Robertson Davies once wrote that “The world is full of people whose notion of a satisfactory future is, in fact, a return to the idealized past.” I wholeheartedly lump my naive romantic self into this group. As much as I wish I could live in the present, I’m constantly fed through the nostalgic umbilical cord of younger days. There’s a Delorean in my head that gets up to 88mph and throws me into an undeveloped piece of land in the early to mid ’90s, a couple miles away from a Ralph’s. My chronometric paradise would be that sweet spot between the alternative artistic boom of the late-’80s and the Internet boom of the mid-’90s.
Movies from this era make me ache for it. The beauty of the word-of-mouth. The patience of the busy signal. The finality of the written word. The glory of the analog. Before every song on Earth fit in our pocket. Before everything was over before it started. Before every idiot with a computer suddenly had a loudspeaker to propagate his own truth in total anonymity. Before the unified theory of hipster globalism started going through predictable, seasonal, anti-trends like an ironic Vogue magazine. Before every moment of every day became over-dissected and hyper-analyzed in bite-size real time. When technology got in the way of our friendships, instead of maintaining them for us. When the pond seemed little. When the world felt huge.
Richard Linklater’s minimalist classic, Slacker, is one long conversation about that time. Almost literally. It weaves its dialogue around plotless meandering and unnamed characters, most of whom are conspiracy theorists and other jaded coming-of-agers, on the socio-political fringes of G.H.W. Bush-era USA. Is it boring? Sort of. Is it important? Hell yes.
Before nothing was everything, Linklater made it something. His now trademark film-for-dialogue’s-sake was raw and fresh, and although more a U.S. reinvention of European trailblazers, the fluidity of his day-in-the-life framework was wildly influential. Linklater has denied the film’s status as a manifesto for the disinfranchised Generation X, and rightfully so. It’s much more a testament to the timeless angst and unrest of outsiders, wannabe outsiders, and young people in general.
However, more than Linklater the writer, actor or the philosopher, we’re interested in Linklater the prophet.
When Aldous Huxley wrote Brave New World, it was a satirical warning of scientific progress. His fictional ideas of test tubes, genetic engineering and endless drugging were vehemently and laughably dismissed by critics. Even H.G. Wells, one of his biggest influences, called him absurd in his extremism. But as Arthur C. Clarke said: If a prophet’s “predictions sound at all reasonable you can be quite sure that in 20 or at most 50 years the progress of science and technology has made him seem ridiculously conservative.” In Huxley’s case, life imitated art, and his fictions came to pass.
Linklater’s prophetic insight isn’t scientific, distopian or even overly obvious. And although some of the dialogue’s environmental paranoia is a good 10 to 15 years ahead of the masses, its not so much the things his characters say that we find ourselves awash in today, as it is the characters themselves. The young, aimless twentysomethings in his story that engage intellectually, and pursue the alternatives to success, career, expectations and general left brained-ness, would hardly be considered alternative by any of today’s standards. Today, every young person is considered an artist until proven guilty, painted with boring hues, an uninformed bore upon sentencing. One needs only to peruse the depressingly endless array of MySpace artist pages and Flickr accounts to realize that we all feel entitled to broadcast our art, despite motive, means or talent. A quiver of cultural and artistic tastes, a literal social necessity today, was a cool-kid specialty in Slacker’s era.
In 2011, taste is an art, art is work, and work is for people who only care about money. Which again, these days, is perfectly fine. Today Linklater’s characters would synergize art and commerce, tweet about @JackRuby’s ties to #organizedcrime, and bid for overpriced authenticity on ebay. And while the film became the blueprint for indifferent cool, the fact is that its characters wouldn’t believe you for a second if you warned them how it all turns out. They wear drunk goggles of idealism and naivete, just like us. Young, pure, romantic, selfish, short-sighted, real.
That a film without a plot or any real subject matter can dig so deep is precisely why Linklater matters and why, 20 years later, Slacker is so perfectly bang on.