Richard Linklater, 1991
The Oxford definition of a Slacker reads: a young person (especially in the 1990s) of a subculture characterized by apathy and aimlessness. Whereas previous generations had chosen to express their dissent from the attitudes and beliefs of their parents by becoming increasingly radicalised and vocal, Generation X took the wholly different approach of manifesting their disillusionment not by trying to change the system, but by simply refusing to be part of it. Cultural phenomenon’s such as Beavis and Butthead, Nirvana and filmmakers such as Kevin Smith would serve as the spokespeople of this generation, the defining work of this period was to be supplied by Richard Linklater though in the form of Slacker.
Richard Linklater’s second feature after the largely unseen 1988 film It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books (an extra on the Criterion version of Slacker) is an episodic look at the lives of the youth inhabiting Austin, Texas. The format of the film sees the camera fluidly following one set of people whilst they talk, before another set of characters pass and we begin to follow them and their discussion instead. The conversations themselves are the focus of the film, their subject matter varies but they accurately display the slacker ethos, characters discuss philosophy, conspiracy theories and authors such as Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy displaying both their education and intelligence. However, whenever the question of what they’re doing with their lives is raised they all respond similarly, stating they are currently unemployed and listing their interests as activities such as sleeping and watching television. The high brow conversations they hold are contrasted with their total lack of motivation, they have all the knowledge and intelligence necessary to succeed, they just don’t want to. Their viewpoint can be seen as a result of many of the events they discuss as having witnessed in real life or the news- car accidents, assassinations, a man being shot by the police, all traumatic events whose occurrence they could never anticipate or prevent regardless of what choices in life they make.
The film doesn’t shy away from questioning the attitudes of it’s inhabitants, in one particular scene there is discussion on the merits of travelling abroad with the decision reached that there is no point as you ‘might as well have watched it on TV’. Shortly after this conclusion is reached, a pair of older characters cross paths with them and the camera suddenly switches to follow them. Although the viewer enters their conversation halfway through the aged woman is describing a scene abroad so vividly that she could only have witnessed it first hand, purposely contrasting the two of them could only be to show that real life experience is still more significant and worthwhile than the youth of Austin would believe. Although Linklater’s preoccupation with slacker culture in both this and his later film Dazed and Confused would suggest he agrees with their worldview (he even cameos as one of the lost youths of the film in the films opening scene) moments such as this make you question whether he does truly agree or just fascinated with this culture of apathy.
The film acts as the 90’s equivalent of a Godard film with it’s experimental use of tracking shots and meandering coffee shop conversations, it could also be closely compared to the films of Woody Allen in this with it’s discussions of the meanings of love, life and death. Along with the films such as Sex, Lies and Videotape this was one of the films that set in motion the chain of events that would lead to the revival of independent cinema in the 90’s and see filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino become the most prominent directors of the decade. As with Josh Harris of We Live in Public fame, it also foresees the ever growing dependence of society on living lives virtually, wanting to live their lives via a television set in the same way people have chosen to exist through the internet who’s rise would begin at this time. Although the lesser known of the two, it is a great counterpart to Dazed and Confused and definitely worth much wider attention.
words by pete bond.