“I can see why people are asking me about a generation I happen to be a part of, but to me Slacker owes more allegiance to cinema than to a generation.” – Richard Linklater
“It was disturbing to me that an idea or a song could become something so different from what you originally intended. It’s like if a friend took a stupid picture of you at a party on their phone, and the next thing you knew, it was on every billboard.” – Beck on the surprise success of “Loser”
Even though I know they came out years apart, I always associate Beck’s hit song “Loser” with Richard Linklater’s film Slacker (1990). The former came out in 1993 and the latter had its premiere three years prior, but both took their time finding their audience. They also were touted by the media as defining what would be known as Generation X, a term popularized by Douglas Coupland’s 1991 novel of the same name, and used to describe people born in the early 1960s to the early 1980s. Also rather interestingly, both Beck and Linklater felt uncomfortable with being heralded as voices of their generation.
Despite being released years apart, “Loser” and Slacker have much closer inception dates than one would imagine and both came out of experiences that Beck and Linklater had in the late ‘80s. There was definitely something in the air in the early 1990s and these two artists were able to tap into it. The song and the film both feature fractured narratives with random observations about life. As Linklater said in an interview, his generation was the first “to have the T.V. remote … to begin creating our own narratives by watching five minutes of this and then one minute of that and then seven minutes of this … That was in my head as a narrative possibility.” It is that kind of channel-surfing mentality that “Loser” and Slacker tap into. It’s as if Linklater is controlling the remote, flipping around to see what various people from Austin are doing in a 24-hour period in which the film takes place.
Slacker opens with a fascinating scene. A young man (Linklater) has just gotten off a bus and is now en route to somewhere in a taxi. He begins telling the cabbie about a weird dream he had while riding on the bus, which leads into his theory concerning alternate realities. It's a clever little monologue that has become a staple of Linklater's films. It is also a fantastic way to start the film as this first scene acts as an introduction of sorts with Linklater himself kicking everything off by setting the tone. His films are wonderful non-narrative gems that appear at first glance to be about nothing in particular, but by their conclusion, reveal a lot about the big themes of life: love, sex, death, and the real meaning behind The Smurfs.
Made for only $23,000, Slacker is an aimless day in the life of the city of Austin, Texas, showcasing its more eccentric characters. The camera follows an individual, one pair of characters or a group until it gets bored and moves on to the next interesting conversation. This approach works well because as soon one segment runs too long we’re off on another tangent. Some people get several minutes of screen time, some only a few seconds. The segments vary tonally from amusing (the Moon conspiracy guy) to cryptic (the guy who mysteriously disappears, leaving a collection of postcards that explain what happened for his roommates to discover) to bizarre (the Madonna pap smear girl) to thought-provoking (the elder anarchist). It is this ingenious entropic structure — enhanced by Lee Daniel's excellent camerawork with long, uninterrupted takes — that really sets Slacker apart from other independent films.
Linklater’s film invites repeated viewings because there is so much going on — both in the foreground and the background. Slacker presents an interesting, annoying and funny assortment of characters: obsessive types, like the man who believes that we’ve been on the Moon since the 1950s with the aid of anti-gravity drives (“A lot of truth in the Late Late Show.”) and a JFK conspiracy buff who rambles on obsessively about the minutiae of various theories (not surprisingly he has written his own book tentatively titled, Profiles in Cowardice or Conspiracy A-Go-Go). Unlike a lot of films, Slacker requires the viewer to be active as opposed to being passive by presenting all of these seemingly disparate vignettes with little to no context. And so we are left wondering, for example, why the son hit his own mother with a car and then let himself get arrested.
There are also more poignant characters like an aging anarchist who surprises a would-be robber at his house and instead of turning him in, talks to him at length about the city’s rich history of anarchism. There is a strong pop culture vibe that informs several segments, from a girl enthusiastically trying to sell a sample of Madonna’s pap smear (“Getting down to the real Madonna,” she gushes) to a guy who deconstructs Scooby Doo as a tool for teaching bribery. All of these characters come across as everyday (in their own way) people in between jobs and often relegated to the margins of life. As they appear and disappear you begin to realize that the film is not as random as it seems but in fact is very structured with links between encounters becoming more apparent upon subsequent viewings. The film’s title is somewhat ironic in the sense that a lot of the characters are hardly idle, from the guy on his way to band practice to the guy working on getting his book of JFK assassination theories published, or the two grease monkeys that go scavenging for parts at a junkyard. A lot of people in this film are hustling towards some end, trying to achieve something.
Born in Houston, Texas, Richard Linklater studied literature in college with aspirations of becoming a writer. He left midway through his stint in school to work on an off-shore oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. During that time, he read lots of literature, but on land he developed a love of film through repeated visits to a repertory theater in Houston. It was at this point that Linklater realized he wanted to be a filmmaker, first and foremost. "It took me a while," Linklater remembers, "and seeing a lot of movies, to realize that I wasn't really a writer: I had a visual thing, I could see films in my head." After his job on the oil rig, Linklater used the money he had saved to buy a Super-8 camera, a projector, some editing equipment, and moved to Austin. It was here that the aspiring cineaste founded a film society at the University of Texas and grew to appreciate such stylized auteurs like Robert Bresson, Yasujiro Ozu, Nagisa Oshima, and Josef Von Sternberg.
For several years Linklater made many short films that were, more than anything, exercises and experiments in film techniques. "I knew it was important not to try to say anything in my first couple of years, as I would probably get really frustrated and quit, because I wouldn't have the formal skill to achieve that thought." Finally, the young filmmaker completed his first feature, the rarely seen It's Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books (1988), an 89-minute Super-8 feature that took him a year to shoot and another year to edit. Described by Linklater as a "kind of prequel to Slacker and a forerunner of Before Sunrise," the film is all about the "mind-set of travel" with more than half of the screen time taking place on an Amtrak train traveling around the United States. The rest of the film depicts the main character (Linklater) getting off in a town and wandering around for a while. It's Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books is significant in the sense that it establishes most of Linklater's preoccupations. Stylistically, the film contains his trademark minimal camera movements and lack of narrative, while thematically it examines the notions of traveling with no real particular direction in mind. These idiosyncrasies would be explored in greater detail in future projects.
Linklater first thought of the idea for Slacker in the early ‘80s and played around with it for five years before he felt it was the right time to make it. The content that would make up the film came from “conversations, crazy ideas, and actual experiences” that Linklater had, while also drawing inspiration from or adapting “bookish ideas or pre-existing texts.” For years, he had written down “weird little ideas,” and observations while also cutting out articles. At the time, he remembered that there was “a loose film scene” in Austin with “a lot of people sitting around wanting to make movies.” Linklater had managed to get 50 brand-new rolls of 16mm film stock and enough money to get half of it processed. To cut costs, he planned to hire a group of actors to work for one day. He ended up getting a lot of actors from local bands because they usually only worked a couple of nights a week or were unemployed.
Linklater raised the $23,000 budget with help from family, friends, and credit cards. He sold things and got donations of all sorts, from food to dolly tracks. Many of the people that appear in front of the camera were his friends or crew members, but most came from cards that were given out around town inviting people to be interviewed on video. “From there it was matching people to parts they seemed to embody the essence of … These were not only interesting, creative and courageous people, but also the ones serious enough to approach the rehearsal and shooting process in a professional manner,” Linklater said in a 1991 interview. After the cast had been selected, he wrote the dialogue and then rewrote it with the actors. During the rehearsal period, they made the material their own. Linklater spent years training as an actor and was confident that he could create a productive atmosphere and was amazed by the coming together of “witty and intelligent people” with a “common purpose in a playful atmosphere.”
Principal photography began in July 1989 after month of pre-production and casting. For daily costs, Linklater used a Shell card for anything from Gatorade to gasoline, “including snacks, because we didn’t have catering or meals – and signed it with a forged signature,” remembers the film’s cinematographer Lee Daniel. By the fall of 1989, Linklater had a rough cut that ran two hours and forty-five minutes. After he got the film down to a 105-minute running time, he was able to book two showings a day at the now-defunct Dobie Theatre in 1990. On the first weekend, it sold out every screening with large lines out front. Linklater and his crew had gone around town putting up posters and handing out flyers and stickers. Slacker continued to sell out for months, but it was rejected after being submitted to the Sundance Film Festival. Then, every major and minor film festival in the United States and Europe rejected it until finally it got accepted at the 1990 Seattle Film Festival where it was a big hit.
After becoming a sensation on the film festival circuit, Orion Classics blew up the original 16mm print to 35mm and began to distribute it. Slacker was released officially and nationally on July 5, 1991. Word of mouth, coupled with glowing reviews resulted in Slacker being heralded – along with Douglas Coupland’s book, Generation X – as a manifesto for a generation. Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars and wrote, “We are listening in on a whole stratum of American life that never gets paid attention to in the movies … In a sense, Linklater has invented his whole style in order to listen to these people.” In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby called the film, “a 14-course meal composed entirely of desserts or, more accurately, a conventional film whose narrative has been thrown out and replaced by enough bits of local color to stock five years’ worth of ordinary movies.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film an “A-“ rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “Slacker has a marvelously low-key observational cool … the movie never loses its affectionate, shaggy-dog sense of America as a place in which people, by now, have almost too much freedom on their hands.” In his review for the Washington Post, Hal Hinson called it, “a work of scatterbrained originality, funny, unexpected and ceaselessly engaging.” The Austin Chronicle’s Chris Walters wrote, “it is one of the first American movies ever to find a form so apropos to the themes of disconnectedness and cultural drift.” Finally, in his review for the Chicago Reader, Jonathan Rosenbaum found the film to be “delightfully different and immensely enjoyable.”
Slacker became synonymous with Gen-X and vice versa with Linklater suddenly catapulted into the position of spokesperson for a generation – something that he did not feel comfortable with. Slacker also paved the way for countless Hollywood clones like Reality Bites (1993), which tried in vain to capture the essence of Gen-X, but came across more like an episode of the T.V. series, Friends. Slacker presented realistic settings with realistic people, warts and all, while Reality Bites introduced perfect looking people with perfect problems. Slacker inadvertently became one of the signature films for a generation of disaffected young people who were over-educated and underemployed. For better or for worse, the moniker “slacker” defined said generation.
For one summer, a college buddy and I were obsessed with Slacker and must’ve watched it countless times. It was quite unlike anything we’d ever seen before and really felt like not just a cinematic game changer, but a pop culture one as well. It was the same summer that we got into Beck’s debut album, Mellow Gold and in its own way that felt like a game changer as well, which is another reason why “Loser” and Slacker are linked together in my mind. For me, when I think of the early ‘90s, I think of them and they really provide a snapshot for where my head was at.
Dombal, Ryan. “Beck: 15 Years.” Pitchfork. August 17, 2011.
Linklater, Richard. “The Art of the Interview: Self-Revelation or Self-Torture?” Austin Chronicle. September 20, 1991.
Linklater, Richard. “Q&A with Richard Linklater.” Slacker. St. Martin’s Press. New York: 1992.
Lyons, Donald. Independent Visions. Ballantine. New York: 1994.
Raftery, Brian. “Slacker: 15 Years Later.” Austin Chronicle. July 5, 2006.