PRINT April 1993


Released nearly two years ago, Richard Linklater’s Slacker continues to inspire head-scratching among editorialists. To them this no-budget, neither-coastal, college-town travelogue signals the seizure of the world-historical stage by the most improbable of actors. More Alfred E. Neuman than Johnny Rotten, with one finger on the pulse of society and another up the proverbial nose, the slacker belongs to a new generation that doesn’t quite know what to do with the torch that’s been passed it. Poised midway between the campus exit and the welcome mat to those crusty institutions—the family, career, “public service”—that want to package and validate their lives, these rebels opt neither to rehabilitate the society they’ve inherited nor to plot its demolition. What they do is only what the mainstream regards as close to nothing.

Roaming from dawn to dawn through the backwaters of the University of Texas at Austin, with a respectful eye trained on a loosely linked community of absurdist philosophers, ironic mystics, basement musicians, and do-it-yourself publishers, Linklater captures the poignant mix of hypertrophic alienation and unbridled creativity that characterizes life in the netherworld the Situationists described as “the catacombs of visible culture.” What distinguishes the film, though—and makes it such a vivid monitor of the community it represents—is its kaleidoscope composition, the way its egalitarian structure allots roughly equal time to each of its 100-member cast. Impelled by a seemingly insatiable curiosity, Slacker dispenses with conventional plot so as to open itself to a much wider range of stimuli—hence every word and action assumes a common weight, enough to hold the camera’s attention for a few minutes, but demanding no more commitment than that. In the tag-team conversation that results, everyone’s speech is at once intimate and manifestolike, and no one’s world view holds sway over any other—each position claiming as subjects only those who passionately subscribe to it. Linklater allows the ensuing chatter to pass without comment the better to savor its echoes in the vacuum left by the breakdown of our culture’s dominant narratives. To twist a line from the Situationist Raoul Vaneigem, what Slacker enacts are master narratives without slaves.

A college dropout who moved to Austin and ran an off-campus film society, Linklater put together his first feature-length movie, It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books—a plotless story about a dropout’s plotless train journey around the country—with a Super-8 camera and $3,000. Now, at 31, Linklater is finishing up his first Hollywood film. A reflection on his high school years, Dazed and Confused is scheduled for release this summer by Universal.

LANE RELYEA: Slacker continues to pop up in the press as a reference point in articles about the 20-something generation. I heard you were interviewed on CNN along with Generation X author Douglas Coupland.

RICHARD LINKLATER: Yeah. In fact I got a call last night from Nightline. They’re doing a show on “20-something politics.” When it comes to analyzing what our generation thinks, putting 50 million people into one mold. . . . Well, I never meant Slacker to be some generational portrait. Anyway, I probably won’t be on the show.

LR: Commentators do applaud Slacker for capturing the “essence” of this new generation, but then they go on to describe it in strictly negative terms—the lost generation, 20-nothings, that they’re aimless, apathetic, stuff like that.

RL: The same person will tell me, Hey, the first time I saw Slacker I laughed all the way through it, and the next time I came out really depressed. I have the same kind of mixed feelings about the film—about people spending most of their time talking philosophy over coffee. I don’t do much of that myself; I tend to be pretty involved in tangible pursuits. In Slacker I was kind of appreciating this life-style from a distance. There was a certain energy there that I liked, but I think the way it gets portrayed in the film leaves it just as open to being criticized as embraced.

LR: Your new movie Dazed and Confused focuses on high school, Slacker on the postgrad and college-town scenes; they look at that protracted period in which people are beginning to define themselves outside of the family but haven’t yet confined themselves to some narrow profession. The communities you depict are defined by something like taste.

RL: Well, I do love that. That’s why I still live around the university. In Austin, the club scene is really central to how people organize themselves. It’s not just where they go but in a certain way how they communicate. If I hadn’t lived in that environment, where people were interested in more than just their job—in what they believed in or were thinking, what bands they liked, what they’re reading—I probably could never have made Slacker. You lose your connection with all of this and you run the risk of getting trapped in the “dead at 30, buried at 70” syndrome.

LR: But if slackers are similar to, say, hippies and punks in that they inhabit the purgatory between school and work, they differ in that they don’t strike a very heroic pose.

RL: What the characters in the movie are rebelling against is pretty intangible. It’s really about people finding their limitations. It’s certainly not like, say, punk, which was such an out-in-the-open, in-your-face kind of opposition. No one in Slacker thinks they’re going to remake society. They’re more satisfied to hang out and snicker ironically with their friends.

LR: In terms of the point Slacker wants to get across, it seems like the most important character is the one behind the camera. The way the camera moves—you figure it’s the point of view of somebody who’s looking for something and who’s maybe a little tickle but also incredibly open-minded, curious, and receptive.

RL: Someone called the film’s structure and camera work “promiscuous.” Certainly the formal properties in Slacker were paramount—I was sure that was the only way the film could work. In Slacker I was trying to get at this notion of a multifaceted reality, at the idea that, as you bounce off other people, the reality you live in could implode and mutate that anything is possible. That idea goes as far as ultimately suggesting that consciousness creates form, that everything is the product of thought and not the other way around. It’s a very freeing concept. That’s why, to me, Slacker has always seemed strangely optimistic. When you’re in that postcollege period, you feel completely lost, but then it’s possible that at that moment you rediscover what’s right in front of you as meaningful. It’s like what Nietzsche says about getting beyond the negative to a point where you say yes to the one thing that in turn says yes to all of existence. But to get past fantasy and to feel truly optimistic about life takes a bit of work.

LR: It seems like the character in your first film, It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books, who drops out of school and travels around by train to visit friends and family, has moved behind the camera in Slacker.

RL: The transition from Plow to Slacker is like someone waking up from a dream. The first character you see in Slacker, whom I play, gets off a bus and grabs a cab and tells the cabdriver about a dream he had on the bus about doing nothing. That was a description of my first film—doing nothing. I say more in the first scene in Slacker than in all of Plow. That first film was a strictly visual study, and if anything it’s about a lack of communication. With Slacker it was like I woke up and said, What if everybody started talking, expressing who they thought they were and what they believed? What if anyone could approach anyone else and just start rambling?

LR: Watching Plow made me more aware of the melancholic aspects alienation that motivates the character’s traveling in Plow also seems to motivate the camera’s movement in Slacker. Both films address a need for community, though in Slacker the need is better satisfied. But no one ever talks about this; instead it’s talked about as a collection of interesting individuals and compared to flipping channels on a TV, as if it’s entertaining but in a so-what kind of way.

RL: That’s what I think struck people the most in Slacker, that feeling of alienation. But yeah, the real threat to the system is that there is a community, that close ties do exist between people. I mean it’s so obvious—it’s in the interests of the corporate structure that controls everything to keep everybody paranoid. Somebody gets shot in Miami and we watch it here on the news. The message is: the victim was an innocent person just like yourself, so stay in your house and we’ll let you out to shop and work, that’s it.

LR: There’s a line in Slacker that goes, “Withdrawing in disgust is not the same as apathy.” How do you answer the charge that the movie estheticizes dispossession?

RL: I get that a lot. There are some lines in there about not voting—one guy talks about the whole Noam Chomsky idea of there being only one corporate party with two factions, controlled by the media. I don’t think Slacker glamorizes this attitude. It points out the result of a limited spectrum of political possibilities that leaves 90 percent of the population virtually unrepresented. What the system demands of us is symbolic participation, and I think a lot of people have come to the end of their rope on that. Politics are a lot more complex than just voting or aligning yourself on certain issues. Politics are also the politics of everyday life. To be dissatisfied and talk about it to even one other person is political.

LR: There are other anarchist themes and gestures in your movies. On the one level, there’s the overall theme in Slacker of individuality within community, with all these people proclaiming their manifesto-type ideas, yet no one seems to speak for or represent anybody but him- or herself. Then there’s the more obvious things, like the prominent anarchist symbol spray-painted in the background of one of the crucial scenes in Plow, or the shot in Slacker of Paul Goodman’s book Growing Up Absurd, which is the final thing we see before the camera gets thrown off the cliff. Do you consider yourself an anarchist?

RL: No. But certainly I’ve read and embrace a lot of the material. I was talking with Lindsay Anderson, and we came to the conclusion that anarchism really is probably all you can ever come back to if you really think about it. I mean, whether or not it gets articulated, it’s the philosophy closest to how most people want to be treated. It’s the most humane. But no, I’d never go to a convention.

LR: If you were one of the characters in Slacker, what would have been your character’s rap? I mean, how did you fit into the Austin scene back then?

RL: I was the film dude. The years when the Austin music scene was at its peak, I was the guy who wouldn’t go see a band because I would be showing a film at the local society.

LR: What are some of your favorite films, or your favorite filmmakers?

RL: It fluctuates. I used to have a top 200 list, and at any given time, any film on the list could move into my top 10. If I’m feeling particularly rigorous or spiritual, it might be something by Andrei Tarkovsky or Robert Bresson.

Seeing Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull [1980] was a crucial moment for me. Everyone has that one movie where you go, Shit, there’s really so much you can express through film. I saw it when I was a freshman in college. The character of Jake La Motta really haunted me; he was so real, so paranoid and obsessive. It took the top of my head off.

LR: Do you have any oddball favorites?

RL: I like Paul Schrader a lot. I also like David Cronenberg. He’s one of those, like Scorsese, who work independently yet make high-profile films with big budgets, using the studios for distribution. It’s pretty admirable to work at that level and have every one of your films end with a suicide. It’s hard to pull that off in the current climate.

LR: Can you talk a bit about the film you’re currently working on? It’s being made through Universal Pictures, right?

RL: Yeah. It’s a teen movie called Dazed and Confused, named after the Led Zeppelin song not my favorite Zeppelin song by any means, but it’s in keeping with the teen-movie genre to name the movie after a song. Dazed is set in ’76 and is centered around a bunch of kids ranging from eighth-graders to high school seniors. They just kind of ride around. It’s like Slacker—it’s one of the seven or eight films I’ve wanted to do since I first started thinking about making movies. In part it’s a reaction to the John Hughes movies of the mid ’80s. Those films don’t really capture what it’s like to be that age, or at best they capture one aspect of it. I wanted to show people a movie about real teens. It’s kind of impossible, but we tried.

LR: What are some of the things that distinguish from a John Hughes movie or, say, Fast Times at Ridgemont High?

RL: Well, the way it’s structured, it kind of feels like it’s happening in real time. It lacks a huge plot-driven point. Also it’s not so gratuitously jokey. Someone at the studio described it as Breakfast Club meets Waiting for Godot.

LR: When I first viewed the segment of Dazed that the studio let me see, I was shocked. Some of the characters are real assholes, something I haven’t seen in your movies before. But the more I watched, the more the characters outgrew those easy definitions, the less reducible they were to a stereotype. You don’t see that in movies like John Hughes, where the characters are always very one-dimensional.

RL: Right, that’s a good person, that’s a bad person. The characters in my movie aren’t really bad. Two of my favorites are the meanest and most sadistic seniors. I like their energy; I feel about them the way people must have felt about Alex [Malcolm McDowell] in A Clockwork Orange.

LR: That seems to be an advantage to the way you structure your movies—they don’t rely heavily on a plot that all the action and dialogue have to advance. Everything’s more open, it’s harder to tell what’s relevant from what’s irrelevant.

RL: Yeah, films have this ability to set up their own rules, and audiences are real quick to accept those rules. The rules in this film are that these really mundane things are actually what the film’s about.

LR: Do you feel there’s a priority for you between finding structures—say, a nonnarrative structure—that can better represent certain aspects of your life, or finding aspects of your life that will better allow you to experiment with cinematic structures?

RL: Well, you can only do what feels natural with whatever subject matter you’re dealing with. But I have always wanted to experiment with the boundaries of narrative. I mean, I like stories, I just tell them in a different way. I like creating multiple narratives in a story, or multifaceted characters, having a lot of mouths saying a lot of things, having a lot of different attitudes. In fiction or in film, people won’t give a character a lot of latitude; they’ll say, He said this but now he’s doing that so he’s contradicting himself and therefore he’s not very cleanly drawn. They won’t give to a character in a film what they’ll give to themselves or their best friends in real life. My attitude toward that is to spread it out a bit, both in terms of the way I draw each character and by using a greater number of characters.

LR: In Dazed you worked with professional actors for the first time, is that right?

RL: Several of the principles are professionals, but most aren’t. We did interview locals in Texas just as we did with Slacker, and though most ended up as extras, a few became principles. But even the professionals were picked because they seemed like interesting people—they were funny or exhibited odd qualities. Being a trained actor was extra.

LR: How was it different to work with trained actors?

RL: There are advantages and disadvantages. Most had to unlearn certain things, preconceived notions of what acting is; I had to work harder to get them into my rhythm. Many actors are taught to just flesh out words, stand at a certain place, look in a certain direction, that kind of thing. They’d expect to be told what the emotional points were and what it all meant. Whereas my approach was much more fluid. I think I treated them like artists. It freaked them out at first, but people of that age have so much energy. We would sit around in rehearsals and just talk about characters and scenes, throw out ideas. It was fun to see them come to life.

LR: If Dazed is about your high school experience, and Slacker’s about college life, is it possible to view the new film as being a prequel to Slacker?

RL: Someone actually called it a prequel in an interview and the head of the studio got on the phone real quick and said, Let’s not have that appear in print or anything. Slacker only grossed $1.3 million, which is good for that kind of movie. But no, the S-word is never used around the studio. They didn’t like Slacker.

LR: So it wasn’t because Universal liked Slacker that they approached you to do Dazed?

RL: The two producers I worked directly with liked Slacker enough, but the studio heads didn’t like it much. I mean, it’s not like they see a film and then say they’ll do whatever you’re doing next. What happened was a producer had read an interview I did about Slacker in which I talked about what I had in mind for my next film. He liked the idea, I guess, and called a friend. It was nice—I was just finishing the script and I didn’t have to go lugging it around, begging.

LR: Was talking to Universal about Dazed like trying to sell a Trojan horse?

RL: Yeah. It’s a high-concept business, so you classify things—teen movie, rock ’n’ roll, ’70s. There was just enough in Dazed to sound tangible. Obviously something more difficult to explain, like Slacker, would have been hard to pitch to a studio.

LR: Did you feel that in order to get Universal’s support you had to compromise what you value about independent filmmaking—the smallness of the community, the control, the lack of managerial interference?

RL: To some extent, but there really was no other way to pay for the film. It wasn’t like Slacker—I needed wardrobe, cars, music. So I just accepted that and tried to work with the limitations. I mean I did work with most of the same people from Slacker, and I was surprised how much of my own method and atmosphere I was able to establish. The biggest compromise was time. They give you a real tight schedule. With Slacker, we could take our time–do it right. But Slacker had its own problems, I had to do a lot of shit work, raise money, etc. It’s not really a question of freedom anyway, I don’t know if that even exists in art. Though the studios beat the shit out of you with the schedule and money stuff, creatively they do leave you alone; but you’re going to struggle no matter what, it just depends on at what level.

I wouldn’t do every movie like this. A lot of the films I want to make, like the one I plan to do over the summer—just two people, a couple of scenes—don’t need a big production. It’s the main things you don’t want to compromise on; you don’t want to reshoot a false ending or cast people because they’re stars even though they’re not right for the part. In Hollywood, you’re going to butt heads every now and then. I could tell they wanted to fiddle with Dazed. You know, “make the movie even better.” It was at the very end of the production, but I had to be kind of a jerk and piss some people off.

LR: So otherwise, how do you like being in L.A.? Do you get to do much outside of hassling with the studio?

RL: I guess I could, but I tend to stay home and read and write a lot, and go to a lot of movies. I haven’t really had a good time. It’s hard to meet people. But I suppose I’m not helping matters by not going out and doing much.

Lane Relyea is a writer who lives in Los Angeles.