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

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A great zen-like road picture
rooksd1 September 2005
I enjoyed this laid-back self portrait of Richard Linklater. He shows "the artist as a young man": the viewer builds up a picture of the artist by seeing his private life which includes mundane things like cooking, doing laundry, talking on the phone. There are encounters with other people, but very little dialog. Linklater decides to travel, as he is confused about his goals. We watch him travel across the country in a train. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts however. One senses that the vision of this filmmaker includes an almost zen-like love of the moment, and of simple pleasures. One is able to sense Linklater's connection to life, to like-minded souls, to the small pleasures of life. The result is a relaxing but interesting journey into the mind and soul of a great filmmaker.
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Only for fans, but worthwhile for fans
namos33313 April 2005
It's pretty much a guarantee that only dedicated Linklater fans are going to see this, since it's only available as part of Criterion's $35 Slacker package. That being said, it's a pretty interesting picture. It is obviously inspired by Jim Jarmusch's "Stranger than Paradise," also a film about the prevalence of verbal miscommunication, and is better than that film. Linklater makes it clear that he is allowing the audiences to make their own assumptions about the story and character(s), in that he uses long takes and focuses on action that is unrelated to the "narrative" of the picture. It ultimately is a reaffirmation of the deep-seatedness of Linklater's experimental nature, and while not exactly entertaining, is a worthwhile sign of things to come.
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a Linklater travelogue where it's about alienation and meandering around; better on a second viewing
Quinoa19848 July 2007
There were moments watching this narrative experiment- the first of many for Richard Linklater- where it comes about as close to being totally mundane as can be possible with the camera. It probably wasn't a problem for him to get his shots, as it looked as if he was making his own personal 'home movie' with him either on the train or in stations or just bumming around Austin, Texas. In that sense it's almost close to being a documentary even though, according to Linklater, it's not really quite himself on screen even as it is himself. In real life he isn't this mundane and sort of drift-less, however does admit that the feelings are in him, and were in him then, and it's on a second viewing that a sort of pattern emerges from what looks like bare-bones storytelling. Unlike Jarmusch's Permanent Vacation, it doesn't necessarily try to relate some sort of 'character' in the sense that it's something created by the actor, and then surrounded in the typical indie-movie easy-going scenes. Here, Linklater is showing how such everyday things like traveling on a train, walking through a town, getting stopped by someone to see your t-shirt, watching TV, watching movies, reading, doing laundry, doing dishes, reading a Kafka quote, driving, listening to music, so on and so forth, can have some kind of interest in the initial disinterest in seeing this.

On the one hand the narrative is lax, and unlike Slacker there isn't even the framework of a bunch of characters in a small town. But on the other hand out of all of these seemingly random shots of a guy going through the motions in life, dealing without a job, the 'whatever' attitude of hanging out with friends or a girl, taking care of a car, becomes a narrative itself. It's experimental and as Linklater also has said certainly not for a large audience to see (and many haven't until the DVD of Slacker was released with this film included), but the visual language is rich in its detachment, and at the least is a curious effort that doesn't just keep the audience on a sort of line away from typical emotional involvement but is about the same thing. Far from being any great success, but for a real "student" effort (self-taught student) you could get much worse. Watch for a Sterling Hayden tribute in one scene and a sense of dissatisfaction with 80s TV.
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No plow, no book, no plot
StevePulaski29 August 2012
I have never had an experience quite like Richard Linklater's It's Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books. Intentionally alienating yet undeniably fascinating and innovative. The title was at first a mystery but after watching the film (equipped with a fantastic commentary by Linklater himself), I began to comprehend its meaning which is sort of saying, "you don't learn how to do something by reading books." The only true way to learn something as unique as filmmaking or plowing, one must put down the book and pick up a camera. Or a plow in this context.

A plow is never seen in this film. Nor is anything resembling a book. The film is a plot less excursion following an unnamed character (played by Linklater) leading a mundane, uninteresting life in Austin, Texas. He gets up, dresses himself, points a shotgun out the window and fires it a few times, wanders around town, goes on multiple train trips to travel up to Montana, and basically goes about his unconventional day.

One must see this film to truly comprehend it. Because the film has little to no dialog (and when it does, it's usually unimportant rambling), I turned on Linklater's commentary middle of the way through and listening to him speak is a very reassuring touch to a film already so unique and baffling. He provides us with not much backstory as to why the events are occurring, but dives into topics such as why he made this film in the first place and how he sympathizes with the youth of today who are trying to break free of typical life conventions.

I mentioned in my review of his official directorial debut, Slacker that by defining the word itself as, "people who are ultimately being responsible to themselves and not wasting their time in a realm of activity that has nothing to do with who they are or what they might be ultimately striving for" he is giving adolescence a tremendous amount of reassurance and confidence in their minds. He took a word, often equipped with a negative connotation and turned it into a positive definition about being true to one's self and one's personal goals.

Slacker was a picture that, the more I think about, the more I truly adore it. It is uniquely structured, stably paced, and very thoughtful and innovative. It's Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books is a different breed of plot less filmmaking. It offers no insights, no coherency, no drama, and no real message or purpose. It does however erect a soothing and primitive aspect from its Super 8, home video cinematography and its focus on the smaller aspects of life (a wobbly 7up can that makes a "cool" sound). It's fun, lightweight, sometimes frustrating, mostly unrewarding, and yet I kind of dug it.

Starring: Richard Linklater. Directed by: Richard Linklater.
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"It is dull, dreary..."
butterfinger16 October 2004
It Is Impossible to Learn to Plow By Reading Books: There is a scene in Richard Linklater's It's Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books where the protagonist meets a woman at a train station. They nervously chat for a little while and fall asleep in the lobby of the train station. Then, our protagonist wakes up and leaves a note on the stranger's luggage. This scene has more poignancy in it, and a stronger feeling of isolation in it, than all one hundred and two minutes of Lost in Translation. Learn to Plow creates an entire banal world of lobbies, passenger carts, and tiny bathrooms. It is dull, dreary, and sad.
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Drifting through life at a laid-back clip
Woodyanders22 November 2017
Warning: Spoilers
A nameless young person (played by writer/director Richard Linklater) travels about the country meeting various friends and strangers who he has pedestrian conversations with when he isn't performing such mundane tasks as doing his laundry or watching old movies on television.

Shot on grainy Super 8 film stock for a mere $3,000 dollars, with a meandering narrative that unfolds at a deliberate pace, very little dialogue, long unbroken takes, a firm grounding in a plausibly drab workaday reality, and lots of neat travelogue footage as seen through the windows of trains, cars, and buses, Linklater's debut full-length feature astutely captures the blah banality and grinding repetition of basic day-to-day human existence. Granted, not much happens story wise, but the strong sense of wanderlust and vivid depiction of commonplace Americana make this picture an oddly engaging and sometimes even affecting affair just the same.
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Great for Linklater fans and film students.
ylt_trader18 December 2005
Warning: Spoilers
Given its restraints - shot on the cheap with no crew - this is nevertheless a fascinating movie and a good film to study, although many will find it tedious and technically amateurish (particularly the sound). Stylistically it is nothing like Slacker. Every shot in Plow is static, I don't recall a single camera movement. In Slacker the camera was in constant motion. In Plow there is almost no dialog, and what little dialog there is banal and tedious. Slacker is constant conversation, each character revealed not by plot (there is no plot) but by what they say.

The film itself has a simple premise - a college student (played by Linklater) blows off school to travel, visiting friends and family along the way, first by train (to Montana), then by car through the South. We see Linklater climbing a glacier with friends, watching Thanksgiving Day football with his family, and doing other mundane things like cooking, brushing his teeth, sleeping on trains, and trying to find a good station on the radio. If this sounds boring, you probably won't like this film but you probably wouldn't like Slacker either, and you certainly wouldn't be buying the special edition of Slacker...
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A concept movie about the mundane aspects of travel
Sonnyboo15 February 2000
This is Rick Linklater's actual first movie, pre-Slacker. "It's more Slacker than Slacker was..." - from the liner notes by Richard Linklater himself. He also described it as an attempt to capture the most boring parts of travelling. Shot entirely on Super 8 film, and edited at the local cable access station on Beta, this movie does in fact achieve it's goal.

Richard stars as a no named man who goes from Austin to see his friend by train, bus, and car during summer break from school. Minimal dialogue and mostly serene vistas of America from the window of a train.
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