I’m guessing books should be a hotter than usual item during these holidays considering people must be nearing exhaustion from too much Netflix, or whatever streaming service, after nine months of nighttime events being canceled.
Don’t forget to support our local bookstores, such as Chop Suey Books and Fountain Bookstore, this season more than ever. Fortunately for movie buffs, two recent books delve into the work of filmmakers Richard Linklater and Paul Thomas Anderson, for my money two of the best American directors of the past 30 years.
The first one offers an exhaustive oral history of the making of Linklater’s “Dazed and Confused,” one of the most beloved movies about high school ever made, while the other large coffee table book contains a broad critical survey of Anderson’s impressive filmography accompanied by photos, illustrations and interviews.
Though different in style and tone, both informative books should appeal to die-hard fans of these major talents who were born a decade apart but who share an uncompromising belief in their own auteur visions. They also both came to prominence during what feels like the last gasp of independent cinema.
“Alright, Alright, Alright: An Oral History of Richard Linklater’s ‘Dazed and Confused’” by Melissa Maerz
In the pantheon of great high school films, few have earned a cultlike following like “Dazed and Confused” (1993). The comedy set on the last day of school in small-town Texas, 1976, was based on Linklater’s hometown of Huntsville. It' a consistently funny movie that manages to capture something real, almost archetypal, about the high school experience for many Americans: namely, the endless waiting or driving around looking for a party. One of many things I learned from reading this book was that the original idea for the script was set entirely in a car. The movie wasn't a big success when released, finding its momentum later from video rentals and midnight screenings at colleges. It's known for introducing future Hollywood stars such as Matthew McConaughey, Ben Affleck and Parker Posey, while establishing the Austin-based director of “Slacker” as a generational talent, one whose early thematic concerns with memory and time would continue to define his career.
- "Dazed and Confused"(1993)
The roughly 400-page book is written by a former editor at Spin and Rolling Stone who is now a supervising producer at Vice News. A quick read, it features wide-ranging Q&A interviews with the cast, filmmakers and producers. There’s so much to sift through, I’d say it’s a must own for die-hard fans, and you know who you are. When you need a break from your 100th viewing of the film, read this and you’ll learn all the background you can handle. From the movie’s inception as a kind of “American Graffiti” for the ’90s to the Austin hotel shenanigans of its young cast – who was hooking up, who was hated or adored – and more than anything, the many underlying battles between Linklater and the film’s producers. You even get to see high school class photos of the actual kids the characters were named after, the same ones who as adults would sue Linklater claiming they were inaccurately portrayed and their lives forever altered by the popular film.
The actors look back on the experience like it was a cherished summer camp, an innocent, more artistic time before the harsh realities of a show business career kicked in. For Linklater, his memories are understandably more complicated. He was being called a sellout in Austin and it was his first run-in with Hollywood money and pressure-cooker expectations. As he says, “it was a 15-round bout, but it didn’t kill me. I survived. And so did my movie.”
“Paul Thomas Anderson: Masterworks” by Adam Nayman
If you’re looking for more of a critical analysis of a filmmaker, check out this nicely put together, large coffee-table book that surveys the films of P.T. Anderson from “Hard Eight” to “Phantom Thread.” Buffering the heavy film criticism are large photos, illustrations and film posters, tangents about various influences, and a personal foreword by filmmakers Josh and Benny Safdie, who say they “owe Anderson everything” while rhapsodizing about actor Adam Sandler, who’s been used by all three filmmakers.
The author, Nayman, is a critic who teaches cinema studies at the University of Toronto and he does a pretty good job of taking a clear-eyed and thoughtful approach to Anderson’s filmography. Yes, it’s the kind of critical writing you find in highbrow film magazines – more academic – but while he clearly loves Anderson’s work, he also calls out its faults. For example, he notes that “Boogie Nights,” the 1997 film set in the San Fernando Valley porn industry that really broke Anderson’s career, “front-loads its showmanship at the risk of alienating its audience,” adding that the less subtle second half is rescued by a famous drug-dealing scene featuring Alfred Molina and some thrown firecrackers. “[The movie] muddles its own embedded critique by suggesting that the dire moral and artistic compromises of the eighties can simply be waited out, or else bought into.” Reading his takes on Anderson’s films and what drives them, you get a sense of what the Safdies call “the psychic creative god-complex conundrum that is filmmaking.”
Anderson is the son of a minor celebrity, Ernie Anderson, famous from Cleveland public television for his Ghoulardi character, a forerunner to “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” He also was an acolyte of the great ’70s filmmaker Robert Altman and worked with him before his death. The book’s large, text-filled pages offer a deep dive into what makes Anderson tick, mostly by examining his choices in features and even his music videos and shorts; their “eccentric outbursts and erratic ellipses, their wild detours and leaps of faith.” It’s not all criticism though. I liked that the book offers some occasional relief from the more technical film writing, such as a page entry about Neil Young, whose songs appeared in “Inherent Vice.” He also includes revealing Q&A interviews at the end of the book with Anderson collaborators such as Virginia production designer Jack Fisk, soundtrack artist Jonny Greenwood from Radiohead, film editor Dylan Tichenor and cinematographer Robert Elswit. I’d say there’s enough here to keep an Anderson aficionado nose-deep for … I won’t say the rest of the pandemic, but a good while.