4 out of 5 stars

The director Jim Jarmusch (The Dead Don’t Die) once provided some astute advice to aspiring artists. About the creative process, he said “Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination”. Now, the word ‘steal’ is quick to raise hackles—stealing, we’re taught from a young age, is wrong regardless of the object or subject. So we replace the word steal with words like ‘influence’, or phrases like ‘indebted to’.

If art is a spiritual endeavour, intangible rather than material, then how can it be stolen in the same way a tin of soup might be stolen from a supermarket? Certainly, the need to feel something in one’s soul, to absorb it into the bloodstream, is as essential to human function as food or water. This, then, is about more than just art. It’s about the world outside you, and how it builds the world inside you. If each artistic expression at its purest is a refraction of a thousand types of light, then surely that’s true for the people who make the art, and the people who receive it.

The films of Jarmusch—particularly his early, nomadic works like Permanent Vacation (1980) and Stranger than Paradise (1984)—are part of the soulful sustenance that the director would instruct us to “devour”. When it came time for college dropout and cultural omnivore Richard Linklater to shoot his second feature, Slacker, were Jarmusch’s works on his mind?

It is more than the similarly low budgets, cheap gear, and non-professional actors that would suggest so. It’s in the punk ethos underlying these films, in the European influence that enlivens them, and in the total middle finger they give to commercial viability. Linklater picks up and transmits a cultural attitude that goes beyond any border. Fittingly, Slacker is a film about how a culture of 24/7 consumption informs not just the actions of a person, but the very way in which they view the world.

Slacker consists of loose vignettes that follow the aimless oddballs of Austin, Texas during one summer day at the tail-end of the 1980s. It would make a fine companion piece with Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989)—but if the latter is a film about a sweltering day that catalyzes a city’s eruption, then Slacker is the inverse, a film about how anger and frustration can become transmuted under merciless sunshine.

Lee’s characters rise from exhaustion to fury, while Linklater’s often start furious, before melting like tarmac under a blazing sun, too fused with the ground to realise they’ve become just another part of the scenery. Therefore, their need to drift before they get stuck is essential.

Linklater doesn’t give them names. The first person we see, played by Linklater himself, is credited as ‘Should have stayed at bus station’. The pre-dawn blues of Austin roll by from the window of a Greyhound bus. Office buildings, parking lots, and fast-food chains slumber as our man enters town as if waking from a dream.

He has a dream, actually, one he had on the bus, and is now describing to a stony-faced taxi driver. In the dream, nothing exciting happened. “I was flipping through the TV stations endlessly, reading…” he says. “How many dreams do you have where you’re just reading?” The limitless potential of human imagination trapped by the mundanity of the day-to-day, even when we sleep?

But the man, much like the director who plays him, is enamoured with the everyday. How many countless hours do we spend daydreaming during dull jobs? Why, on long bus journeys, do we drift towards contemplation? Why do we have some of our most intrusive realisations while drinking coffee? Mundanity isn’t always an obstacle; it can be a springboard.

Perhaps it’s not a gift for the taxi driver—as Doug Martsch of Built to Spill once warned: “No one wants to hear what you dreamed about, unless you dreamed about them.” Linklater’s drifter describes the book he read within his dream (which, he presumes, he wrote, given that it’s his dream. Linklater, incidentally, also serves as the sole writer of Slacker). In it, a world is described where every action not taken branches off into a different reality, just as valid and real as the one we know.

What if, he wonders aloud, he had stayed at the bus station? Say this beautiful woman walks up to me and just starts talking to me, you know? She offers me a ride…” Does this potential reality, in which he gets lucky, exist out there on some astral plane? “Shit”, he laments as he considers this unofficial. “I shoulda stayed at the bus station”. Linklater’s characters always manage to make horniness into something profound.

His drifter has likely encountered the writings of Hugh Everett III, the American physicist who proposed the many-worlds interpretation. This theory suggests that every possible variation of our world exists in its universe, branching off at the point of each event, from the dropping of atomic bombs to the fluttering of an insect’s wings.

Linklater’s traveller is a composite, like we all are, of the things that spark our imagination. Scientific theories, songs, places, films—he’s a scrapbook of the world around him. His acceptance of the theory would mean that every decision we make is fraught with consequences and meaning. It’s certainly one way to feel important.

He mentions The Wizard of Oz (1939) to the taxi driver as a way of illustrating this theory—what if Dorothy and her friends had taken a different Yellow Brick Road? How can we ever know what that film would be like when we’re stuck inside this one version of reality?

Later, some students discuss the ethics and social ramifications of Scooby-Doo and The Smurfs. Life is understood through cartoons, where the trivial carries the same cultural weight as the monumental. ‘Should have stayed at bus station’ is like the people we meet later, absorbing the world’s cosmic and prosaic ideas, and trying to discover something about themselves within it. As Hugh Everett III’s son, indie rocker Mark Everett of the band Eels, coincidentally once wrote in a song about his father: “I woke up lost in a world I can’t escape, what I’ll become slowly taking shape.”

Slacker’s vignettes are met by Linklater’s roaming 16mm camera, handled with the gentlest of touches by cinematographer Lee Daniel. The two would work together again over the years, from Dazed and Confused (1993) to Boyhood (2014).

Their first collaboration contains the kismet-like excitement of two artists finding their footing together. Their work here is symbiotic, Daniel’s graceful dollies and handheld shots drifting like the impermanent thoughts of the film’s characters. While the lo-fi aesthetic is an essential ingredient (it was made for just $23,000), Linklater and Daniel are steady and understated behind the camera. Booms drift into shot and the crew is glimpsed in car windows—but the pair don’t force imperfections, and they don’t impose themselves on the action.

Taking the role of an observer, director Richard Linklater finds influence from the French New Wave. As a student discusses the inherent problems of a two-party government system, the camera pans over to two zoned-out friends playing a game where one must snatch a comb and slap the other’s hand with it before they can move it away. This evokes the watchfulness of Jean-Luc Godard and his fascination with political (and apolitical) youth, while also recalling the last, dying hours of a party. We hear the idea being spoken, but we watch the game. Which is more important?

We never spend more than a couple of minutes with each character, and once they’re gone, we don’t see them again. Many are absurd, like the hustler (played by the late drummer of The Butthole Surfers, Teresa Taylor) who tries to sell a Pap smear and pubic hair supposedly belonging to Madonna. There’s a jilted lover, encouraged by his mates to hurl a tent off a bridge as an act of catharsis, and a recluse who collects television sets, wearing one strapped to his back like a rucksack. The non-professional performances are often stilted and monotone, but each one captures a type of person more distinctly than a performance by a trained actor could.

They are wanderers, going from cafés to pubs to cinemas to see if there’s anyone they know hanging around, or if anything good is showing. At best, there’ll be a band playing and someone will let you transfer their hand stamp to get in. They don’t have jobs— as one succinctly puts it, “To hell with the kind of work you have to do to earn a living. All it does is fill the bellies of the pigs who exploit us.”

Linklater doesn’t judge. The burnouts and oddballs who make up the film aren’t exactly wrong—the Austin we see here is full of overgrown weeds, rusted cars, and cracked concrete. There’s nothing meaningful being offered to the people, nothing of substance to hold on to, so they must make their own rules and noise. The disaffected youth will live by these rules until they turn into local eccentrics, like the conspiracy theorist who walks alongside a student while ranting about Martians, the government stealing children, and the impending threat of global warming (even a broken clock is right twice a day).

Or the elderly man who wanders the streets at dawn, recording his thoughts onto a cassette recorder. “The tragedy of life is that man is never free,” he reflects before the scene is interrupted by a man in a pickup truck speaking through loudspeakers mounted on it: “We’re gonna give away all the fuckin’ automatic weapons. Free weapons giveaway… we’re gonna solve all these goddamn problems”.

Linklater’s Austin is like flicking through TV channels in the dead of night, catching glimpses of public-access weirdos, miniature psycho-dramas, and strung-out sermons. It’s as if you’re somewhere between being asleep and awake. Each moment has the uncanny yet dislocated detail of a dream you have just after nodding off. Yet, the attempt to recall each detail has the unmistakable feeling of a sudden awakening, and the submerged effort to try and remember where you just were.

The stream-of-consciousness approach lends itself well to Linklater’s experimental structure. Here, vignettes don’t have payoffs or punchlines; they simply exist, and we glean whatever resonates with us. Some will find nothing, others will find everything. All he truly asks is that we listen. There’s a lot to hear.

Every town has someone known for their eccentricities—our town, notably, has a beloved local nicknamed “Elvis,” famous for wearing T-shirts adorned exclusively with Elvis Presley’s likeness. He’s only ever seen carrying magazines, books, or DVDs relating to the King of Rock n’ Roll, and he’ll chat to you about Elvis if you ask. We tend to think of certain people as being on the fringes of society, or as outsiders. But why are they any less central to a place, and why are they any less a product of it than any nine-to-fiver with 2.4 children and a mortgage?

Slackers, obsessives, conspiracy theorists, dropouts, stoners—Richard Linklater places these people at the centre of his films. Rather than arguing about the specifics of their beliefs, he suggests that almost everyone you’ll ever meet is just like these people: amalgams of location, experience, love, knowledge, taste, fear, media, religion, and expectations. Each person is different, but we’re linked by the fact that we are all the results of seemingly endless combinations of factors. We are each trying to figure something out.

The people in Linklater’s version of Austin live just a few hours south of Dallas, where President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Perhaps this is why we meet a man who is writing a book about why he believes Jack Ruby was responsible for killing the president. Perhaps the grainy footage from that day in 1963 is echoed in the final vignette, where a group of teenagers swerve a convertible around the empty morning streets, capturing their adventure on a Super 8 camera. The earlier discussions of firearms linger in the mind.

Heedless and soundless (the audio now replaced by a jaunty Latin-infused jazz number), the teenagers find themselves at a cliff edge, from which they hurl the camera. The landscape blurs as the camera plummets towards the water, their film destroyed along with the tool that created it. It’s oddly liberating. The things that hold us down—the history of the places we live in and the weight of our responsibilities—can be cast aside. We can refuse to participate in a life that doesn’t resonate with our hearts.

A quote read from a Tarot card by one character says ‘Withdrawing in disgust is not the same as apathy.’. Despite this, Linklater’s film does not withdraw from humanity. Instead, it focuses on an area of humanity that speaks to him, his own little corner of the world. Slacker is a film with a voracious hunger for culture and people, and which went on to be so influential speaks volumes about its insights.

Mike Judge’s animated satire King of the Hill (1997-2009) and its idiosyncrasies feel as if they’re in conversation with Linklater’s view of Texas, while Michael Stipe explicitly quotes Slacker in the R.E.M track “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?” A whole generation of indie filmmakers would follow in Linklater’s footsteps, most explicitly Kevin Smith (Mallrats) who claimed that seeing Slacker made him realise that he could make his own film, too. (Sadly, this means he can be blamed for Clerks II.)

Slacker takes from the world around it and gives a lot back, too. Whether these characters are right-on or complete and utter privileged buffoons is beside the point. We take the parts of life that matter, and at best, fashion them into something meaningful that we offer back to the world as a token. That’s the ideal, anyway. There might be infinite realities, and in some of them, you’re probably withdrawing in disgust. It’s understandable.

USA | 1990 | 97 MINUTES | 1.37:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

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Blu-ray Special Features:

Slacker isn’t a film that’s supposed to look pristine. Fortunately, Linklater and Daniel supervised the digital film transfer, which maintains the atmospheric grain and textures of the 16mm footage. Presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio, this 1080p version is vivid in colour but still looks pleasingly like a lo-fi oddity you might stumble on late night on TV. The disc features a 2.0 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack—probably overkill for something like this, but it sounds vivid and clear, nonetheless. This is about as good as the film can look and sound without it being over-cleaned up.

  • New, restored high-definition digital film transfer, supervised by director Richard Linklater and director of photo­graphy Lee Daniel, with 2.0 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack.
  • Three audio commentaries, featuring Linklater and members of the cast and crew.
  • It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books (1988), Linklater’s first full-length feature, with commentary by the director. The Criterion Collection has a strong history of throwing in bonus films, and this is one of the essential and welcome they’ve added so far. Unavailable on disc until now, this is unmissable for Linklater fans—one of the keys to understanding his early work.
  • Woodshock, a 1985 16mm short by Linklater and Daniel. Another excellent addition, Woodshock is a short that captures footage from the 1981 Woodshock festival. The legendary Daniel Johnston shows up, and while short, the film is a vital look at the music scene of Texas that led up to Slacker.
  • Casting tapes featuring select “auditions” from the more-than-100-member cast. Fascinating time capsules that highlight just what a diverse and unique circle Linklater found himself in.
  • Deleted scenes and alternate takes. A generous half-hour of material here. For anyone wanting to linger in Austin with the weirdos a little longer, this is for you.
  • Footage from the Slacker 10th-anniversary reunion. Some terrific anecdotes that delve into the stories the casting tapes set up.
  • Early film treatment.
  • Home movies. Pieces mostly from around the time of Slacker, these give further insights into Linklater’s view of the world at the time, and his clear love of filming.
  • Ten-minute trailer for a 2005 documentary about the landmark Austin café Les Amis.
  • Original theatrical trailer.
  • English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing.
  • PLUS: An essay by author and film­maker John Pierson, an introduction to It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books by director Monte Hellman, an essay by Michael Barker, reviews by critics Ron Rosenbaum and Chris Walters, and production notes by Linklater
  • New cover by Marc English.
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Cast & Crew

writer & director: Richard Linklater.
starring: Richard Linklater, Kim Krizan, Mark James, Stella Weir, John Slate, Louis Mackey & Teresa Taylor.