Slacker (1991)

Directed by Richard Linklater


Slacker doesn’t have a protagonist.  You can’t even really say the city (Austin, TX) is a protagonist because I get the impression that the characters in this film can and do exist anywhere.  The film is centered on a particular demographic and age.  A ‘slacker’ could be any number of things, and today that might just be the term ‘millennial,’ applied to people who uniformly resist it, same with ‘hipster’ 10 or so years ago.

It’s a type of person who doesn’t make sense to people who aren’t in that group.  The characters in this film, like the characters in Noah Baumbach’s Kicking and Screaming, aren’t really up to anything, but they’re okay with it.  Richard Linklater plays the first character we follow, and he is consumed by the idea of multiple realities, which this film then explores.

Linklater’s character (unnamed) talks to a cab driver about a dream he had and how vivid it felt.  He then goes on to discuss how any thought or action can lead to a new reality.  What if he hadn’t taken a cab?  He asks, before realizing how broke he is and how he probably shouldn’t have taken a cab.  Linklater’s character is credited as “Should Have Stayed at Bus Station.”

The other characters we follow are all consumed in their own worlds, but no more than we are or anyone else is.  Each character passes the baton (unknowingly) to a new character they interact with, whether they know them or not.  Linklater’s character leaves the cab and walks down the block where an older woman is run over by a car.  He calmly walks up to her and takes her purse, neglecting to help her.  A female jogger approaches and tells him what he’s not supposed to do but not what he should do.  She doesn’t get involved either, she just barks out commands like a drill sergeant all while continuing to jog in place.  A woman lies dying in the street, and neither of them do anything about it.  Then a man pulls up and seems invested in helping the older woman, but he just gives the jogger his phone number, insisting she call him before driving away.

This scene isn’t meant to portray any of these characters in a bad light, but it does show how invested in themselves they are.  We are all that way, at least to some extent, and in this scene it’s more amusing than horrifying.  The image of the old woman in the street isn’t violent.  Instead it’s comic, with her sprawled out like she’s playing dead in a dramatic reenactment of a car accident meant to scare 16 year old aspiring drivers.

The camera drifts away from this scene as it happens, and then we follow a young man who drove the car that hit the lady, his mother.  He apparently drove around the block after hitting his mother, and as we follow him into the house we genuinely have no idea what he’s up to.  There is no template for how we view the characters in this film.  Some are in the middle of important moments in their life, and for others it’s just another day.

While Linklater’s character explains his stance on life, this next character remains silent, and we simply have to observe him in his environment.  Everything he does raises questions and slowly starts to answer them.  This is essentially the final scene of a long, serious movie about a man with mental health issues.  He runs over his mother (who we don’t yet realize is his mother), then he packs his bags, cuts a few photos out of a yearbook, burns them in a series of candles, then leaves a projector running, showing an old 10 second clip of his mother and him from years before, running on a loop.  He heads downstairs and is promptly arrested.

Of course, we don’t follow the rest of his journey, not because it’s over, but just because there are other people to follow.  A man walks by, observing the arrest, and next we see him playing guitar on the street, performing to the passersby.  We’re not with him long before we move onto the next person.

I’m not going to recap each character we follow because I can’t remember all of them and that’s not the point of the film.

Almost every single film follows one person.  Maybe it’s an ensemble cast and there are other characters, but the central story and plot follows a singular person and everything in the film is thematically related to his or her journey.  Most films, in this way, construct a world in which everything makes some sense and things are answered, whether they’re questions or story threads.  There are rules in these film worlds, and in Slacker these rules are broken.

When one person’s particular story takes a twist, we move to the next person.  Some things are answered, and some aren’t.  There is no rhyme or reason, just life.  The story feels more rich and detailed than almost any film I’ve seen recently precisely because it only dabbles in the lives of each character.  Suddenly every person who walks by the camera has the possibility of capturing the camera’s attention and taking us on some mini adventure.  Characters in the background are no longer just background actors but actual people.  I know this is an independent film made on the street with the help of Linklater’s friends, so I could imagine him running up to someone in the background, perhaps the sound guy’s cousin, and making him improvise a scene.

Now, I don’t know how much, if any, improvisation was done in this film.  The scenes feel natural, and the characters feel real, but the scenes do feel highly and impressively scripted.  The camera drifts through the scenes but still moves with purpose.  Actions are choreographed so that while a guy fixes a car engine, his friend pulls up in a car at precisely the right moment.  The camera wasn’t just turned on to film the scene shot by shot, but rather the whole thing was rehearsed.  This isn’t a huge deal, most films make use of rehearsals, but I think it’s easy to walk away from this film and think of how easy it must be to do this.  Everything was filmed in accessible locations, often on the street or in apartments, with real people.  Though there was a giant cast, there never seemed to be more than a handful of people in a given scene (outside of occasional wider shots to introduce us to a new environment).  Each scene felt quiet and intimate and manageable.  But the way the camera moves shows how connected each vignette and each character is.

The camera moves like in a Wes Anderson film, though with less precision, and it makes you very aware of the space.  It’s clear that these characters occupy the same world and walk by each other in the same space.  Linklater could cut to a new scene, as he occasionally does, but showing the characters in the same shot, with the camera moving between them, makes you more engaged as a viewer.  When the camera changes direction or slows down, you’re aware that it’s not going the way it should be going.  Cameras aren’t supposed to do that.  This style serves as a constant reminder that you’re not watching an ordinary film.  Even once you catch onto the way the film operates, it’s still very easy to become wrapped up in a particular character’s journey and to forget that we’re not going to follow this character to the end of the world.

In other films we most often receive a complete story, with the introduction of the problem all the way to the resolution.  A resolution, though, doesn’t mean the character’s story is over so much as we can be sure how a character’s life will play once the film ends.  It’s closure.

There is no closure for the characters in this film.  We receive a glimpse into their lives (like in Rear Window) and then move on.  We learn a lot from a character by how they interact with the world in very small, almost unnoticeable moments.  What’s so important about a guy a visiting his friend who works as security at a grocery store?  I don’t know.

In a film like this one, Linklater is able to dream up these interesting, odd characters and flirt with them, throwing out peculiar lines and behavior with no fear of holding back.  In some stories you don’t want to reveal everything immediately or you want to make sure your protagonist is likable so that the audience will be willing to go on this journey for 90 minutes.  With Slacker, these characters can be anything, likable, unlikeable, disgusting, even boring.  It doesn’t matter because we’ll move on to the next one within a few minutes.  With this in mind, Linklater can and did show a little bit of everything about what life is like for some people.  We see couples argue, we see people stuck in conversations they’d like to get out of, we see an old anarchist tell a story to a young man who tried to rob him, we see collegiate discussions about life over coffee, we see a guy get harassed while he just tries to read a newspaper, we see a guy pick up a girl, we see an old man recording his thoughts, we see a girl and her friend go to a bar, etc.

Some of these stories are a bit wild, like fantastical short films thinly veiled under supposed realism.  The guy who tries to buy a newspaper, for example, is inexplicably harassed by people who think he’s the one causing problems.  He anxiously drinks his coffee and leaves.  Other stories are quite boring on the surface.  A guy walks to a friend’s house while an older man tells him about all of his crazy theories about the government, aliens and whatever else I forgot because he droned on for so long.  The kid in that scene seemed to be as uncomfortable or fidgety in the conversation as I was, but there’s also something to be said for the way he lets it go on, without stopping the guy.

Maybe it’s just a fear of upsetting the man or he’s simply uncomfortable and introverted.  It could also just be that the kid is willing to listen.  A lot of people in this film are willing to listen.  The pace of life feels very slow (one guy lays out his daily routine of waking up around 11, eating cereal, going to a matinee, etc.), and everyone seems to make time for the life around them.  They’re all acutely aware, then, of time passing because of or despite their apparent reluctance to get their lives going.  Characters are more likely to be in a band or reading a book or drinking coffee than they are to be working a job, no less a career-oriented job.

This is some sort of utopia where life is on hold but is also being lived.  It feels very nostalgic, maybe just because I want to live in this world, at least for a time (perhaps three months).  Linklater has described the world of this film in interviews in the last 20 plus years.  He knows this world, and he respects this world.  When Slacker was released, Linklater was 31 years old, but I think he may have been around 28 or 29 during filming.  It seems to me, very much on the outside, that this is him leaving this world and moving onto the next stage, by capturing the life he knew.

His other films (namely Dazed and Confused and later Everybody Wants Some!) are set in a different time, one Linklater knew when he was younger.  These feel like home movies, in this way.  They’re timestamped videos of a way people once lived, like something an anthropologist would watch to help learn about a particular culture.

Linklater’s films are all about time, both slowing it down and speeding it up.  The Before trilogy (Before SunriseBefore SunsetBefore Midnight) follow the same characters in a short amount of time, 9-10 years apart.  Before Sunrise is set almost in real time, with two characters meeting and falling in love.  This seems to slow time down, like Slacker, but if you watch the trilogy back to back to back you find yourself flung a decade ahead, and suddenly the characters are visibly older.  Then with the third film they’re even older, now with a life and family that suggests how much has happened in that amount of time.

These films make the moment feel almost infinite, but then they flip everything upside down so you realize how quickly life flashes by.  It stretches, then compresses.  Like some sort of metaphysical icy-hot patch.

The film ends with a group of kids in a convertible eagerly filming the world around them, just like Richard Linklater himself.  They are full of glee and film each other, showing a keen interest in the details and in their environment, with little concern for style, accuracy or even visibility.  What I mean is they just film, and oftentimes you can’t tell what’s going on because the camera swirls around as they hold it with no concern for what the audience sees.  It’s about what they themselves see.  They are full of life, and they live in the moment because I don’t imagine they care what the footage looks like in the future. It’s all about what’s going on now.

Then one of them throws a camera off a cliff, and we see the blurred strokes of unintelligible film before the movie ends.  I hesitate to read too far into this, but it feels like a celebration of something or everything.  It’s just about people living life and trying to capture it but not really concerned whether or not they do a food job.  So maybe it’s the way Linklater felt while making the film.  He wanted to capture this environment, and he tried his best, but he didn’t care if he did it right.  It was about the experience as much as the final project.


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