What We Learned From Richard Linklater’s ‘Jewels in the Wasteland’ 80s Film Club

By
Nick Chen

“The 80s SUCKED.” It was a decade, according to Richard Linklater, ruined by Reagan, MTV and Flashdance. But to prove it wasn’t all terrible, Linklater has been programming a film series called Jewels in the Wasteland for Austin Film Society (co-founded by Linklater in 1985).

2014 covered 1980-83, and this year he’s worked through 1983-86. Using only 35mm prints, he shows underrated films that rank among his all-time faves. He does an intro beforehand, sits with the audience, then talks for 40 minutes about what he’s just seen – often with personal anecdotes about the filmmakers, and the kind of insight no one else could give.

And for the rest of us, they’re viewable on YouTube. When Linklater rambles passionately about cinema, it’s as charming and funny as his films. Aside from being great recommendations, you learn a lot from the videos.

HE SAW DENNIS HOPPER EXPLODE HIMSELF WITH DYNAMITE

Dennis Hopper in ‘Out of the Blue’.

In 1983, Linklater watched Out of the Blue at a Houston university, knowing Hopper would appear afterwards for a Q&A. Instead, wheeled out was a monitor playing an unwatchable video of Hopper ranting about James Dean, accompanied by painful noises and avant-garde distractions. After an hour of walkouts, the crowd of 400 became 19. “I was 22 with nothing to do,” he recalls, “so I just sat there.”

It was a test. Hopper was actually in the building, whittling down an audience to hardcore survivors – he demanded they join him on a school bus to party in a mystery location. Linklater found himself dropped off at a race track in North Houston, commenting, “If I had a life at that point, I wouldn’t have been on this trip.” Spotting Wim Wenders at the side taking photos, he knew something would happen. Hopper, inspired by a trick he saw as a child, found a grassy spot and prepared what he called a “Russian Suicide Chair”. He surrounded himself with sticks of dynamite under the belief that the circle would create a protective vacuum. Somehow he survived.

SAMUELL FULLER COULDN’T BELIEVE DAZED AND CONFUSED WAS A FINISHED FILM

The racist canine in ‘White Dog’. (1982)

In 1990, Linklater saw Sam Fuller in France smoking a cigar, so went across to pay gratitude for White Dog. Years later, Fuller returned the favour by attending a festival preview of Dazed and Confused. “Your movie concerns an emotion I’m particularly interested in,” Fuller said, again with a cigar, “and that’s hate.” Obsessed with the bullies, Fuller insisted Linklater should shoot a new ending with the kids beating Ben Affleck with a giant baseball bat. Fuller was gobsmacked to learn he’d just seen the final version.

HE’S AT WAR WITH WAR MOVIES
“If you haven’t fought in a war, you shouldn’t make a film about war.” Among the exceptions are Das Boot, Born on the Fourth of July, Catch 22, MASH, Dr Strangelove (“a great Cold War movie”) and – his ultimate recommendation – A Time to Love and a Time to Die. Don’t expect a slacker/stoner WWII movie from Linklater any time soon. “We all love war movies. It’s f***ed up.”

HE’S RECREATED THE GREEN RAY THREE TIMES

Éric Rohmer’s ‘The Green Ray’.

Just before the sun sets, it creates a flicker of green light so romantic that Rohmer based a film around it. Linklater’s been able to witness three green rays in his lifetime – “I’m catching up with the old guy who’s seen five.” He advises sitting by the water, closing your eyes as the sun comes down, then making sure it stays open. “There is a method to seeing it: not blinking.”

Speculating that Rohmer “greened it in”, he recalls filming in Paris around August and empathising with Delphine’s ennui during the holiday season. But when he calls her an annoying protagonist you eventually like, it’s apparent how much influence it must have had on Before Sunrise – especially as he favourably compares the improvised nature of The Green Ray over the heavily scripted Six Moral Tales.

RIVER’S EDGE IS A DIFFERENT KIND OF TEEN MOVIE

Crispin Glover in ‘River’s Edge’.

Calling it “end of the world-y”, he names River’s Edge as one of the greatest teen movies of all time – quite a compliment from the guy behind Dazed and Confused and Boyhood. When selling coffee at a Hawaiian film festival (there’s no explanation of this), he argued with a film producer who claimed Crispin Glover’s OTT performance ruined the picture.

THE 70s ENDED WITH STAR 80 (WHICH CAME OUT IN 1983)

Bob Fosse’s ‘Star 80’.

“This is a true story that’s a feel-bad movie.” Vilified for its plot (retelling the recent murder of Bogdanovich’s girlfriend Dorothy Stratten), everyone apparently hated Star 80. Apart from Linklater, that is, who praises it as an incredible indictment of Hollywood by Hollywood. He also calls it “the last 70s film” when big budget films were allowed to fail – after Heaven’s Gate and Popeye, power was taken from the creatives and handed to the non-creatives. As he puts it, epics used to be made for adults. Now they’re for 14-year-olds.

For the opposite (true story, feel-good), Linklater screened Melvin and Howard. To prep for the intro, he spoke to the producer beforehand for some trivia: Mike Nicholls was attached to it for years, holding on for Jack Nicholson, before giving up. What?!

BLUE VELVET WAS THE MOST SUBVERSIVE SCREENING HE EVER EXPERIENCED
As a scare tactic to an audience who didn’t all grow up in the 80s, he lists the decade’s hits: Top Gun, Karate Kid 2, Crocodile Dundee. “1986 – the Reagan era had taken over.” However, despite the 19-year gap, he’s astoundingly vivid about the life-changing moment of seeing Blue Velvet in a shopping mall at noon with six strangers. Calling it violence and crime masked by 50s innocence, he deems Lynch’s film “the underbelly of that Reagan era – what’s going on underneath the surface.”

His hatred of Reagan comes up every talk. As a teen seeing Sid & Nancy, he recognised the anti-Reagan, anti-Thatcher subtext: “It was so f***ing awesome to watch.”

JIM JARMUSCH PHONES HIM UP NOW AND THEN

John Lurie and Richard Edson in ‘Stranger than Paradise’

After Stranger than Paradise (“1984 didn’t look like that”), Linklater casually drops the very cool bombshell that Jarmusch calls him before Cannes just to say, “Have fun over there!” Sometimes Jarmusch will offer advice on handling fierce French crowds who turn the premiere into a boxing match. “The Dead Man screening, Jim was sitting between Johnny Depp and Neil Young.” When the film ended, did it get a standing ovation or booed? “In that little pin drop silence, it gets filled from the balcony: ‘Jim, it’s a piece of shit.’”

More Jarmusch trivia: Screaming Jay Hawkins called him the only white guy he liked; he has “funny bones”; the reason he fell out with Weinstein over Dead Man was a refusal to cut 20 minutes; Linklater speculates that’s him making a cameo at the back of the hotdog shop.

PUNK & JAZZ FILMS AREN’T CINEMATICALLY INTERESTING
“There aren’t necessarily good cinematically punk or jazz films, but there are good films about punk and jazz.” Speaking about historically inaccurate Sid & Nancy, Linklater notes that director Alex Cox knew little about the scene and went to Oxford University – and none of that matters. “Alex Cox: filmmaker first, cultural anthropologist second. That’s why 30 years later we’re still talking about this movie.”

However, Cox found out about the event and informed Linklater, “Why are you screening my worst movie? And then two nights later screening Sergio Leone’s worst movie?”

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