In the eponymous book that accompanied the release of Slacker in 1992, director Richard Linklater helped to describe his first major film with a staggering quote from Greil Marcus' Lipstick Traces: "The moment of true poetry that brings all the unsettled debts of history back into play... a near absolute loathing of one's time and place... a voice of teeth ground down to points... the note held until disgust turns into glee." Marcus may have written this about the punk movement, but Linklater’s was right on the money to include it. For one thing, Slacker is a punk song of a film – plotless and made with untrained actors on a shoestring budget. The passage, particularly that last part about disgust-glee, sums up Slacker perfectly.Richard Linklater has lived in Texas for his entire life. He was born in Houston in 1960, went to Sam Houston State University, dropped out, and moved to Austin. He spent his early days there working odd jobs, “reading and eating Hershey's Kisses,” and presumably occupying himself with thoughts and activities not too far removed from those of the oddballs in Slacker. Linklater claims he was “completely oblivious to the fact that anyone of [his] generation might or could be doing anything.” It was a fateful Dead Kennedys concert, according to Linklater himself, that inspired him to do something. Having become increasingly interested in film, he picked up a camera. He has not put it down yet.
Punk is as appropriate a touchstone as any for Slacker -- the film has also been likened to those of the hippie era and is a painfully evident product of the early nineties. But its DIY spirit is nothing if not a middle finger to “the man” that Linklater would “stick it to” in School of Rock. Its content is anarchic -- a plotless plot, a pop star’s pap smear, a matricidal hit-and-run. Even the title is an ironic appropriation of an insult perpetually hurled by rat racers at their unemployed and allegedly lazy offspring.
Slacker is often presented along with Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs and Steven Soderbergh’s sex, lies, and videotape as one of the harbingers of a new, and much more “independent” era in filmmaking. These films do share quite a few parallels. Like Dogs and sex, Slacker was made on a shoestring budget, its director went onto make very successful films, and it inspired a flock of lesser imitations (no matter how you feel about Clerks, even Kevin Smith has admitted its obvious debt to the film). Slacker, though, has a certain je ne sais quois about it that sets the film apart from pretty much anything else that’s ever been put on a reel. Part of this is due to the technique Linklater calls “Vertical Narrative.”Vertical narrative is how Linklater categorizes Slacker’s plot (or the lack thereof). One could call it the “aaand theeen” technique. He more eloquently describes it as such: “A film as one long sequence in which each shot, each event and character, lead only to the next.” That’s it; there is no overarching story and there are no recurring characters -- not even a central character. It is disorienting, but if the viewer allows himself or herself to get taken along for this ride up, down, and around Austin’s Drag, they’re in for a singular cinematic experience.
A Slacker made anywhere besides Austin, Texas would have been a completely different film. Though he once claimed that the film could have taken place in any college town, Linklater’s love for his adopted hometown shines through in each and every affectionate frame. It would not be too far out of line to suggest that if Slacker does have a main character, it’s Austin itself. The shops and streets that set the scene are all in the University of Texas neighborhood called “The Drag.” The weirdos that make up the cast are Linklater’s friends, family, and notable members of the Austin underground. Take Louis Black, who plays the pithily billed “Paranoid Paper Reader:” as the co-founder of alternative weekly The Austin Chronicle and a little festival you might have heard of called “South by Southwest,” he has been a fixture of Austin for over thirty years. Or, take Teresa “Nervosa” Taylor, the “Pap Smear Pusher:” drummer for the hometown heroes of a nearby city, San Antonio’s Butthole Surfers.
Like Robert Altman, Linklater loves his characters to talk and talk and talk. Unlike Altman, whose camera tends to jump frantically from conversation to conversation, Linklater lets them finish. This allows for the ruminative tangents and frequent glimpses of people’s bizarre psyches that we are privy to in real life conversation to shine through. This constant conversation would be trimmed and tailored for later Linklater films like Waking Life and Before Sunrise, but here it’s in its rawest and, perhaps, most effective form.
As I mentioned before, Slacker is tres nineties. The fashion, the lingo, the very look and feel of the movie are clearly from the era of Bush Sr. That being said, it’s not awash in Singles-esque grunge nostalgia or anything like that. But beyond that, the film is timeless -- it could have been made in any time, and it’s radical, meaningful, and comical enough that it would have had the same impact. One Criterion critic (and, if you dig Slacker, each of the Criterion essays are worth reading) went so far as to compare it to the work of Dostoyevsky. According to him, the characters’ futility is a sign of endurance.
Linklater is, in this writer’s humble opinion, one of the most underrated directors working today. High school and college kids will always love Dazed and Confused, but there’s so much more to get into. Even this year’s Bernie, which flew under the radar like so many of his other films, was a gem. That being said, there’s really nothing like Slacker. It is hilarious and oddly moving. Its density rewards repeat viewings -- if it doesn’t take the first time, you really owe it to yourself to watch it again and again. Where would we be if Linklater and his gang of Texas weirdos had real jobs?