Judge Bill Gibron once spent an entire weekend on his couch watching movies...wait, that's what he does every weekend.
"I've traveled. And all it is, is bad water, bad food, you get sick. You
gotta deal with strange people. And when you get back, you can't tell whether it
really happened to you or you just saw it on TV."
Everyone has a personal philosophy they live by, an individual ethos that drives their entire existence. Maybe it's an aversion to red meat, or a tendency toward the doom and gloom aesthetic of Gothic ambience. From a love of sports to a hatred of particular races, people constantly misinterpret the meaning of things they believe in, using them as the foundation, instead of the flourishes, to their true identity. Usually a sense of self is not propagated on political positions or angst-filled agendas. Most people do live an existential existence, defined and determined by self. But what of those human who move beyond the basic, delving into underdeveloped areas where their own mindset can be manufactured, free of interference and outside influence? What kind of personality develops? What manner of individual rises up from this gray matter quagmire?
According to the population of a town in Texas, the result is a prototype, a new being that can be referred to by many names: beatnik, non-conformist, troublemaker, rabble-rouser, philosopher, bum, hobo, slacker. In the deadpan domain of such a specialized community, it's not who you know, or even who you think you are—it's what you believe and understand at your very core. Indeed, what makes up your private value system is what's important, as well as an ability to vocalize it. In his brilliant, brave 1991 film entitled Slacker, director Richard Linklater finally lets us in on the conversation that an entire generation of disaffected people have been having with themselves since disco destroyed the idealism of the 1960s. Left to fend for itself through the drug-fueled fallacy of the late '70s / early '80s, this former peace-loving romanticism has long gone rancid, and is now replaced by the stench of self-centered nonchalance. And this relaxed resolve has replaced activism as the new form of personal protest.
Facts of the Case
Austin, Texas. 1990. It's the end of the "greed" decade and the angst-ridden alienation of grunge is just a few months away. On one side is the binge-drinking dullness of the University of Texas, spreading its college town mentality like pools of grain alcohol puke throughout the community. On the other end is the State Capital, home to politics as perversion for the largest landmass in the Union. There, good old boys meet rednecks for a reconfiguration of both human and planetary rights. Smack dab in the middle is Austin's artist enclave, a few square miles of miscreants, scholars, poets, and disillusioned musicians. Like a citywide commune devoted to living life as one big simmering stewpot of propaganda and policies, we gradually begin to meet members of this extended farce of a family. There is the man who has developed his own dream logic, where paths not taken as part of your night terrors become alternative realities all their own. Then we meet a conspiracy theorist who has finally figured out what NASA has been hiding from us all these years. From the young man who has his own take on JFK's assassination to the recently released prisoner who can't wait to dance on his dead stepfather's grave, this coffee shop klatch wanders the alleys and side streets, interacting and interpreting what they see. Roommates are missing, lovers get angry, and new relationships develop slowly, like photos from an ancient roll of film. Politics become placebos as ideas are married to mannerisms in the never-ending exploration of self. This is the world of the ersatz wise and pseudo intellectual. This is the planet of the self-important. This is the slack in the fabric of time, and within its seams live that most meandering of insurgents—the Slacker.
The art of conversation is a dead skill in 2004. We no longer wish to engage in lengthy, insightful dissertations on long-ranging subjects like ethics and principles. We are the nu-tone generation, raised on the sound bite and brainwashed by spin. For the modern millennial mind, everything needs to be summarized, digitized, and downloadable in micro-mini files. Whenever we hear a person go off on a rant, encompassing ideas that are not easily understandable or integratable into our psyche, we dismiss the individual as a pundit, or blowhard, someone out of touch with the contemporary etiquette that more or less mandates you keep your fatheaded opinions to yourself.
There once was a time, not so long ago, where thinking was valued and the development of ideas and concepts was seen as a benefit, not a detriment to living. And the decision to share these emergent dogmas and doctrines was not only welcomed, but encouraged as if failing to free them from their mental domain could wipe out entire pathways to enlightenment. Some could argue that the overtly complex collections of conceits, quilted into a fully stuffed sense of purpose and self, is the inherent habitat of the slacker, that social stereotype of the lazy iconoclast with too much free time on their hands. As a result, they have the loser luxury of devising these outlandish lamentations, while the rest of the world has to go to work and earn a real living.
For director Richard Linklater (School of Rock, Dazed and Confused), "slacker" never had a downbeat connotation. Where now we view the individuals burdened with this moniker as leeches on the vital blood-vein of society, Linklater saw new bohemians, hippies transplanted from the dying lawns of Woodstock and recapitulated in the overt impracticality of the population of Austin, Texas. As much of a love letter to his hometown as an experimental spit in the eye of standard moviemaking, the film derived from that now-negative terminology, 1991's Slacker, marks the mainstream debut of one of the unheralded innovators of the modern independent film. As much as Jim Jarmusch and his Stranger Than Paradise marked the cornerstone of anti-Hollywood sentiment for hundreds of writer/director wannabes, Linklater (in only his second film ever) proved that there were masterpieces buried within the DIY ideal. Fusing a purposefully obtuse narrative style (no real story, just a constantly shifting focus between interacting characters) with a love of words and feelings, Slacker proved that a truly cinematic film could be made without a reliance on visual finesse or striking pictorial imagery. Linklater does make evocative use of his Austin settings, letting us get a real feel for the outsider nature of the town and its offbeat tenets. This tiny Lone Star enclave is home to the University of Texas and the State Capital, yet both overwhelming entities take a backseat to the local people who actually live and breathe the communal perfume of life in this burg filled with eccentricities.
Slacker is not really concerned with people as placards. None of the characters in the film have names. Sometimes, a proper name is mentioned, but for the most part, everyone in the film is identified by their individual credo. Indeed, this notion of people being known and understood solely through their thoughts, not their title, is inherent as a main theme in Linklater's world. Slacker argues that people can only really be recognized via their persona, not their career or their human calling card. Linklater expands on this basic premise to suggest that it's our internal monologue, those lengthy dissertations of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness that we keep secret in our swollen heart that truly formulates our being. Instead of letting his non-actors attempt to suggest or hint at such soulfulness through method performance or subtle gesturing, Linklater opens up each character's hidden gospel and lets the contents spill out onto the screen. There is a great deal of deep thinking in Slacker, so much so that an initial viewing may leave you perplexed and a little pissed off. The performers in this piece either rattle off their rhetoric at a lightning fast pace, as if possessed by demons of dissent, or slowly simmer and boil their brainstorms, allowing them to occasionally overflow their vocal banks and dribble out like drool from the corner of a crazy man's mouth. Yes, Slacker could be called a festival of twisted talking heads, each person here using personal propaganda as a means of garnering attention. But Linklater believes in the strength of sentences and the command of the mind, and what better way to celebrate this than a movie that gives varied voices a chance to contribute to the marketplace of ideas?
The "think for yourself" ideal of Slacker goes much deeper than just a bunch of braggarts running around spouting off at the mouth. This movie is a direct attack on the concept of truth. The vast majority of the film's segments revolve around conspiracies, secrets, unanswered questions, insider information, and outrageous personal insights—all of which fly directly in the face of the mainstream media and what they deem are the facts. While several of the circumstances are extreme—the JFK sequence orbits the outer rings of cabal criticism, while a NASA naysayer tries to convince us that the entire Apollo project is a cover-up for USA/Russia/alien race interaction—or downright daffy (Madonna's pap smear, anyone?), it is the idea of perception that Linklater is exploring, of how people gather and process their information into such deranged dimensions. If an anchorman (one of the real life examples of people who perform purposeful monologues on a daily basis) makes a statement about a circumstance, we are supposed to believe it to be accurate. Slacker argues that this is just one way of looking at life, a conformist attitude that disallows any individual interpretation or private outlook. Linklater seems to suggest that even the most out-there individual, tuned into their own warped wavelength and jamming on the agenda it provides, lives a better, more complete existence than Joe Punchclock who consistently tows the Establishment's totalitarian party line. There even is the suggestion that these different drummer denizens are the ones truly in harmony with the world, discovering the connections and making the mental leaps of faith that tend to provide progress, even as they grate against conventionality.
Expertly moving his creative cast through the insular insights densely packed into his script (which is almost like a novel in its descriptive and perceptive power), Linklater allows Slacker to blow with the winds, to change with the changing times and reflect different images of visual and verbal truth. A perfect example of how in sync the filmmaker is with his fallacy comes toward the end, when a bartender tries to lure a photographer back to his home with the offer of a viewing of Michelangelo Antonioni's masterpiece, 1968's Blow-Up. Within a few minutes of the suggestion, we see a group of young people—personal movie cameras in hand—constantly shooting themselves and their surroundings as they take in an outing by the lake. As the Super8 images hurl past the lens in a whirlwind of angles and objects, we suddenly lose sight of the significance. What the various amateur moviemakers are presenting is no longer distinguishable from reality. We are now lost in the cinematic statement they are making. How this all ties together is what makes Slacker so strong in its stance. Blow-Up is a classic film because it argues that what the camera captures may or may not be the truth. The fact is in the perception (again, one of Slacker's primary ideals) of how we see and experience it. So when we view the out of focus, flawed film of this anarchic celebration of carefree fun, we are left to draw our own conclusions. Some of the sequences suggest merriment. But there is also a sinister, almost mean spirit that permeates some of the takes. Just like Antonioni or Godard, Linklater leaves us to make up our own mind about what we are witnessing, and letting those conclusions color our reaction to the film.
A great deal about Slacker and your enjoyment of its peculiarities will be affected by what you, yourself, bring to the film. If the idea of characters chattering non-stop about completely insular topics tends to turn your mind into a narrow field of favoritism, then this may not be the movie for you. Slacker requires patience and a bit of logical leniency to appreciate its infinite charms. It is definitely a film that benefits from repeat viewings, allowing the novelty of the narrative conceit to wear off sufficiently to let the words and ideas really sink in. Slacker is a very literate movie, a film that follows a love of language to almost surreal extremes. It raises as many issues as it addresses and provides proverbs disguised as the random thoughts of an independently idle class for a new generation of lost, lonely souls. And as the numerous unsigned bands play their signature songs in the gritty dives and random ratskellers of this clashing college town, the real residents of Austin sit back and drink it all in. They relish the constant rewinding and replaying of life. They vibe off the media-free mindset of anarchy in attitude form. For the characters living out Richard Linklater's drudgery as dreamscape, existence on the fringe of normalcy is ritualistic and rancorous, filled with tiny daily battles that add up to more scars than satisfaction. But still, it's all about how you see things. For some, this dead end diorama is just a complicated concoction of an unseen cabal. For others, this is the ever popular tortured artist effect. In either mode, it's a world full of mutineers. From the outside looking in, it's a universe of slackers. And what an amazing place it is.
As odd of a choice for Criterion as several of their current crackerjack releases (Videodrome, Maitresse), Slacker is given a polish and a sheen so superb that words can hardly describe how dynamic this DVD truly is. All bonus ballyhoo aside, the visual look and aural appeal of this movie are magical. Striking a brand new, remastered 1.33:1 full screen print from Linklater's original source material, the entire panorama of stock elements the director utilized (video, 16mm, 35mm, 8mm, Pixelvision) are combined and crafted into a visual poem, a resplendent reminder of how amazing the pictures can be just outside your backdoor. Though a small amount of grain creeps in during a couple of shots—almost as if added on purpose to remind everyone of the film's low budget birthright—the picture is absolutely pristine.
On the sound side, Slacker has always been noted for featuring a small but powerful amount of evocative musical underscoring, and the Dolby Digital Stereo does a fantastic job of capturing its aural glory. But this is also a movie that rides on the back of its dialogue, and thankfully Criterion provides us with a crystal clear, defect free soundscape in which to enjoy the chatter.
But it is the bonus material that will drive most movie fans bonkers, trying to get their mind around the wealth of welcome context provided by the Masters of DVD Extras. Slacker has not one but three commentary tracks, each one exploring a different avenue of the production. Our first narrative comes from director Linklater alone, free-associating along with the film on the stories behind and the people in front of the camera. Listening to him discuss his source for many of his scenes, as well as the casting process and unbelievable success of the film, shows just how much Linklater was a part of, and in reality has never really moved away from, the characters he celebrates in Slacker. From the inspiration for the infamous "Madonna pap smear" sequence to the real life story of a son who ran down his own mother with a car (just like the second sequence in the film), Linklater lets us in on the creative process, making this first alternative audio offering a true explanation of the art of inspiration.
Track two presents the vast majority of the film's cast—each stepping in to offer insights during their individual scenes—to reminiscence and reflect on their participation. From this amazing amalgamation of talent, we learn the origin of the term "slacker," the behind the scene aspects of life in Austin, and some of the more mundane aspects of making an independent film. A few of the participants chat about the formation of the Austin Film Society, while many explain why they ended up dropping out of college. The overall feel is loose and lively and makes a nice companion piece to the film. The final commentary track is made up of members of the crew, featuring Linklater, his cameraman/director of photography Lee Daniels, and co-producer Clark Walker. While some of the insights offered are remarkable, particularly how they came across some of the more technical elements (Steadicam, crane) for the shoot, the overall presentation is dry, and kind of lethargic. You almost sense that it's an effort for these men to look back at this film from over 12 years ago.
Additionally, as part of Disc One, Criterion provides a cornucopia of extras that help to flesh out our understanding of Slacker's creation. First up is a text-based look at the original "script," a collection of detailed cards listing potential sequences for a film called No Longer: Not Yet (it's amazing how many of these ideas made it into Slacker). Next we are treated to almost 15 minutes of cast interviews, making up the majority of the process Linklater and crew used to populate his picture. "Taco-and-a-Half After 10" is like a behind the scenes look at the making of Slacker, except it is in a non-focused, home movie form. Then there is "Shooting from the Hip," which actually plays more like a legitimate "making of" for this movie, except in a photo gallery/stills format. The final facet of Disc One is a ten-minute "trailer" for a documentary-in-the-making about the Les Amis Cafe, an Austin restaurant and institution that was torn down (to be replaced by a Starbucks) in the mid-'90s. There is a nice, casual narrative to the preview and it really makes you want to see the film proper.
That's still not all. Disc Two begins with a chance to see Linklater's first film, the evocatively titled It's Impossible to Learn to Plow By Reading Books. The minimal plot is about as simplistic as a story can get: A disaffected college student spends the summer traveling around the country, meeting up with friends and family, and learning to understand the world outside his university town. Linklater stars as the young man and did everything on this film, from direction and camera work to editing and acting. The results are suggestive and mundane, dull and deceptive. The film seems like the first shaping of a huge home movie project with lots of aimless sequences combined with elements that really give us acuity into the mindset of the time and place. Virtually silent with minimal dialogue, this 85-minute project is well worth seeing, if not revisiting more than once. Visually, this is a minor technical work, with lots of 8mm grainy footage and natural lighting incidents. Still, the 1.33:1 print is presentable. Sonically, the audio tracks are muffled and muted, like the dialogue and effects were mastered inside cotton. Linklater offers a commentary for the film, which consists of "making of" information complemented by biographical discussions. We learn a great deal about how the filmmaker lived, what his daily life consisted of, and his connection to art—writing, painting, filmmaking. Some of the visual concepts are so insular as to resonate only with Linklater, but the overall effect of Plow is of a creator getting in touch with his muse for the first time.
And if this first film was not enough, Criterion unearths Woodshock, an early short collaboration between Linklater and Lee Daniels that pays direct homage to the original peace and music festival, while showcasing an actual Austin rock concert. There is a real '60s atmosphere to the footage, using overlapping imagery and random cuts to capture the manic mood of that day. We are next treated to a text-based examination of the Austin Film Society that provides a couple of engaging essays about the group, as well as a series of flyers highlighting its activities. As part of a look at the script of Slacker, there are several deleted scenes presented—additional takes and longer sequences left on the cutting room floor or trimmed for timing or tempo. Of this material, the best are an extended bit between the anti-traveler and his friend, and an argument about the importance of family, set inside a local bar. They can be viewed separately (through a "Play All" feature) or as part of the actual outline for the script. The visual presentation is a little erratic (some parts look pathetic, while others offer a halfway decent image), but this chance to see what was removed from this movie is eye opening. Linklater also adds an essay, an in-depth and philosophical look at the concept of "slackers" and argues against the pigeonholing of free thinkers as worthless bums. Finally, we are witness to a ten-year reunion of the cast. Meeting in Austin to celebrate the film, Linklater and a wide variety of the actors and crew return to reminisce and rejoice in the fantastic film experience they all played a part in. The Q&As, both on stage and separately, are heartfelt and honest. It's a wonderful final feature as part of this flawless DVD presentation.
So, when exactly did we stop valuing creativity? When did we decide that someone who wants to express themselves artistically, intellectually, or emotionally no longer had a worth to the rest of the world? You could argue that Gordon Gekko and his advice toward avarice made the avid love of money seem shiftless and silly. Or maybe it was the gradual embracing of the whole yuppie/preppy concept of conforming to the social fabric. From hobo to the homeless, there has always been a distinction between the worker and the dreamer, a war of wills where those who need a job ridicule those who don't require its capitalistic cornerstones to exist—and visa versa. Certainly, many famous faces in both industry and the arts have emerged from this battle, world weary and circumstantially defeated. But why do we mock the painter in preparation, or the writer in respite, when just a few years down the line the media and the masses will admire their canvases or live by their literacy. Perhaps it's all in the knee-jerk, the gut level reaction that pits jealousy against liability as the basis for a life fulfilled or un-rewarded. Socrates once argued, "The unexamined life is not worth living." For the characters in Slacker, their bohemian existence may seem pointless and meandering. But they do, indeed, live an existence well considered. And for some philosophers, even those wandering the streets of Austin, Texas, this is the very basis of humanity.
Slacker and its director, Richard Linklater, are found not guilty and are free to go. Criterion is praised for providing yet another remarkable DVD package and all charges against the company are dropped. Court adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
• Director Commentary with Richard Linklater
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