"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."
And so for Plow's first eight minutes, Linklater is shown flipping through an Austin phone book, sitting in a chair, boiling water on a stove, doing his laundry and carrying a blank canvas into a building. Then something cinematic happens: Linklater raises a shotgun to his shoulder, points it out a window and fires. Then something very strange and un-cinematic happens: The camera doesn't show us the shooter's target or reveal what—if anything—he has hit.
Instead, the movie proceeds without comment. The next shot is of an Amtrak train. The one after that is of Linklater on that train, heading to Missoula.
Suzanne Shope was standing in the alley behind the Top Hat when she first saw Linklater, in 1985. He came around the corner carrying his Super 8 camera. Shope—then an undergraduate at the University of Montana and now an instructor at Bitterroot College—didn't recognize Linklater, but she knew the people he was with: James "Frank" Goodwin and Dan Kratochvil. Shope invited them inside, to hang out and have a drink.
"It was just like in Slacker," Shope says, referring to Linklater's second film, which follows hip young characters around Austin as they go about their desultory lives.
Shope says she spent the next two weeks, off and on, with Goodwin and Linklater and others who were involved in Plow, either actively as actors or passively as interested friends and acquaintances. They watched movies, hung out in Shope's Front Street apartment, went to bars, walked around town and played pool. Though it was casual, Shope says Linklater served as something of a "director of the situation," perpetually seeking ways to turn life into art.
- Richard Linklater, pictured above early in his filmmaking career, shot much of his first feature in Montana. Below are stills from that film, depicting Glacier National Park, downtown Missoula and the “M.”
"He was never without his camera, no matter what we did in Missoula that whole two weeks he was here," Shope says.
Nearly all of Plow's scenes include Linklater and Goodwin, the friend from the taped message and a real friend from high school in Huntsville, Texas. According to Shope, who never appears in the film but is thanked in the credits, Goodwin got the nickname "Frank" from a love of Frank Zappa that ran so deep he decided to go to school in Missoula after hearing the song "Montana" ("I might be movin' to Montana soon/ just to raise me up a crop of/ dental floss"). According to Linklater in his Plow commentary, the decision to shoot in Missoula largely had to do with Goodwin's presence and with the town's comfortable vibe.
"Missoula, Montana, was a fun little town," Linklater says in his commentary. "Bars everywhere, and people hanging out. It was a lot like Austin. It's that cool town—every liberal arts college, whether it's Athens or Boulder or like Missoula, Austin—every state has one or a few that people drift toward if you're a musician or if you're different in any way."
Plow's Missoula section begins with Linklater waking up in a sleeping bag on the floor of Goodwin's Northside house. In the next shot, they're talking.
"Anything in particular you want to do in Missoula?" Goodwin asks.
"No, not really," Linklater answers. "Whatever's going on."
As it turns out, not much is going on. Linklater and Kratochvil discuss going to the Double Front ("They've got a bar underneath. You can get food there."). Linklater and a couple friends talk on Main Street at dusk, with the Missoula Club's neon lit up in the background. They walk through the Orange Street underpass, toward the Ceretana building and up to the "M," where they collapse on the concrete letter and wonder why they bothered.
"Why do people do this? Climb up here?" Linklater asks.
"You gotta do something," Goodwin answers.
Eventually, Linklater, Goodwin and two young women take a brief, uneventful road trip to Glacier, where Linklater brushes his teeth before the glorious mountains. When they return to town, it's more of the same: watching TV, shooting hoops, eating in a diner and discussing how to pronounce a slogan on a Russian T-shirt. Later, we learn what the slogan means: "It's impossible to learn to plow by reading books."
Then Linklater films Missoula receding from the back of a bus, hitchhikes to Whitefish and continues his journey.
Linklater shot his Missoula material in two different phases, between 1985 and 1987, a time when making movies without the backing of a Hollywood studio was incredibly difficult and almost no one succeeded in doing so, especially not in Montana. During that period Joel Baird was a graduate student at UM and an employee of the Crystal Theater. He made video art and can think of a handful of others working in the medium at that time—Swain Wolfe, Gene Bernofsky—but he mostly recalls how rare it was for anyone locally to complete and screen anything due to the "extraordinary limitations" of contemporary technology.
"You would be so hard-pressed to even project some really crappy-looking video in Missoula in the '80s," says Baird, now the general manager of Missoula Community Access Television. "Nobody had that equipment."
Even so, the rare local film project was able to get off the ground—most notably, perhaps, Heartland, a Western about a woman's struggle to survive in Wyoming. Though filmed primarily in central Montana, Heartland was produced by two Missoulians, Beth Ferris and Annick Smith. According to a 1981 New York Times story, the pair "mortgaged their land, their homes and virtually everything they owned" to get the movie made. It starred Rip Torn and premiered in 1979, at the Festival of American Independent Films. It played in cities around the country.
Six years later, Linklater came and went from Missoula without anyone but his friends noticing. Even now, it's difficult to track down anyone in the area's small but increasingly prominent filmmaking scene who's seen Plow. One exception happens to be Annick Smith's son, Andrew. Along with his twin brother, Alex, who lives in Austin, Andrew Smith has gone on to become a successful filmmaker, with titles including The Slaughter Rule (2002) and Winter in the Blood (2013).
- Though Linklater is best known for understated independent movies like Slacker and Boyhood, he has occasionally broken from the mold to make mainstream comedies like School of Rock.
Andrew first heard about Plow a few years ago, while preparing to teach a course on American independent cinema at UM. His close friend and colleague Dale Sherrard tipped him off to the movie, and Smith showed the Missoula section to his class.
"To me, it's a fascinating kind of time capsule, when you look at it. You sometimes forget that Missoula was ever that sort of undiscovered and just a very working-class town. And that's the town I grew up in," Smith says. "So I love looking at it, going, 'Oh, yeah, I remember when the bus station was downtown.' You look at it as a kind of a geographical archive of a city that's mostly just in your memory. ... I have memories of [Plow] that may have melded with my own memories of being a child here."
But Smith says Plow does more than merely capture the past. He says it also offers a long look at how Linklater sought—and found—not only his persistent and ongoing interest in the "aimless and everyday" but also a way to turn that interest into the kind of narrative that can be displayed on the big screen.
"I feel like it's a film about a young filmmaker trying to figure out if he has anything to say," Smith says of Plow. "Or what he's going to say if he does."
In a brief essay on Plow, the filmmaker Monte Hellman writes of receiving a copy in the mail soon after it was completed, in 1988. On its "unlikely" title, Hellman writes, "It might as well have been called It's Impossible to Learn to Make Movies by Reading Books."
And while Plow is undeniably a kind of student film—albeit made by someone not enrolled in any school—it's also more than that. It's a beguiling and complete work of art.
"It's easy to look back on something you did so long ago and think, 'Oh, you know, I didn't really put much thought into that. I was really young,'" Linklater says in his commentary. "But I think you are kind of who you are. That's why I sort of, in a strange way, stand behind this film. ... I watched it again and thought, 'That's where I was at that time.'"
It was not, of course, where he would remain. Linklater kept moving forward. After editing Plow at Austin's cable-access station, there wasn't much to do with it. He aired it on cable-access, and he sent tapes to some people he admired. But while Plow never reached a broad audience and has since slipped into obscurity, it was key to establishing not only Linklater's cinematic vision but also his reputation as a filmmaker. Hellman, for example, wrote the young filmmaker an encouraging letter that helped Linklater raise money for his next movie, the groundbreaking Slacker. But the connection between Plow and Slacker is more than financial.
- Boyhood is nominated for six Oscars at this Sunday’s Academy Awards. Linklater, shown on the set of the movie, is personally nominated for three, including Best Director.
Released in 1991, the opening of Slacker was "sort of a continuation" of Plow, according to Linklater. Except for being shot on higher quality but still unprofessional 16mm film, its first scene follows straight from the previous movie. A completely still camera records Linklater looking out a bus window. When he disembarks in Austin, loud instructions blare over the station's PA system, just as they do so often in Plow. Then, after Linklater jumps in a waiting taxi, he starts talking to the cabbie about a dream he just had, a dream that seemed "completely real," except "there was nothing going on at all. It was like The Omega Man. There was just nobody around. I was just traveling around, staring out the windows of buses and trains and cars."
The idea of Plow as a dreamy precursor to Slacker makes sense—and is something Linklater has explicitly acknowledged. In both films, he avoids constructing a plot in favor of capturing the mundane complexity of life. The results are films that feel, at times, aimless and slow. But that, it seems, is what Linklater was after: finding ways to slow down time in order to impede the rate at which life passes, since the slower it goes the more it can be appreciated and examined. And while there are definite exceptions—School of Rock, Bad News Bears—this is what he's been working on ever since, in films like Dazed and Confused (1993), Waking Life (2001), the Before trilogy (1995, 2004, 2013) and, most famously now, Boyhood. Linklater took 12 years to capture the life of one boy, his sister and his divorced parents—using the same actors throughout the process—and condensed it into 185 minutes so that audiences can see those lives distilled and from the outside, as if from a Super 8 camera set up on a tripod.
All movies slow time, in that they literally capture a series of moments and allow us to return to it whenever we want. But Linklater's films, beginning with Plow, find ways to exploit this potential for the purposes of prolonging reality and savoring life—including the parts set in Missoula.
Wanna watch Plow? It's right here: