It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books (1988)

B.C. – Before Cellphones

It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books is Richard Linklater’s first feature film and while it does not have the humor or weirdness of Slacker, it does possess a few things of interest, especially to anyone thinking of venturing out and making a feature of their own.

First off, this film is noticeably dated, not by the hair and clothes of the characters, but by the complete lack of personal digital technology. In a film of existential searching, it’s both refreshing and outmoded to have the central character, played by Linklater, simply wandering about, riding trains, reading books, even watching films on television. Very similar to Jim Jarmusch’s first feature, Permanent Vacation, this film moves at a languid pace. One can almost imagine the youthful filmgoer of today finding ample time to text message his friends or check her e-mail and not feel as if they missed anything on the screen.

What you won’t find in It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books is a single character killing time through personal technology. A train ride is a chance to ruminate whilst staring out the window. A walk down a street is not a journey towards a destination, but a journey inside the mind. As Linklater, the character, travels through physical space, blowing off college and searching for himself, something, perhaps anything other than college, Linkater, the filmmaker, gives his audience ample room to do their own wandering.

This, of course, is instant death for any film trying to make a mark in the information age. Today, if a film gives an audience too much space or time, the audience will use that opportunity to turn on their ipods or make plans for after the film. Asking those raised in the era of the Internet to consider life before broadband is simply asking to much. One might as well ask them to read a book.

It is quaint, even antiquated, to now watch a film so devoid of distracting technology. Not to mention a film shot on super8. It is also greatly refreshing. As much as I feel the need to make a knee-jerk response about It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books being yet another navel gazing first feature, I can’t reduce the film to such a simple response. While the world Linklater portrays is extremely insular, it is not without its moments of depth. A Thanksgiving dinner with family, while shot from behind and away, is both more personal and authentic than a high percentage of what makes up recent mumblecore films, devoid of anyone over thirty.

I can only hope that the inclusion of It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books on the Criterion Collection DVD will serve as an antidote to those overstimulated by the latest digital fads. I hope it may inspire more young filmmakers, not bore them.

08.13.07  – Additional note

Any film that includes a clip of Carl Dreyer’s Gertrud wins an ounce of my respect.


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