Thursday, 23 June 2016

Going Nowhere Slowly

“Everybody Wants Some!!”




The magnificent Oscar Wilde remarked that “the condition of perfection is idleness: the aim of perfection is youth.” I suspect it may be a little dangerous to kick off with Wilde after ending my last post the same way, but, as that great tutor and hero of mine also teaches, nothing that is not dangerous is worthy of our time. If the director Richard Linklater is adept in the trade of anything at all, it is idleness, and if the direction of his limpid though wistful gaze were to be measured, its targets can be none other than youth and verve. Don’t mistake me for judging Linklater’s films to be perfection – his fellow Texans Terrence Malick and Wes Anderson show that there is room yet for expansion in Linklater’s accomplishments – but I put it that Linklater has shown himself to be a great and valuable artist of our time. My assertion is unequivocal, and any possible equivocation would be brought on only by the presence of Linklater’s work itself: Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight make up an exasperating triptych of tedious moralising and rationalising, and Boyhood lingers in my mind in a haze of fusty sentimentality; but the vigourous pleasures of School of Rock, the shocking force of affection for both his subjects and his art that breezes through the director’s masterpiece Bernie, and now the quintessence of youth examined in the midst of a most dynamic idleness – Linklater’s new film, Everybody Wants Some!! – are enough to persuade me of his inordinate value as a modern film-maker and visionary artist.

The disparities in artistic value between these two groups of Linklater’s work – with his more overtly naturalist and apparently personal films on one side of the divide and his more synthetic and imaginary films (the real life roots of Bernie notwithstanding) on the other – is due, I feel, to an inconsistent approach to the artifice of cinema when confronting different types of content. When portraying a story of a seemingly more personal origin, Linklater aims for a naturalistic mode of representation, hoping to convey it with the perception that his portrayal matches up to how the events and conversations may well look and feel in reality. But his naturalism virtually reeks of the long calculation and meticulous rehearsal that went into it, leaving me with the sense of simulated and false emotions and experiences, rather than verifiable and credibly authentic ones.

It is my firm belief that art cannot adequately depict the external world and all its realities as they actually are, but only our interior world – our minds, souls, ideas, experiences, or whatever else one considers one’s inner self – which is the only world of which we really have any real appreciation. Linklater, like a myriad of other film-makers, is at his best when he invents and portrays through synthetic scenarios, characters, settings, and depictions to give material reality to subjective experience. I also believe that it’s no surprise one finds different sets of actors in the two groups of his oeuvre: Ethan Hawke, who stars in the Before series as well as Boyhood, is a talented, credible performer, permanently surrounded by a pensive air, which unfortunately gives rise too easily to introspection at the cost of fascination. Jack Black, on the other hand, the star of Bernie and School of Rock, is a charismatic presence, with a definite limit to his sincerity. He fulfills the mandate of the movie star, which is specifically to not fit into the standards of credibility and naturalism, and is loved precisely because his allure bursts through the boundaries of his characters. One mode has the effect of inhibiting Linklater’s artistry, the other of unleashing it. It’s his own equivocal fortune that his vast skills and noble intentions are consistently in evidence.

Everybody Wants Some!! has the particular distinction of appearing to belong to the first group, but really falling squarely and refreshingly in the second. Richard Linklater was on a college baseball team in Texas in 1980, which is exactly where we find his characters in the film, and I primed myself for a venture of typical dull and unearned sentiment. But even if I had been preparing myself the other way, I can’t have been ready for the brazen freedoms and surprises of the film, formed in plain affection and delivered with pellucid scrutiny. Linklater brings the same sharp perception of the story and its implications to this film that we observed in his interviews of the real life townspeople of Carthage regarding the crimes and charities of Bernie Tiede.

The plot is told from the point of view of the character Jake (Blake Jenner, of Glee fame), fresh out of high school on the campus of the film’s unnamed college, selected as a pitcher for the college baseball team. Jake was the best baseball player at his high school, but, as he realises upon his arrival in one of the two houses used by the baseball team to house its members, everyone there was the best in his high school and the difficulty of college endeavours is to distinguishing yourself among distinguished associates. He’s briskly introduced to the other teammates, whose first words to him constitute an angry instruction to turn off the hose filling up the waterbed upstairs. The floor beneath the bed sags suddenly, and the ceiling below it, above the kitchen, begins to crack, and Jake is awakened to the fizzing possibilities for experiences and excitement.

The boys – or young men, if you prefer – living and playing together with Jake include his roommate, the country hick Billy (Will Brittain); McReynolds (Tyler Hoechlin), sporting a luscious black moustache and a strong disdain for pitchers; Dale (J. Quinton Johnson), the only black member on the team, with a verve that rivals that of a lusty cheetah; Plummer (Temple Baker), whose mental agility is exactly inversely proportionate to his athletic prowess; Willougby (Wyatt Russell), the indefatigable champion of the bong; and Finnegan (Glenn Powell), the de facto leader and intellectual authority on the team. Finn whirls around the other characters with his highly inflected, elaborate speeches, proving himself the master of what Jake calls “fuck-withery,” and heightening the dramatic element of any interaction or occasion. The primary subject of his grand rhetoric in the film is sex, though he is by no means alone in this obsession. The title of the film may be taken from a Van Halen track, but its real reference is to the easy and frivolous nature of sexual conquests made by the baseball players at parties and clubs.

The men who live with Jake are furiously competitive, placing bets and competing with one another at every moment available for such enterprises. They duel at bong hits, basketball, ping pong, foosball, and knuckle flicking, and take bets on everything from McReynolds’s batting accuracy (tested thrillingly in the driveway with an axe) to whether Billy’s girlfriend could be pregnant. The constant competition, however, is just as much a mark of a culture as it is of sportsmanship in the players. Agon is at the very centre of Ancient Greek culture and endeavour, and anchors all western artistic achievement from then onwards. With their jokes, their insults, their pranks, and their experiments, the players display not only their fervently competitive natures but also their frenzied imagination, their sharp wit and invention in performing for as well as contending with one another.

And contend with one another they must. From the first practice of the year, held before classes start, the emphasis is placed on the tussle to make it into professional baseball. Their awareness that they may have to give up their passion at a moment’s notice and their sense of playing against the clock bring a mood of existential dismay to the story, which is one of Linklater’s chief methods of avoiding his usual sentimentality. And an avoidance is drastically required when the material is as period-bound and era-specific as this; Linklater has rendered a college campus in the 80s with astounding attention to detail and a sharp sense of what it is that’s been lost – as well as what we’re glad to be rid of. This richly decorated setting is no mere quirk or technical accomplishment, but the outward expression of that very inner world I’ve mentioned – the physical manifestation of a period mood and mentality.

The dramatic arc of the film follows Jake from “wanting some” to finally arriving at something like love. He contacts a girl who flirted with him in a bid to annoy his teammates who were hitting on her (played by Zoey Deutch), whose name, he later learns, is Beverly. In a touchingly romantic overture, they meet up and chat, then attend a party together, which turns into the whole night and the morning afterwards, ending when they separate to each attend their first class. For the rest of the players, women and romance are frighteningly uncharted territory, and they each get by with as much sex as they can and as little emotional involvement. But Jake and Beverly forge a tender relationship founded as much on friendship and the meeting of minds as physical attraction and emotional ardour. Jake separates from his teammates to spend time with her and, in the process, begins the passage of distinguishing himself and opening himself up to radically new experiences. Everybody Wants Some!! is indeed about a happy time and paints it with the strong sense of having much to regret, but manages, through its wild comic zeal and thoughtful bitterness, to handle its romanticism with commensurate grace and without a hint of weak-armed wistfulness. Lost youth can be regained, Linklater shows us, with a strong will and determined energy, and the courage to be idle and attentive in the face of dread.

Image: www.indiewire.com

1 comment:

  1. I found the film to be pretty average and forgettable. The plot seemed basic and almost pointless. I did, however, think the setting was done really well.

    This review is brilliant, though! I especially like how you spoke of naturalism and also enjoyed how you mentioned him distinguishing himself and opening up to experiences at the end. I also like how you've split the Linklater films into two groups.

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