The Rick-trospective: Slacker

A salute to Richard Linklater's body of work, one film at a time

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In honor of the November 7 release of Paste Movies Editor Michael Dunaway’s documentary 21 Years: Richard Linklater (in which Paste is the media partner), we’re going through the indie master’s entire oeuvre in order, film by amazing film.

Richard Linklater kickstarted his career with a wild assortment of murderers, musicians, philosophers, thieves, lunatics, conspiracy theorists, anarchists, artists, activists, celebrity-pap-smear peddlers, students, and various combinations of those things. Slacker often receives due credit for helping spark the modern independent film movement, yet for all the filmmakers it inspired, it’s still one of a kind. It is simultaneously bizarre and authentic in its depiction of the peculiar people of Austin, Texas, as they vocalize a mix of wisdom, madness and inanity. Linklater leaves it to us to decide which is which and filter accordingly.

The film’s conceit of a wandering camera that follows different characters through short vignettes was ideal from a logistical standpoint. Producing a film on no budget means you’re often improvising shooting schedules based on free time. Not having a leading role meant not having to worry about an actor flaking out, finding a better-paying gig or getting a haircut.

But Slacker is much more than a mere solution to a production problem. It has no lead actor because Austin is the main character.

Slacker’s genius is that it manages to be both part of its world and a wry observer. We can watch the sad-sack dumped guy and his vicariously destructive friend ceremoniously drop a tent and typewriter off a bridge, and laugh at their foolishness. But it’s a knowing laugh rather than a condescending one. We’ve all been disappointed in love, and can understand the heartbreak of both the dumped guy and his overbearing ringleader, who’s clearly exercising demons of his own.

Varying degrees of mental instability are represented, but not judged. Linklater said of Austin in his audio commentary, “You have a lot of people wandering the streets and you don’t know if they’re in government, university or released from the mental health hospital.” A couple scenes feature motor-mouths who ambush unsuspecting people with one-sided conversations. Mention that you don’t know where your friend is, and you could hear about mysterious disappearances, UFOs and government conspiracies. Pick up a book related to JFK’s assassination in a book store, and you could hear a ramble about every book ever published on that subject. The characters on the other ends of these conversations remain mostly silent, without offering many physical or verbal clues of their annoyance. (Note the woman’s subtle glances at her wrist during the JFK scene.)

The film isn’t technically perfect—at one point a boom mic even dips into frame—and some people mistake that for dull visuals. In truth, Slacker is exhilarating to watch. Linklater has a clear visual aesthetic as his grainy 16mm camera drifts around, finding different people to follow in long takes. Most compositional flaws relate to the roaming camera—the ambition didn’t always match the amount of film available to burn.

Linklater hasn’t since experimented with as many different formats in a single film as he does here. We see club footage shot with a Fisher-Price PixelVision camera. (“Man, there ain’t no film in that shit.”) The video-obsessive’s layer is like a multi-screen installation. The crowning achievement is the film’s finale, an explosion of excitement as a car full of young friends and Super-8 cameras heads up to the mountains. In one of cinema’s best expressions of carefree, joyous, experimental youth, “Skokiaan” plays as the group playfully passes their cameras around and eventually sends one of them off a cliff.

As Keanu Reeves will tell you in 21 Years: Richard Linklater, there isn’t a lot of actual slacking in the film. “Withdrawing in disgust is not the same thing as apathy,” says a fortune card from the woman in front of her friend’s menstrual-cycle yard sculpture. Many of these characters are driven by something, just not something that society has deemed to be of value. Slacker is about those who are willing to play with life and explore unusual things, and it is just as adventurous as its characters.

21 Years: Richard Linklater is produced by Tara Wood, Michael Dunaway and Melanie Miller, directed by Dunaway with co-director Tara Wood, and will be released theatrically and on demand through Gravitas Ventures. You can see the trailer and pre-order the film here, and get more info (including links to preview clips) here.