SLACKER – Blu-ray review

The main review was written by Christopher Long for Criterion’s 2004 SD release of “Slacker.” The Video, Audio, Extras, and Film Value sections address the 2013 Blu-ray re-issue by Criterion.

“I may live badly, but at least I don’t have to work to do it.”

A young man riding in a cab launches into an extended monologue on his theory of alternate realities. Every decision you ever had to make creates a new reality of its own, but you don’t know about it because you’re stuck in this one. What if he hadn’t gotten in the cab, but stayed back at the bus station. If he had, he would have met a beautiful woman who offered him a ride and they would have played some pinball and then moved in together. And that reality exists too, but he’ll never see it because he’s trapped in this one, except maybe when he dreams, he’ll dream about her and get a glimpse of what might have been. Then the cabbie drops him off and drives away. The young man sees an old woman lying in the street, obviously a victim of a hit and run driver. A few other people collect around the scene, as people tend to do at gruesome accidents, and the young man walks off to call someone on the pay phone.

And then he’s gone, and we move on to another character, in this case the driver who ran over the woman, who also happened to be his mother. Then he’s arrested, and we follow another character, and another, and another, spending a few minutes with each person and each story before racing along to the next one.

“Slacker” doesn’t burden itself with a main character or a coherent plot. It’s not even a movie in which the characters have actual names. Instead, they’re identified with labels such as “quotes Hitler,” “”pap smear pusher,” and “Tura Satana lookalike.” Instead, it’s a film about a collective (not not particularly connected) subculture in Austin, Texas identified as slackers. We’re all familiar with the term today, but it was popularized (though not invented) by this movie and director Richard Linklater in 1991. The film struck such a chord in the popular culture that the term “slacker” entered the language and Linklater came to be identified, if grudgingly, as the unofficial slacker spokesman.

What’s a slacker? The dictionary defines a slacker as “one that shirks work or evades military duty.” In the film, however, slackers come in all stripes and all ages, though they do tend be college age and most of them dress decidedly down. The slackers in Linklater’s movie also have an awful lot to say, and the film gives them an opportunity to hold court on a variety of subjects ranging from discussions of popular culture, literature, metaphysics and (apparently a slacker favorite) conspiracy theories. One man is convinced we’ve been on the moon since the 1950s; another devotes his life to ferreting out the “truth” about JFK.

These slackers have so much to say because they have so much time to think. What else are they going to do when they’re not working or not trying to get ahead in life or not doing all the things they’re probably “supposed” to be doing? “Slacker” is here to embrace, not chastise its characters for opting out. Indeed, “Slacker” is an ode to passivity, to the joy and even ultimate productiveness of idle rumination. Great ideas are hard to come by when you’re busy working twelve hour shifts in the factory. The people in Linklater’s film still manage to engage passionately with the world even while skirting its workaday center, and the outsider’s perspective provides occasional insight. As William Blake wrote, “Improvement makes straight roads, but the crooked roads without improvement are the roads of genius.”

Of course, only a few slackers are born to genius; far more are born to banality and absurdity. All the down time leads them to some pretty screwy ideas, and the adult slackers are just as guilty on this front as the youngsters. A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing, and if I have any complaint about “Slacker,” it’s the film’s tacit endorsement of a certain brand of intellectual relativism. It’s wonderful that the characters have so much to say, but some of them are in desperate need of a solid baloney detector kit to help them differentiate between the good ideas and the bad ideas.

But that’s not really the point of the movie Linklater doesn’t judge any of his characters, he simply observes them, respecting the silliness along with the profundity. Maybe that’s a wise strategy. Isaac Newton spent the last years of his life studying alchemy. Was he wasting his time or pursuing a potentially valid line of inquiry? Only history can ultimately winnow the wheat from the chaff.

Linklater is sometimes paired with Kevin Smith who directed “Clerks” in 1994. Both are ’90s independent film icons identified as providing a voice for the so-called Generation X. They are, however, radically different directors, and if I can pinpoint one major difference between them, it’s in their respective reference points. Kevin Smith’s cinematic world is built predominantly out of comic books, television, blockbuster film, and celebrity culture. Linklater draws on these pop touchstones as well, but his library is much more eclectic. His characters talk about Scooby Doo and the Smurfs, but they’re just as likely to discuss Dostoevsky, quantum physics, or Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Linklater is an art-house brat, and not afraid to show it.

I think that’s why Linklater’s subsequent work has yielded far fresher and more interesting films while Smith has mostly restricted himself to re-making the same movie. “Slacker” is not a masterpiece. It only succeeds intermittently, alternately hilarious and soporific. At 100 minutes running time, it also doesn’t quite know when to say goodbye. More than a decade later, however, we can look back on “Slacker” and understand how it laid the groundwork for some of the better Linklater films to come. “Slacker” plays as a sort of dry run for superior films like “Waking Life” (2001), in which Linklater once again follows a large (animated) cast as they seek to answer simple questions like the nature of life, the universe and everything.

In 2004, Linklater released “Before Sunset,” a sequel that exceeds its predecessor (1995’s “Before Sunrise”), and which qualifies as his finest achievement yet. “Before Sunset” reflects a similar set of concerns as most of Linklater’s other films, and it’s now clear that his primary interest is in watching and listening to people as they seek knowledge, regardless of the answers they find. It’s the passion to learn, to always want to know more, that turns Linklater on and makes his films resonate for audiences. Slacker or non-slacker, you’re only alive as long as you’re still asking questions.

Video:
The Blu-ray is presented in the filmmaker’s preferred 1.33:1 aspect ratio.

The film was shot in 16 mm so the image looks grainy and a little rough. The 2005 SD was a pretty strong transfer in its own right, and while the Blu-ray represents an upgrade, the difference is fairly minimal. Grain is a bit more noticeable in high-def and image detail just a bit sharper, but the film retains its proudly grungy but damage-free look.

Audio:
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track doesn’t sound particularly dynamic, but it’s not supposed to do. There’s a ton of dialogue and it is all mixed clearly enough. Optional English subtitles support the English audio, and you might need the subtitles to understand some of the Slacker-ese.

Extras:
Criterion’s 2-Disc release of “Slacker” in 2004 provided an absurdly stacked collection of extras, and most of them have been imported to this 2013 Blu-ray release. However, we have lost a few of the minor extras along the way, including the Stills Gallery and production/behind-the-scenes photos as well as the slacker culture essay by Linklater. Also missing is the poster collection for the Austin Film Society which is a shame because they were pretty cool. All of the remaining extras from the old 2-disc set have been fit onto a single Blu-ray disc.

The film arrives with the same three commentary tracks as before. The first is the Director’s Commentary and, for me, is the most interesting of the troika. The other two tracks are a Crew Commentary and a Cast Commentary. The latter, like the movie itself, ranges from the banal to the amusing.

The rest of the collection:

No Longer Not Yet: 45 pages from the script. This was the original title of the project. This is a text feature navigated by left and right arrows on your remote.

Showing Life: 15 min. of original audition tapes of the cast members. Interesting despite the poor sound quality. There’s also a brief text essay by casting director Anne Walker-McBay.

Taco And a Half After 10: Home movies/behind the scenes footage on set (12 min.)

Viva Les Amis: This is a 10-minute trailer for the documentary “Viva Les Amis” directed by Nancy Higgins. It chronicles the rise and decline of a popular Austin hangout called Les Amis, now replaced by a Starbuck’s. I’m sure it’s fascinating if you’re from Austin.

It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books: Linklater’s first feature film (85 min.) shot in 1988 for $3,000 on super-8. This was a real one-man effort by Linklater who filled just about every crew position. This is the gem of the collection, a real treasure for any Linklater fans. Slow, slower and slowest, the film follows a college student (Linklater) as he sits around the house, gets on a train, hangs out with friends, etc. Even more than “Slacker”, “Plow” shows Linklater’s art-house roots as he willfully avoids anything but the most tenuous narrative in favor of meandering, contemplative shots which often consist of little more than characters standing around as ambient sound washes over the scene. “Plow” is to Linklater as “Permanent Vacation” is to Jim Jarmusch. Jarmusch’s first film was also a slow, rambling feature which just followed its young, unmotivated protagonist around. “Permanent Vacation” remains almost impossible to find. Criterion’s collection rescues “Plow” from a similar fate. Is there any chance Criterion will give “Stranger than Paradise” the same stellar treatment they gave “Down By Law?” On the DVDTown scale, I rate “Plow” a 6/10.

Woodshock: A 1985 short documentary (7 min.) by Linklater and Lee Daniel (the D.P. on “Slacker”) about Woodshock, a music festival which started in Austin in 1981. The documentary is a throwback to the psychedelic festival films of the 60s.

 

Ain’t No Film in That Shit: 28 min. of Deleted Scenes and Alternate Takes.

End of Interview: A short film (20 min.) covering the 10 year anniversary reunion of the cast and crew of “Slacker” in 2001 in Austin. Some of the slackers have clearly moved on in life (de-slackered) and others remain almost completely unchanged.

The extensive collection wraps up with a 3-minute Theatrical Trailer.

The 68-page booklet has slightly different graphics and is assembled in a slightly different order than the booklet included with the 2004 SD release, but the content is otherwise almost identical. This includes an excerpt from John Pierson’s “Spike, Mike, Slackers & Dykes,” a review by Ron Rosenbaum from “The New York Observer,” an article by Chris Walters from the “Austin Chronicle,” an essay by Sony Pictures Classics co-founder Michael Barker, excerpts from Linklater’s film “Notebook,” and a short essay by director Monte Hellman on “It’s Impossible To Learn To Plow By Reading Books.”

Then there’s the 64-page booklet which alternates fantastic graphics with several essays, including ones by indy guru John Pierson and director Monte Hellman.

Film Value:
I’m not quite as fond of “Slacker” as I was when I reviewed the DVD eight years ago, but it remains a touchstone of 1990s independent American cinema, and Criterion sure as heck didn’t skimp on the extras. The Blu-ray upgrade isn’t a major improvement from the 2004 SD transfer and there are no new extras (in fact, a few are missing), so a double-dip isn’t in order, but this is still a very strong and very packed high-def release.

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