[29 August 2011]
A few years ago, someone asked me if I had seen Richard Linklater’s 1991 indie film Slacker.
Yeah, wasn’t that in black and white?
Slacker, in full color, blurred in my memory with the black and white films of the late ‘80s, early ‘90s—Clerks, Go Fish, Under the Cherry Moon, Truth or Dare— you know, all the classics.
You would think the innovative story structure would have stayed with me.
Set in Austin, Texas, the events in Slacker take place in one day, but there is no traditional sense of plot. Character development lasts as long as a scene, then it’s on to someone else, somewhere else—a couple in a bedroom, kids kicking a vending machine for free sodas, three college boys throwing a typewriter off a bridge.
But I was 20 years old in 1991—I had started drinking at 15, and I hadn’t even started on my decade of at-least-once-a-day smoking pot. For all I knew, the ‘90s could have all been filmed in black and white. Slacker could have just as well have been Clerks.
This year is the 20th anniversary of the release of Slacker. But recently, I went to the library and found the Criterion Collection tenth anniversary edition of the film on DVD. I took it home, ready to see it for the first time. It all came back to me: the JFK Conspiracy-A-Go-Go author, the Madonna pap smear, the girl with sunglasses and a black eye. I am such a slacker that I had forgotten I had actually seen Slacker.
But I also remembered something else: I didn’t like the film in the ‘90s.
By the time I saw Slacker, I had probably heard all of the critical renown—“film of its generation”, etc. Wary of the hype, I wasn’t (and I’m still not) into being defined by anything outside of myself. Even if I didn’t know how to define myself—I would rather be someone who is always questioning, instead of someone who takes their ethos from a movie.
I didn’t realize this made me even more of a slacker.
One of the extras on the DVD is a Linklater essay, “Slacker Culture”, that defines slackers as individuals who “pay little attention to labels or categories, especially if they feel themselves being included in the evaluation… Most slackers would deny being a slacker.”
Linklater discusses several issues, including work, education, politics, and the concept of the true call: Slackers feel the urgent personal obligation to make sure what they’re doing with [their time] is worthwhile. The “true call” can appear in a sudden flash or take decades to find, but the intention is to be constantly discovering your own path, what you truly love, and how to outwit everything that stands in your way to it. Most would scoff at the notion of daydreaming as productive activity, but slackers know that this is the place where all the new situations, narratives, and acts originate.
If I had read this essay then, maybe I could have been more self-actualized or empowered in who I was trying to be. Or maybe not—I could have just been more resistant to Linklater’s ideas—slacker that I am.
All I had was the hype—the media’s idea of “Generation X” as apathetic do-nothings. My low self-esteem didn’t need that kind of encouragement, so I came to Slacker with a closed mind. Plus, I hated the experimental plot and the lack of character development. I hated not fully knowing the characters and their stories, not knowing what happened to them. Alcohol and pot affected some of my memory, yet this first assessment of Slacker could have also contributed to the blur. For 20 years, Slacker stayed unknown and unknowable to me—a whatever film, completely forgotten.
Maybe because I’m turning 40 or because I’m in recovery or because I just finished reading James Joyce’s Ulysses (the book that is read when the typewriter is thrown off the bridge, and one that Linklater cites as an influence on his film)— but after 20 years, I can finally appreciate Slacker. It’s not a “film of its generation”. Most of the characters are in their 20s, but not all of them. The hitchhiker waiting for his true call, the anarchist who says he fought in the Spanish civil war, the old man with the tape recorder—these characters show how slacker culture can’t be claimed by one generation.
Another non-generational aspect is how Slacker explores the role of government and capitalism, as well as other systems and institutions, and the ways they often take over individual identity. The older characters prove that the slacker-ethic endures. They belong to themselves—or at least they try to.
Linklater’s “Slacker Culture” builds on this idea: “... slackers are generally not in the market for what most people are selling and are more interested in preferences than they are in cash or social mobility… A slacker could be anyone, regardless of age, who is striving to attain a realm of activity that runs parallel to their desires.”
However, Slacker is a film of its time. No cell phones, no texting, no internet—actual real-time conversations with friends and strangers. Pre-September 11, a guy follows you around to talk about UFOs and you listen to him. You accept that your friend lives in a room full of televisions. You take a walk around the neighborhood with someone who was about to rob your house—you offer him coffee.
This also says a lot about Austin. On the DVD’s director commentary, Linklater talks about the institutions that influenced the city: government, university, mental hospital. This gave the city its weirdness as well as its tolerance for weirdness. When directing scenes such as the one with UFO guy, Linklater wanted his other actors to have no judgment of the off-kilter characters—they just were who they were. There was no YouTube scrutiny, no camera phones. Now that we have accustomed ourselves to being watched, we are less tolerant of differences, more suspicious. We are accountable for every action—often expected to be perfect, or at the very least, not “weird”. (Unless it makes Lady Gaga money, then you can be as weird as you want).
Yet, if you met UFO guy in 2011, he would probably be ridiculed and/or placed on medication.
We don’t fully know these characters—but that isn’t the point of Slacker. In January 2011, The Austin Chronicle interviewed Linklater on the 20th anniversary of the film, and he explains how the story structure reflected a culture of TV channel changers: “We were the first generation to begin creating our own narratives by watching five minutes of this and then one minute of that and then seven minutes of this. We were also the generation that, as a kid, got dropped off at the multitheatre, where there’s eight movies, and you’d watch little bits of all these different films… I saw Slacker as you’re either channel surfing or you’re going in and out of different movies.”
Linklater’s remote control narrative offers only a hint of the characters in one or two scenes. But how much more do we need to know? If we are given a complete film of the girl who was checked into a mental hospital by her parents, the guy who is on his way to band practice in five hours—would we know anything more about them? Slacker shows who they are at a certain point in time. For the purpose of this film, that’s all we need to know. This places into question the definition of character—how it is shaped and revealed, how we make meaning out of the elusive and incomplete. It also creates a new kind of character, the only fully developed character in the film—the city of Austin.
James Joyce’s depiction of Dublin in Ulysses is a model for Linklater. There’s the same surreal walk through a city as the narrative moves from one voice to all voices, one place to all places. Slacker also takes us through the conscious, subconscious aspects of an urban landscape—history, anthropology, sociology. Even if it’s only a supermarket or a café—the city defines itself in habitual routine, how it travels the day.
So I sing Slacker’s praises after 20 years. Not that I am completely disconnected from my initial ideas about character development and plot—there are times when the film is more art school than art. More theory and technique than waking dream.
But the idea of slacker culture drives this film as it transforms the perception of Austin. As Linklater notes on the DVD commentary, this was a Texas that had not been depicted before, one without cowboys or John Wayne. It was one that debated, deliberated, tested theories, conducted experiments, stayed at home, went to the bookstore or the movies.
If Slacker had only been a film for 20-somethings, “a film of its generation”, then its relevance would have already waned. We would be left with dated hairstyles and shoes. Instead, the film continues to find an audience. Government, capitalism, other systems and institutions—they may always try to take over identity. But the slacker-ethic endures.