Slacker (1991): How Linklater’s Second Feature Became Cult Movie

Criterion Director-Special Edition

The two-disc Criterion edition contains commentaries from director Richard Linklater as well as members of his cast and crew. Other highlights include audition tapes; home movies of the production; over a dozen additional or deleted scenes, and footage from the tenth anniversary screening of “Slacker” in Austin.

Linklater’s fans will finally get a chance to see his first feature, “It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books”, a brooding, near nonverbal super-8 film which, like the later film, “Before Sunrise”, takes place on a train. Shot in 1988 for $3,000, the film was never released theatrically.

A Houston-born college dropout, Linklater eschewed film school to play around with a super-8 camera. After studying literature and philosophy, he drifted around for a while before founding the Austin Film Society, a forum that enabled him to showcase films by his favorite directors, Tarkovsky, Fassbinder, Godard.

“Slacker,” an experimental low-budget film that follows the lives of 100 characters over a 24-hour period, put Linklater–and Austin–on the film map. The satire made Linklater an instant, if also reluctant, spokesperson for a whole generation. It was about the time that Douglas Coupland’s book, “Generation X,” came out. The mass media embraced the concept of Gen-X as an anthropological discovery: A new generation was found and it became a duty to label, package, and sell it.

Linklater emerged as the uneasy standard-bearer for a generation that didn’t want standards. He resented the marketing shorthand that reduced his work to a generational tract. “I never saw myself as some kind of spokesperson,” he said. “Filmmakers make bad spokespeople for generations or politics. You might intersect with something in the air for one moment in time or in one film, but it’s not gonna last, because filmmakers’ agendas are always film.”

Made around the Austin campus of the University of Texas, “Slacker” is an ensemble piece about media-fixated, affectless youngsters–the ultimate campus comedy. The title derives from the new subculture of deadbeat youths, the informal successors to the beatniks and hippies. “Slacker” boasts a bold concept, structural daring, and clever dialogue. Moving from one random conversation to another, the film records discussions deadened by meaningless work, aimless activity, and no beliefs.

An end-of-the road movie, “Slacker” begins with the arrival of a Greyhound bus in Austin, where a garrulous passenger (played by Linklater) gets into a cab. He then delivers a monologue about the separate realities that exist in the things we decide not to do (like the road Dorothy chooses not to travel in “The Wizard of Oz”). He tells his theory of bifurcating realities and proliferating alternate universes to the uninterested driver. A few seconds after the taxi disappears, the camera observes another cab pulling into placeand the possibility of another story about to start. This soliloquy sets the tone for a film that drifts down the road of individual but parallel worlds.

“Slacker” sweeps through Austin’s coffeehouses, bookstores, bedrooms, and nightclubs to discover a world of philosophers, bored romantics, conspiracy enthusiasts, and people who write down political explanations on postcards. Among the bonuses of this DVD edition is a 10-minute trailer for a new documentary on the now-defunct Austin Cafe, Les Amis, where Linklater shot some of Slacker.

The film derives its look from the college’s melting-pot atmosphere. “West Campus is where all the students who either quit or have already graduated but haven’t moved on to what they’re gonna do are hanging out,” Linklater explained. “Their education continues, but along unsupervised paths. The quest for knowledge is still there–but there’s no action. It’s all ideas and words but nothing happens.”

With a form similar to “La Ronde,” one character leads to another, but unlike Schnitzler’s work, “Slacker” never circles back or returns to any character. It travels across the lonely, eccentric trajectories of dozens of people over a single day (from dawn-to-dawn), dropping some characters just as they become interesting, and finding something peculiar in nearly every episode.

The novelty of “Slacker” is in showing material that usually happens off screen, scenes of “tedium” that in Hollywood movies disappear for the sake of a cleaner, linear plot. Since the film is basically plotless, nothing is extraneous and everything equally important. People keep moving from one place to another, never ceasing their torrent of talk. Linklater shoots scenes in long takes, allowing his characters to find their distinctive rhythm while avoiding as much as possible editorial comment.

“Slacker” offers a deadpan portrait of Austin’s laundromat philosophers, lumpen intellectuals, college dropouts and eternal students stuck in their dope habits and bizarre “theories.” The shaggy-dog-story movie is organized serially from anecdote to anecdote, from rap to rap. An expert in JFK-assassination conspiracy theory corners a woman in a bookstore and delivers a monologue about Lee Oswald. A neo-punk tries to sell a cultural relic: a Madonna pap smear. A UFO-spotter tags alongside a young man who propagates a theory that links moon landings, American-Soviet relations, and missing children.

Paranoia is rampant among the alienated do-nothings youngsters. They listen to each other with amusement or indifference, but no one gets excited for too long. “I just thought you ought to know,” one man says to his captive listener, a line that captures the movie’s curious attitude.

Nonetheless, some of the characters achieve poignancy. In a memorable sidewalk scene, an Indian woman describing her homeland pauses to tell her companion that, “The next person who passes us will be dead within a fortnight.” Down the sidewalk and into the frame comes a poor, hapless fellow whose subsequent encounters at a coffee shop suggest that his days are numbered. Then there’s off screen sound of a car screeching to a halt, roughly from the place he walked into the street.

“Slacker” weaves its way through a bunch that clings to whatever will get them through the day–an honorable cause or a conspiracy, a cup of coffee or a newspaper, anything to fill in the time. But the film has an unexpectedly giddy ending. A man who declares he has given up on humanity says, “I can only address myself to singular human beings now.”

The endless parade of eccentrics is randomly organized and randomly linked. Despite its improvised, documentary look and use of people from the streets, the film is actually based on notebooks Linklater kept for over five years, “wacky junk” he had heard from hangers-on around the university district.

A singular director, Linklater favors character over plot-driven narratives. Though most of his films occur within a short but intense period of time (usually a day or so), each film is radically different in tone and style. Most of Linklater’s films are loose, organic, and cheaply made. He has very much lived up to his early motto, “It’s always been my key to keep the budget low. My films have never made much money, but they’ve never lost money.”

Despite his success, Linklater lives in Austin and continues to be involved in the Austin Film Society. He has lived up to the promise of “Slacker,” navigating smoothly between studio-made movies like the comedy “School of Rock,” and the romantic dramas done more modestly, “Before Sunrise” and its sequel “Before Sunset.”