“Sorry I’m late.” “That’s okay. Time doesn’t exist.” — sample exchange, Slacker
If there’s a single word that defines director Richard Linklater, the one that leaps immediately to my mind is “curious.” He isn’t a filmmaker with a clear, strong, imposing vision or a particular urgency to his storytelling, and his wide-ranging interests tend to obscure any easily discernable authorial stamp. A philosopher by nature, Linklater seems to approach his career as a kind of pleasant reverie, drifting through live-action and animation, playful indie experiments and Hollywood crowd-pleasers, genre pictures and Eric Rohmer-esque conversation pieces. Though his best-loved films are known for their endless talk, Linklater seems like a good listener, an oral historian who’s keeping an ongoing record of thoughts and ideas, and does the minimum structurally to give them shape. And he’s especially attracted to characters, real or fictional, who have the world—or some piece of the world—figured out and are at peace with their place in it. (His recent documentary Inning By Inning, which profiled the University Of Texas baseball coach, managed to turn standard ESPN fodder into something closer to an extended segment from Waking Life 2.)
The release of Linklater’s Slacker in 1991 was one of those watershed moments in the current era of independent films. It confirmed, post-sex, lies, and videotape, that an audience existed for low-budget American fare. It announced a major new director. And perhaps most of all, it changed people’s conception of what a movie could be. Though it seems odd to think of a film this modest and minimally conceived as radical, Slacker brazenly defied the narrative expectations that audiences weaned on Hollywood movies bring with them into the theater. With $25,000 and a 16mm camera, Linklater had the freedom to make a film that wasn’t a vehicle traveling from one plot point to the next, but rather a loose repository of ideas—some profound, others crackpot—that flow without linking like a daisy chain. There are larger themes at play overall, but Linklater doesn’t get to them by ordinary means.
The other reason Slacker looms large: It’s probably the definitive Generation X film (sorry, Reality Bites)—or at least it was at the time, when a wave of college-educated twentysomethings were characterized more by what they didn’t believe in than what they did. It isn’t enough to think of Gen-Xers as merely jaded and sarcastic; indeed, there’s little of that attitude on display in Linklater’s film. But there is a sense of profound disconnection, a refusal by young people to participate in a system that will bring them no joy and wither their souls. As one character puts it, “Every single commodity you produce is a piece of your own death.” Though the word “slacker” is synonymous with “lazy,” Linklater champions more principled layabouts; it isn’t just that they don’t want to work—though carving out ample time for “hanging out” is certainly a part of it—but they’re actively rejecting what’s expected of them. In the $5,000 grant application reprinted in the Criterion edition of Slacker, Linklater describes his film as being “primarily about people on the fringes of any meaningful participation in society,” but these aren’t little Travis Bickles waiting to lash out. Instead, they’ve turned inward, burrowing into private obsessions and theories, or perhaps just taking their time to figure out who they are and what they want to do with their lives.
With credit due to Max Ophüls’ La Ronde and Luis Buñuel’s The Phantom Of Liberty, Slacker moves fluidly from one character and anecdote to the next, with the camera acting as an eavesdropper drifting to whatever conversation happens to command its attention. None of the characters have names—in the credits, they’re given titles like “Hit-And-Run Son” and “Traumatized Yacht Owner”—and there’s no story for them to move forward. Linklater himself kicks things off as “Should Have Stayed At Bus Station,” sounding off to a stone-faced cabbie about his dreams (of lunch with Tolstoy, of being a roadie for Frank Zappa, and of just reading a book) and his whimsical thought about choices not made spinning off into their own alternate reality. Given that he’s making a movie without a story, Linklater’s rant could be read as a funny bit of meta-commentary on the possibilities of storytelling, or at least a spare thought toward the road not traveled, which is forever more enticing than the one we choose to take.
An important thing to understand about Slacker and its companion piece, Waking Life: Not all of these monologues are mind-blowing, nor are they necessarily intended to be. Though I think “Should Have Stayed At Bus Station” is a fascinating guy—and a pretty good guide to the discursive style of the movie he’s in—Linklater is keenly aware that others might receive him much like the cabbie, who makes for an apathetic sounding board at best. Slacker paints an overall picture of a town and a specific breed of humanity that’s cumulatively rich, but when broken down to its particulars, it’s accomplished through an assortment of dime-store philosophers, conspiracy theorists, coffeehouse radicals, and surly drifters. They aren’t all dispensing nuggets of wisdom, and the fun of Slacker comes from characters who obviously spend inordinate amounts of time working over some half-baked ideas. Take this enterprising young woman, who gives the best possible sales pitch for the immensely unappealing prospect of owning the essence of Madonna:
The “Pap Smear Pusher” scene is by far the film’s most famous—it’s on the posters, in the trailer, and in virtually every review—and frankly, Slacker could have used a few more like it. Returning to Slacker for the first time in years for this column, I realized that the idea of the film is more compelling than the experience of watching it. Between memorable bits with local crazies like a JFK obsessive, or a paranoiac who believes we’ve been on the moon since the ’50s, there are times when viewers may feel like the buttonholed cabbie in the opening scene. Because it has no narrative architecture, Slacker constantly starts, stops, and restarts again with each new character, and though Linklater’s wandering camera makes the transitions smooth, the film by its very nature is robbed of momentum. Even John Pierson, the independent-film guru who helped Slacker find its way, confesses to developing a theory that “nodding off during [the film] wasn’t necessarily terrible.” (That theory is bolstered by Waking Life, a movie that practically begs to be watched in a state of hypnotic half-consciousness.)
Though I think Linklater intends the title to be self-deprecating—and even ironic—the word “slacker” inevitably fueled criticisms of the film. In short: Why should we care about a bunch of broke townies who can barely scrape together the money to keep their landlords at bay, and do little but suck up oxygen to pontificate on frequently half-baked theories? Linklater would undoubtedly view his creations more generously—in fact, has there ever been a villain in a Richard Linklater film?—but I don’t think the question is that legitimate anyway. After all, these are characters who have pointedly removed themselves from the rat race, so tarring them as lazy or unproductive misses the point. Reading from an “Oblique Strategies” card, one in a set published by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt, a woman lays the thesis right out there: “Withdrawing in disgust is not the same thing as apathy.”
In spite of what the card says, Slacker isn’t an angry film, it’s an eccentric, sweet-natured one. Linklater captures not only the general ennui of his generation, but the laid-back rhythms of a Southern college town where rent is cheap and you can survive indefinitely on a diet of Ramen noodles and schwag weed. He also, in the film’s final moments, foresees the democratization of the medium itself, when a bunch of kids with scant resources can just pick up a camera and fuck around without needing to ask for consent. Those are more or less the circumstances that brought Slacker into existence, and there’s real freedom and joy in that, the kind that its characters might have imagined for themselves had they just stayed at the bus station, instead of taking that cab into town.
Next two weeks: Toronto Film Festival (no column)
September 24: Napoleon Dynamite
October 1: Nicolas Winding Refn’s Pusher trilogy
October 8: Head-On