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Slacker: Freedom's Just Another Word for Nothing to Do

About a year and a half ago, a friend and I found ourselves exiled to a cold Midwestern city, where we spent most of our time missing the lazy Texas college town that shaped our idea of the good life. One night we stood in a crowded club and tried to figure out why the smiling, well-fed Midwesterners bugged us so much.

“They’re sort of like Austin people, but their clothes are too nice,” I ventured weakly.

“They’re not like Austin people at all,” she said, cutting my argument off at the knees. “These people get up and go to work every morning.”

Slacker: The title of Richard Linklater’s stroll through a day in the lives of a hundred-odd Austin limbo dwellers started as a joke shared by the first-time director and his tireless, unpaid crew—“Get to work, you slacker!”—and grew into a code word for the world the movie describes, the term that summed it up best.

Financed by loans from friends and relatives, a grant from the Southwest Alternative Media Project, and a sale to West German television that repaid the friends and relatives, Slacker was a hit at several film festivals this year. A glowing notice just appeared in the July-August issue of Film Comment, and Linklater’s phone is ringing itself silly. He’s entered it into consideration for the Toronto and New York festivals while he waits for a distribution deal that won’t follow the “Large print giveth, small print taketh away” rule. It remains to be seen how well Slacker will go over with the bulk of the moviegoing public. But for the time being, Linklater (who also wrote the dialogue—with plenty of input from his actors—and produced) and his principal collaborators—cameraman Lee Daniel, production/casting manager Anne Walker, gaffer Clark Walker, sound mixer D. Montgomery, editor Scott Rhodes, and continuity/wardrobe manager Meg Brennan—can savor the fact that the movie has yet to receive a bad review, and that audiences from Seattle to Munich have already been moved by its antic weirdness.

Few of the many films shot in Austin over the past ten or fifteen years even attempt to make something of the way its citizens live. Slacker is the only one I know of that claims this city’s version of life on the margins of the working world as its whole subject, and it is one of the first American movies ever to find a form so apropos on the themes of disconnectedness and cultural drift.

No plot, no major characters, no suspense: just fleeting glimpses of bohemia in its twilight phase. Linklater inverts the basic motif behind almost every Hollywood narrative—ordinary people in extraordinary situations—and composes his movie entirely from incidental scenes, most of which would barely rate as background in a standard drama.

Playing the part of a nameless guy who rides a bus into town one morning, Linklater introduces his method by launching into a wiggy monologue once he’s inside a taxicab. What if all kinds of separate realities, he wonders, exist in the choices we don’t go with? What movies happened down the paths of the yellow brick road Dorothy and the Scarecrow didn’t take? The cabbie remains oblivious; it is the first of many impassioned screwball tangents to bounce off indifferent ears.

The guy gets out of the cab at Twenty-fourth and Nueces, sees a woman get run over by a car, and goes to the corner pay phone to call for help. The camera eye slowly pulls back until it sees another nameless guy, this one pulling into the driveway of the apartment building next door, and follows him upstairs into another story already in progress. The guy from the bus is never seen again, and the shift from his scene to the next is only the first link in a daisy chain that winds all over the central city and into the next morning, one discrete episode after another.

Fluid transitions and long takes are crucial to the success of this narrative strategy, and thanks to the tracking shots, the likes of which are seldom seen in ultra-low-budget features, most of them come off superbly. Some of them even turn into effective aesthetic tropes, as when a woman from India (Gina Lalli) who is talking about her country to a friend stops in midstride and announces that the next passerby will be dead in a fortnight. Along comes an average joe (Frank Orrall, one of an army of nonactors who turn in fine performances), loping down the street without a care in the world. Within minutes he is foiled by a newspaper vending machine and verbally assaulted by lunatics in a breakfast bar—a black cloud really does follow him around. The last we know of him is the off-camera sound of a car skidding to a halt just after he steps into the street.

Whatever their separate realities, all of these characters are linked by the lack of any activity drug counselors have in mind when they talk about “useful, productive members of society.” They do what people in this town have always done in the Sargasso Sea between college and the dark day when some kind of lasting career choice must be made. The hours of the day stretch out like rows of empty sandboxes: They sleep late, go out for coffee and a newspaper, hang around in bookstores, watch movies, lie around in bed arguing, practice the art of the guest list pickup. “We’re playing Friday. If you wanna come, I can put you on the list . . .”

Anything can happen. A housemate disappears and leaves a stack of quasi-fictional postcards explaining that he has gone off to become a terrorist and will return someday bearing homemade nuclear devices. A film buff (Clark Walker) stops work on an ancient projector he is converting to a camera and visits a new friend (Kalman Spelletich) who fine-tunes video loops of disasters and violence in a tiny room stacked to the ceiling with monitors. “Well, we all know the power of the televised image, but we need to capitalize on it and make it work for us instead of us working for it,” he explains, his movements slightly hampered by the television he wears on his back.

Slacker floats on a river of wild talk. “My current response to every worldwide or personal tragedy is, It’s disgusting. I hope it gets even worse,” says a Dostoyevsky wannabe (Brecht Andersch) holding forth at Quackenbush’s. He quick-shifts into a true slacker’s manifesto. “Who’s ever written the great work about the immense effort required in order not to create? Intensity without mastery. The obsessiveness of the utterly passive. And could it be that in this passivity I shall find my freedom?”

“You know about the suppressed transmission, of course? No? Oh, well,” a manic beatnik (Jerry Delony) raves to a student he’s button­holed on the sidewalk. He careens through a unified field theory of paranoia that links government cover-ups of extraterrestrial contact, the space hoax (“Antigravity technology. We stole it from the Nazis after the end of World War II. It’s perfectly obvious.”), the greenhouse effect, CIA intervention in everything, the Medellín drug cartel, and missing children. Things are speeding up here at the end!

At a nearby co-op, a guy in round glasses (Ron Marks) goes on about the numerical fallacy behind George Bush’s mandate. Eyes shining, a goateed wacko (John Slate) corners a young woman in a bookstore and gives her a crazed rundown on JFK assassination literature. Turns out he’s writing a book of his own, Profiles in Cowardice, though his publisher wants to call it Conspiracy A-Go-Go. Much later, in a café after dark, two scruffy guys discuss the hidden politics of Scooby-Doo and the Smurfs as their foreheads graze a sea of empty beer bottles.

You can live in one of the most sociable towns on earth and still be cursed by loneliness, so it is especially poignant when one of the movie’s speakers finds a willing listener. Coming home from the grocery store, a man of late middle years (Louis Mackey) and his daughter (Kathy McCarty) surprise a forlorn young man in the act of burgling their house. “No one’s going to call the police or anything,” the old guy assures the kid. “I hate the police more than you, probably. Never done me any good.” It seems he is a scholar of anarchist history; he invites the kid out for a walk, where he says something that lingers in the mind long afterward. “It’s taken my entire life, but I can now say that I’ve practically given up on not only my own people but on mankind in its entirety. I can only address myself to singular human beings now.”

As Mackey’s character talks about wanting to blow the Texas legislature sky-high, the movie starts to fill with energy of wishing, a kind of yearning that wells up with particular intensity at the end of a century. Evidence that twentieth-century radicalism has long been at the end of its tether pervades the movie; the people who inhabit it are overwhelmed by a sense of waiting for the fullness of time to bring word of something—anything—new. Most of them are too young to remember a time before official culture devoured or colonized everything that once held out a promise of vitality; they’ve claimed inertia as their birthright. The all-but-total decay of public life has atomized others into subcultures of which they are the only member, free radicals randomly seeking an absent center as the clock beats out its senseless song.

The movie buries its treasure here, in the crevasses of its drollery and craziness. Nothing in the current climate is more permissible than mocking or reducing such people; Slacker celebrates their futility as a sign of endurance and mourns the passing of time by marking it with emblems of affection and empathy, the only prizes worth having.

The following essay originally appeared in The Austin Chronicle, July 27, 1990. It is reprinted here with permission of the author.

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