CAPSULE: SLACKER (1991)

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FEATURING: The citizens of Austin, Texas

PLOT: Slacker spies on the aimless exploits of the slackers of Austin, TX; the camera follows one character for a few minutes, then veers off to chase another through a series of comical, philosophical, and absurd vignettes involving hit-and-run drivers, elderly anarchists and video fetishists.

Still from Slacker (1991)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Slackers is a seminal, interesting, and at times incisive storytelling experiment, but it’s of interest to weirdophiles mainly as the spiritual prequel to Waking Life, which is virtually Slacker remade as a dream.

COMMENTS: The batty cast list—credited characters include “Dostoevsky Wannabe,” “Recluse in Bathrobe” and “Hit Up for Cigarettes”—accurately reflects the mix of mundanity and eccentricity on display in writer/director Richard Linklater’s slice-of-life tour of the coffee shops and crash-pads and on the fringes of Austin, Texas in 1991. Slacker is a character study of the subculture of bright but unambitious dropouts and unemployed postgrads bent on extending their undergrad lifestyles that exists in every college town. At the time of its release it was seen as emblematic of “Generation X”‘s alienation and withdrawal from mainstream culture, but in reality this Bohemian substrata of unmotivated aesthetes and anti-establishment hedonists has always been with us under various names (if the movie had been made in 1291 in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence it would have been entitled Goliard). For this peripatetic essay Linklater borrows the elegant but seldom used narrative device invented by Luis Buñuel for The Phantom of Liberty: two characters walk down the street discussing whether they should leave the country, then the cameraman suddenly gets bored and starts following a man who enters a coffee shop where an insane woman advises him that he should “never traumatize a woman sexually,” then decides instead to see where the guy who just entered the shop wearing a bathrobe is headed to, and so on. The result is a series of vignettes which are occasionally funny, occasionally disturbing, and often repetitive, but which capture a peculiar, laid-back, mad energy of a particular place at a particular point in time. Still, as the film’s oldest character rhapsodizes when remembering Charles Whitman, “this town has always had its share of crazies—I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.” Memorable characters range from the UFO enthusiast who accosts passersby to explain his theory that we’ve been on the moon since the 1950s to the tomboy who’s looking to fence stolen celebrity gynecology artifacts, cheap. Linklater, who delivers the first of the film’s many discursive monologues himself in the role of “Should Have Stayed at the Bus Stop,” shows an attitude of fond disdain for a town where everyone sleeps in late and is working on an unfinished novel or playing in an unsigned band. The director may have arisen out of the Austin milieu, but if he’s a slacker, then he’s a type-A personality slacker; he’s obviously a much harder worker than the guy who earnestly muses “who’s ever written a great work about the tremendous effort required not to create?” over a cup of cappuccino. If Slacker has one downside (besides excusably spotty acting by the amateur cast), it’s that the movie turns repetitive and arguably outstays its welcome. Somewhere between twenty and forty-five minutes in we start to get the picture; although the UFO guy and the JFK guy have totally different obsessions, ultimately they’re both just proselytizers with a passion for explaining stuff we don’t care about to us in ridiculous detail. The overall portrait Linklater manages to paint is still very impressive; Slacker may be the most passionate and invigorating movie about doing nothing ever made.

On a personal note, I was lucky enough to see Slacker in Austin, TX in 1991 in a theater in a strip mall (I lived in Dallas at the time but had a friend attending UT with a couch I could crash on). The movie, which was playing nowhere else in the country, had been held over for a second week, and the afternoon matinee showing was standing room only; everyone in the audience but me probably had a friend or two who was an extra in it. I had an aisle seat; a middle-aged woman came in late and stood next to me during the entire show, shooting me nasty looks as she shifted from foot to foot. I recall thinking it ironic that the Austinite had to stand through the whole performance simply because she had slacked off on getting to the show on time.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…funny, surreal and weird… Linklater traces the dehumanized weirding of America — as collectively defined by David Lynch, Errol Morris, Jim Jarmusch and others. But he does it with a detached, yet sympathetic sense of irony.”–Desson Howe, The Washington Post (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by nicolas, who suggested that all of Linklater’s films were “pretty weird and deep with one or two exceptions.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

One thought on “CAPSULE: SLACKER (1991)”

  1. This is one of my very favorite films. Sad to see it won’t be on the list, but I completely agree with the judgment. Waking Life is a better fit.

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