Slacker (1991)

Dir. by Richard Linklater

Fifteen minutes or so into Slacker, a college-aged guy (Tom Pallotta) steps out of a coffee shop and is greeted by Jerry Deloney, a fast-talking, 40-something conspiracy theorist in a Batman T-shirt. Tom is headed home, and Jerry invites himself along for the walk, unloading a stream of paranoid fantasies as they go. Anti-gravity technologies, Mars landings, “secret groups in charge of the government,” drug cartels, missing scientists—Jerry’s ideas sound deluded and absurd even when they creep into the realm of verifiable fact. (Fifteen years later, his warnings about greenhouse effects seem eerily prescient.)

On his commentary track on the Criterion DVD release of Slacker, writer/director Richard Linklater recalls his one direction to Tom:

“It’s very important how you react. This is the tone of the movie.” I didn’t want any judgment. I said, “Don’t look at him weird. Don’t judge him. That’s up to the audience to do.”

That refusal to judge, I’m finally realizing, is what attracts me again and again to Linklater’s films. Even in a genre picture like Dazed and Confused he avoids the typical teen movie cliches by affording equal value to all of his characters, regardless of their clique or social standing. That some of the characters come off looking worse than others (Ben Affleck’s O’Bannion and Parker Posey’s Darla, for example) is more the product of their particular behavior—a kind of socially-sanctioned sadism not uncommon among teens (and adults, for that matter)—than any too-simple, prescribed plot device.

Linklater, perhaps more than any other contemporary filmmaker, is alive to the potential and the basic human value of the men and women who walk in and out of his films. And he seems to have a particular fondness for the folks who live on the margins, whether by choice or necessity. Slacker takes on one particular marginalized community—that class of restless, searching, “underemployed” artists, musicians, and drop-outs who seem to congregate in the corners of all American college towns—but his attitude toward them is not markedly different from his treatment of those teenagers in Dazed, the lovers in Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, or the philosophers, scientists, and poets who drift through Waking Life: all are people of ideas with active imaginations and complex human desires. That we instantly fall into the habit of judging them is a bad thing, Linklater reminds us again and again.

The young men and women of Slacker often talk nonsense. Their ideas are seldom fully-formed, and the most articulate of the lot are occasionally guilty of parroting whatever book they’ve read most recently. There’s the “Dostoyevsky Wannabe” who grabs a pencil to transcribe his own pretentious ideas at the moment of inspiration, and the “jilted boyfriend” who reads from Ulysses as he tosses his friend’s typewriter from a bridge. The film is smart enough and self-aware enough to acknowledge that simply parroting others’ ideas isn’t enough. As in Waking Life, there’s an existential bent to much of the film, a constant debate between theory and action. “You just pull in these things from the shit you read, and you haven’t thought it out for yourself, no bearing on the world around us, and totally unoriginal,” one girl tells her boyfriend. “It’s like you just pasted together these bits and pieces from your ‘authoritative sources.’ I don’t know. I’m beginning to suspect there’s nothing really in there.” And by that point in the film, we’re already feeling a bit bored and a bit superior, and so we nod our heads in agreement.

But, while it’s not enough, reading and debating, becoming engaged with the world of ideas, is something of value, even when in its earliest stages of development and even though it can’t be easily commodified by a consumerist culture. Linklater refers to several of his characters as “uncredentialed authorities”—people like the JFK assassination buff, the old anarchist, and the video backpacker. They are experts in their various fields, knowledgeable and articulate, and yet they remain marginalized just the same. With a Ph.D. after their names or a five-figure price tag beside their art installations—with a credential—their place in society would be more secure, their market value more easily quantifiable. But, instead, they’re “slackers,” a term that has become derogatory in the years since the film’s release.

There’s something wonderfully subversive about Slacker. I think so, at least. Linklater gives us a world functioning within a different economy. People live communally in shared houses, taking with them little more than a pile of clothes and books. They repair their own cars using borrowed tools and junked parts. One stamp and a few licks gets several people into a bar for free. “I may live badly, but at least I don’t have to work at it,” one guy says. Of course, as anyone who has ever toyed with radical ideas knows, even alternative economies are slaves to “the real thing,” and so viewers of Slacker are forced to balance whatever romantic idealism they find in the film with the practical questions of life in capitalist America. I enjoy wobbly discussions of the Smurfs as much as the next guy, but somebody’s got to buy the next round of beers, know what I’m saying?

Is there a single issue more important in America today and more absent from our movie screens than class? We occasionally get one of those fairy tales about some guy (usually white) who has it all but who doesn’t learn to live until he is befriended by some world-weary and wise person (usually black) from the wrong side of the tracks. Or we get satires of the suburbs that ask us to “look closer.” But we seldom see films that fundamentally challenge the system itself. I love that Slacker, like a good documentary, explores this other world, this other economy, while allowing us relative freedom to judge its merits.

In one of Slacker‘s final sequences, an old man walks alone, speaking into a tape recorder.

My life, my loves, where are they now? But the more the pain grows, the more this instinct for life somehow asserts itself. The necessary beauty in life is in giving yourself to it completely. Only later will it clarify itself and become coherent.

It’s as close to a defining moment for Slacker as you’re likely to find. The first time I watched the film, I fixated on that last sentence, reading it as a challenge to anyone who would dismiss Linklater’s experiments in form. “Coherence is a lie of narrative cinema,” he seemed to be saying. (And I still believe that, by the way.) But now I can’t seem to get past the old man’s comments about the “necessary beauty” of the struggles of life. Or perhaps that should be the struggles with life. Active rather than passive.