For the past five weeks, an Austin moontower has stood at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, France, but visitors can be forgiven if they don’t notice it right away. Looking more like a miniature Eiffel Tower than a strange Texas import, the metal structure blends in with the Pompidou’s steel-and-glass Erector Set interior. Designed by architects Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers, the Pompidou was instantly recognized as a masterpiece when it opened in 1977, from the facade’s brightly colored tubes and exterior escalators to its collection of modern and contemporary art, the largest in Europe.
Since November 25, that collection has included a retrospective of the work of Austin filmmaker Richard Linklater, who, after 35 years of moviemaking, has yet to be recognized as much as he should. The French have helped correct this oversight. Titled “Le cinéma, matière-temps” (“Filming Time as Material”), the exhibit explores how Linklater has played with time since he first began making movies in the mid-eighties. The thirty-foot-tall moontower, with its shining globes, is intended to help direct people to the exhibit’s out-of-the-way location on the museum’s “-1 Level,” one floor below the main entrance. A few feet from the moontower’s top hangs a large exhibit banner bearing a 1990 portrait of Linklater in full-on Slacker mode. He’s sporting chin-length hair and the expression of someone who doesn’t want to be photographed.
Like the majority of Linklater’s work, the exhibit feels made for those who stumble onto it by chance. You can spend a lot of time watching film clips, reading his heartfelt letters to his casts, and studying on-set photos. In the first room, scenes from 1993’s Dazed and Confused play on a large screen. Set over the course of one day in 1976, the film is a captivating early example of how Linklater works with time. “Richard convinces us in a 24-hour narrative of the whole feeling of an era, the zeitgeist,” the Pompidou’s Judith Revault d’Allonnes tells me as “Right Place Wrong Time” by Dr. John blares during Dazed’s “Party at the Moontower!” scene. “He has been working this way from the start, from the beginning,” she says, pointing to a wall on the other side of the room featuring black and white photos of Linklater and his crew on the set of the 1990 cult classic Slacker, which is set in an Austin that hasn’t existed for years, a place of abandoned warehouses downtown and a handful of tall buildings, nary a scooter or Jenga skyscraper in sight.
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Other Dazed and Slacker mementoes on hand include a 1976 school photo of Linklater (big collar, bangs, and all) and a rousing manifesto Linklater wrote for his cast and crew that’s full of heart and poetry and reflects his state of mind in the early nineties (“To be exhausted, disgusted, underbudgeted, and powerless in the face of obstacles will be part of our working method”). There’s also a statement documenting Slacker’s budget and unpaid bills (“a kind of collage of his debts,” says Revault d’Allones in the most charming way imaginable).
Revault d’Allonnes, the museum’s film programmer and curator of the Linklater exhibit, visited Austin last March for a few days to meet with Linklater and begin pulling the retrospective together. On the first day, they watched Jean-Luc Godard’s The Image Book at AFS Cinema, the theater run by Linklater’s Austin Film Society (which itself gets its own room in this exhibit). “It was a good way to know each other,” she says. As they talked, “what very quickly emerged was the fact that we had to show something around the way he works with time,” she recalls. “He’s so specific and strong in his work that we really wanted the exhibition to reflect that part of his concern and of his art.” She also wanted to reflect his more serious and political side to French visitors who might not be as familiar with it; thus, there is a room dedicated to 2006’s Fast Food Nation, his take on Eric Schlosser’s 2001 nonfiction best-seller, among other works.
But, as fans might expect, the true centerpiece of the exhibit are the rooms dedicated to his time tours de force: 2014’s Boyhood, and the trilogy of Before Sunrise (1995), Before Sunset (2005), and Before Midnight (2013). For Boyhood, which was shot periodically over twelve years, the exhibit includes a stunning display of portraits of the four main actors taken by Matt Lankes during each year of filming. It’s a smart way to quickly get across the essence of the movie, communicating the passage of time through the changing faces of both the children (Ellar Coltrane and Lorelei Linklater, his daughter) as well as Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke. In the Before room, three screens, each equipped with two headphones and a bench, display scenes from each film in the trilogy side-by-side-by-side. There’s also footage of Hawke and costar Julie Delpy’s first joint callback audition, which the museum acquired from the movie’s casting director; Linklater’s copy, along with much of his archive, was lost when a 2011 wildfire destroyed his Bastrop home, a fact that makes this retrospective more poignant.
You can’t explore time without looking to the future. One of the most intriguing parts of the exhibit is a sneak peek at his next projects: an adaptation of the musical Merrily We Roll Along, starring Ben Platt, Blake Jenner, and Beanie Feldstein, which Linklater plans to film over a mind-boggling twenty-year period. The other is a long-rumored project based on his Houston childhood in the sixties. The first page of a script for Apollo 10 ½: A Space Age Adventure Film sits in a glass case next to NASA and Astrodome memorabilia from that time. “It’s fiction, but Rick collected a lot of material from Houston residents, like photos and Super 8 films” to use in the production, Revault d’Allonnes notes.
The Pompidou exhibits the work of two to three filmmakers a year (the last American director selected was Harmony Korine), and each director is asked to make a short film specifically for the museum to answer one question: where do you stand today? Linklater’s twenty-minute answer is Une journée au bureau (Another Day at the Office), a hilarious film that shows him taking a conference call with young Hollywood types while feeding animals on his Bastrop farm and then meeting with a therapist played by Angela Rawna (Friday Night Lights and Boyhood), who discusses the results of a psychological exam. It plays on an endless loop in the final room, which is a good thing because there is a lot to unpack in it.
Then, of course, there are the movies themselves. From the exhibit’s opening night through closing day on January 6, the Pompidou is screening all of his films—including the Hollywood hits like School of Rock—in its cinema, and some of them were already sold out two days after the show opened. Linklater selected two “1980s Texas Cowboy Movies” to show as well: 1984’s Last Night at the Alamo and 1983’s Tender Mercies.
Seeing Linklater’s work in this context—and so far from home—is revelatory. It gives you time to appreciate a body of work that can be easily taken for granted (not to mention, ponder that more time has passed since the making of Dazed than elapsed between when it was made and the year it was set). Revault d’Allonnes is almost breathless as she describes why Linklater’s work is important. “What I found really dizzying is the fact that when you look at the structure of the films really closely, I mean it’s really complicated. It’s not at all simple construction,” she says. It feels appropriate, then, that this work be shown just a few floors below where visitors from all over the world stare at abstract art and say, in a variety of languages, “Oh, I could do that.” For those lucky enough to see Linklater’s work in Paris, you can follow up your visit by dipping a madeleine into a cup of tea (or, in Austin, maybe swallow a bite of Texas Chili Parlor chili with a Mad Dog margarita) and ruminate on how time is a wonderful, funny thing.