Slacker: Criterion Collection
September 10, 2013
Even though I know they came out years apart, I always associate Beck’s hit song “Loser” with Richard Linklater’s film Slacker (1990). The former came out in 1993 and the latter had its premiere three years prior, but both took their time finding their audience. They also were touted by the media as defining what would be known as Generation X, a term popularized by Douglas Coupland’s 1991 novel of the same name, and used to describe people born in the early 1960s to the early 1980s. Also rather interestingly, both Beck and Linklater felt uncomfortable with being heralded as voices of their generation.
Despite being released years apart, “Loser” and Slacker have much closer inception dates than one would imagine and both came out of experiences that Beck and Linklater had in the late ‘80s. There was definitely something in the air in the early 1990s and these two artists were able to tap into it. The song and the film both feature fractured narratives with random observations about life. It is that kind of channel-surfing mentality that “Loser” and Slacker tap into. It’s as if Linklater is controlling the remote, flipping around to see what various people from Austin are doing in a 24-hour period in which the film takes place.
Slacker opens with a fascinating scene. A young man (Linklater) has just gotten off a bus and is now en route to somewhere in a taxi. He begins telling the cabbie about a weird dream he had while riding on the bus, which leads into his theory concerning alternate realities. It’s a clever little monologue that has become a staple of Linklater’s films. It is also a fantastic way to start the film as this first scene acts as an introduction of sorts with Linklater himself kicking everything off by setting the tone. His films are wonderful non-narrative gems that appear at first glance to be about nothing in particular, but by their conclusion, reveal a lot about the big themes of life: love, sex, death, and the real meaning behind The Smurfs.
Made for only $23,000, Slacker is an aimless day in the life of the city of Austin, Texas, showcasing its more eccentric characters. The camera follows an individual, one pair of characters or a group until it gets bored and moves on to the next interesting conversation. This approach works well because as soon one segment runs too long we’re off on another tangent. Some people get several minutes of screen time, some only a few seconds. The segments vary tonally from amusing (the Moon conspiracy guy) to cryptic (the guy who mysteriously disappears, leaving a collection of postcards that explain what happened for his roommates to discover) to bizarre (the Madonna pap smear girl) to thought-provoking (the elder anarchist). It is this ingenious entropic structure — enhanced by Lee Daniel’s excellent camerawork with long, uninterrupted takes — that really sets Slacker apart from other independent films.
Linklater’s film invites repeated viewings because there is so much going on — both in the foreground and the background. Slacker presents an interesting, annoying and funny assortment of characters: obsessive types, like the man who believes that we’ve been on the Moon since the 1950s with the aid of anti-gravity drives (“A lot of truth in the Late Late Show.”) and a JFK conspiracy buff who rambles on obsessively about the minutiae of various theories (not surprisingly he has written his own book tentatively titled, Profiles in Cowardice or Conspiracy A-Go-Go). Unlike a lot of films, Slacker requires the viewer to be active as opposed to being passive by presenting all of these seemingly disparate vignettes with little to no context. And so we are left wondering, for example, why the son hit his own mother with a car and then let himself get arrested.
There are also more poignant characters like an aging anarchist who surprises a would-be robber at his house and instead of turning him in, talks to him at length about the city’s rich history of anarchism. There is a strong pop culture vibe that informs several segments, from a girl enthusiastically trying to sell a sample of Madonna’s pap smear (“Getting down to the real Madonna,” she gushes) to a guy who deconstructs Scooby Doo as a tool for teaching bribery. All of these characters come across as everyday (in their own way) people in between jobs and often relegated to the margins of life. As they appear and disappear you begin to realize that the film is not as random as it seems but in fact is very structured with links between encounters becoming more apparent upon subsequent viewings. The film’s title is somewhat ironic in the sense that a lot of the characters are hardly idle, from the guy on his way to band practice to the guy working on getting his book of JFK assassination theories published, or the two grease monkeys that go scavenging for parts at a junkyard. A lot of people in this film are hustling towards some end, trying to achieve something.
Slacker became synonymous with Gen-X and vice versa with Linklater suddenly catapulted into the position of spokesperson for a generation – something that he did not feel comfortable with. Slacker also paved the way for countless Hollywood clones like Reality Bites (1993), which tried in vain to capture the essence of Gen-X, but came across more like an episode of the T.V. series, Friends. Slacker presented realistic settings with realistic people, warts and all, while Reality Bites introduced perfect looking people with perfect problems. Slacker inadvertently became one of the signature films for a generation of disaffected young people who were overeducated and underemployed. For better or for worse, the moniker “slacker” defined said generation.
The Blu-Ray upgrade transfer has been approved by director Richard Linklater and his cinematographer Lee Daniel and it has never looked better. The 16 mm film stock has just the right amount of graininess with superb texture and detail. This is the best Slacker has ever looked.
Criterion has assembled an impressive collection of extras. There is an excellent audio commentary by Linklater. One of the first ideas that came to the filmmaker for the movie was the notion, “what if the characters spoke their interior monologues out loud?” He talks at length about how many of the scenes in the movie came from things he had seen or heard. He touches upon how he cast his movie: people that weren’t beautiful per se but that you wouldn’t forget. This is a very engaging track done in his trademark, laid-back style with lots of good anecdotes.
In a nice touch, there is a cast commentary with the likes of Jerry Delony (Been on the Moon Since ‘50s), Scott Marcus (Ultimate Loser), and John Slate (Conspiracy A-Go-Go) amongst many others. They all talk about their experiences working on Slacker. Not surprisingly, many of them still get noticed from the movie even to this day.
Linklater returns for the crew commentary and is joined by director of photography Lee Daniel and co-producer Clark Walker. This is a more technically oriented track as they talk about how certain scenes were shot and the equipment that was used.
“No Longer: Not Yet” features pages from the original script for Slacker.
“Showing Life” is a montage of audition footage of the cast that were largely unknown and non-actors at the time. Basically, they were told to talk about themselves and were then cast based on that quality.
There is also home movie footage of Linklater making Slacker. It captures the monotony of the filmmaking process. It follows the crew through the streets of Austin as they film certain scenes.
“Les Amis” is a ten-minute trailer for a documentary about an Austin café where three scenes from Slacker were shot. Sadly, it is now closed and has been replaced by a Starbucks. The doc examines the rich counter culture that used to frequent and thrive at Les Amis.
Also included is a behind-the-scenes still gallery.
There is a real gem for die hard Linklater fans — his rarely seen first feature film, It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books (1987). It is an 89-minute Super-8 feature that took him a year to shoot and another year to edit. The film is all about the “mind-set of travel” with more than half of the screen time taking place on an Amtrak train traveling around the United States. The rest of the film depicts the main character (Linklater) getting off in a town and wandering around for awhile. It’s Impossible is significant in the sense that it establishes most of Linklater’s preoccupations. He also contributes an audio commentary where he describes his movie as a snapshot of where he was and what he was feeling at the time. It’s another personable, conversational track as he espouses his philosophy of filmmaking.
“Woodshock” is a short film that Linklater and Lee Daniel shot in 1985. It chronicles the chaotic Woodshock music festival that showcased all kinds of underground/alternative bands in an outdoor Woodstock-style setting (Lollapalooza before it happened).
“Austin Film Society” gives background to the film society that Linklater and his friends helped establish, including two essays and a gallery of flyers from its early years.
“Ain’t No Film in that Shit” features 14 deleted or alternate scenes running 28 minutes total. It includes an interesting alternate take of the opening scene which is more conversational than a monologue. There are also different conspiracy theories from the ‘50s Moon guy. This is great material for fans of the film to check out.
There is also the original theatrical trailer and an essay written by Linklater in 1991 where he defines the term “slacker” and defends it.
One of the strongest extras in the entire set is “End of Interview.” This is footage from the ten-year anniversary screening of Slacker. It’s wild to see what the cast looks like after all this time. Everyone who is interviewed speaks fondly of their experiences. Surprisingly, quite a few of the cast members showed up, making this a great trip down memory lane.