Linklater’s Male Pleasures

Perhaps you don’t realize it, but the world of Richard Linklater fans divides into two stark categories: the Delpyites (as in Julie) and the Jensonians (after Sasha Jenson, more on him in a bit). The kind of fan you are has something to say about the kinds of pleasures you take in his films and the male bodies that appear in them. Let’s discuss.

delpyThe Delpyites cite Linklater’s Daytime trilogy, Waking Life, or Boyhood as his masterworks–each pushing the envelope of film’s form a little bit, each exploring something–an expanse of time or embodiment–at the edge of film’s managed and clipped discipline. All of these films ask what happens on the screen if we think, carefully, about the relationship between the real world and the movie world. All of them look to scalar or conceptual changes to underscore their ambition. And ambition is why they gather their adherents–these are films that Linklater has designed to be read with consideration. They are clear-sighted about the ways they trouble form. They ask questions. They want to forward answers. These are the Delpyites.

jensenThe other type of Linklater fan, the Jensonians, focus their energies on Dazed and Confused, Slacker, and now Everybody Wants Some!!. Jensonians argue for the mere pleasure of their texts, for their endorsement of an unalienated, unmediated glut of physical and emotional sensation that infuse their frames. These films are funny, and they work on representational over-drive, their soundtracks and costuming are signs of their maker’s attendance to, and care for, a specific moment in time. These are frictionless worlds, or worlds presented as frictionless for the time being. Malevolence may loom on the horizon (after the Aerosmith concert, after college’s first day of classes, when low-wage jobs become, over time, untenable), but these films dig into the moments when friction feels impossible, in the arc of the slow, gentle ride, off into the sunset. These are the Jensonians.

I felt my Jensonian self come to the fore as I watched Everybody Wants Some!!. The “plot” of this movie is simple. Some college baseball players party (hard!) before their school year begins. That’s it. The concision of the story is part of the film’s project – it gives Linklater time to roll out endless, beautifully observed filler, in much the same way that his characters pontificate, argue and theorize every little move they make. And it’s peppered with musical and visual cues that felt like they were designed to seduce me: John Stewart’s “Gold,” with its prominent Nicksian wail on the backing track; the Freshman Jake’s first, most resplendent party shirt (just like Mitch’s!), slick and spacy nylon; a vehement stand–“That’s what they want you to believe!”–on Van Halen. If Dazed and Confused spoke to me about my own moments of growing up (set in 1976, I first saw it when I was 16, in 1993), Everybody Wants Some!! reminds me that my nostalgia for Linklater’s movie was actually a nostalgia for a past I never had, but which I coveted and collected (this film is set in 1980, but I’m watching it as a 38 year old in 2016). It seems like no mistake that youth culture is in a patch of enchantment with the 90’s, since all I wanted in 1993 was to time-travel back to the Summer of ’76. You know, before I was born, when things were so much cooler. Earlier youths have appeal.

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Everybody Wants Some!! works smoothly as Dazed and Confused Redux: it features an O’Bannion (Dazed’s Ben Affleck) in the more caricatured Jay (Juston Street); it has a Wooderson (Matthew McConaughey) in the much more tenderhearted Willoughby (Wyatt Russell). And it has a Pink Floyd (Jason London), but this young football QB lion is now fused with Freshman pitcher-naif Mitch (Wiley Wiggins) into a cynosure named Jake (Blake Jenner), whose quest to meet (cute) an alluring drama major Beverly (Zoey Deutch) gives the minimal plot something resembling a direction.

There’s an ease to the typology Linklater employs in his Jensonian films, as though for all their dime-store philosophizing and antsy chatter, their insistence on individuation, these characters are all versions of creatures that every high school, and every college, perhaps every office (down the road) knows all too well. But type isn’t a problem here – it’s not a cage or a limit, it’s a source of expression. In Linklater’s Jensonian worlds, being a type doesn’t introduce worries about phoniness or authenticity. No one really cares about real expression, but instead doubles down on pleasure. In other words, none of these people are unique, individual selves, and the films revel in the bliss such an existence brings. Selflessness is not selfishness’s lack, but self’s lack, and that lack is the source, the wellspring, of happiness.

In Everybody Wants Some!!, the ball players try on identities–cowboy boots here, a rattily torn shirt there–that they shake off at the end of an evening, delighting in the one true identity they have: they are athletes. And this identity is the source of their pleasure, perhaps because its location is in embodiment. These bodies have the ease and grace of bodies accustomed to movement. Their athleticism is the source, perhaps, of the confusion we feel when watching this film. There is, sure, a cerebral thread to this film–in Finn’s speeches, Willoughby’s stoned expansiveness, and Jake’s muddled phone conversation with Beverly, but it’s diminished, put into abeyance, by the sheer power–and authority–that physical pleasure has in this film. Why would we trust this? Aren’t these the guys that menaced us in high school? That dismissed our feeble stabs at “culture,” at being different?

I couldn’t help but think of one of my favorite scenes from Dazed and Confused while I watched this new film. It’s a scene focused on the character I’ve always thought was the secret heart of Dazed and Confused—Dawson—played with likeable malice by Sasha Jenson. In it, Dawson sweeps through the school hallways like an overalled king, his bushy brows lending his face a slightly Neanderthalish look. He menaces a nerd, harasses a female student, and finally, half-heartedly and comically, comes on to a teacher. But it’s his passage through a swinging doorway that always arrests me. He slips through, after Pink, after his raised arm threatens a thin, gangly boy – frictionless, unconcerned, totally certain that the door won’t hit him and that he will have smooth passage.

In some ways, this scene struck me as Linklater’s sign to me–to those of us who were the outsiders in high school, whose lives would get better only after graduation–that the ballplayers’ power (football, baseball, whatever) would be slowly chipped away after their glory was passed. Linklater seems to remind us, here, that Dawson’s force, like Wooderson’s, or even like Willoughby’s in Everybody Wants Some!!, will find a hard, painful limit not that far after its heyday.

But there’s something else here. Something that, although malevolent, is potent, and attractive. Dawson’s menace comes from his easy swagger, and that swagger, here demonstrated as a force borne of cruelty and stupid self-regard, comes with its own bliss. This is the thing that the Jensonian Linklater movies hang on to, and can’t quite let go of: that the sharp, unwholesome power of the jocks comes from their pleasure. Not from our weakness, or sports’ power, or reactionary American culture, but from deep, physical joy—from the sweet thrum of masculinity, un-encumbered and un-thought out. That this is presented nostalgically might be troubling to some, maybe most, of Linklater’s viewers. The world Linklater represents is misogynistic, homophobic, and racist, even if he also criticizes those social and political failures. But what I’d argue is that while Linklater shows us how this male pleasure is always already troubled, he also wants us to linger on its sensuous delights–swooping through mid-air on a rope swing across a river, sliding a girl’s top off on a tweedy, dirty couch, playing a game of “knuckles” that leaves your hands raw and blistered–all of these are presented as signs of bodily life. These are bodies in heat, in promise, and fully immersed in the ductile pleasures that connect us.

Claire Jarvis: Welsh Witch