Slacker (1991)

Directed by Richard Linklater.

Starring a huge amount of random people.

Richard Linklater may be the quintessential cultural reference point for Generation X in the 1990s. In 1991 (Slacker) they were freewheeling and aimless, in 1993 (Dazed and Confused) nostalgic for the '70s, in 1996 (SubUrbia) pissed off about the artificiality surrounding them in the suburbs, and in 1998 (The Newton Boys) ready to shuck idealism for a paying job.

Slacker captured early '90s aimless youth. Through an unconventional narrative- no narrative, in fact - Linklater presents Austin, Texas over the course of one day. The camera drifts from one character to another as they interact, have conversations that vary from wildly expressive to enthusiastically paranoid to hypocritically countercultural. As the camera tires of the current focal character, it shadows the girl that he just spoke to, or the guy they passed leaving the supermarket, or the group of teens driving towards the countryside. Thus, the characters and the camera are both aimless wanderers through the movie.

Scenes are long takes of rambling, clever dialog. Raw and unfiltered, scripted reality TV. It feels very spontaneous, though, as if this was what people were actually doing and saying on that day. It's improv without the hesitancy and choppiness of improv.

This style is no doubt daring but also borderline pretentious and risks boring the audience (us, Chuckles). For the most part, Linklater avoids boring us or becoming standoffishly arty. The conversations are crisp and fresh, but Linklater doesn't always let us buy into them. Unlike another conversation-heavy film like Mindwalk, Slacker is less direct in its discussion. While this film's characters may be discussing voting rates and the Smurfs and their ex-girlfriends, that's not what the film is talking about.

After a while of seeing these aimless, jobless, frustrated twenty-somethings talk and walk, you get the impression that slackerdom isn't exactly their fault. Unlike decades past, these youths don't have a cause to devote their energy to. An old anarchist digs a quote from his notebook to define it best: essentially, without suffering and conflict, one cannot define themselves or become a fully-realized human being.

What we see are these characters half-heartedly pursuing invented causes: celebrity pap smears, JFK assassination theories, the propaganda imbedded in Saturday morning cartoons. The film treats these with a sheepish shrug, as if to ask, "Well, do you have a better idea?"

That's not to say these characters are fools. Hardly. Linklater films these characters generously, almost lovingly. We wince when one lovable loser (whose band playing Friday has been renamed to "The Ultimate Losers") struggles with a girl he sort of knows. He offers to put her on the guest list and she waffles. The conversation is obviously awkward, but there's no outright rejection. She ends by saying in regards to the Friday show, "That might be alright." He looks over his shoulder at the departing girl with a hopeful smile, but we know she won't be there.

Does this mean that without causes and conflict that your life in modern society is wasted? Maybe. Maybe we can't achieve greatness without a great cause or conflict. Maybe it just leads us to a path of relative greatness. Pop culture poets and digital saviors like Puff Daddy and Bill Gates rise to ubiquity not necessarily through sheer talent and by triumphing over adversity, but through marketing and magnetism. Pleasure and ease become our definition, conflict gets written out of the cultural dictionary.

Let me tell you a great story about a certain slacker, and the concept of slackers, and the movie Slacker.

I was in Minneapolis in October, 2001, for a film festival. Reality already seemed rather skewed, as I had just flown in from Australia and was pretty jet-lagged.I found myself in a cab headed across town to one of the first films of the festival, and something really surreal yet very perfect happened.

The taxi driver was a totally amazing character. He was probably about my age, or maybe a little younger. Late 20s or early 30s. He was very friendly and talkative, and he was driving barefoot. I observed out loud this last fact, and he went into this patter about how he was taking it easy, that he only had this job so he didn't have to work too hard, so why should he wear shoes, that he was all about just relaxing, no worries, no ambitions, just living life, getting by, not trying too hard to do much. I sat there in rapt attention, amazed. He ended his little litany by saying, "I guess you could call me a loser, but that's the way I like it."

I said, well, I have a better name for that, better than loser. I'd say people like you are "slackers." He reacted positively and with some pleasant surprise at this characterization. He had actually never heard of the term, but he liked it. Yeah, I said, there's a whole film about slackers, you really should see it. It's called "Slacker." Wow, he said. He was totally amazed and excited. He really had never heard of it. Here was this guy who was totally oblivious to the fact that he was a living, breathing, perfect archetype. Yeah, definitely see that film, I said as I paid him and got out of the cab.

It made me really happy, I think because I had found someone who was living a subcultural lifestyle without being aware of the popular mass media representation of that lifestyle that had brought it into mainstream notice. He had arrived at his identity independently of the culture industry. Now I wonder if I ruined it for him by telling him about the film....

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