"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" isn't a movie 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 simply a film about people, in this case a 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, directed by 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 (a slacker favorite) conspiracy theories. One man is convinced we've been on the moon since the 1950s; another devotes his life to JFK conspiracy theories.
These slackers have so much to say because they have so much time to think. What else are they going to do with all that time when they're not working or not trying to plan their careers or get ahead in life or not doing all the things they're probably "supposed" to be doing? Rather than criticize them for this, "Slacker" embraces them. 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. With nothing but time on their hands, the people in Linklater's still manage to engage passionately with the world precisely by thinking about it so much and by choosing their own divergent paths in life. 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 twenty-somethings. 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 "Slacker." Linklater doesn't judge any of his characters, he simply observes them, and both respects and embraces 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 enquiry? Only history can ultimately winnow the wheat from the chaff.
Linklater is sometimes paired with Kevin Smith who directed "Clerks" in 1994. Both are 90's independent 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 almost entirely from comic books, television, blockbuster film and celebrity culture. Linklater draws on these pop culture touchstones as well, but his universe of references is much vaster. 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 remaking the same movie. "Slacker" is not a masterpiece; it only succeeds intermittently, at times hilarious and at others times positively 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 the vastly superior "Waking Life" (2001), in which Linklater once again follows a large cast (and animates them) as they try 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") in every way, 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 simply in watching and listening to people as they ask questions, regardless of the answers. It's the passion to ask, to learn, to always want to know more that turns Linklater on, and which makes his films resonate for audiences. Slacker or non-slacker, as long you're still asking questions, you're still alive.
The DVD is presented in the filmmaker's preferred 1.33:1 aspect ratio. Originally shot in 16mm, this digital restoration yields an amazingly clear, clean image. The low-budget film probably never looked this good the first time it was projected. Criterion became the elite name first in laserdiscs and then in DVDs because they've always worked from the best prints available and offered the finest restorations in the business. This 2-disc set is no exception.
The DVD is presented in Dolby Digital Stereo. The soundtrack has also been substantially restored to provide a clean, smooth track with hardly any pops or cracks. The film is almost all dialogue which is generally clearly audible. In a few cases, however, some of the dialogue can be a bit difficult to understand (this is a product of the original soundtrack as well as some of the slacker's speech patterns), but you can turn on the optional English language subtitles to get you through any rough spots.
The Criterion 2-Disc release of "Slacker" is absolutely packed (it's slackpacked!) with features from the trivial to the exceptional, all organized or perhaps disorganized in the anarchic spirit of the film. This will take a while, so go grab a drink.
The first disc contains the restored film and also comes with not one, not two, but three commentary tracks. 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 Disc One
1. No Longer Not Yet: 45 pages from the script. This was the original title of the project.
2. Showing Life: 15 min. of original audition tapes of the cast members. Interesting despite the poor sound quality.
3. Taco And a Half After 10: Home movies/behind the scenes footage on set (12 min.)
4. Les Amis: A short documentary (10 min.) called "Viva Les Amis" directed by Nancy Higgins. It chronicles the rise and decline of a popular Austin hangout called "Les Amis." I'm sure it's fascinating if you're from Austin.
5. Shooting from the Hip: A seemingly infinite photo gallery, which you access sequentially. I spent somewhere from ten minutes to three days (I lost track) clicking through the photos and still never got to the end.
Disc One just had the appetizers; here's the main course and dessert.
1) 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.
2) 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.
3) Austin Film Society: A collection of posters from the Austin Film Society. I figured this would be deadly boring, but the posters were a revelation. The AFS has featured an absolutely stunning collection of films from underground to Euro art-house to even more esoteric films. I'm jealous!
4) Ain't No Film in That Shit: 28 min. of outtakes. You also have the option to alternate the scenes with the "roadmap" (the script pages.)
5) 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.
Disc Two also features the Original Theatrical Trailer and "Slacker", a 1991 essay by Linklater on slacker culture.
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.
"Slacker" fans will cherish every bit of trivia and documentation on the set. More casually interested viewers will still be interested in the meatier offerings.
Whew! I warned you there was a lot, didn't I?
I'm already over 2,000 words and you want more? OK, a few more. If you're one of the "Slacker" fans (and there are quite a few) who've watched this movie dozens of times, this package is a dream for you, particularly with the opportunity to see Linklater's first feature. If you're a fan of American independent film, this set is an indispensable document of one of the most influential indie films and filmmakers of the 1990s.