In honor of the November 7 release of Paste Movies Editor Michael Dunaway’s documentary 21 Years: Richard Linklater (in which Paste is the media partner), we’re going through the indie master’s entire oeuvre in order, film by amazing film.
My first viewing of Tape came late one night when I stumbled upon it whilst surfing through cable TV for something to watch. Not knowing anything about the film, what initially caught my eye was the presence of Ethan Hawke, an actor I very much liked and had just seen in the entertaining remake of Assault on Precinct 13. Why, I wondered, was such an established, well-regarded performer starring in something that looked like the kind of unsophisticated, filmed-in-a-weekend shorts I shot on my consumer grade camcorder with friends? Quickly, however, I become absorbed by the story’s twists and turns, and the rough aesthetic soon become less of a distraction and more of a fascinating augmentation. It wasn’t until the screen went black and the name of the director—Richard Linklater—appeared that something inside my brain clicked.
As a burgeoning film fan, I was both aware and held a healthy appreciation for Linklater’s work. In particular, I had idolized Dazed and Confused, as well as the first two Before… installments. It wasn’t until Tape that I became actively fascinated with him as a filmmaker. Whereas many modern directors I admired seemed to pride themselves on having memorable visual styles (Quentin Tarantino, Wes Anderson, etc.), Linklater seemed to take pride in remaining unpredictable. He was a modern day Sidney Lumet, eschewing a specific approach in favor of adapting to whatever techniques would best benefit the film’s story.
A quick online perusal of Linklater’s film history further led me to the shocking realization that he was not only responsible for the heady Waking Life but also the very endearing (and very commercial) School of Rock. Every film buff of a certain age has the moment when they realize the sheer breadth of Linklater’s work. This was mine. And Tape was the key.
More so than most filmmakers, Linklater has always been inclined towards intimate, character-centric stories. From Slacker to the aforementioned Dazed and Before Sunrise/Sunset, Linlaker seems to love nothing more than the sound of a great conversation. Tape presents an ideal set-up for such an infatuation. Like subUrbia before it, Tape is based on a play (by actor/writer Stephen Belber) involving a reunion of high school acquaintances; unlike subUrbia, with its large cast of characters and sprawling New Jersey real estate, Tape is an exercise in simplicity. Set exclusively in a dingy, nondescript motel room, the plot plays out in real time with a cast that consists of merely three characters (the third of which does not appear until well past the halfway point).
In filming this low-key story, Linklater employed an equally low-key approach. After rehearsing with the actors for a few weeks, he shot the film on a New York soundstage in six days with two consumer model Sony PAL digital cameras. During filming, cinematographer Maryse Alberti operated one camera and Linklater operated the other. While the actors would have specified blocking, Alberti and Linklater would shoot spontaneously, darting around the room to capture the action at various angles. Often, these takes would run seven to ten minutes, with Linklater cutting together the best parts.
To describe the plot of Tape is difficult, as much of the fun in this particular production concerns the various machinations of how a seemingly innocuous conversation transforms into something much more sinister. (Think of it as the dark cousin to the Before trilogy.) The film centers on an encounter in a motel room between Vince (Ethan Hawke), a highly extroverted drug dealer/volunteer firefighter, and his high school chum, Jon (Robert Sean Leonard), an aspiring filmmaker whose latest opus is set to premiere at the local film festival. As is wont to happen, the two get to reminiscing about old times. Vince brings up his old high school girlfriend, Amy Randall. Apparently, despite having dated for a long stretch, the two never ended up having sex. Subsequently, in what Vince still considers to be a personal betrayal, Jon and Amy ended up hooking up at a party some time following their break-up. After much prodding and interrogating, Vince eventually gets Jon to admit a dark secret about his liaison with Amy. To Jon’s horror, Vince captures the confession on a hidden tape recorder. To add to the drama, Vince reveals that he’s invited Amy (Uma Thurman) to the hotel room and wants Jon to repeat his confession to her face.
There’s certainly a meta aspect to the proceedings, with Hawke and Leonard reuniting on screen for the first time since the Peter Weir-directed boarding school drama Dead Poets Society. It’s all the more appropriate since, in many ways, Tape stems from a certain school-born male bravado. At first blush, Vince and Jon seem as different as night and day. Vince is all vivacious, frat boy-esque id while Jon’s more introspective (if somewhat naval-gazing) nature feels at home with the pontificating characters at the center of Linklater’s Slacker and Waking Life. Yet, as we soon discover, they are two sides of the same coin and equally intelligent in their own way. Jon merely parlayed his intellect in a more constructive way, leaving Vince bitter about his own burn out lifestyle and prone to nursing old grudges.
What’s more, over the course of the encounter, both characters show themselves to be directors in their own way. Jon, of course, is literally so, and has an annoying habit of holding up his hands in front of him, as if framing a shot. Vince, meanwhile, slowly unveils his own manipulative, Machiavellian tendencies as the conversation between the two grows more heated. The very opening of the film involves him emptying beer cans and tossing them about the room. His reasoning for doing so is not immediately apparent. Overtime, however, we realize that, between decorating the motel room with evidence of debauchery, providing Jon with pot and generally acting like an obnoxious idiot, Vince is luring his “friend” into a false sense of security in order to extract the key bit of information from him. Vince is, in a sense, “directing” this encounter as a means of revenge. Inviting Amy over to witness is the cherry on top.
Ultimately, Tape is a simple story with many layering conflicts, some obvious and some that must be extracted. It’s the story of a testosterone-fueled, schoolboy competition gone awry. It’s the story of two directors and their conflicting versions of the truth. It’s about how that debate is further complicated when a third party with a different perspective is introduced. It’s a dialogue on the nature of truth—does the truth really set you free or is it better to let sleeping dogs lie? In his DVD commentary, even Linklater professes to not having an exact answer to that question.
In a broader sense, Tape exists as an experiment—a lark born out of a desire to create. In the same commentary, Linklater explains that Tape emerged as a direct result of Waking Life. As the Rotoscoping for that project was being finessed, the filmmaker found himself in an awkward position—while the animators were doing much of the work at this point, he was involved in the process enough that he could not take on another big project. Tape was his solution—a small-scale story and set-up that could be filmed and edited quickly and efficiently. In a career spent exploring various approaches to making a film, a project like Tape was par for the course.
So, the question remains, does this particular experiment work? Given its limited scope, the method in which it was shot and its mistakable basis in theater, there’s certainly a temptation to criticize Tape for being slight and decidedly un-cinematic. Yet even the film’s detractors would be hard-pressed to deny the energy that courses through each frame of this offbeat venture. It’s the Muppets’ “Let’s put on a show!” mentality of taking the resources available, however bizarre or idiosyncratic they may be, and trying to make something special with them.
As discussed earlier, Linklater has never been one to loudly pronounce his own presence. For many, it’s one of his most appealing traits as a director. Tape may well hold a minor place in the Collected Works of Richard Linklater, but the film holds a monumental place in my own personal history with its director. With Dazed and Confused, Before Sunrise/Before Sunset, Waking Life and School of Rock, I’d indirectly come to know and appreciate Linklater through his work. With Tape, I felt as though I was truly seeing him—both as a craftsman and as an artist—for the first time.
21 Years: Richard Linklater is produced by Tara Wood, Michael Dunaway and Melanie Miller, directed by Dunaway with co-director Tara Wood, and will be released theatrically and on demand through Gravitas Ventures. You can see the trailer and pre-order the film here, and get more info (including links to preview clips) here.
Mark Rozeman is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him onTwitter.