Slacker (1991)

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*. A lot of the people who dislike this movie do so because they dislike the people in it. The slackers. They seem like prototypes of the currently (as of this writing) despised hipster. Indeed they might not even be prototypes so much as the advance guard. The London photographer identifies the Anti-artist as “one of those neo-poseur types that hang out at coffee shops and doesn’t do much of anything,” and several other characters are easily identifiable as the hipster type avant la lettre, even without beards and scarves.
*. I don’t dislike these people, at least as a type, and as I was a university student at the same time I can even recognize a bit of myself in them. It’s perhaps because of this identification that instead of finding them annoying they only get me down.
*. The next question is what Richard Linklater’s opinion is of these people. Does he despise them? I don’t think so. He says on the Criterion DVD commentary that he was disappointed when “slacker” entered the mainstream as a pejorative term, having always thought of it as a “badge of honour.” He even says that “doing your own thing,” which is what the slackers are all about, is “kind of heroic.”

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*. Elsewhere he has put it this way: “Slackers might look like the left-behinds of society, but they are actually one step ahead, rejecting most of society and the social hierarchy before it rejects them. The dictionary defines slackers as people who evade duties and responsibilities. A more modern notion would be people who are ultimately being responsible to themselves and not wasting their time in a realm of activity that has nothing to do with who they are or what they might be ultimately striving for.”
*. I’m not so sure about this part. I wouldn’t call everyone here lazy, but society clearly has left them behind in an economic sense. They are not one step ahead of anything. And this is a big part of what gets me down about them.
*. Mostly, the slackers are students. The few who most obviously aren’t are either old men or criminals. But what are they students of? I don’t think they’re MBAs or in law or med school. They’re not engineers or science majors. Instead, the sad joke is that they’re what had become, by the 1980s, the ring of scum around the university bathtub. They are students of the arts and humanities. Their interests are music, literature, film, history, and philosophy. Which means they have no role at all to play in modern life.
*. This is why they seem so adrift. While perhaps not lazy (a charge Linklater fiercely resists), they clearly aren’t getting much done. Hence the refrain we hear throughout the film of people being asked what they are up to and them saying “nothing much” or “um, nothing.” One of them has a band practice in another five hours, so . . . there’s the rest of the day shot.
*. But they are more lost than even this implies. They are a hundred performers in search of an audience. As Linklater sits in the back seat of the cab he drones on about alternate realities while the cabbie is clearly paying no attention to him at all. This encounter becomes the model for almost all the subsequent engagements. Even the band at the end is playing to an empty club. As Linklater points out in his commentary over this scene, most dialogue is a conversation and involves interaction but “this movie is very one-sided.”
*. Essentially what we get are a series of monologues delivered to people, like the cab driver, who give every appearance of being zoned out or wanting to be somewhere else. Linklater specifically instructed these auditors not to respond to the monologues, not to judge anything being said. So we have endless scenes of people talking to human walls.
*. Their response to this is to turn inwards. If the slacker is the first coming of the hipster he is also a prototype of the blogger. It’s 1991 so the Internet hasn’t fully arrived yet, but it’s there glowing on the horizon. We can see it most obviously in the office of the Video backpacker, but also in the carefree envoi as the car full of young people turn their cameras on themselves (doing their bit to pollute a park while they’re at it). You can see this as the film swallowing its own tail, or a preview of the rise of the shaky cam (I half expected to see a monster burst out of the woods and eat them), but I think mostly it’s just the terminal point arrived at by artists (or people who study the arts) who have lost any thought of an audience and are just reveling in self-indulgence. This is the way the arts end: not with a bang but with a YouTube channel that gets twelve views.

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*. One offshoot of this failure — and make no mistake, that is what it is — is the constant self-denigration of the artistic class. Though intelligent, they seem to take delight in making themselves sound stupid. Their monologues are something very different from the arguments about pop culture we get in Tarantino. In Tarantino we’re listening in on people who are talking smarter than they are, much as they dress up-class in suits and ties. Tarantino’s gangsters and sundry aren’t university students, only having been educated in the school of MTV (not life). In comparison, in Slacker the characters are, mostly, very well educated, but don’t act like it, and seem not to care very much about anything they’ve learned. They are representatives of the closing of the American mind: not interested in anything aside from doing their own thing and expressing their own half-baked philosophies.
*. I want to extend the comparison to Tarantino, and in particular Pulp Fiction, just a bit. Like Pulp Fiction, Slacker is a movie built out of talk. But in Tarantino the people argue while in Linklater they deliver set-piece speeches that define individual scenes. As already noted, nobody is really listening to them. Also very different is the importance in Tarantino of structure. His stories intersect in various interesting ways, while in Slacker there is really no attempt at structure at all.
*. Slacker is the type of film that seems to want us to make connections, but offers none. There isn’t even the illusion of a thread holding it all together. I believe only one of the actors appears twice, and I don’t think he’s meant to be playing the same character. None of the stories loops around to be reintroduced later. The people we meet are simply left behind like bubbles in the film’s wake.
*. In this way it’s really an anti-conspiracy film. Conspiracy is a leitmotif  — Been on the moon since the 50’s, the Conspiracy-A-Go-Go author, the Video backpacker, the Old anarchist (if that’s what he is) — but the lack of any connections between the dots frustrates any sense that there might be conspiracies at work.
*. During his commentary for Pink Flamingos, John Water expresses surprise at the credit he was given for having so many long takes. This hadn’t been something he’d done for any aesthetic reason but just because he couldn’t afford editing. I thought of that here. But while long takes are cheap, they are not easy, and Linklater (and his cast and crew) deserve a lot of credit for making them work. It’s really remarkable how a largely non-professional cast pulls them off.
*. The pacing is also nicely maintained. All things considered, this is a very well made film that, if it doesn’t go anywhere, at least doesn’t lag in its peregrinations.

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*. Why would Rachael be worried about the guy at the door licking her wrist when she’s just seen her friend lick her own wrist to get the stamp? That seems like a mistake.
*. It’s a movie that’s very much of its time. I think Linklater is aware of this, as he has a thing for this kind of time-capsule sensibility in his movies. But the time can also become a label, as Linklater is also aware of. On the commentary he talks about the historical moment of the slacker, which included Coupland’s Generation X, Nirvana, and the Seattle grunge scene. The generation became a brand (it was “never content based”): something publicists could roll with and which could be used to sell stuff. The target audience created by marketers became the subject itself and Linklater found this speedy co-option creepy. In his contemporary review Roger Ebert remarks that “We are listening in on a whole stratum of American life that never gets paid attention to in the movies.” That was going to change in a big way.
*. Linklater wanted the song that plays over the end credits to be Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?” but couldn’t afford the rights. Thank heavens. What a mistake that would have been. It would have been trite, and without any connection to the people whose lives we’ve just been watching pieces of. Whatever else you think of them, the Butthole Surfers were the correct choice.
*. I like Slacker, in the sense that I enjoy watching it. But it’s not a movie that repays many subsequent viewings. Is it because we’ve grown more familiar with the type, and fallen out of love with them? Perhaps. But the type has always been with us. Maybe it’s the way they’ve become a marketing cliché, or the fact that their patter just doesn’t sound as fresh decades later (the fate of all cleverness).
*. Or perhaps it’s just natural to want to turn the page. Think of the backlash in the 1980s against hippies. People who were once thought, or who thought themselves, to be idealists came to be recognized as either sell-outs or just bums. Twenty-five years later, where are the slackers? Still in the coffee shop I guess. Upstairs is the Austin Film Society. The next generation, self-pitying but not without some justification, might still be redeemed. But it will have to be on YouTube. As for me, I don’t hate them. But even though I want to like them — I really do — I just don’t have it in me.

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2 thoughts on “Slacker (1991)

  1. Dan

    Hi Alex. I hope you understand that as you carefully explain just how this film portrays “the ring of scum around the university bathtub” you are veering off towards a tone that reminds me of a very different group of disaffected youth– the followers of fascist dictators in the 1930’s. You really sound as if you may subscribe to the idea that economically marginal people really don’t have a strong and valid claim on the right to exist. This is dangerous territory. Please don’t make the mistake of thinking that contemporary society invented responsible adulthood. All this has been done before, and the outcome of this kind of thinking is usually bad.

    Or maybe I misunderstand. I follow your blog because intelligent discussion of film is rare enough to make a thoughtful writer like yourself stand out as a beacon of intellectual entertainment. But perhaps you are a neo-reactionary and have grimly decided that slackers are, in fact, wicked in some way. Perhaps you really do feel that “slackers” are probably immoral people who are parasites, living off of the productive work of good people. But, even if you do think this way, you should be on guard against slipping from ambiguous sympathetic distaste into active contempt. Artists and intellectuals are always handy words to use instead of “losers.” But they are the salvation of the world. Don’t lose sight of that.

    As our society becomes more and more independent of the means of production (as energy becomes cheaper and all production becomes automated) the slacker is the prototype for the human being of the future. We are all becoming slackers whether we like it or not. Trying to stop this process is like trying to hold back the tide. At some point, that ring around the university bathtub will replace the bathtub. The old “productive member of society” will no longer even be remembered. This is a natural part of human evolution. Please don’t waste your time trying to rebuild the Roman Empire with happy slaves whistling Dixie. Join us slackers! We’ll be waiting for you.

    P.S. I’m a Linklater fan and see a strong resemblance in this film to “Waking Life.”

    Reply
  2. Alex Good Post author

    Thanks for the response Dan.

    I was only trying to make a rhetorical point with the ring of scum remark (that this is how the humanities are perceived, and were increasingly being perceived at the time, which is to say useless), but it’s a point that gets me to the question of why Slacker, which I think is meant to be an upbeat film, depresses me.

    As I say, I identify with the slackers. I was a university student, studying English, at the same time (the early 90s). And yet, for all of Linklater’s affection for them, I don’t think they’re presented in a positive light here. At best they are kind of pathetic. Nobody seems much interested in what they are saying or doing, which has led them into lives of eccentric self-absorption. In many cases they seem to be trying to sound less intelligent than they are, almost as a defensive gesture (the irony escape). The fact that they are predominantly artists and students of the humanities (writers, musicians, filmmakers, philosophers) struck me as a sad statement: here are all of these likeable, well-educated, earnest young people and there’s really no place for them or role for them in society. It’s not just that most of them don’t have jobs, but that nobody cares about them or what they think or do at all.

    I don’t think this is how Linklater wants us to feel about them, but I don’t think he makes a case for their lifestyle or their education by presenting them in this way. I feel very much that these are people being left behind — and this was 1991, before the Internet came along and cratered the cultural economy and left us all writing blogs. These poor kids (much like me at the time) didn’t know what was coming.

    I think the slacker could only be a prototype future human if we imagine a post-scarcity future, which I think we’re going to miss. Instead I think things will only get worse. But I’m a dystopian.

    Reply

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