“It’s my duty as a human being to be pissed off.”- Jeff

For many auteurs, music is as much a distinguishing characteristic as anything in their visual palette. And while Wes Anderson is probably the director that comes to mind for most when thinking of the American New Wave of indie filmmakers that cropped up beginning in the late ’80s, Richard Linklater has always had a deep relationship with music in his films. The key difference between music with Linklater and Anderson, though, is that the former is much more subtle than the latter.

In Linklater’s breakthrough feature Slacker, music just happened to be a natural part of life in Austin. The music in that film was heard through dive bars or in coffee shops or in the headphones of passersby. Similarly, in Linklater’s first attempt at the mainstream, Dazed and Confused, music was a part of the teenage world, a vital rite of passage. Anderson by contrast rarely allows music to exist naturally in his films- with the obvious exceptions of The Life Aquatic and its musical interludes, music is very much a color to Anderson, who utilizes it as a way of painting in every corner of the world he has created.

Linklater is a director obsessed with reality, crafting slice of life portraits that are charmingly aimless. Even works of Linklater’s that are notably surreal, namely Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly, concern the division between the normal reality and the reality we all face when we sleep or, worse, lose our minds. Yet subUrbia, one of Linklater’s most real and unflinching works, is also one of the most glaring exceptions to the director’s typically subtle, organic approaches to music in his films. Strangely enough, it also marks one of the earliest credits for Randall Poster, the widely acclaimed music supervisor whose career would soon be ignited through his work with Anderson for Rushmore and all of that director’s subsequent films.

subUrbia - Richard Linklater

The almost obvious, obtrusive musical element of the film is just part of what makes subUrbia such an oddity in Linklater’s ouevre. An unfortunately oft-forgotten (and now sadly out of print and completely unavailable on DVD) entry in his prolific career, subUrbia stands out in Linklater’s credits as perhaps his darkest work. Where most of Linklater’s films concern the aimless, harmless wandering of Generation X, subUrbia is concerned with the pessimistic, self-destructive relationship Generation Y has with cynicism.

The overwhelming presence of cynicism in subUrbia may have turned off viewers of the day who had come to expect a lighter, more carefree direction from both the director and his peers. But more than a decade on, subUrbia is eerily prescient, perhaps even more effective now than then. Equally notable is the fact that the characters in subUrbia are largely stationary, rarely moving from the corner they’ve taken on as their headquarters until the film’s harrowing third act begins. Where Linklater is normally obsessed with people on the move and could even be said to be exploring the idea that to move is to live, in subUrbia the auteur explores what happens when people stay in one place.

For Jeff, the audience surrogate who acts as a sort of protagonist, this is life’s conflict: leave and potentially be swallowed up by the world or stay and never evolve. Giovanni Ribisi plays Jeff as a man constantly in turmoil, about life, about love, about his role in the universe. Though he believes it is his “duty as a human being to be pissed off,” Jeff is also all too aware of the needs and feelings of others, allowing himself to become an empathic martyr at every turn. In a film full of unlikable characters, Jeff is the nagging voice, the fitful thought that won’t go away because it just might make sense and as such he comes out as nearly the only character worth caring for.

By contrast, Nicky Katt’s Tim is an impossibly perceptive and deeply troubled foil. A former Air Force recruit with more than just a chip on his shoulder, Tim’s purpose seems to be calculated for causing as much suffering as possible in order to bring everyone around him down to the level he’s at inside. The biggest surprise of the film is that these characters have managed to be friends for years before we even witness the night that brings them down. The addition of Steve Zahn’s id-driven Buff and Arnie Carey’s Sooze is simply gasoline on the fire, Buff invincibly ignorant of everything happening around him and Sooze insufferable in her faux-intellectual antics.

The instigating action of the film of course revolves around what happens when these characters, obstinately stuck in their ways, are reunited with a former classmate who has made it- money, fame, a ride out of town. For Sooze it’s the opportunity she’s needed to become more than a sub-Kathleen Hanna riot grrrl performance artist in a go nowhere town while Jeff and Tim both treat it as a chance to exercise some class warfare.

To be sure, subUrbia is an intense film, filled with a level of aggression Linklater would never display again and fueled by brooding examinations of everything from the ennui inherent in small town life to the bitter divisions between classes, ethnicities and genders. Like Clerks with a self-loathing brain instead of a boner, subUrbia perfectly encapsulates the dark side of the slacker dream and reveals how selfish and stupid the American fascination with “throwing it all away” really is when placed within the context of actual problems.

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