Greatest cult films: Richard Linklater's Slackers.
Directed by Richard Linklater
Written by Richard Linklater
In 1990, Slacker put Richard Linklater and Austin Texas in the spotlight. Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars and wrote, “Slacker is a movie with an appeal almost impossible to describe, although the method of the director, Richard Linklater, is as clear as day”.
Slacker came out around the same time that Douglas Coupland released his book, Generation X, and the young filmmaker became an instant spokesperson for an entire generation. While Generation X as a whole sometimes seemed to lack direction, its filmmakers devoted their early careers to making powerful statements about contemporary society and their generation’s role in it. Linklater (Suburbia, Dazed and Confused) emerged as the reluctant messenger for a generation labeled, packaged and sold as a defiant demographic dedicated to shredding whatever classification society tried to mark them as. Nominated for the Grand Jury Prize – Dramatic at the Sundance Film Festival in 1991, Linklater’s breakthrough feature is a key independent film of the early 90s.
Set over the course of a 24-hour period, Linklater’s camera follows a number of characters in a collection of short, unconnected vignettes. His film focuses on one person or group of people before moving along following somebody else for a while. Among the players are a variety of artists, musicians, students, Gypsies, hustlers and other memorable eccentrics – all sympathetically looked upon by the director’s eye. And so what initially seemed like a gimmick movie proved to be a perfect method to capturing a place, time and lifestyle. Linklater’s eye for nuance, his freewheeling, documentary-style approach and his natural gift for dialogue makes Slacker an honest reflection of a community of twenty-something year olds from his hometown.
Slacker falls somewhere in between Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise and Robert Altman’s Nashville, with a structure similar to Twenty Bucks. But thematically Slacker is about finding yourself and about rejecting the status quo for something more personally rewarding. It’s about being true to yourself, even if that means settling for less in order to follow your passions and dreams. Essentially Slacker is about being in your twenties and rejecting society’s formula for happiness: Says the Hitchhiker: “I may live badly, but at least I don’t have to work at it.”
The movie is a kind of metaphysical comedy about media-obsessed young Americans not interested in the American Dream but instead preoccupied, or at least satisfied with the now. Linklater gathered mostly non-professional actors for a comedy-drama that is every bit as meandering as the directionless lives of those who populate the film. Linklater claims his dialogue is based on notebooks which the director kept over several years, consisting of the strange conversations he overheard in and around the university district. There is no story here; simply a series of barely-connected vignettes moving from person to person. The parade of eccentrics discuss everything from alternate realities, JFK’s assassination, the symbolic nature of the Smurfs and how Scooby Doo is an animated series about stoners. We also get an older anarchist, a member of a struggling band called The Ultimate Losers, and an assortment of random street philosophers. Especially memorable is Teresa Taylor, who tries to hawk a genuine Pap smear from Madonna that includes one of her pubic hairs. Many of these folks might seem like deadbeats, but Linklater clearly admires their refusal to conform.
Despite what many might lead you to believe, Slacker is remarkably photographed. Linklater shoots scenes in long takes, allowing his characters the freedom to roam about and trusting in his camera to follow along. There is a very distinctive rhythm to his style, and the few cuts only further add to the documentary feel. The camera is constantly moving amidst a diverse set of characters and situations lingering just long enough to observe the general nature of what’s going on before moving away. In a way, its mise-en-scène parrallels its characters, but unlike the narrative structure, there is focus to his visual approach. In the end, the film appropriately cuts to the point of view footage of a gang of teens roaming about with Super-8 cameras. Linklater is a craftsman who builds honest minimalist structures which capture the miraculous nature of life itself. In Slacker, there isn’t much difference between the world he captures on film and the world he lives in.
Linklater stated: “Slackers might look like the left-behinds of society, but they are actually one step ahead, rejecting most of society and the social hierarchy before it rejects them. The dictionary defines slackers as people who evade duties and responsibilities. A more modern notion would be people who are ultimately being responsible to themselves and not wasting their time in a realm of activity that has nothing to do with who they are or what they might be ultimately striving for.”
– Ricky D