SLACKER is a landmark independent film of the ’90s, and I thought it was Richard Linklater’s first feature until I rented the blu-ray and saw that one of the extras was a feature length Super-8 movie he did in 1988 called IT’S IMPOSSIBLE TO LEARN TO PLOW BY READING BOOKS. But I turned it off before the first shot ended and I don’t think it ever got released before so it doesn’t count in my opinion.
When SLACKER came out at the beginning of the ’90s it was unlike anything I’d seen before. You know how people who don’t know much about movies will say that a movie where they didn’t like the plot “has no plot”? This one actually for real has no plot, it’s just a camera floating through Austin watching people talk. Then somebody will leave the conversation or someone else will walk by and the camera will go with them and watch something else.
Some of the conversations are very one-sided. The two conspiracy nuts (one JFK specific, one all over the map from early moon landing to mind control) seem particularly Aspergersy. It’s funny to watch two guys walking along a sidewalk or riding in a cab for several minutes and one of them is doing a monologue and the other one never says a damn word. They’re all stone-faced non-actors so they don’t always convey whether they’re being very open-minded and actually listening, or if they’re just politely waiting for it to stop.
One of the talkers is a bartender, a few of them are thieves, one possibly works at a book store (but might just hang out there). Almost none of the other characters seem to have jobs. They’re people who can spend their day in coffee shops and diners, laying lazily on a bed with their significant other, in the living room drinking beers with a bunch of roommates, doing weird outdoor art projects about their menstrual cycles, working on their car engines, preaching politics on the sidewalk, performing cleansing rituals after a break up, wandering around enough to run into old friends or get in long conversations with random strangers.
Some of them are artists: a photographer, a couple working on a documentary, a guy in a band, another guy working on a small press book about the JFK assassination. At night we see a (his?) band playing at a bar, and it’s the type of show where the floor is empty except for three or four loners standing and nodding their heads, a couple other people scattered around the edges in chairs, drinking. But the musicians probly don’t mind, they don’t necessarily aspire to much more than that.
Watching it now the movie comes across to me as both a critique and a glorification of this “slacker” lifestyle. It’s kind of depressing to relate to that feeling of aimlessness, but also kind of comforting to imagine being able to spend my days fucking around like that, actually waking up and trying to decide what to do that day, instead of having to squeeze everything in between shifts.
There’s one character who even preaches against having a job. “I may live badly,” he says, “But at least I don’t have to work to do it.” This guy turns out to be a criminal, though. He doesn’t have the magic formula we’ve all been looking for.
Part of the idea of a “slacker” and how that term was applied to twenty and thirty somethings back then was that they were politically apathetic. But that’s not exactly the case here. A couple of these characters are political activists and a good chunk of them are angry and disillusioned about what they see as the state of the country or the world. In fact, one of the themes is the way these people romanticize those who take violent action for a cause. A missing roommate leaves a trail of mysterious postcards, one joking (?) that he’s going to Europe to train as a terrorist. A guy selling Mandela t-shirts talks about terrorism as “the surgical strike of the oppressed.” They praise Squeaky Fromme and random spree killers as if these people were rebels or martyrs. One character watches a guy’s pre-gun-rampage rant video and says “He must’ve been onto something.”
The most preachy of all of them is a character credited as “Old Anarchist.” He has the warmth of a wise old professor, and he laments the passing of the era when it was common to care about changing the world. “There was such a thing as belief put into action in those days.” But he’s not talking about the sixties, he’s hero-worshipping the anarchist who assassinated McKinley. Just before this scene we saw a truck that said “RON PAUL – Libertarian For President,” but this guy hates today’s libertarians and their “god damned selfish individualism.” Yeah, I agree with that much, but then he starts complaining about not being in the neighborhood during “this town’s finest hour” when Charles Whitman shot a bunch of people from the tower on the nearby university campus. He says he’d like to “pull a Guy Fawkes” on the Texas legislature and brags that he has maps of the building.
Maybe the character that most personifies the combination of anger at the system and complete hopelessness is the guy who collects TVs and morbid VHS tapes. While he talks his many screens are playing loops of the Challenger explosion, the news anchor who shot himself on air, nuclear bomb tests. Remember, this is the very beginning of the ’90s, the very end of the cold war. The constant fear of nuclear war and the novelty of seeing people shot or teachers exploding on live TV were still fresh wounds. Most of these characters were raised hearing about the optimism and failure of the ’60s dream, but they were too late to be a part of it. They’re left with a world view pieced together from other people’s bitterness about the past. The guy writing the JFK book probly wasn’t even born when the assassination took place, but he’s grown up knowing that it happened not that far away and hearing stories about the government doing it. In this world political enlightenment doesn’t mean knowing how to make the world a better place, it’s knowing all the little secrets about the fucked up shit that happened or is happening in secret.
It’s an inherited anti-authority stance. The woman on the poster, who’s memorable because of her attempt to sell someone Madonna’s pap smear, also tells a story about a guy going on a murder-suicide rampage on the freeway. When she gets to the part about a witness calling the police she keeps calling them “the pigs.” Why? In this circumstance surely they’re the good guys, right? We can at least call them “the cops”? What has this black market celebrity biohazard saleswoman experienced that pits her against the police? We don’t know. The politics of these characters are very confused and scattershot. It’s fitting that some graffiti that’s visible in one scene says “USA OUT OF” and then the rest is covered by a bush.
There’s one scene with little kids running around, peeping in windows, they run through a wooded area and they have a pretty great routine of doing flying kicks on a Coke machine to get free soda and sell it on the street. I didn’t remember there being any kids in this movie, but the scene seemed really familiar. It’s a little like some of the early scenes in Linklater’s BOYHOOD, and also those great scenes in TREE OF LIFE that really capture what it’s like to be a little hellion with all kinds of energy and nothing good to do. But when I thought about it I realized it was the scene with the kids in THE INCREDIBLE MELTING MAN that it really reminded me of. I’m gonna take it as an homage.
The last time I saw this it was the early ’90s. Since then I watched WAKING LIFE and almost got in a fight with it. As I’ve aged I’ve become much less tolerant of jibber-jabber, so I was worried I wouldn’t be able to take SLACKER anymore. I think I did enjoy it more when I was less jaded and more excited to hear people’s ideas. Now I have much more disdain for the nitwits proudly deciphering the subtext of Scooby-Doo and The Smurfs without laughing about it, and for the guy in the cab who I now know is Linklater himself sharing his dream about alternate dimensions in a preview of what WAKING LIFE will end up being about. But the difference for me is that the philosophies in the later movie seemed to be presented as actual deep ideas, while SLACKER is more there for your amusement. The scene with the old anarchist is funny because it starts with him discovering an inept burglar who says “Just a sec” as he struggles to pull a gun out of his waistband. But the old man doesn’t see him as a threat, he sees him as a guy to talk to about anarchy. Next thing you know he’s asking “What are you doing this afternoon?” and taking him for a walk. At the end they shake hands and his daughter throws the intruder his gun that he forgot. This is a joke, a humorous context, it makes it go down much better.
Of course this also plays different because nearly 25 years have passed, and it’s become a time capsule. I noticed period specific Fishbone, Batman and Free Nelson Mandela t-shirts to go along with the popular stringy hair and goatees of the era. Technology-wise there is prominent placement of a typewriter, a payphone, analog TVs, VHS tapes, audio cassette recorders, and a Pixelvision camera. And there’s a scene where people are running late for a movie and they calculate that there will be five minutes of trailers! So this was about ten thousand years ago.
SLACKER couldn’t compete at the box office with other memorable 1991 films such as #1 box office grosser TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY or POINT BREAK (#29), OUT FOR JUSTICE (#32), LIONHEART (#56) or even STONE COLD (#100). But it was a pretty big hit for an independent movie from Austin with no stars or plot. It was the #166 box office hit of the year just above COOL AS ICE and two slots below KICKBOXER 2.
I think that’s probly my biggest takeaway here: KICKBOXER 2 was a more successful independent film than SLACKER, but in some ways has been less influential. I’m happy to say that both have withstood the test of time.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.