by Ryan Arthur
Before he helped Jack Black raise the goblet of rock, before he helped make Matthew McConaughey a star, before both sunrise and sunset, Richard Linklater made Slacker, a day in the life of a bunch of twenty-something Austinites. At its core, Slacker's a series of vignettes, all barely connected from one to the next. One scene takes place, a character from that scene leaves and walks away into another scene, where they may or may not (usually not) play a part. There's no structured narrative, no real lesson learned, no point, really...it's just a snapshot of a group of people at a certain time in their lives.It's a cast of 100 complete amateurs flitting from one conversation to another while the camera follows. We'll count the director, who appears in the film's opening sequence, talking about the different tangents in a person's life that aren't taken, and how those other paths become something like alternate realities, and about a dream where "there's nothing going on," effectively setting up the film: each segment is a tangent from the previous one , where nothing much seems to happen. Don't expect anything flashy; Linklater's film was made for $23,000 - and I'd bet that every penny's on screen - and is mostly shot using handheld camera (outside of a crane shot early on) with long, fluid takes and a handful of dolly shots. There's some amusing stream-of-consciousness discussion in parts, some interesting dialogue, and there are a few moments that will just have you shaking your head (the much-discussed "Madonna Pap Smear" segment, as well as a diatribe about Scooby-Doo and the Smurfs as Hindu propaganda come to mind), but again, the structure of this is not as a point-A-to-point-B linear-type movie. Everybody's talking, and hopefully, you get pulled in to some of it. It's really not about the look of the film.
"I've got less important things to do."
No, Slacker's all about the dialogue, and that's both the film's strength and its weakness. Each character that speaks comes off as a eccentric, over-educated or pseudo-intellectual (or all three), trying to pass on a theory or belief on everything from pop culture (the aforementioned Smurfs story) to anarchy to philosophy. Some carry it off well (Louis Mackey is quite watchable as "the old anarchist," John Slate is significantly creepy/goofy as "Conspiracy A-Go-Go author"), while others don't. Most are adequate. They're just words, though: an audience shouldn't try to pick up all of the references and theories, and instead pick up on the interaction between the actors. Slacker plays like a trial run for Waking Life: the structure's unique, the comedy's deadpan and the dialogue's droll and dense, although it's a much less philosophical film than Waking Life is. Everybody's portrayed as a free-thinker (whether they come across as such as another matter), and it mostly works. The trick is to take it all as a whole: Slacker serves to give us a portrait of a distinct culture, at a time when Gen-X (a group seemingly disinterested in just about everything but still willing to talk at length about just about anything) was emerging into the forefront.
Slacker also has the distinction of being the film that influenced Kevin Smith to become a filmmaker and make Clerks. So you can either thank or blame Richard Linklater for that. I'll thank him. Meanwhile, Linklater's maintained his indie roots (Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, Waking Life) while flirting with the mainstream (School Of Rock and the upcoming remake of The Bad News Bears), and people still come back to Slacker and its experimental nature. Is it his best work? Well, the "everything happens in the span of 24 hours" gimmick was one that Linklater would later use in Dazed And Confused, Suburbia and Before Sunrise, so it continues to be something that serves as an inspiration to him.Slacker is finally making its DVD debut as part of the Criterion Collection (spine #247), so it's clearly an impressive package. The film looks spectacular with a new digital transfer from the original 16mm elements, commentaries and the usual additions (including a handful of essays that are surprisingly good - and quick - reads) that make up Criterion's "film school in a box" approach that they take with all their releases. It also includes Linklater's first full-length feature, 1988's It's Impossible To Learn To Plow By Reading Books, also with commentary, and other goodies. Definitely worth the purchase if you're at all interested in early nineties indie cinema or the early work of Linklater.
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originally posted: 09/12/04 23:38:52