’21 Years: Richard Linklater’ and ‘Altman’ Both Attempt Biography Through Filmography

By  · Published on November 6th, 2014

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“The truth will only be told over a career.” This quote by Richard Linklater opens a new documentary on the filmmaker and also could be applied to another that just hit Netflix Watch Instantly this week. The first is called 21 Years: Richard Linklater and follows a career spanning more than two decades, beginning with 1991’s Slacker and ending with Before Midnight – there’s no mention of this year’s Boyhood. The second is Altman, about Robert Altman, whose long career ended eight years ago as he was scouting for locations for his next feature, at age 81. Linklater’s statement isn’t saying a life story is told over a career (you can see the context in the Reverse Shot interview it comes from), but with both films it’s hard not to expect some sort of biographical portrait of their subjects through their work. The lives of artists, Linklater and Altman included, are always defined by the art. Their jobs are who are they, the product of these jobs all pieces of themselves.

21 Years doesn’t really seem interested in getting to know Linklater as a person, though. The doc, directed by Michael Dunaway (whose day job is film editor at Paste magazine) and Tara Wood (whose IMDb acting listings include an uncredited extra role in Linklater’s The Newton Boys), does not feature the man in any form other than quotes taken from interviews and some older footage, mostly just his appearance in Slacker and clips regarding his involvement with the Austin film community. Instead it’s like a feature-length version of the sort of tribute video you’d find at a retirement party. Stars of Linklater’s movies, including Matthew McConaughey, Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy, Billy Bob Thornton, Jack Black, Parker Posey, Nicky Katt, Keanu Reeves and Zac Efron, talk lovingly of working with the director and sometimes fondly acknowledge the projects they weren’t a part of, too.

Hawke is one of the few who stand out in the doc, as he comes across genuinely excited to be on camera discussing his collaborations and friendship going back to their first meeting after a screening of Dazed and Confused – a movie he admits to not immediately enjoying because he was too jealous, wishing he had been in it. His enthusiasm and soundbites (“He’s not pretentious; I’m pretentious”) compete only against McConaughey’s usual good-time presence (and Linklater impersonation) for the top reason 21 Years is enjoyable enough to recommend to fans. Other interviewees seem less necessary to the film outside of the fact that they have relevance. I’m pretty sure Joey Lauren Adams, for example, doesn’t even appear until a montage during the end credits. Katt acts like he’s cooperating through a hangover, and Posey and Kevin Smith seem to have been caught too on the fly.

I’ve seen this doc referred to as a glorified DVD extra, which it could be if maybe attached to a Linklater box set, one that leaves out the few films the doc mostly ignores (SubUrbia, Waking Life, Tape and Fast Food Nation). 21 Years is not at all chronological, starting with lengthy devotion to Dazed and Confused before jumping to School of Rock and the Before Surise/Sunset/Midnight trilogy and even finding some recognition of The Newton Boys and Me and Orson Welles. Even then, it is a total puff piece, unapologetically so, that isn’t as much about the making of Linklater’s movies as you’d expect. Instead, a lot of it is the actors (joined by admiring peers and followers Jason Reitman, Jay and Mark Duplass, Michael McKean and Smith) offering more critical and analytical thoughts on the movies individually and collectively, how the filmmaker displays interests in losers, Texas, music and baseball, among other things. Austin Chronicle and South by Southwest co-founder Louis Black is another major figure in the doc, and more of a trusted and substantial authority as a critical voice.

One thing that is notable about Linklater’s career through the doc, but not through anything said, is that it’s really a boys club. There could be more from women interviewees Posey, Adams, Marisa Ribisi, Miranda Cosgrove and even Delpy given how much time is given to the men, and to men in general. That’s not just about any choice made by Dunaway and Wood, as many of Linklater’s movies are primarily populated by men and boys. Another interesting thing to consider with 21 Years is Hawke’s statement, commenting on a nonfiction film Linklater did on University of Texas coach Augie Garrido (Inning by Inning: A Portrait of a Coach), that all documentaries are self-portraits. This is indeed a piece of reflection, as much a celebratory doc on what Linklater is to Dunaway and Wood as it is to the talking heads on screen, only unspoken and through editing, but I wouldn’t go that far with the idea. But I also wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s a portrait of Linklater either. It’s fitting that the last thing said in the film, by Thornton, is about how Linklater the man is just some guy, not deserving of a film about himself. His career, though, is another matter.


Altman, which is the latest original doc from Epix (who made the also exceptional Milius), and is directed by Ron Mann (Comic Book Confidential; Grass) and written by Len Blum (Stripes; Over the Hedge), does come off more biographically focused, partly because there’s much voiceover narration provided by the filmmaker’s widow, Kathryn Reed, and some more from his sons. Mostly, though, it’s Altman by Altman, with the filmmaker himself telling his own story through various interviews and speaking appearances. While 21 Years doesn’t feature its subject and is instead like an oral history told by Linklater’s collaborators, Altman only features brief appearances from Altman’s actors (including Elliott Gould, Michael Murphy, Lily Tomlin, Lyle Lovett and Robin Williams), one by one throughout the doc, answering to the task of defining “Altmanesque.” That’s it.

Altman is also chronological, aligning its focus on a filmography to a life story more than 21 Years does. And it’s fairly comprehensive, even if many of the later works are merely named and not discussed or presented in clip form (one brief comment on The Company just sounds like an incomplete thought). We get a biographical sense of the man in terms of what he did and didn’t do, seeing home movie footage of long-distance location shoots while hearing about how he always tried to film far away from the clutches of the suits in Hollywood (in his early days, probably coincidentally, it was the other way around, with him directing unfavored TV episodes and movies while execs were out of town). The focus on the works, separately and as a whole, is more often little production anecdotes from Altman himself or Reed, with the former in one scene telling a crowd that his films aren’t necessarily part of a thematic agenda other than they’re reflective of his interests. There are two occasions, though, when we get to hear Pauline Kael and Stephen Holden read their reviews of McCabe and Mrs. Miller and Gosford Park, respectively – we also see a clip of Gene Shalit ripping into Popeye — so there is some external critical address.

Both docs are fine representatives of their subject matter, with 21 Years playing to the casualness of its director’s films, a collection of people having and being a lot of fun, just hanging out and at least seeming more improvised than it probably is – there’s a section in the film about how Linklater’s works only feel loose yet mostly stick to the script, a parallel perhaps to how some of the interviewees offer rather predictable, heard-before comments. Altman is appropriately classier in its tone, the editing a little more polished, and as a whole more planned out and focused. It’s still not something that’s anymore essential than the Linklater doc, though. One is a watchable tribute, the other a genuinely enthralling and satisfying tribute, but both are still just fluff, catering to fans of the subject matter and not necessarily beyond that. Each is best suited for the current passive viewing platforms of cable and subscription-service streaming, where you toss it on without considering an effort or cost in its enjoyment.

21 Years: Richard Linklater opens theatrically this Friday and will also be available on VOD the same day. If you wait to rent or buy it to watch via Yekra between November 14 and November 30 (hosted exclusively on the Austin Film Society site), part of the money will go towards the Austin Film Society.

Altman is now available on Netflix Watch Instantly.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.