‘Slacker’ Is at Once Both Boldly Forward-Looking and Old-Fashioned in Its Arthouse Experimentation

Richard Linklater’s Slacker arrives on Blu-ray in a handsome high-definition reissue of its Criterion DVD, and the handsomeness of the packaging feels at once archival-appropriate and at odds with the movie itself. Linklater’s 1991 debut (not technically his first feature, but more on that in a moment) was shot on 16mm film in a 1.33 aspect ratio; it looks cleaner in high-def, but might well look nearly as comfortable on an old VHS player. Similarly, the book that accompanies the disc is as nicely produced as any by Criterion; it also provides a wealth of print-only extras (essays, reviews, movie-inspired art) in a largely digital world.

These potentially conflicting aesthetics reflect Slacker itself, which is at once both boldly forward-looking and old-fashioned in its arthouse experimentation. The movie has no plot to speak of, floating around Austin, Texas: the camera will follow some characters until they part, then follow one of them, then turn a corner and bump into someone else (the sound mix on the new disc brings out the traffic noises and bird whistles that serve as a soundtrack of sorts).

There are over a hundred speaking parts, performed mostly by actual Austin residents. As such, the acting can be a little stilted, and the interest levels generated by the characters vary. There are tangents within tangents, like the JFK assassination buff who won’t stop talking to the girl in the bookstore who just had a fight with her boyfriend, and some of the episodes have a self-conscious artiness rooted in the way the characters sometimes disaffectedly back away from direct conflict with each other.

But these tangents and variances give Slacker an original, unpredictable rhythm. There are no famous faces to latch onto, and even the weirdest or schtickiest performances have the ring of genuine, rather than actorly, affectation. So many years on, even Linklater himself isn’t immediately recognizable, but that’s him talking about dreams and alternate realities to a cabdriver in the opening scene. That scene is echoed in Linklater’s Walking Life — which seems even more like an unofficial tenth-anniversary sequel than it did in 2001.

Indeed, watching Slacker in 2013 made me wonder if I wasn’t seeing a blueprint, intentional or not, for Linklater’s career. His filmography has branched and wandered the way the movie does, picking up tangents while still feeling like a coherent whole. The sheer volume of walking and talking in Slacker recalls the more refined, focused dialogue of the Before trilogy with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy; the large ensemble pre-visions Dazed and Confused, which itself leads to his adaptation of the play Suburbia, which then leads to the limited-location thriller Tape; the Slacker-like Waking Life branches into the similarly animated A Scanner Darkly.

Also visible, particularly when the characters talk about their obsessions, are the inklings of ’90s-era 20-something chatfests like Clerks, Kicking and Screaming, and Walking and Talking, lending credence to the idea that Linklater, along with Steven Soderbergh, jump-started the American independent movie scene. It’s appropriate, then, that the Criterion edition of Slacker overflows — with ample deleted scenes and alternate takes, multiple commentaries, and several related short films. Perhaps the most substantial of these many extras is It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books, Linklater’s first feature-length film, with its own commentary track from the director.

Plow is more interesting for Linklater’s talk than the movie itself, a largely dialogue-averse production full of extended (but, due to the Super 8 camera, jittery) shots of the protagonist (Linklater) going about his sometimes-obtuse daily life. On the commentary, Linklater talks about being “obsessed with banality” at that time in its life, and on this evidence he hadn’t quite cracked how to translate that obsession into a fully engaging film. Plow then reads as a prehistory of Linklater’s career, a search for a proper starting point. And Slacker, in its ambling and DIY way, feels even more like a beautiful, improbable starter’s pistol.

RATING 8 / 10