Film Review: “Slacker” — Richard Linklater (1991)

Rating: 8 / 10

Slacker, Richard Linklater’s landmark 1991 independent film, is ostensibly a celebration of Austin’s self-proclaimed “slacker” culture, a loose-knit hodge-podge of eccentrics, oddballs, loners, artists, intellectuals, anarchists, pseudo-intellectuals, conspiracy theorists, superfreaks, what-have-you. The film presents no driving narrative, no real plot to speak of, and nary a whisper of a storyline. Linklater’s film starts with a single character – a young man stepping off of a bus (played by Linklater himself) – who has evidently spent hours mentally tumbling with Schrodinger’s feline. Stepping into a taxi, he wildly relates his flexible theories vis-à-vis the space/time continuum to a completely unresponsive and uninterested driver. Exiting the taxicab, he witnesses a hit-and-run accident in which an elderly lady is left seemingly dead in the road. As he runs to a payphone to contact authorities and the woman’s relatives, the camera pans back down the suburban street, into a driveway as a car quickly pulls in – the same car that hit the elderly lady. As it turns out, the driver of the car was the woman’s own son, and the camera follows him into the house. He receives a phone call from the witness up the street, informing him of the accident. He nonchalantly plays it off, and turns to some rather bizarre activities: clipping pictures out of a high school yearbook and burning them, and playing home movies featuring a mother and son on a continuous loop The cops arrive and arrest him, an event witnessed by a local musician. This musician ends up writing and performing an impromptu song about the arrest, which is overheard by a young lady heading to a coffee shop. And this young lady…

This chain of events continues throughout the course of 100-minute film. Rather than existing as an intricate demonstration of causality and collectivity of consciousness and responsibilty, a la Phil Hay’s and Matt Manfredi’s masterful Bug of 2002, Slacker simply acts as a wandering eye, passing from character to character, peering at various events, conversations, insights, and whispers. The viewer’s appreciation of Linklater’s film rests solely upon their tolerance for such a conceit. The phrases “tone poem”, “contemplative meditation”, “cinematic exercise free from the constraints of traditional narrative” are inevitably thrown around when discussing Slacker. The truth of the matter is that the film showcases a searing and often joyous blast of independent cinema, eschewing conventional prefabricating storytelling and narrative drive and presenting various “slices of life” that permeate slacker culture. Perhaps there is a thread of commonality weaving through this series of continuous vignettes, a universality of human condition that Linklater is trying to expose or put on display or condemn or condone. Then again, maybe Linklater simply wants to bend his ear and listen to the rhythm of the late 80s/early 90s bohemian subculture. If there isn’t a singular point or plot, there’s certainly a vibe and a sense of movement throughout the film.

If I noticed anything that seemed to present something of a theme in Slacker, it was that the people presented in the film were either (a) vainly looking for something that they did not possess, (b) seemingly bursting with something, anything, to share with the world, but were either unable or unwilling to properly open up or express themselves accordingly, or (c) obliquely and/or blissfully trapped within the confines of their own consciousness/self/pscyhe. It’s easy to chortle at the conspiracy theorist who follows people home and annoys them past the point of polite tolerance, or the crazy lady at the lunch counter who drones endlessly about sexual exploitation and her imaginary medical degree. Easily the most compelling vignette deals with an old Anarchist (played by Louis Mackey), who encounters an armed robber in his home. He takes the robbery in stride, and soon afterwards escorts the robber on a walking tour of Austin, cheerfully and amiably sharing his theories on the destructive and selfish nature of humanity. It’s so well played, so beautifully delivered, and so haunting that it somehow (in my view) emerges as the film’s spiritual pulse.

I don’t think Slacker is a perfect movie. It goes on a bit too long, and many of the scenes try the patience of the most hardened of avid independent-cinema fans. But just when the film seems to meander a bit too much, it tilts again and presents some remarkably compelling material. The film ends abruptly with a group of revellers, forcing the viewer to reflect upon the seeming randomness of the preceding 100 minutes. Was there a point to be made, or did Linklater simply meander without reason or rhyme? Or were the deepest, most esoteric secrets of life hidden somewhere within Madonna’s pap smear and Coke-stealing peeping toms? If there’s anything to be gleamed from Slacker, it’s all in the grinding of the tale and wandering eye of the cinema. Over two decades later, even surrounded by a host of mediocre imitations, Slacker still maintains its urgent potency.

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