It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books (1988)

Directed by Richard Linklater

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In his first film, Richard Linklater plays an aimless young man who wanders the western half of the country with no specific destination.  He begins in Austin, then spends time in Montana and California and plenty of time on trains in between.  His journey, in its own way, is like that of Woody Guthrie as presented in Hal Ashby’s Bound for Glory (1976).

The seeds of many of Linklater’s later films are contained within this sparse, quiet movie.  His character might as well be the same one who introduces us into Slacker, and in one brief scene, at the San Francisco airport, he crosses paths with a young woman who might as well be the Celine to his Jesse.  This film here is the other side, both sides, of Before Sunrise, the lead up to that unexpected encounter and the road back home.

It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books feels like Linklater in his rawest form.  It’s a character passing through and really just existing.  It’s observational and meditative like so many of the moments in Boyhood, finding significance in the moment simply by observing it.

Part of the beauty, it seems to me, is that the character he’s playing does not recognize the meditative quality of his own existence.  He doesn’t just bum around because he’s tuned into a spiritual awareness of the universe but simply because he doesn’t want to go back to school.  He complains about the things you or I might (work, school, money) and then rides up to Missoula when his friend says they could hangout.

He sleeps on trains, looks at mountains, brushes his teeth, etc.  It’s all the mundane things we have in our own lives, and just as much time and attention is given to those mundane moments as is given to what could be the more spectacular ones.

These are all the moments, to some extent, that go commented upon in his Before trilogy. Those are very dialogue heavy films in which the characters reflect on their own lives and, eventually, their lives together.  It’s as though they’re standing outside of life and looking back in, like aliens back from their summer abroad, returning to a distant planet and describing all the things people do, say and take for granted.  In the Before trilogy Jesse and Celine reflect, because they’re capable of doing so, but this time around it’s the framing of the character that does the reflection, a silent observation in which we are the scientists and the unnamed character the subject.

I love this movie.  It’s not funny or dramatic but just kind of calming.  I enjoy thinking about Richard Linklater’s films, I like how they make me feel.  Some movies are your favorites because they make you think of yourself.  Mike Mills’ Beginners has that effect on me.  Other movies, however, stick with you because of how they make you feel about the world and life as a whole.  Not to speak in frivolous terms or with a self-important quality, but I like movies that reflect me back onto myself, and I love movies that make me forget about myself.  This is the latter.

The character here is the blankest of slates, something I bring up often in the films which turn out to be my favorite.  He is only defined enough to feel like someone your or I might know.  Then he drifts through the world and through time like a ghost.  He observes his surroundings with a quiet curiosity, as many of us might should we too find ourselves visiting a new town.

But at the same time he maintains that curiosity even in his own bedroom.  He pays attention to his environment because someday it’ll be gone, he’ll be gone, whether or not he understands that.  To be a visitor in a new city, it seems to me, is a microcosm for life.  All we have is our experience, then we depart.  We’re all just passing through, whether cities, motels, airports, other people’s lives or the world as a whole.  To observe something, unless you’re a special type of greedy, is not to possess or control it.  It’s some other kind of relationship, something something about the universe reflecting on itself.

Man I really like this movie.  I also like that when the character returns to Austin from his trip there is no sense of catharsis.  He just keeps on living, and for a time the movie just keeps on rolling.  He hasn’t clearly learned something about himself or his place in the world.  Instead he goes to dogsit for his parents, his car breaks down, he lies in bed, and eventually the movie fades to black.  He might’ve changed to some degree, but like with life, the new and wondrous moments give away to less exciting ones, and we keep on going.

So this is a film about life, a spiritual guidebook in some respects to what we can expect from life.  Or maybe that’s just my reading of it.  It’s arthouse to be sure, and it’s quite impressive for a debut Super 8 film, particularly as Linklater himself acted in, directed and handled the camera for much of (if not all) of the film.

Up Next: Diane (2018), M (1931), Dragged Across Concrete (2018)

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