Director: Richard Linklater
Screenplay: Richard Linklater
Stars: Richard Linklater (Should Have Stayed at Bus Station), Mark James (Hit-and-run Son), Tom Pallotta (Looking for Missing Friend), Jerry Delony (Been on the Moon Since the 50's), Stella Weir (Stephanie from Dallas), Teresa Taylor (Papsmear Pusher), Mark Harris (T-Shirt Terrorist), Don Stroud (Recluse in Bathrobe), Janelle Coolich (Shut-in Girlfriend), Robert Pierson (Based on Authoritative Sources), John Slate (Conspiracy A-Go-Go Author), Charles Gunning (Hitchhiker Awaiting “True Call”), Louis Mackey (Old Anarchist), Kathy McCarty (Anarchist's Daughter), Stephen Jacobson (S-T-E-V-E with a Van)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1991
Country: U.S.
Slacker Criterion Collection DVD
“Slacker, n., an esp. educated young person who is scornful of materialism, purposeless, apathetic, and usu. works in a dead-end job. [popularized by Slacker, film by R. Linklater]”—Webster’s Dictionary

There aren’t many movies that can claim to have coined a term that ended up in the dictionary, but Richard Linklater’s Slacker, a clever, low-budget experiment in non-narrative feature filmmaking, is one. Made for next to nothing but infused with the enthralling soul of a born filmmaker, Slacker is a curious bit of independent anti-Hollywood playfulness, a film that is at various turns funny, sad, compelling, weird, freaky, and surreal. But, more importantly, it is one of those rare films like The Graduate (1967) that captured a particular bit its era’s zeitgeist, thus guaranteeing it a form of immortality that transcends its artistic merit.

Composed entirely of short unrelated vignettes about various denizens living on the social margins of Austin, Texas, Slacker revels in the joy of pure dialogue. The film is not carried so much by motion as it is by words. Human language in all its varied forms—trite, meaningful, confused, rambling, profound, shallow—propels the stories along, connecting them together on a stream of ideas Linklater heard over the years and took the time to jot down in his notebooks. Of all the independent American filmmakers to emerge in the early 1990s, Linklater is the great observer.

Slacker feature more than 100 different characters in some 30-odd stories, each one connected by a character moving from one bit to the next. It is a method clearly borrowed from the surrealist filmmakers who rejected traditional narration by constantly changing it midstream (this was also enacted when they went to movies by jumping from theater to theater, never staying long enough to get involved in the story). Linklater’s style is not nearly so subversive, as it serves his purpose of showing as wide an array of margin dwellers as one could possible fit in a 100-minute movie. In a way, it’s also a bit like a relaxed, slightly unfocused riff on ER’s style of frantically Steadicam-ing along with one character through the hospital, then suddenly changing directions to follow another character as they cross paths, as if a narrative baton is constantly being passed off. It creates a world of unconscious connections, underlying the great humanistic belief that we are all, in effect, connected.

Linklater stages each of his observational moments in the reality of actual Austin locations, giving the film a distinct flavor that can only be stirred up by someone who intimately knows every back corner of the world in which he’s filmming. He also cast Slacker entirely with unknowns, most of whom were musicians in Austin who didn’t differ substantially from their filmic counterparts. Like the location itself, they give Slacker a sense of almost documentary-like realism that plays in sometimes amusing counterpart to the outright weirdness often on display, whether it be a paranoid conspiracy theorist carefully laying out the proof that we’ve been on Mars since 1962, or a girl trying to sell what she claims is a genuine Madonna pap smear, or a schizophrenic fervently repeating an Andrea Dworkin-like rant about the trauma of heterosexual intercourse. Linklater never fully verges into the surreal, which is good because it keeps the film firmly grounded, allowing its rouge’s gallery of fascinating outsiders to maintain their humanity. More than anything, Linklater doesn’t want to pronounce judgments, and he allows each character to fully be him- or herself.

Beyond the quirkiness of the characters and the intersecting storylines, Linklater invests a good deal of visual energy and creativity into a film that could have easily become a static thinkpiece. His most bravura moment comes early in the film at the crucial juncture when he first introduces the meandering narrative structure. For the first few minutes of the film, we watch as a character played by Linklater himself takes a taxi cab from the bus station and proceeds to talk in depth to the silent cab driver about a dream he had. Lulled by thousands of movies that conform to the classical Hollywood narrative, we quickly assume that this is the main character. Yet, when he gets out of the cab, he comes across a woman who has been run down by a hit-and-run driver. In a beautifully elegant long take that one might associate with a Kubrick film, Linklater slowly pulls back in a complex crane shot as other people pull up to see what happens and his character fades into the background. It’s a wonderfully cinematic moment that works perfectly on both a visual and narrative level.

Some may find that Slacker begins to wear out its welcome by the last 15 to 20 minutes. Because there is no central narrative, we’re constantly grabbing onto new characters and situations, which is exhilarating at first, but also has the effect of wearing you down over the long haul. Linklater keeps things more than interesting enough throughout, constantly throwing new ideas at us with each narrative rupture, and the fact that it never really coheres into anything substantial is the point. Life never coheres like a Hollywood movie, thus Slacker refuses any such glib pretenses, as well. Whether you find it enthralling to the very end or only mildly amusing, there is no doubt that Slacker announced the arrival of a formidible talent to the American cinema, one who has made good on his promise by continuing to explore similar themes and narrative strategies for almost 15 years.

Slacker Criterion Collection Director-Approved DVD

Aspect Ratio1.33:1
AudioEnglish Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo
  • Audio commentary by director Richard Linklater
  • Audio commentary by cast members
  • Audio commentary by crew members
  • Casting tapes featuring select “auditions,” with an essay from production manager/casting director Anne Walker-McBay
  • Early film treatment
  • Home movies
  • Ten-minute trailer for Viva Les Amis, a documentary about the landmark Austin café, Les Amis
  • Stills gallery
  • It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books (1988), Linklater's first full-length feature, with commentary by the director
  • Woodshock (1985), an early short 16mm film made by Linklater and Lee Daniel
  • Working script, including fourteen deleted scenes and alternate takes
  • Footage from the Slacker 10th anniversary in Austin, Texas, in 2001
  • Original theatrical trailer
  • Slacker culture essay by Linklater
  • Information about the Austin Film Society, founded in 1985 by Linklater with Daniel, including early flyers from screenings
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection / Home Vision Entertainment
    Release DateSeptember 14, 2004

    Slacker is presented in a new high-definition transfer in Linklater’s preferred 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The transfer, which was approved by Linklater and cinematographer Lee Daniel, was taken from a 16mm interpositive. The image looks great throughout, belying the film’s low-budget origins. The opening shots, which are very dark, look quite grainy, as do some of the later scenes in the film that take place at night, but this is an inescapable result of the film having been shot on 16mm. Otherwise, the image is clear and quite well detailed, with strong colors and good contrast.

    The soundtrack, which has been digitally restored, is presented in a clean, two-channel stereo mix.

    Working closely with Linklater, Criterion has produced a solid two-disc special edition with plenty of supplements, and let’s just keep our fingers crossed that they get to release Linklater’s follow-up film, 1993’s Dazed and Confused, as well.

    The first disc includes three audio commentaries, one by Linkater, one by various members of the film’s enormous cast, and one by members of the film’s crew. Linklater’s is the most interesting of the three, but the other two commentaries are certainly worth checking out, especially for longtime fans of the film who want to hear some funny stories about its production.

    Most of the other supplements included weave a complex history of the film’s production and the world of film in Austin, Texas. An early treatment shows us Linklater’s ideas for each scene in rough form, while “The Roadmap,” a working script for the film, shows us just how ambitious Linklater’s goals were. An extensive stills gallery and some home movies shot during production give a good sense of what it was like to make the film. The culture of Austin is fleshed out in a 10-minute excerpt from Viva Les Amis, a documentary about a popular café where several scenes from the film were shot that has since been forced to close down and become ... big surprise! ... a Starbucks. A brief history of the Austin Film Society, cofounded by Linklater, is nicely illustrated by a gallery of flyers that illustrate the group’s ecelectic sensibilities, from mainstream Hollywood fare by classic directors like John Ford to off-the-wall avant-garde treats and controversial cult favorites.

    Linklater also puts a lot of his own history on display with the inclusion of two early Super8 films. Woodshock is a brief documentary of a music festival shot with Lee Daniels in 1985. Even more impressive is the inclusion of Linklater’s first feature, It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books (1988), which has never been available on home video and also offers a screen-specific commentary by Linklater. There is also about 15 minutes of footage of the Slacker 10th anniversay reunion in Austin and a reprint of an essay on slacker culture written by Linklater.

    Criterion also includes a nicely designed 64-page insert booklet that is brimming with intriguing tidbits, including essays by John Pierson (Spike and Mike Reloaded) and Michael Barker, head of Sony Pictures Classics; Two-Lane Blacktop auteur Monte Hellmann writing about Linklater sending him his early work; excerpts from Linklater’s personal notebooks; and a reproduction of the 1989 Independent Production Fund grant application Linklater filled out to get finishing money for Slacker. All in all, it’s a fascinating glimpse behind the scenes of scrappy independent filmmaking in the early 1990s.

    Copyright ©2004 James Kendrick

    All images Copyright © The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (3)

    James Kendrick

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