the-top speeches about the purity of rock as rebellion and the evils of MTV ring so very, very true. With lesser hacks--you know, the folks responsble for half of Adam Sandler's filmic output and those Mandy Moore movies--this could've been total cutesy nonsense, but all three of the parties responsible, including Mike White (also the man behind the incredicly creepy Chuck and Buck), have a natural gift for finding the subtle "real life" nuances amid the more broad absurdities that speckle the human landscape, while operating squarely in a known and predictable genre. The set-up basically resolves itself, but we're still honored to see this ride through from start to finish, especially in Dewey's van. Truth be told, the title sequence has more creative value than the entirety of most Hollywood films, but it's just a signpost of wonderful, hilarious, and mostly honest things to come. Not sure what to make of Linklater's upcoming After Sunrise. As with all his genre work, I'm sure he'll once again do the date movie proud, but his adaptation of PK Dick's A Scanner Darkly is what I'm currently licking my chops over.

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