Sunday, May 26, 2013

Slacker - 1991

"Slacker" - 1991
Dir. by Richard Linklater - 1 hr. 37 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

Richard Linklater's "Slacker" is a fascinating movie.  It may not have been the first ultra-low budget film (made for only $23k), but it directly lead to more films made in that vein.  It might not have been the first super-talky film, but more super-talky films sprang directly from it.  Is it the first move without a concrete plot?  There's no way, but it's not an aimless art film, either.  "Slacker" is a distinct film that has a very firm sense of time and place, and it feels like an entirely alien world.  But what's it about?

I think the opening lines from The B-52's "Deadbeat Club" sum up "Slacker" pretty well:

"Get a job!"
"I'm trying to think."

Athens, GA must not have been all that different than Austin, TX.  The film is pretty much laid out explicitly during the first sequence.  None of the characters really have names, but instead are referred to as things like Should Have Stayed at Bus Station, who is played by Linklater himself.  He arrives in Austin on a bus, and takes a taxi into town.  During the entire ride, SHSBS offers a theory to the mute cabbie that every choice considered and not taken splinters off into it's own alternate reality.  When you sleep and dream, you get a glimpse into the worlds created by the roads not taken.  In "Slacker," the camera (or really, you, the viewer) are the main character, and you're constantly making choices (well, having the choice made for you) as to which person is more interesting, and then following them for a while until you stumble upon something else that seems more interesting.  So you're led through a series of mostly unrelated vignettes (the only way they're really connected is by physical space, usually), each of which lasts only as long as it stays interesting.

To my tastes, "Slacker" is a film in the same way that Marcel Duchamp's "Fountain" is art: it is a film because Richard Linklater says it is a film.  In 1991, the top two grossing films were a Disney film ("Beauty and the Beast") and a high-budget effects movie ("Terminator 2"), so putting together 100 minutes of grungy, oddball Austinites on film and letting them each babble until they run out of steam, and then asking people to pay money at a theatre to watch it was a pretty ballsy move.  There wasn't a direct lineage of low-budget movies in theatres at that point (or even movies in this vein); "Slacker" is the equivalent of low-fi bedroom recordings by Sebadoh.  But the act of getting "Slacker" into theatres and projected onto movie screens is what makes it a movie.  It is a movie because it is a movie.  It's aggressively low-key, people talk themselves into circles constantly, and aside from a woman getting hit in the street by a car, "Slacker" is all about inaction.

Most importantly, "Slacker" is an entertaining film.  No one would have ever even heard of it if there wasn't some entertainment value in watching a bunch of wackos interacting awkwardly with one another.  The cast is made up of largely non-actors, and so a couple of people stand out above the rest.  With no plot to speak of, the most memorable bit involved a woman trying to sell Madonna's pap smear, which she's carrying around in a glass jar in her pocket.  There are other memorable bits (like the guy who wanders into a diner which is entirely packed out by what appear to be asylum inmates out of a bit of coffee), but even the low-key, odd stuff commands attention (like the scene where a roommate disappears, so his roomies go into his room to find a handful of postcards on the floor, each containing part of a short story).

But describing these scenes misses the point; "Slacker" is all about the flavor of the situation, not the parts that make up the situation.  It's like the bizarro companion piece to "Wall Street," made up of people who aren't necessarily smart (a lot of the characters seem sedated, even while they talk ceaselessly), who are definitely not driven, but can't quite figure out anything at all.  In fact, the people who are focused and driven are portrayed as being crazy.  One man lives in a room stacked with TVs and video tapes (even having a TV strapped to his back as he walks around), another is obsessed with the JFK assassination, and keeps trying to push books on the subject onto some girl he had a college class with a few years back.  Being adrift and trying to figure things out isn't weird, ambition is weird.

I've written before about films that are more about the experience than about plugging along a series of plot points, and how difficult those films are to write about.  Most of the times that I've encountered those kinds of films, they're highly visual and kind of arty in presentation.  "Slacker" manages to achieve surrealism without approaching the task through visual means.  Mostly it's due to the odd nature of the characters and the conversations they end up having with one another, but it's also because the visual aspect is completely de-emphasized.  There's no effort at costuming; you may never see a larger collection of cut-off denim shorts and unmarked t-shirts and tank tops.  Virtually every indoor setting is blank: there's no attempt at decoration beyond the occasional accumulation of trash, like empty beer bottles or old newspapers.  I'm not even sure there's any signage captured, either.  The physical world in "Slacker" is solely utilitarian, and the sheer lack of visual input leads to a kind of delirium.  Things become surreal not because of a visual overload, but because of a lack of visual stimuli.  Perhaps that's why all the characters are so unmotivated; they're all looking for something to chew on, but the fields are all empty.

"Slacker" is the kind of movie that's going to provoke a love or hate response.  I'm not sure there's anything possibly in between.  You're either going to be bored silly by a bunch of people talking at people, or you're going to get drawn in immediately.  The good news is that you should probably know which camp you fall into within five or ten minutes, so act accordingly.

5 / 5 - Streaming

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