Slacker (1990): How Linklater Launched New Type of Film

In 1990, Slacker put Richard Linklater–and Austin, Texas–on the map, which made him an instant if reluctant spokesperson for a whole generation.

The film was made about the time that the Canadian Douglas Coupland book, “Generation X,” came out, and the mass media embraced the concept 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 doesn’t even want standards, let alone anyone to bear them.

Linklater still resents the marketing shorthand which reduces his work to generational tract. “I never saw myself as a spokesperson,” he said. “Filmmakers make bad spokespeople for generations or politics. You might intersect with something in the air for one moment in time, but it’s not gonna last, because filmmakers’ agendas are always film.”

College towns have provided friendly environment for indies, but, as Jim Hoberman observed, Slacker may be the first to return the favor. Made around the University of Texas, Austin, the film was an ensemble piece about media-fixated, affectless youngsters–the ultimate campus comedy. The title derives from the subculture of deadbeat youth: As the successors to the beatniks, hippies and eternal students, Slacker elevates the anti-yuppie heroes of Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise into something of a collective movement. Jarmusch’s deadpan influence is evident in the wackiness, though it’s neither cynical nor tolerant.

Slacker boasted a bold concept, structural daring, and clever dialogue. Moving from one random conversation to another, the film induced discussions about the twentysomething crowd, 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. Inside, he 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 place–the possibility of another story about to start.

This soliloquy sets the tone for a film drifting 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, people who leave behind political explanations written on postcards, people who are catching up on a lot of sleep. 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 Schnitzler’s La Ronde, one character leads to another. But unlike La Ronde, 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, finding something peculiar in nearly every episode.

The novelty of Slacker is that it encompasses material that usually happens offscreen, scenes of “tedium” that in Hollywood movies disappear in the name 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, and avoiding as much as possible editorial comment.

The film 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 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 lays out a theory linking moon landings, American-Soviet relations, and missing children.
Paranoia is rampant among the alienated do-nothings, who listen to each other with amusement or indifference, though no one gets excited for too long. “I just thought you ought to know,” one says to his captive listener, a line that captures the movie’s curious attitude. In a memorable sidewalk scene, an Indian woman describing her homeland pauses to tell a 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 (Frank Orral, singer of Poi Dog Pondering), whose subsequent encounters at a coffeeshop suggest that his days are numbered. An offscreen sound of a car screeching to a halt, roughly from the place he walked into the street, affirms her prophecy.

The encounters of the endless parade of eccentrics are randomly organized and linked. Despite its improvised documentary look and use of street people, Slacker’s dialogue is based on notebooks Linklater kept over several years, consisting of the wacky junk he heard from hangers-on around the university district. Slacker weaves its way through a bunch that clings to whatever will get them through the day–an honorable cause or a far-out conspiracy, a cup of coffee or a newspaper, anything to fill in the time. But the film has an unexpectedly giddy ending: A character who declares he has given up on humanity says, “I can only address myself to singular human beings now.”