That’s All Folks

Richard Linklater, Slacker, 1991, 16 mm, color, sound, 100 minutes.

RICHARD LINKLATER’S SLACKER has the most evocative cast list in movie history: “Roadkill” (Jean Caffeine), “Dostoyevsky Wannabe” (Brecht Andersch), “Been on the moon since the ’50s” (Jerry Delony), “Tura Satana look-alike” (Heather West), “Pap smear pusher” (Teresa Taylor), “T-shirt terrorist” (Mark Harris), “Sidewalk psychic” (Gina Lalli), “Traumatized yacht owner” (Lori Capp), “Recluse in bathrobe” (Bongo Don Stroud), “Shut-in girlfriend” (Janelle Coolich), “Conspiracy-A-Go-Go author” (John Slate), “Video backpacker” (Kalman Spelletich), “Having a breakthrough day” (D. Montgomery), to name only a handful. Instead of being the extras, the tail-end nobodies after the Important Actors and Journeymen/women, these are the stars. And in their flat, persuasively ordinary way, nearly all of them shine.

Linklater’s 1991 film is a masterpiece of screwball ethnography, examining that tiny but vociferous Anglo-American branch of the Slacker tribe ensconced in an Austin enclave bordered by the university and the state mental hospital. Their designations don’t just reflect characters; they embody worldviews, the portable reality each person here carries around like a talisman, a banner, or that hilariously cumbersome video backpack. In the process, worlds don’t so much collide as graze each other in passing, as the camera slips from one seemingly random five-minute-or-so encounter—typically centering on a personal monologue/rant—to the next. Oddly, no one in the film takes public transportation, but anyone who rides it will be familiar with the mode of discourse, and with the whole merry-go-round of monologists and ranters, soul-barers and bullshitters.

In its unostentatious, lo-tech, 16-mm way (with effective inserts of 8 mm, Super 8, and Pixelvision), Slacker was cinematically savvy. Amid the movie’s casual everyday textures, Linklater was able to pay his respects to Eraserhead (1977) and Videodrome (1983) without making a big deal about it: He operated in stealth mode, flying under the radar, even as Slacker would become an inadvertent touchstone. Its title got swept into the big zeitgeist marketing smoothie that came to include Nevermind (1991), Generation X (1991), and (on the higher visibility/lower credibility end of the spectrum) Reality Bites (1994). As Bob Dylan said in his own slacker anthem back in 1966: “They all fall there so perfectly / It all seems so well timed.” But really, from “Stuck Inside of Mobile (With the Memphis Blues Again)” to Harvey Pekar’s menial-living comics in the 1970s, the groundwork had been in place for quite a while. The surprise of Slacker was in part the novelty of its subtly organized kitchen-sink aesthetic, its informal formalism, and deadpan nonjudgmental attitudes, but in another sense it was: What took you guys so long?

Twenty-odd years later, a lot of the fringe-dwelling antigovernment/quasi-libertarian ideas percolating in the minds of these steadfast marginals and dropouts and “drag worms” (Austin slang for street people) have gained traction. Jerry Delony’s bravura rap about missing persons and space colonization could have supplied the underpinning to The X-Files (and maybe it did). Conspiracy theories are like porn nowadays—ubiquitous, thanks to the Internet and squawk radio and cable agit-prop. (Video backpacker’s “contraband tapes” suggest a Cronenberg/Orwell/McLuhan nexus in search of a medium.) There is a shot of a trailer truck emblazoned with the name Ron Paul: then a former Texas congressman running as the Libertarian Party candidate for president, an even more obscure gag than the paperback of The Grifters sticking out of someone’s back pocket or the copy of Growing Up Absurd that lends the last sequence a dizzy punchline. In the interim, Paul has become a rock star—bigger than Madonna’s pap smear, he’s a hero to a lot of neo-Slackers.

Or as the jacket copy on the film’s newly restored Blu-ray version calls them: “aggressive nonparticipants.” Linklater’s benign view of what an AmLit major might call “Bartleby”-ism always troubled me. Likewise a card-carrying slacker, I came from a slightly different pop-subversive whatsis: the whole Lester Bangs/Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000/Situationists/Mekons/All That Is Solid Melts into Air couch-potato utopian/dystopian party-of-ones that was just a heartbeat away from sweeping the nation with our irresistible rallying cry, “Spectators of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your theater chains!” And at the end of my first brush with an insufficiently critical/confrontational Slacker, I thought, “Is that all there is?” Little did I know Linklater had intended to cap it by playing Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is” over the final credits, but Leiber and Stoller wouldn’t grant the rights (and he couldn’t have afforded them anyway).

That would have been far too cute, besides putting up a convenient this-doesn’t-mean-me prophylactic barrier, and equally untrue to the open-ended aesthetic of the movie. As the supplemental material on the disc makes clear, Slacker could have been a darker film, a more straight-up satirical one, or a combination of both. (In an early treatment, a skinhead tells a girl: “Sure you Jews are Christ-killers, but what have you done for us lately?”) The route Linklater wound up taking has a found-art beauty that is the result of a lot of preparation, diligence, luck, and tremendous responsiveness to what’s available on any given day—maybe epitomized by the scene where the late D. Montgomery has somebody pick a card from a deck of Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies (don’t leave home without them).

Linklater has said he wishes he could have made the movie as one long take. (Austin Ark?) One of the nice bonuses on this Blu-ray is the inclusion of his prior feature, the attractively autodidactic It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books (1988). Shot in Super 8 in a series of long tripod takes, it demonstrates that while books may not be able to teach you how to plow, a camera can teach you how to make movies. As long as you have the patience to listen to what you see.

A newly restored version of Richard Linklater’s Slacker is now available on Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection.