I’m currently working my way through a book about Richard Linklater’s films and one of the things it addresses is a certain tension in Linklater’s approach to stories, which is reflected in his film-making process also. It’s a tension between the “slacker” ethos of the unbridled artist and the commercial, work-a-day attitude of a more mainstream film-maker. Between pursuing art-for-art’s sake, and of living within the moment and expressing oneself within it, versus the attitude which tells you to stop dreaming and get to work already (and make some money and pay our bills, ya bum).
In this book, Rob Stone focuses specifically on ‘The School of Rock’ at one point, and how it’s a corporate film, made by a big studio, to appeal to a wide audience, and yet it blends in Linklater’s own subversive attitude as well.
“The slacker-rocker Dewey Finn embodies this curious paradox by exhorting his inhibited pupils to ‘Stick it to “The Man!’ – within a potential film franchise for a multimedia corporation. These crafted contradictions are even highlighted with some irony in Finn’s rallying cry to his class.”
If you wanna rock,you gotta break the rules. You gotta get mad at The Man and right now… I’m The Man. That’s right, I’m The Man. And who’s got the guts to tell me off ?
“Nevertheless, although Jack Black’s performance of Finn imitating ‘The Man’ suggests a parodic impersonation of the major studio that funds the platform that he speaks from, Linklater subverts the whole project by constructing an audience-pleasing moral victory out of getting the preteen children of Republican parents to ditch their private elementary school studies sand discover their truly creative vocations in rebelliousness and rock.
The collaborative creative process is also replicated in the way that the children are inspired to shape themselves into a rock band in montage sequences that Linklater claims are ‘great for representing collaborative efforts’.
Furthermore, Finn is on a mission: ‘Dude, I service society by rocking, OK? I’m out there on the front lines liberating people with my music!’
‘The School of Rock’ is not really about ‘goofing off’ as one child says, but a viable alternative to systematised education.”
There’s something surprisingly pro-civic in Linklater’s work. He’s not a conservative (philosophically or politically), but he isn’t some postmodern liberal either. He doesn’t want top-down structure imposed by anyone. But he does seem to believe there’s something valuable which develops from natural, anarchic order: he just thinks it’s the kind of order that comes from the creative expression achieved in group efforts. Linklater finds order and meaning in connection, in the space between free individuals.
I mean, his rehearsal process on his “improvised” films are a perfect example of this. So many of his films are “improvised” and have this stunningly naturalistic feel to them but, just like Mike Leigh, they aren’t the product of turning on the camera and seeing what happens. They’re the product of lengthy collaborative rehearsal sessions, the kind not normally seen even in structured, scripted movies. The “script” is workshopped and proved in rehearsal, and then is shot once something solid has emerged.
Something else that highlights this tension in his films is that the film subverts expectations in that it ends on a “down” note. They cut lose, they break the rules, they work damn hard to put on a good show and… they lose. They rock the crowd, they bring great joy, they even impress their parents, but they lose the competition, which was rigged against them.
But in the end, that doesn’t matter. It wasn’t about winning or getting good grades. It was about doing hard work, trying, and putting all this effort in, in a way that satisfies your own standards, and that has an impact. Not in ticking someone else’s boxes and satisfying their judgement of your worth – whether it’s the system of the school that’s judging you, or the system of the Battle of the Bands. The former is nebbish and the latter is cool, but both are forcing a set of standards down on you, neither of which is the final determinant of your worth.
But that isn’t to abandon all standards altogether either. It’s to say that outside approval by an authority isn’t the final determinant of your worth.
It’s also similar to something in Boyhood where the teacher is criticising Mason, and… not entirely unfairly, actually. The kid hasn’t done his school work, and needs to learn the discipline to do that kind of work, to work within the system. And that’s true whether it’s at school or in the restaurant he works at, where he gets a similar lecture from his boss.
But the thing he’s doing instead of schoolwork isn’t “slacking”. Like he says to his teacher, he does work really hard, taking pictures all the time and trying to improve. And that will put him in good stead in life. But both of them possess some measure of the truth in their exchange.
And so it’s an interesting tension that I adore in Linklater’s films. You see it even in his latest, ‘Everybody Wants Some!’. You have this group of college students out partying and playing hyper-aggressive, competitive games with each other… but they are also supremely dedicated to being the best baseball players they can be – and, not incidentally, their college degrees and their futures (whether they go into a sports career or a regular career) depend on their excellence at baseball.
In fact, a lot of the hijinks they get up to are part of fuelling their competitive instincts (and their in-group, team cohesion), to make them better baseball players. The both work within the system while also being a bunch of hellions.
And speaking of team sports and collaboration and the work ethic it instills, that’s something Rob Stone also brings up in this book:
“What ‘The School of Rock’ provides is a metaphorical illustration of the collaborative work ethic that originates with Linklater’s experience of team sports: ‘I was always the team-sport kind of guy: baseball, football, basketball. I think because of the team efforts I had been involved in I realised that I like being a part of a team’.”