starring Richard Linklater, Rudy Basquez, Jean Caffeine, and a whole bunch of people
written and directed by Richard Linklater
by Jefferson Robbins Before it became a lazily-applied shorthand for my generation in particular, Slacker was a film about doom. It's pervasive throughout this seemingly casual, meticulously-constructed, 24-hour baton-pass through bohemian Austin, Texas, in which characters confront intimations of death, their own or that of the species in general, and respond with rhetoric, bemusement, a fatalistic shrug, or a joyride. Writer-director Richard Linklater awakens from vivid dreams on a bus in the opening scene, then unspools his vision to a Buddha-silent cabdriver (Rudy Basquez). His most memorable dreams, he reports, often feature sudden death: "There's always someone gettin' run over or something really weird." Fair enough to wonder if we're not dreaming along with him, in some dress rehearsal for Waking Life, when he quickly happens upon a mother (Jean Caffeine) sprawled in a residential Austin boulevard, freshly driven over by her disturbed son (Mark James).
As a societal overview, it's true, Slacker represents just a slice of the pie. One of only two speaking people of colour is a street-corner revolutionary (Mark Harris) whose radical strategy is to sell T-shirts, and whose calls to arms raise no consciousness. The white, overeducated young Americans he preaches to have few material needs but many spiritual complaints. All these people appear to have little in common, though their shared realm is a post-Reagan, post-collegiate migraine I remember well--the stunned recessionary silence of the Bush I years. There was also, as the first Gulf War was manufactured, a sense of the weight of American history bearing down, perhaps felt nowhere more keenly than in the state where JFK was murdered and George W. Bush would soon rise to power. The only sensible response, in a continuing decade of anti-intellectualism and the dismantling of the Great Society, seemed to be cynicism and snark. ("Withdrawing in disgust is not the same thing as apathy.") I mean, believe it or not, we thought the first President Bush was oppressive and corrupt. We thought we were media-saturated then. No way could we see what was coming.
This has proved to be what Linklater is best at. He makes ensemble pieces that represent a feeling of time and place, a universality of experience condensed into a "day" or a "night." It's a method he struck upon early and one that persists in his finest work (Dazed and Confused, the "Before" trilogy). His ventures into rotoscope mindfuckery--Waking Life, A Scanner Darkly--succeed on their own terms, but what is Waking Life except Slacker with cartoon physics and a more mature philosophical underpinning? The slackers of Slacker have their philosophies, of course, but these are more bent towards avoidance or denial of their era's dread. They hide behind misapplied readings of Dostoyevsky or Joyce, mostly to disguise or disengage--like the caustic guy (Robert Pierson) opposed to handouts for the down-on-their-luck, whose friend (girlfriend?) (Sarah Harmon) pins him for building his worldview out of "things from the shit that you read." At a certain age, all you are is a cut-and-paste job. Slacker knows this, and hopes to transcend it.
The collision and drift of the movie's substories and characters is something of a marvel. Subtle motifs--absence and disappearance, dream artifacts, recorded media shot into the future for some later audience--echo and reflect. The Old Anarchist's revered mass murderer Charles Whitman takes post-modern form in the Disgruntled Grad Student (Scott Rhodes), trapped in amber on one of the Video Backpacker's bootleg tapes. The Pap Smear Pusher is the first, but by no means last, to quote or mimic a cartoon character: Lori Capp's Traumatized Yacht Owner has Bugs Bunny; R. Malice and Mark Quirk indelibly vivisect the Smurfs and Scooby-Doo. A loquacious UFO believer (Jerry Delony) warns of strange disappearances, while a vanished roommate leaves behind a stack of storytelling postcards--one of them reproducing Goya's El sueño de la razón produce monstruyos, the world's great etching on the subject of nightmare. The mother-killer leaves an 8mm loop of his childhood running and a cassette microphone recording his own arrest, a disjointed Zapruder reel for some inevitable heir to the Kennedy-obsessed "Conspiracy A-Go-Go" Author (John Slate).
It's like a forebear of narrative hypertext, the kind David Foster Wallace later achieved in the footnoted structure of Infinite Jest. It all hangs together so well, its many, many protagonists and meta-references glance off each other so beautifully, that the very few stutters stand out. The 1.33:1 frame is a limitation Linklater adapts to well, but scenes with more than two participants force some panning and reverse shots I'm sure he'd prefer to have avoided. When a group agrees to walk out for a drink, then materializes in the bar through a dissolve, the artifice is jarring. A PixelVision interlude likewise muddies the flow from one character to another and feels deeply inorganic, largely because the dialogue is studio-dubbed. These flaws occur late in the film, however, and by then our involvement is complete.
In the end, the whole construct goes out on ascending tiers of critique-by-media. "The necessary beauty in life is in giving yourself to it completely," an elderly pedestrian (Joseph Jones) soliloquizes into a taperecorder, only to be drowned out by a post-modern Paul Revere (Kendal Smith) bellowing from a car-mounted loudspeaker about the by-products of "a free fuckin' weapons giveaway program." ''Shoot 'em up, kill 'em, bang, stab, crush, slice, kill, motherfuckin' boilin' oil...I'm gonna solve all these goddamn problems.'' A carload of celebrants interrupts his logorrhoea by training their Super8 cameras on him. Private recording is overpowered by public broadcast, which is then neutered by exposure of the broadcaster on film. Later, in a joyful burst of creative destruction, the camera is hurled off a cliff--but the footage survives. We're looking at it. It contains Paul and all the chain of struggling, searching, surrendering human lives that led to him. That's '90s youth in a nutshell: We know we're fucked, but the revolution is a drag. Let's party.
Criterion archives this 16mm classic in a manner that practically heightens its very 16mm-ness. With such a source, converting to 1080p avails little in terms of noise removal save to subtly refine it, so the inherent grain becomes a selling point: "Look at how they used to make indies!" Our children may come to believe that the world was grainy until 1999, as I used to believe the world was black-and-white until the '50s. Though Slacker was never going to be crisp, now it looks, on any sizable monitor, like a projected film. There's a significant new depth to it compared to, say, the VHS dub backed with David Cronenberg's Naked Lunch that kept me company from roughly early 1992 until I lost it/taped over it/threw it out sometime after college. I'm aware at last of not only skin tones and the textures of hair, but also the little tics of the performers--an untrained actor or two trying mid-monologue to locate the camera in their peripheral vision without seeming to do so. Also, I had my first boom mic sighting at 25:50, as the Ultimate Loser (Scott Marcus) chats up Stephanie From Dallas (Stella Weir). The peregrinations through the Austin streets now feel like a trip you are taking as opposed to a trip being undertaken by others. And there's nothing cold or indistinct about the attendant 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio. If the soliloquies arrive through some tin and paper, they're never indistinct or marred by sonic flaws, and the acoustics of whatever room the characters occupy comes to feel like home.
Linklater's 2004 solo yakker for the Criterion DVD is reproduced here, and it's a thoroughly pleasant journey with a relaxed and philosophical tour guide. Each new player to dominate the frame receives some kind of introduction, the filmmaker telling both their story and the story of the stories they're telling. He's as easygoing and eloquent as the movie proper, given to discursions that seldom bore--talking, for instance, about the necessary layers that media places on our experience of the world: "You've never seen a caribou. You feel like you have, but you actually haven't." His tales of the making of the film, if you've not consumed the vast supplements elsewhere on the disc, are enlightening. "Everyone in this movie is a musician, unless otherwise noted," he says. (For instance, that's Austin songstress Abra Moore prodding the singer from Poi Dog Pondering to get a job.) Inevitably, he must address the infamy of the designation he helped popularize. He approached the term "slacker" with the thought that "[if] you felt good about how you spent your time, and you didn't feel your life was too very compromised, that that would be a successful, worthwhile way to live. To depict that, I thought, would be a positive thing."* The commentaries are stacked here, all again imported from the 2004 release: Linklater is joined on a second track by his longtime DP Lee Daniel and co-producer Clark Walker, while a dozen cast members were recorded individually and spliced into a third yakker. Some of the actors were also among the film's creators, of course, like editor/Disgruntled Grad Student Scott Rhodes, so that talk is technical in addition to reminiscent.
In the transition from DVD to Blu-ray, a certain number of text- and image-based extras were sacrificed, with a stills gallery and a director's essay set aside for items like "No Longer/Not Yet": 45 pages (dubbed "sequences" rather than "scenes") from Linklater's original script under its original title, navigable by remote. This is interesting for its glimpse of how much of the film's structure was retained from page to screen, as well as for its implications that some vignettes were generated during production. "The Casting of Slacker" offers a two-page statement from casting director Anne Walker McBay and follows up with a compendium of audition tapes (15 mins., HD). It helps you understand how phenomenal Lori Capp's performance as Traumatized Yacht Owner really is. "Taco and a Half After Ten" (12 mins., HD) assembled whatever behind-the-scenes film and video footage is at hand, which from a crew of film nerds making a movie is quite a bit. (About nine minutes in, the featurette indulges in some fast-motion just to show the tedium of setting up and lighting a single bedroom shot.) "There Ain't No Film In That Shit" (28 mins., HD) is the deleted-scenes dump, where the walk-and-talk between Wants To Leave Country (Debbie Pastor) and Anti-Traveller (Greg Wilson) takes a completely different turn and we meet at least one character (probably called Guy Who Keeps Gun In the Fridge) who was cut completely. "...End of Interview!" (20 mins., HD) records Slacker's 2001 cast and crew anniversary screening in Austin, a welcome meet-up with old friends where those collaborators who've passed on--Gunning, Mackey, Joseph Jones, art and sound director Denise ("D.") Montgomery, Skip Fulton Jr.--are remembered. The original three-minute trailer from the picture's Orion Classics theatrical release is here in HiDef, featuring a quote from Vincent Canby's review that sort of implies he chose not to think about the movie much at all.
To see the immediate predecessor of Slacker, turn to the onboard feature film It's Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books (86 mins., HD), Linklater's 1988 Super8 odyssey by train around America, starring himself and his friends across the country and whomever agrees to step into frame. At least as well-restored as the main event, Plow exercises some of the ideas of disaffection and alienation that Slacker would later crystallize, only with more humour. It's an artifact that impressed filmmaking legend Monte Hellman enough to provide a letter of encouragement that Linklater used in fundraising for Slacker. The inherent frame jitter comforts rather than annoys, and the piece has much merit as a demonstration of a firm aesthetic and technical skill. More compelling, perhaps, is the director's commentary, where Linklater is generous and loquacious in tying this effort together with the whole arc of his career. No English subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing accompany this extra...which reminds me to mention that the captioning job on Slacker itself, where the talk comes fast and wordy, is outstanding.
Woodshock (7 mins., HD) is a Super8 short by Linklater and Lee Daniel, shot in 1985 at the Austin music festival of the same name and crafted as homage to/satire of Michael Wadleigh's Woodstock. A non-Linklater film, Nancy Higgins's Viva Les Amis, is profiled in a ten-minute HD trailer--basically a mini-doc in itself, about the now-bulldozed Austin hangout Les Amis Café. In Slacker, it's where Gunning bums Gauloises from a coffee-drinker and gets his best lines during a video interview. ("I may live badly, but at least I don't have to work to do it.") Criterion packages the disc with love, offering a 'zinelike 35-page booklet containing snapshots, production-note scraps, complete credits, and essays from University of Texas scholar/indie-film guru John Pierson, critic Ron Rosenbaum, journalist Chris Walters (reprinting a 1990 AUSTIN CHRONICLE piece that may be the standout of the bunch), former Orion Pictures exec Michael Barker, and Monte Hellman. Follow Jefferson Robbins on Twitter
*For all the schools of thought it does touch on, Slacker and its special features make no mention of the Church of the SubGenius, whose guiding concept is "Slack"--freedom and comfort without hard work or obligation. The gag religion was founded in 1979 in Dallas, the other capital of Texas. return