First films, especially non-professional first films shot on shoestring budgets, tend to be overwhelmingly ragged, the kind of thing that ends up more footnoted than actually seen. But for those brave enough to wade into the morass of bad acting and low production values they can be viewed as informative kernels, often presenting fetal blueprints of a director’s later style.

The interesting thing about looking at these kernels is picking out the parts that later flaked off, the touches and affectations that mellowed or disappeared completely. It’s maybe a little surprising, for example, that Richard Linklater, who’s made a career out of shaping mild angst into highly digestible genre entertainments, started out with It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow By Reading Books, a walkabout ramble where little is said and even less happens.

Viewed in lieu of Slacker, perhaps equally experimental but far more polished, maybe the change isn’t too surprising. Slacker is as much dominated by talk as the earlier film is by spare dialogue and ambient noise, but both end up being nearly entirely focused on language as a result. As early works, both It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow, released in 1989, and the earlier short Woodshock (1985), an eight-minute party with fans camping outside the Austin festival of the same name, reveal something. There’s certainly less value to Woodshock, which besides giving hints of the director’s passion for music really only tells us that mid ’80s rock fans liked to drink beer and scream into cameras.

Before beginning his career, Linklater was something of a rambler himself, dropping out of Sam Houston University to work on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. Following this he put in time at the local repertory theater, saved up to buy a Super 8 and helped form the Austin Film Society, of which he’s been the president ever since.

You Impossible to Learn to Plow, to its credit, is commendable for its difficulty alone. It’s also praiseworthy for the director’s devotion to the project, devoting three years and thousands dollars to basically construct the entire 85-minute movie himself. But this sense of precociousness is weakened by a complete lack of technical creativity. There are plenty of movies where nothing happens, but this one also looks boring, its shots all uninteresting and haphazardly framed. The problem isn’t the film quality or the static camera, but the fact that every scene is shot as if the camera were randomly plunked down in front of it.

This technical immaturity is echoed in the subject matter, which follows a mumbly, Beat-inspired journey whose aim, as suggested by the title, seems to be some vague desire for real experience. In itself it’s a microcosm of Linklater’s greatest talent and greatest flaw, an innate understanding of the vagaries of youth, without the ability to necessarily separate observation from celebration. His best films are so deeply couched in the young adulthood, its inherent stupidities, realities, boredoms, that it’s hard to tell if they’re offering real commentary or presenting ideas the director has never grown out of. A movie like Before Sunrise, for example, gives little hint of whether the naïve chatter that the characters endlessly spew is a wistful look back on artlessness or something he inherently believes in. The sterling detachment of Dazed and Confused and hints at the former. Sophomoric twaddle like Waking Life does the opposite.

But this is the kind of thing a nascent work like this is good for, impelling discussion about the director’s later work. On its own It’s Impossible to Learn is externally intriguing but a little hollow, a shaded glimpse at post-teenage problems, beer and school and parents, which although not invalid feel a little thin and slightly retrograde considering the director’s age. Like its shorter older brother, Linklater’s first feature length project is useful mostly in terms of context, a hopelessly flawed film perched on a spindly foundation of good intentions.

by Jesse Cataldo
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