I wonder how many conscious references there are to the work of Rainer Werner Fassbinder in Richard Linklater’s films. Linklater cites the German actor-playwright-filmmaker as one of his chief creative influences (which is why I couldn’t resist bringing him up when I spoke to Linklater last month with the programmers from Northwest Chicago Film Society), even though the two would seem to have little in common. Fassbinder was one of cinema’s most resolute pessimists, while Linklater’s films generally advance a life-affirming worldview. Fassbinder, as a devotee of Bertolt Brecht, often drew attention to his filmmaking, while Linklater (“the stoner Jean Renoir” of American cinema, per Newcity‘s Ray Pride) tends towards a more invisible style. Yet both are self-taught filmmakers with anarchist sympathies and a love of literature, and each has tried in his own way to live through cinema. Fassbinder made as many movies as he possibly could, regarding his personal life as something of an inconvenience. Linklater, on the other hand, divides his time between making movies and programming them with the Austin Film Society, and much of his cinematic output (Dazed and Confused, the Before trilogy, and now Boyhood) exploits the temporal aspect of film art to reflect on his own memory and mortality.
Unlike such cinephilic directors as Jean-Luc Godard and Quentin Tarantino, Linklater is rarely explicit in his references to other films. His allusions feel more like personal talismans, tucked into the work for his own satisfaction. As such, it can be hard to confirm whether certain details are meant to invoke other movies or whether the similarities are incidental. Does Ethan Hawke’s character drive a GTO in Boyhood because that’s the car Warren Oates drives in one of Linklater’s favorite films, Two-Lane Blacktop? Or is it because Hawke’s character, in his pursuit of rock ‘n’ roll cool, would be naturally attracted to that car? When the kids in Linklater’s Bad News Bears remake go through the pockets of their passed-out coach (Billy Bob Thornton), is it an homage to the final shot of Fassbinder’s Fox and His Friends, or is it simply meant to illustrate what little shits those kids can be?
I acknowledge that these questions are academic, but I enjoy asking them all the same. As a Linklater fan, I like considering where his ideas come from and how he creates continuity between his programming and filmmaking. More specifically I enjoy looking for Fassbinder allusions in Linklater films as a sort of cinephilic variation on Where’s Waldo? I think I spotted one in the junior high section of Boyhood, when a 12- or 13-year-old Mason goes for a walk with a female classmate who’s romantically interested in him. Their promenade transpires in a single extended take, as the characters follow a backwards-moving camera down an alleyway. This shot is remarkably similar to several in Fassbinder’s Katzelmacher (1969), which preserve the script’s theatrical origins by refusing to break up the characters’ shared space with cuts to other camera angles.
The promenade shots of Katzelmacher show how two people can be close to one another without making any significant human connection. And so it goes in that sequence of Boyhood. Mason and his walking partner both like reading (he’s in the middle of Breakfast of Champions, she just finished To Kill a Mockingbird for the third time) and they’re both envious of the high school kids in their small suburb for being able to drive to Austin or San Antonio for the weekend. Their similarities would seem to end here. Mason has already settled into the passive persona that will carry him through adolescence, while the girl (I don’t recall if the movie gives her a name) is a much more assertive type. In fact she seems like a mean girl in training, taking obvious pleasure in telling Mason about the suicide attempt of a former friend and boasting of how she’s going to the hospital to “check in” on the girl. Like most of the characters in Katzelmacher, she’s made a hobby out of stabbing her peers in the back. Her scene generates a surprising amount of suspense—you watch it hoping Mason doesn’t respond to her attentions, because you can tell, based on the little information Linklater provides about her, that she would end up making him miserable.
It’s a little gem of dramatic writing, illustrating in minutes who this girl is, what Mason realizes about girls through talking to her, and how both characters are shaped by the same suburban anomie. It’s nowhere near as caustic as the revelations of Katzelmacher, though. Linklater still communicates respect for the girl’s strong will and intelligence—you can see her going on to become the captain of her high school debate team or study law in university. Yet the thematic similarities, in addition to the obvious stylistic one, suggest that Fassbinder is rarely far from the Texan filmmaker’s thoughts.