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Richard Linklater on Robert Bresson, ‘Taxi Driver,’ and Meeting Robert Altman

Written by Joshua Encinias on October 3, 2017 

richard-linklater-photo-by-sean-diserio

Richard Linklater’s new film Last Flag Flying may not be in theaters until November, but it opened this year’s New York Film Festival and the director sat down with festival director Kent Jones for extensive at the Walter Reade Theater on Saturday, September 30.

On Cinema is an annual event at the festival where world-renowned filmmakers invite festival goers to learn their cinematic inspiration and influences. Linklater built the conversation around his favorite moments in film, including The Long Goodbye, Pickpocket and Taxi Driver, among others. From the beginning of his talk, it was clear Linklater held reverence for everyone he was to discuss, but none received praise like Robert Bresson and Robert Altman.

Linklater fixates on the passing moments in film, which he calls the stuff we remember from cinema. He’s gifted American cinema with a philosophy unique to the last twenty years of filmmaking and was explored in detail at the festival.

On cinephilia

I think the big jump for me was films were always kind of a social thing, which I think they are to a large percent of the population. Just the idea that you would go to a movie alone. At some point you’ve just got to make the decision. No one’s going to keep up with me, I’m going to a twelve o’clock show and a three o’clock show, five-thirty. You just get used to buying that ticket alone, getting your seat wherever and it’s fun because you tend to meet those other loners, like that guy who always sat over there and about six months later you finally go, “Hey man.”

On the nature of filmmaking

What is film? To me it’s moments. It would be one thing to show my favorite films and favorite scenes, but I thought to show a moment. Not necessarily the best moment in the movie or my favorite emotional moment. It’s just a moment that jarred me, not so much as a viewer, but as a future filmmaker… it’s what you remember. When you think back on a film, you don’t really remember the plot of a movie… well you do, kind of. I always thought plot was an agreed upon fiction that we all sign up for to get those moments, to hang those moments on. Our lives don’t have plots really.

On his storytelling philosophy

The main storytelling element of any movie is who knows what, when, and what do you want the audience to know? It sounds simple but it’s really the backbone to everything. I think you could put the audience in a privileged spot or you can screw with them by withholding information, so it’s a huge choice.

On Taxi Driver

Another example of cinema pulling you into a point of view of someone, and by the time your identification is so thorough you realize it’s too late is Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. I think that’s also a bit of a perversity that you get to know Travis. He’s vulnerable, he’s alone, he shares a lot of things everybody has felt. It’s only the last part of the movie where you realize this guy is a psychopath.

On Robert Bresson’s cinematic language

No one has the precision of Bresson. We can talk about Hitchcock all day as far as leading you the viewer, but Bresson has this elliptical storytelling method. He’s one of that special handful that created their own cinematic language and answered to it their whole cinematic career.

On the Pickpocket and Breathless crews running into each other

It’s an interesting cinema note that here was Bresson, in his late 50s doing this, and the Pickpocket crew would run into the Breathless crew on the streets of Paris. And he complained to Godard that he had such a low budget. Isn’t it funny when you think of these masterpiece films, I always jump back and go there was some filmmaker complaining that he didn’t have enough money. A lot of the film is just him and some actors, but he added these public scenes and he only had a few days and he had like seventy-five extras for those few days. If you look closely, you see the woman carrying the luggage, she’s in other scenes. You get to know them, you say, “She wouldn’t be there and there,” but he only had them for a few days. What he was able to do was breathtaking. He has these recurring visual images in his movies of feet, doors opening and closing, handles. I remember L’Argent was the first Bresson I saw and it played over a weekend at Hogg Auditorium at the UT campus, it was shown three or four times and I remember having read a lot about Bresson. I went on a Friday night and really struggled with it the first time I saw it. By the end of the weekend I had been converted, I totally felt like I got it. I also read the Tolstoy story that L’Argent was based on, The Forged Coupon. He leaves out the redemption part of the story. He ends it at the worst part. That was a his last film. I know he lived quite a bit longer. He was old but he was trying to make a few more projects. Genesis, from creation to the flood. I actually got a letter from him. I showed ten of his films in Austin and sent him a letter and sent him flyers and stuff and he wrote me a really nice letter back. Just saying, “Oh, wow, the power of cinema… my films are showing in Texas.”

Actors v. non-actors in early films

Long before the star system, they thought people would accept films as real and said you can’t show the same person again in another part because the audience won’t believe it. That was an early worry of studio people.

On Vincente Minnelli pissing off Frank Sinatra and being a masterful visual designer

Vincente Minnelli started here in New York. I think he was a costume designer. He was just a beautiful designer, he was a master of color and the palette and the camera. I think Wilder dismissed Minnelli as a decorator, but I just think he’s so masterful. And the master of a lot of genres, too. He’s known for his musicals obviously, but I love his melodramas. The way Some Come Running ends, he shot it like a musical without the music. It has a great Elmer Bernstein soundtrack but they’re at this big carnival and the wheel is going. There’s this famous story where he had to dig into the ground to get the right angle. He was taking so much time and when he finally got it it still wasn’t quite right, so he said we have to move the ferris wheel. Frank Sinatra apparently left the set, got on a plane, and came back days later because Minnelli was driving him crazy. But he was known for that kind of detail.

On Robert Altman’s 1970s films and meeting him at Sundance

Those 1970s Altman films in Cinemascope are always beautiful. His camera was always moving and he was the master of the zoom in. I love The Long Goodbye and Sterling Hayden, I think it’s one of his great performances, Elliott Gould, obviously. Altman tackled so many genres, doing his version of it. Talk about moments… The Long Goodbye is just one incredible moment after the other and again, globbed onto a plot that… someone’s taken some money. Altman had a deal at FOX, they trusted him, but he didn’t have many hits except MASH, and he could go into the studio and say “I had this dream the other night and there were these women in the desert in a car and I kind of want to make this movie,” and FOX let him do it. Here’s a million bucks, go make that movie. I actually met him once, my first time at Sundance. It’s 1991 and I’m there with my first film and there’s Robert Altman and he’s there with Tanner ‘88. He was coming out of something and he was lingering so I made my move, I told him about the cigarette scene in The Long Goodbye and told him it changed my life, and he said, “I can’t be responsible for that!” And I went, “No, it’s a good thing! I have a film here!” He signed my DGA card years later.

Last Flag Flying premiered at New York Film Festival and opens on November 3. Watch the full talk above.


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