Waxing Nostalgic — And Then Some — About Richard Linklater’s “Slacker”

Posted: July 16, 2014 in movies
Tags: , , , , ,

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It’s weird — when pressed to name my favorite filmmakers, I’m not even sure that Richard Linklater would immediately come to mind, but he fucking well deserves to. I’ve at the very least enjoyed — and frequently even flat-out loved — every single flick I’ve seen that he’s directed.  Sure, longtime readers of this site will know of my absolute and undying devotion to the “Before” trilogy, but BernieWaking Life,  A Scanner DarklyFast Food Nation, and the movie under our little metaphorical microscope here today, 1991’s Slacker (which was, in fact, his debut feature) were all masterpieces in their own right, as well.

I’ve been on something of a Linklater kick lately in preparation for seeing his much-anticipated Boyhood when it opens here in Minneapolis this weekend, but of all the films I’ve revisited, it’s been Slacker that stuck with me the most. In fact, I watched it two times in a row on Netflix the other night (it’s also available in superb DVD and Blu-Ray iterations from Criterion), and it’s kind of been wedged in my brain ever since.

Which may just be evidence of my much-delayed mid-life crisis finally kicking in, but I think there’s more to it than that.

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For those unfamiliar with the basic premise of the story here, rest easy — there isn’t one. Linklater just staged a bunch of scenes around his hometown of Austin, Texas that feature non-professional actors (including himself, in the movie’s opening vignette, as a guy who just got back to town and is taking a cab ride while expounding on some half-baked alternate reality theories) portraying people who were probably very much like themselves — go-nowhere, “Generation X” layabouts with nothing to do and all day to do it.

In fairness, some of the characters we’re introduced to — the JFK conspiracy theorist, the paranoid UFO enthusiast, the young guys rambling on about Freemasons, the elderly anarchist who’s a   fan of notorious bell tower shooter Charles Whitman — are probably the kind of folks you’re only likely to find in Austin (unless you’re looking really hard), but by and large the cast is populated with people we all know, or at the very least all knew, depending on how old you are.

I admit that Slacker hit a good few years before my own “Generation X wastoid” period kicked in, but the long conversations over beers, sitting in bars half-listening to crummy bands no one cares about, and random encounters with other people who aren’t up to much on a particular day are all things I know intimately from  my own experience. Even if I was more into black metal than I ever was “grunge” rock, and even though I never really got with the whole un-tucked flannel shirt look, there’s a definite sense of “holy shit, this was my life” that’s been hanging around in the back of my mind the past couple of days.

Here’s the thing, though — while almost anybody on the “other side” of 40 is prone to trips down memory lane and lengthy internal ruminations on the question of “where the hell did my life go, anyway?,” Slacker gets the whole zeitgesit  of those times so impeccably right that it doesn’t just get the wheels of your memory spinning, it puts you right back there. Sorry, but the more famous relics of “Generation X” cinema like Reality Bites and even Pulp Fiction just can’t do that — which goes to show that as a document of its time and place, Linklater’s little low-budget mockumentary-before-there-was-such-a-thing is an enduring, if entirely accidental, success.

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In fairness, it certainly has its flaws — the spaced-out chick with the supposed Madonna pap smear and the shut-in with all the TVs (both of whom are pictured in the stills reproduced above) are probably not approximations of any sort of reality, even early-’90s Austin, but they’re still memorable and fun characters, and it’s easy enough, for a time, to believe that people like that existed, even if they didn’t. That slight propensity for exaggeration keeps Slacker from claiming the mantle of the definitive media portrayal of “Generation X” — in my opinion, Peter Bagge’s seminal comics series Hate is the holder of that title — but it comes pretty darn close, and really these occasional sidesteps into OTT territory don’t diminish the overall effect of what Linklater’s going for here so much as they simply overdo it (though not to the point where it becomes annoying, thankfully).

As a hindsight-added bonus that can only come from viewing this thing again over 20 years (!) after its initial release, there are a couple of surprising things that stand out : 1) In a very real sense, for good or ill, many of the cultural memes started by “Generation X” never really went away; sure, those of us who were there at the time got older — that’s kinda how life works, I’m told — but “slackers” are everywhere now, they’re just called “hipsters”; and 2) in an equally very real sense, these “slackers”/”hipsters” — at least the commercially astute ones, at any rate — won out. The Austin of 1991 is nothing like the Austin of today, with the monstrosity that is SXSW having basically taken over every aspect of the town’s existence, but that’s proof positive of exactly what I’m talking about. The “alternative” music, movies, and other media that took their baby steps in the early ’90s are the establishment now, and the moguls who run the show at the film and TV studios, record labels, and various other electronic and print “entertainment” and “news” (two terms that are becoming almost indistinguishable from each other) outlets are often former “slackers” themselves whose tastes are very much a product of the times in which they grew up.

This ascendancy of one-time “X-ers” to the top of the media pyramid has its good and bad points, of course — on the plus side side we’ve got the veritable creative renaissance going on at Image Comics at the moment, on the minus side there’s Mumford And Sons — but that’s true of all generations before, and will remain the case for every generation that follows. Still, the simple fact  that a whole wave of people that was supposedly doing nothing has managed to implement its social mores, values, and tastes so widely is pretty remarkable in and of itself, even if a lot of the shit people my age are into is, frankly, stupid, and we’re passing that stupidity down to all those who follow in our wake.

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To bring things back to myself in closing here — hey, self-absorption is supposedly one of the defining characteristics of us “X-ers” — I’ll freely admit that there was something about seeing Slacker again that made me miss those times : the strong bonds of friendship I had with so many people (one of whom has remained a great friend that  I’ll actually be seeing Boyhood with, but many of whom, for various reasons, I’ve fallen out of touch with over the years despite the fact that knowledge of each others’ every move and thought and opinion was pretty much central to all of our existences for a good few years there), the carefree lack of responsibility, the random, entirely unplanned nature of life when you’re that young — but mostly what I miss is the general sense that, whatever may come, tomorrow will take care of itself, so just live in the moment. The older you get, the more you come to realize what starry-eyed bullshit that is, and ya know, that’s too bad.

Even so, Slacker wasn’t constructed with future nostalgia value in mind, and that shows — this is most definitely a “warts-and-all” picture of what it was like to be young and relatively free of attachments during the heyday of the “X years.” There are a lot of annoying assholes, boring blowhards, self-important know-it-alls, and wanna-be-smooth-talking bullshit artists to be found in this film, and watching them in action in their “native element,” you come to realize that not only did you know a lot of people like that, you may very well have been one yourself.

Hell, maybe you still are (and maybe I still am — it does take a certain amount of ego to randomly assume that people you don’t even know might be interested in what you have to say about movies, or comics, or books, or politics, or anything, after all).

Still, for my money that’s the surest sign that Linklater crafted something pretty remarkable — and enduring — with this film : it’s honest enough to admit that the characters, situations, and time period that it portrays are all very far from perfect, but it’s enjoyable enough to make you miss it all anyway.

 

 

 

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