"Hey, I'm back in Missoula."
The first words in Richard Linklater's first feature film are played on a cassette tape, a kind of recorded letter from a friend. Linklater, the movie's protagonist as well as its director, listens to the message in his Austin, Texas, living room. The Missoula friend talks about being in school and about not wanting to get a summer job. Eventually, the friend invites Linklater to visit.
"The only thing I feel like doing is, I don't know," the voice on the taped message says. "I was thinking if you maybe wanted to blow off school or something, you could come up here for a while and hang out. It's pretty nice up here. Good hiking weather. There's a big concrete 'M' up on the side of the mountain. Maybe we could hike up there or something."
And that's exactly what happens. Over the next 40 minutes of the movie, Linklater leaves Austin, boards a train, watches the world pass outside his window and arrives in Missoula, where he and his friend shoot pool, hike the "M," put air in a basketball at Ole's and otherwise spend their time ambling around town.
The movie is called It's Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books. Released in 1988, it's 86 minutes long and about a third of it takes place in the Garden City, plus a side trip to Glacier. It's a road movie about someone who's going nowhere, except it's written, directed, edited and shot by Linklater, who also plays the lead role. So in that sense, Plow is an autobiographical document about a college dropout who's beginning the long journey from total obscurity to the height of American filmmaking.
Earlier this year, Linklater's newest movie, Boyhood, won three Golden Globes. It's also up for six Oscars during this Sunday's Academy Awards, and Linklater has been nominated for three of them: Best Director, Best Original Screenplay and Best Picture. Critics have lauded Boyhood for its radical encapsulation of real life and the passage of time. Audiences have flocked to get lost in a film that shows, on the big screen, something at once typical and amazing: someone growing up. But while Boyhood is undoubtedly innovative, it is less an aberration and more a culmination of what Linklater has been working toward for his entire career. To see where he began and how he got where he was going, it's instructive to start with Plow. There, you will find a film committed, like Boyhood, to finding, rather than inventing, the utter remarkability of the everyday.
When Linklater came to Missoula in the mid-1980s with his Super 8 camera, he was a bookish former college baseball player who'd dropped off the team and out of school after being diagnosed with a heart infection. He'd worked on an oil rig for a couple of years, then moved to Austin to obsessively pursue his interest in film. He was in his mid-20s.
"I remember feeling like everything outside my life that wasn't cinema was kind of this void," Linklater says in a commentary track accompanying the Criterion Collection's edition of Plow. "You know, relationships, family connections, everything. It was probably that necessary period where you have to separate yourself from everything you knew before, as you sort of define yourself as an adult."
Linklater watched movies, made shorts, sat in on film classes at the University of Texas without ever enrolling and, in 1985, helped found the Austin Film Society, which started as a mechanism for screening movies with his friends and has since added a 100,000-square-foot studio to its offerings. The same year, he began filming his actual life, plus the occasional fictionalized scene, for what he believed would be his first full-length movie. It would be about some skewed version of his life. To make it, he would use material from his daily routine, as he was living it.
In part, the mundanity of the movie's subject matter was an outcome of the severe limitations of Linklater's resources and of filmmaking technology at the time. Linklater only spent $3,000 to make Plow, and he did everything himself. That meant not only operating the camera but also acting in front of it. It also meant using a cheap Super 8 camera, a medium more commonly used for home movies than for feature-length films.
These restrictions led directly to Plow's distinct style. Because he had no cameraman—much less a crew—and since he appears in nearly every scene, Linklater would set up his camera on a tripod, turn the camera on, move into what he could only hope was the right part of the frame, and perform. Every shot is perfectly static, and every scene is recorded with as much objectivity as a security camera. As a result, Plow has a strange tone that combines deep intimacy and complete detachment. It's a highly personal and seemingly autobiographical film, but it's imbued with a pervasive sense of alienation. It's also strikingly uneventful and almost devoid of dialogue.
"I think I was obsessed with banality at the time," Linklater says in his commentary. "The nature of this film was, anything—a trip to the grocery store or a trip around the country on a train or any element of my life that I was doing—I could find some angle. Something could fit into this film, just about the banality of life, whether it was food preparation or shaving. Why isn't that ever in film? ... I've always been obsessed with those kinds of details of life, because I think that's where we all reside, in just our own life maintenance."