Sex, Lies, Etc.

Set in a single, grim Michigan motel room, Richard Linklater's latest
film, Tape, has an air of let's-put-on-a-movie spontaneity--and
concentration--that's often missing from contemporary American pictures. This
refreshing charge derives in part from the film's terse concept (a trio of
high-school friends are reunited 10 years after graduation), but it also comes
from the low-cost, less-fuss new digital video technology that Linklater is
toying with here.

The film's scruffy surface is, though, deceptive. Linklater's dramatic
approach is quite sophisticated, and Tape, for all its mumbled dialogue
and pseudo-verité camera work, is actually a work of clever calculation,
its apparently raw energy drawn from a careful balance of chance and choice,
state-of-the-art materials and traditional narrative techniques. And however
"ordinary" the people in the film are meant to be, the fact that two of them are
played by Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman, downtown glamour couple par excellence,
only adds to the sense that Linklater is partly putting us on with the
bargain-basement feel of his picture.

Then again, it's no surprise that the actors were hungry for such meaty,
uncharacteristic roles. (Thurman, for one, is especially fine when cast against
vampy type.) Nor should we doubt Linklater's motivations in making the film
quickly, simply, and on the cheap: Of all the so-called American independents
who've found mainstream fame in the last decade or so, Linklater has remained
among the closest to his underground roots.

Once an aspiring writer who took a job on an oil rig so that he could spend
his days reading, Linklater has tried his hand at Hollywood production yet has
always returned to Austin, Texas, his hometown, as he has returned to writing and
directing for himself and to asking, in a variety of intriguing ways, the same
questions that have haunted him all along. These questions range from the
anthropological (how do smart, young, underemployed Americans talk?) to the
philosophical (what causes time to expand and contract, depending on one's state
of mind and the company one keeps?). Lots of American directors have shticks, but
few have steep and lasting concerns. Linklater is one of the few whose oeuvre has
taken shape over the years as a restless and ongoing search for intricate
answers.

Linklater's initial success came with Slacker, a Zeitgeisty 1991
picture whose fluid, meandering structure was the source of both its charm and
its limitation, as the aimlessness of the characters merged somehow with the
aimlessness of the film. Slacker worked (or didn't, depending on your
point of view) by eavesdropping on the conversations of dozens of
twenty-something Austin chatterboxes and drones, and closing with a sobering,
slightly sophomoric shot of the camera being tossed off a cliff. The picture then
blurred and tumbled, as if we in the audience had also been given the heave-ho.

Godard, too, had ended a movie with the deadpan declaration that the Fin du
Cinema was nigh, but--given the nervy brilliance of the film that led up to that
announcement, Weekend--somehow we didn't believe him. To judge from the
final frames of Slacker, the imminent end (of art, ambition, American
culture) looked a good deal more likely. I remember being at once annoyed and
depressed by this movie when I first saw it as a recent and, I admit, easily
annoyable college graduate. Many other people my age "connected" with
Slacker, but it seemed to me to glorify everything lost and self-indulgent
about my generation, X. Why, I wondered, was a gifted man like Linklater--himself
a few years older than most of his subjects--frittering his talents and wasting
his time chronicling the b.s. sessions of these various bozos and bores? The film
struck me as embodying all the syndromes (lassitude, anemia, self-absorption) it
diagnosed.

Subsequent viewings have softened me on the movie, which is, it turns out,
better appreciated as a Max Ophuls-styled roundelay or slow-mo relay race than as
a commentary on the inertial state of so many confused young Americans. Evident
already in that first film--I can see now--is Linklater's keen ear for believably
wordy dialogue and his eye for telling spatial relations. It's hard to think of
another contemporary American director with such a highly evolved sense of the
complex relation between foreground and background, character and setting.

Since then, Linklater has directed a range of studio-funded movies, including
the intelligently sunny high-school comedy Dazed and Confused, the
intelligently gloomy post-high-school tragicomedy SubUrbia (based on an
Eric Bogosian play), and the muralistic historical epic The Newton Boys.
He also co-wrote and directed the looser, more intimate Before Sunrise--in
which the American Ethan Hawke and the French Julie Delpy met on a Paris-bound
train. The pair debarked together for a sleepless night in Vienna and spent the
next 14 hours cuddling, playing pinball, and exchanging big ideas. More ambitious
than a formula film like Dazed, this romantic chamber piece was also more
of a mixed bag. The stars were winning, the situation sexy, and the extremely
talky tilt of the script intriguing. The dorm-room-deep profundities that these
lovebirds swapped in the course of their one long date, however, were almost
insufferable. We may have appreciated the idea of the film--to put the verbal
snap back into on-screen flirtation--but actually sitting still as these two
pretty people yacked about everything from palm reading to death and Quaker
weddings was a tall order indeed.

While all of these films showed promise of one kind or another, none prepared
us for the tremendous leap Linklater made with his last movie, the gravely
beautiful, wise Waking Life, released earlier this fall. That magical
movie unfurls as a series of overlapping dreams, filmed with actors then painted
over digitally by a group of animators whose touch differs from scene to scene,
yet whose work retains throughout the quality of breath and flux.

No one ever holds still in this film (a woman's bottle-curls swirl like
miniature tornadoes around her face; the eyes of a physicist shift then bulge
then retract as he makes an important point), and as we watch their volatile
mutations, it almost seems we're watching the shape and movement of consciousness
itself. The film might be an ultrasound of the director's brain. Waking
Life
flows like a literal dream not only by perfectly matching lightness to
weight, form to content, but also by focusing everything Linklater has done to
this point. All those old questions of time and space, being and nothingness,
remain--though they're cut free of their dilettantish or ironic moorings and seem
suddenly essential, even pressing--as the director also reckons with a whole new
set of mysteries. A cartoon about desire, free will, death, God, and Andre
Bazin's notion of filmic ontology may sound like the height of pretension. In
fact, it's an utter delight, the most texturally enjoyable and, yes, profound
American movie of the year.

Which brings us back to Tape, a film that, it ought to be said, has
nothing of the intellectual audacity or visual wonder of Waking Life. It
speeds by instead as a kind of afterthought or palette-clearing postmeal sorbet
to chase that full-blown feast. This is not meant as a put-down. If anything,
it's precisely the movie's modest dimensions, lack of flash, and intense format
that make it worth seeing.

Adapted by Stephen Belber from his play of the same name, Tape retains
its theatrical trappings and unfolds over a few hours within the walls of that
one motel room. Vince (Hawke), a Rolling Rock-guzzling part-time dope dealer,
spends most of the film drunk and high in his boxer shorts. He's proud to be
juvenile and boorish and would wear his arrested development on his sleeve if he
would only get dressed.

Near the start of the movie, Vince's former best buddy, the straighter, more
reserved John (Robert Sean Leonard), knocks on the door and the two exchange a
round of raucous hugs and slaps. Their affection for each other appears
inseparable from their mutual, masculine hostility and suspicion, and Belber's
script allows them a full act to get reacquainted. The dialogue zips between
them, as editor Sandra Adair jumps in nervous staccato between the two and, in
the case of a few especially anxious moments, doesn't break away at all. Then
cinematographer Maryse Alberti's camera goes veering from one side of the room to
the next, in regular NYPD Blue style.

It seems John slept with Vince's ex-girlfriend Amy way back when they were all
18, and Vince is still upset about it, going so far as to accuse John of rape.
John, meanwhile, doesn't see why his friend is so hung up on the past. He fancies
himself much more mature and would prefer just to get on with his life--though
this, we soon see, may be a convenient way of dodging responsibility for some of
his former actions. In the second half, Amy (Thurman) herself--now a put-together
assistant D.A. in a sensible sweater set--arrives on the scene, and the
accusations and recriminations mount as each of the characters seems to have a
distinct, and contradictory, memory of what took place senior year.

For better or worse, the dynamic between the three has something of the
bristling tension of an acting-class exercise in which subtext is the theme of
the day's lesson. The characters may yammer on about high school, but the real
subject of their standoff is the present moment: Who is strongest now? As they
take turns dominating the proceedings, our sympathies keep shifting around.

Linklater's direction is taut and unfussy. He's most interested in the actors,
who all do an excellent job, and in the script, which--despite a few unfortunate
reflexive gestures, such as the decision to make John's character an independent
filmmaker, of all things--has the slope and sound of real conversation and a
surprising ethical dimension.

Other critics have compared the movie to Hitchcock's virtuoso 1948 experiment
Rope, which was also an adaptation of a play set over the course of a few
hours and in one claustrophobic setting--though Hitchcock's use of 10
uninterrupted 10-minute takes had quite a different rhythmic and tonal effect
than does Linklater's jittery montage. More important still, while the murder at
the center of the Hitchcock film is undeniable (the body is packed in a chest
that remains on screen throughout), the crime around which the Linklater movie
revolves may not even have happened. This uncertainty itself--and the vaporous
moral force field that it implies for us all--lends Tape its cutting edge.

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