Retro-View: Slacker (1991)

266305.1020.A

Downtown Sacramento, 1991: I have had four jobs this past year: Tower Video Clerk/Shift Supervisor; Tower Video Store Artist; MTS (Tower, Inc) Computer Clerk (I have no idea what I did besides write stories and input endless product code); and after bailing on Tower foreva (RIP), rent is due (310 dollars) so I need a job. Fast. I see an opening for data-entry clerk at the princely sum of around 10 dollars an hour. I find out it’s data entry for Goldie’s Adult Book Store on the edge of the downtown railroad tracks and a favored spot to pick up bottles of “Rush” in the dance park daze of 80’s. The 1990’s have officially begun in mad style. Tho I had fun and loved the bright energetic music, I was glad the pastel decade was over; I sense a green global pop consciousness for the 90’s while SEX, LIES & VIDEOTAPE signals that a new cool age of cinema is born. My theme song is the Pet Shop Boys anthem to action, “Being Boring.” I live large buying sacks of CD’s and tapes from Tower; snap up a 1964 Cadillac Sedan De Ville; regularly read my satiric tales and poems (“The Bastard Children Of Charles Bukowski’) at Drago’s Coffee Shop; go bungee-jumping off a railroad trestle; wind through my only stage role as The Narrator in Wendy Wasserstein’s UNCOMMON WOMEN AND OTHERS among an all-female cast; walk to laced screenings of SKIDOO or Spike And Mike’s Animation Fests at the beautiful Crest Theatre on K Street; and achieve a lifelong dream with a visit to Japan. I certified the epochal change by buying my first computer, the Mac Classic and a copy of Final Draft software. Still, I hated beer and coffee so I didn’t fit the mold of urban hipster and never tried to qualify for cultural acceptance. I mean, a-ha was my favorite band and I sure didn’t care for Nirvana.

But the center cannot hold and the sweet start to the 90’s turns slightly sour. I exit Goldies for new pastures and spend my waking life wandering from downtown haunt to haunt with friends and lovers, the days and nights blurring in a summer haze of stimulants and situations. I hang out at the local cafes and even the iced coffee is welcome in the 100 plus degree heat of downtown Sac. One lazy Friday on July 5, K. and I decide to go check out a new low budget film from Texas at the local Tower Theatre. The feature is of course, Richard Linklater’s SLACKER. Watching this for the first time in the cool confines of the deco auditorium was a quiet revelation, and we chuckled at the skewed snapshot portrait in the Day Of The Life of a collection of Austin eccentrics, the story passing like a torch from person to group and onward. The movie perfectly captures the ennui of a long sweaty summer day’s journey into night in a big college town, where intellectual lassitude permeates the culture. Shot on 16mm with a cast of professional and non-professionals for about 23000 dollars, SLACKER was the first cinematic representation of what shall be forever known as “Generation X” — another media meme like “beatnik” or “hippie” courtesy of novelist Douglas Coupland whose best-selling book kicked off the 90’s re-definition of youth culture; 80’s corporate was out and indie was in. I preferred the bitchy contrarian take, “Generation Ecch!” featuring Evan Dorkin’s brilliant satirical comics. Still, a seismic cultural shift was in the air.

Although I’d count SEX, LIES & VIDEOTAPE (1989) as the first true film of the 90’s, with its wry, sci-fi, prescient take on video voyeurism, SLACKER nailed the garage band cinematic landscape with its wide berth of local characters, some of who were actors and most who were not. Richard Linklater himself starts out the movie with a funny, thematic monologue about alternate existential routes of reality to a completely passive cab driver, foretelling the non-linear structure of the story. You get a sense immediately of the laconic rhythm of the movie and it’s impressive how slyly he navigates the cast from character to character. The nice thing is if you don’t like one train of thought, you know another is boarding soon. SLACKER really kicks into gear with the intro of Jerry Deloney aka “Been on the Moon Since the 50’s” as he’s listed in the credits (where nobody has a name but only their theme ) who has an enthusiastic, hilarious conspiracy monologue about the moon landing and greenhouse effects. If you’re not with SLACKER there, you probably won’t be for the rest of the piggyback snapshots. There’s not enough space nor time to go through every vignette, but each has its own life and flavor, sometimes ironically buttressing each other, such as when “Anti-Traveller” complains that visiting foreign lands is pointless as they all look the same and passes a woman who speaks of exotic spices wafting in the air of India. I love Charles Gunning as a hitchhiker who’ll go to work when he “hears the true call” and John Slate as the ultimate JFK conspiracist (who operated a grassy knoll Cadillac tour when I was living in Dallas). Then of course there’s Teresa Taylor pushing a “Madonna Pap Smear,” providing the film’s biggest laugh and iconic moment. Other notables include Wammo from the late, legendary Asylum Street Spankers as a smug “Anti-Artist” and Louis Mackay as a gleeful anarchist whose heroes are Texas terrorists (where anti-government radicalism is celebrated). Each character loves to talk and philosophize, the intellectual aura of a huge college town writ large across the film’s landscape.

Although SLACKER plays out like a multi-cast version of MY DINNER WITH ANDRE (1981), there’s more life and movement to the various narratives, and though Linklater is one of the most subtle, understated visual directors of his generation, the roving camera is always where it should be and the Kenner Price PixelVision POV sequence briefly elevates the film into an electronic hallucination, redolent of the era’s technological moment. And while the tone of SLACKER is unhurried as befits a hot, lazy summer day in Austin, the film ends on a kinetic footnote as a carload of youth shoot the passing world with a Super 8 camera, soundtracked by the joyous tune “Die Graskop Polka,” eventually tossing the camera off a ledge, highlighting Generation X-istential angst and confusion as the image spins round and round, an exuberant response to a dizzying universe.

As the Butthole Surfer’s haunting “Strangers Die Everyday” filled the theater, K. and I exited contemplative but happy, realizing that this movie had been made for us and so many others on the edge of the late 20th century. SLACKER was the cinematic equivalent to a punk show or garage sale flyer wallpapered across town. While I never shared the passive nature of the film’s characters, I understood their intellect and situation, even while presupposing that Austin looked like a sad, boring town. Of course, I learned the truth when I went from the sweltering streets of midtown Sacramento, wondering when my life was supposed to begin, to living and writing in the sweltering cultural Texas oasis of Austin by the end of the 90’s, the coolest city I’ve ever lived in, strolling down the Guadalupe Strip that serves as the story’s epicenter, inevitably meeting Richard Linklater and others from the film  in the flesh. SLACKER kick-started Linklater’s career, one I’ve followed closely over the years as he has ended up one of America’s best, unique directors, and his WAKING LIFE, made ten years after his first, is almost a psychedelic sequel, albeit far more active and hopeful as we touched on in an interview for “Creative Screenwriting”:

CD: WAKING LIFE is like a loose sequel to SLACKER, but more optimistic.

RL: It’s like a ten-year cycle back to something, but it’s different because there’s more narrative, where SLACKER has none. I would clearly define WAKING LIFE as a narrative, not a typical one, but there’s a story that merges from it. I agree with you on the themes, SLACKER had a certain disconnect and this is all about a certain psychic connect.

So on this familiar afternoon of heat and haze, I lift my iced coffee in tribute to the paths taken and untaken by the denizens of SLACKER and quote the immortal words of the late, never to be forgotten, Jerry Deloney aka Been on the Moon Since the 50’s:

“What a day, what a day.”

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9 Responses to “Retro-View: Slacker (1991)”

  1. Awesome, personal tribute to this seminal indie film from the ’90s. I remember being obsessed with this film one summer with a buddy of mine in college. We must’ve worn out the VHS tape we had of it. I remember seeing it after REALITY BITES and realizing what a commercial, Hollywood-dictated film it was in comparison to laid-back, lo-fi SLACKER. I became a Linklater fan from that film and have been an admirer of almost all of his films since then. He certainly has had a fascinating career and it was so cool that a couple of his films have been given the deluxe Criterion Collection treatment. I hope the rumors of a BEFORE SUNRISE/SUNSET set are true. I think that would be too much for me to bare as BEFORE SUNRISE is my fave Linklater film and one I cherish deeply.

    • christian Says:

      Thanks JD. Strangley enough, when I went to see REALITY BITES a couple years later, I came out quite melancholic, either because I wasn’t thrilled about a commodified version of a gen x pastiche or because some scenes hit home. The SLACKER and DAZED AND CONFUSED Criterion are awesome. Would love to see a BEFORE SUNRISE/SUNSET set. BEFORE SUNSET has one of the GREAT film endings.

      • Yeah, BEFORE SUNSET’s ending is a keeper and maddening if they don’t do another film! But it does keep in the spirit of the first film.

        I have made my peace with REALITY BITES and actually enjoy it a lot more now… probably now that I feel more nostalgic about it. It really is a nice snapshot of its times so I can’t totally hate it. Plus, it has Winona Ryder AND Janeane Garofalo so there’s that.

        • christian Says:

          I would not want to see a third film if only to preserve the nature of that final moment…

          I like things in REALITY BITES, Ryder is the most beautiful woman on the earth but Ethan Hawke’s character bugged me all the way through. Always love Garofalo.

  2. Frank B Says:

    SLACKER is the STRANGER THAN PARADISE of its decade. Man, was I irritated when that stupid high school comedy stole the title years later. (Okay, maybe it was called SLACKERS, but still. Show some respect, fuckers.)

    I’ve known a lot of people like the characters in the film. A LOT.

    I was surprised to learn that Austin has a downtown and is a reasonably large city. It looks like such a sleepy backwater in the film.

    I always hated REALITY BITES, too, but I can see J.D.’s point regarding nostalgia. I detested FRIENDS while it was on, but took comfort in the reruns during the Bush years. The Nineties looked pretty good in hindsight, even the fake Nineties depicted in the show.

    Strangers Die Every Day…oh yeah. The Buttholes were the perfect soundtrack to a bad trip. You’d think we’d have learned this after the first one.

    • christian Says:

      Yeah, the folks are familiar, especially in a college town. These discussions are still happening today. And Austin has some of the best coffee shops ever. SLACKER paints a more dispassionate portrait of the town and when you’re there, the people are welcoming and passionate and the city is trembling with some kind of Southern electricity.

      I could never handle FRIENDS. I thought they were boring. Gimme “Been On The Moon Since The 50s”…

  3. i adore linklater. i’m ashamed to admit i only just caught ‘me and orson welles’ recently, having missed it on its very brief theatrical release here, quite a delight.

    re: slacker, one day a while back while in a rush i was rooting around in a DVD bargain bin indulging my ‘thrifty’ side, having found a few good titles, and i spotted ‘slacker’ and was like ‘hell yes’ all stoked and quickly added to the pile, found a few more titles, quickly paid for them, got home later on and then realised i might seriously need glasses when filing away the precious to see that i had, in fact, purchased ‘slackers’. argh

    (count me in as someone who can’t wait for the ‘before sunrise/sunset’ blu-ray set, which there had better be at some point soon. one of the great love stories of modern cinema)

    • christian Says:

      Been awhile but just noticed your comment.

      ME AND ORON WELLES was quite nifty.

      SLACKERS – won’t see just because of the title.

  4. no worries — because of copyright infringement fears you can’t return a dvd/blu here unless the disk itself is faulty, so i’m stuck w/’slackers’, blech. it was a bit shit.

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