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.

Straight to Hell

Alex Cox, 1987

A year after The Clash announced an indefinite hiatus, singer/guitarist Joe Strummer made an attempt to redefine his career, and cross over into the world of acting, starring in Alex Cox’s third feature length movie after the critically acclaimed Sid and Nancy. The film centres around three hit men, who, after an erroneous job, hold up a bank, then seek refuge in a small Mexican village, populated by coffee-addicted psychopaths. The film was a by product of a failed Nicaraguan concert tour, which after being cancelled left a multitude of musicians out of work for a short amount of time. In place of this, Cox assembled a hurried script, a disused location in Almería, Spain, with four weeks of shooting, the purpose being to cast the artists in a low-budget homage to his favourite genre; the Western.

In turn, Straight to Hell transpires to be a movie of two very different aspects, the first being the direction and cinematography, which, in keeping with Cox’s previous work such as Repo Man, is highly idiosyncratic, reflecting the ethos and influence of the late 70's/early 80's punk movement. Cox merges this with further influence from directors such as Luis Buñuel, Akira Kurosawa, and most notably Sergio Leone; in fact, in one scene there is a clear homage to Once Upon a Time in the West, as a wheezing harmonica plays during a standoff, echoing Ennio Morricone's haunting score. The second aspect of the movie is what proves to be its downfall, as Cox’s use of non-actors and poor scripting override any degree of positivity the movie might have. This really is a case of style over substance, and Cox’s off-beat direction, is let down by terrible dialogue and irritating characters, one example of which being Courtney Love's character ‘Velma’, a heavily pregnant, underage love-interest of Sy Richardson's ‘Norwood’, who screeches her way through the script, mimicking Cloe Webb's character in Sid and Nancy. Her performance is excruciating to watch, think ‘DJ Ruby Rhod’ in Luc Besson's The Fifth Element. However Richardson’s performance as Norwood is the exception of the piece, as his righteous persona and sharp style brings to mind Samuel L. Jackson's role as ‘Jules Winnfield’ in Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction, predating it by seven years.

Straight to Hell could be labelled a surrealist or absurdist comedy, constantly using non-sequiturs, with statements and events having no relation to previous ones, which gives the movie an unpredictable quality, for example, in one scene, Sy Richardson’s character dons a pink shower cap in the build up to a duel, for no apparent reason. Other humorous aspects of the movie appear in bad taste, almost becoming dark and sadistic in their use, such as the abuse and eventual death of a young hot dog vendor, and the shooting of his dog earlier in the film. Whereas in other directors hands, this use of ludicrous and bizarre humour could be used to their advantage (for example Terry Gilliam’s Brazil) Cox’s twist of preconceptions comes across as unoriginal and non-intelligent. 

The movie itself seems to exist purely on the basis to exploit the audience, capitalizing on the cult devotees that follow the artists in the film, such as Elvis Costello, The Pogues and even Strummer himself being the main attraction, the title of the movie being named after his 1982 single, from the album Combat Rock. Beyond the amateur performances weighing Straight To Hell down, there is a decent movie trying to get out. Cox obviously has a good artistic scope, and a range of respectable influence, borrowing styles from the likes of John Ford, shooting on location, and using wide shots of desolate terrain, composing asymmetrical frames and using the depth of field to his advantage, with the placement of characters and objects contributing to the impression of the depth. His mix of striking and ludicrous imagery is strangely reminiscent of the work of Alejandro Jodorowsky, such as El Topo or The Holy Mountain.

Alex Cox released his next movie Walker in December 1987. The film was a commercial failure, ending all involvements with Hollywood Studios, and effectively blacklisting him. With no work left for him in feature films, Cox next found work 5 years later with Mexican crime-drama EL Patrullero. In 1996, Cox was employed by producer Stephen Nemeth to write and direct an adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, his first creditable project in over nine years, but after creative disputes with not only Nemeth but Thompson himself, he was kicked out of production (the film later being taken over by Terry Gilliam). Cox self proclaims himself to be a ‘cult director’ and a ‘radical filmmaker’, in fact the only true cult movie he has produced is Repo Man, which is retains popularity with film lovers because of its originality and ability to distance itself from standard conventions, unlike Straight to Hell, who’s cult appeal appears preconceived, as to appeal to fans of the musicians involved.

The Clash sang in 1980 “Death or glory, becomes just another story”. While there is death and bullets, Straight to Hell lacks any glory, and is easily forgotten in the pantheon of great Westerns, such as The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, and The Wild Bunch.
words by danny walker.

Naked Lunch

David Cronenberg, 1991

The adaptation of books to film is as old as cinema itself, stretching as far back as the early experiments of pioneers such as George Méliès, who would make his own filmic versions of novels such as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and fairy tales such as Cinderella over a hundred years ago. Primarily the purpose of the adaptation is simply to transpose the descriptions of events, character and dialogue from the page and onto the screen changing as little as possible so as not upset your core audience (those who have read the novel). However, this approach is dependent on the source text possessing a linear narrative. When the author has taken a more post-modern approach, the director must employ other techniques to ensure the creation of a successful film. Naked Lunch is one such example of this. 

The film is based on William Burroughs novel of the same name, a novel which ignores a traditional approach to story telling in favour of employing each chapter to act as a short story, these chapters are united by nothing more than the occasional recurring characters and a series of common themes and concerns (primarily drug addiction and homosexuality). Juxtaposed together these chapters can be seen to be doing more than simply telling the tale of a characters passage through a fictional world, but as attempting to create a fuller picture of the nightmarish world that Burrough’s characters are inhabiting.

Films rarely succeed however when they completely break free of the confines of an act structure, although many books can be described as ‘plot less’ there are few examples of films that have faced commercial or critical success when there is no forward narrative present (Last Year in Marienbad being the only exception that comes to mind). Cronenberg therefore takes certain elements from the book, such as the alien like ‘Mugwumps’ that produce their own highly addictive secretions, and the ‘black meat’( used metaphorically to represent methadone) along with various characters such as Doctor Benway (Roy Scheider) and places them around the story of William Lee (Peter Weller). William Lee was Burrough’s pen name on his first novel Junky and the story draws largely on biographical material from Burrough’s own life. Like his fictional alter ego Burroughs worked as a bug exterminator in New York, he accidentally shot his wife Joan (played in the film by Judy Davis) through the head during a drunken game of ‘William-tell’ and would later retire to the ‘International zone’ (or Interzone) of Tangier where he would send correspondence to his friend Allen Ginsberg that would later be placed together and form Naked Lunch. The more surreal elements of the book are attributed in the film to Lee’s drug addiction, firstly to ‘bug powder’ and then the substitute ‘ the black meat’ (Burroughs was an opiate addict for most of his life). The more surreal elements of the plot are treated as hallucinations, which he then chronicles to form his book.

This approach works well to give Burrough’s text a form and structure necessary for the screen, it is not a betrayal of the novels experimental approach in that by putting on display the creative process used to forge the original source material, is post-modern and experimental itself. In the 90’s many films would see release that worked on a similar level, from the same year as Naked Lunch there is for example Steven Soderbergh’s Kafka, focusing on another author living through the experiences that would become his fiction. Later in the decade there would also be Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which also dealt with the influence of hard drugs on the authors writing style. Fellini’s 8 ½ can be seen as the only film to precede it in creating a work of fiction centred around the work’s conception, a source which Naked Lunch surely must have drawn upon (indeed it‘s eccentric cast of characters feel like a more downbeat version of Fellini‘s own).
Burroughs had always hoped to bring Naked Lunch to the screen, and had made forays into film himself shortly following the books publication. Working with Anthony Balch on such short films as The Cut Ups in 1966, he attempted to apply techniques he had perfected in the literary world to the screen (in this example, his cut up technique). Working closely together with Cronenberg, Burroughs manages to translate his world onto the screen successfully, whilst Cronenberg is allowed to further build on themes touched upon his other works. There is his usual use of body horror and the dangers of scientific experimentation, but primarily it can be seen as treating literature in the same way television was portrayed in Videodrome, like a drug for both those who create and consume it.

words by pete bond.