The Linklater Project 1: Slacker (1991)

One of our favorite filmmakers, Richard Linklater, is releasing a new film this August. So, we figured we’d watch all of the other movies he has made before then… just, you know, for context. (While applying a totally made up rating system, of course). Follow along with us.

Written and Directed by Richard Linklater

His second feature-length film, Linklater burst onto the scene in 1991 with Slacker, and was quickly identified as one of the indie auteurs who would define the decade. As fresh now as it ever was, Slacker is essential to check out if you’re a fan of his other films.

We noticed this time through that so many of the essential elements of Linklater’s cinematic language showed up first in Slacker – we’ll refer to these from here on out as “Linklaterisms” and they include:

  • Staring out the window of busses or trains or cars
  • Talking about dreams
  • Aimlessly walking around
  • Armchair philosophizing
  • Conspiracy theories
  • Mini-sports (ala “knuckles”)
  • Wild kids (children running around unsupervised)
  • Talking pedantically about mundane shit
  • Mildly threatening hyper-masculinity
  • Texas
  • A mysterious, unpredictable, effortlessly alluring lady
  • Wasted or stoned conversing
  • Playing parlour games (ex: ping pong, pool, pinball, darts)
  • Time as a structural element

Slacker is setting the standard for our summer project. In addition to earning a score on the Midnight Cinematic Index (MCI), all 17 films we review after this one will also earn a 7% bonus for each of its Linklaterisms (so, if a film has all 14, it gets a 98% bonus). Get it? Doesn’t matter, we’ll figure it out as we go.

Who is the protagonist? Who is the film about?

Hm – that’s a complicated question for this movie. One possibility: the protagonist is Richard Linklater himself. He’s the first person you meet, as if he walked right out of the action of It’s Impossible to Learn How to Plow By Reading Books (his first feature) and into Slacker – same outfit, hair, and traveling bags in hand. The film begins with his casual monologue in a taxi, describing a dream he had (which sounds a whole lot like his first film) and then pondering the possibility that every thought you have creates its own reality. For the next couple hours, you wander in an out of various daisy chained realities created by diversions of his own thoughts.

Another possibility is that Slacker has dozens of protagonists, each the lead player in a story of which we only see a small slice as we wander from scene to scene with Linklater’s camera.

You could also argue that Slacker is generally about the people of Austin, TX in 1991 – and that the folks we meet in the film are representative of a broader population of this specific place at this specific time.

Each of these ways of thinking about the film is right. Or could be.

Who/what is the antagonist?

Again, hard question to answer since Slacker isn’t at all narratively linear, and so there are lots of ways to think about this. One is that movement and passage of time propels the action. Each of the vignettes we wander into is dynamic, and this agitation is often what draws us out of one situation and into another. As the day passes, we have an opportunity to move into different kinds of spaces and situations – from coffee shops in the morning to midday matinees, dimly lit nighttime bars, and early morning walks of shame.

Another possibility is that the conundrum of existence – of consciousness – is what is on the other side of the action of Slacker. It’s hard not to ask yourself the question “What are all these people doing?”… they strive (or not), talk, walk around, experience things, drink beer, drive around, play made-up games, buy newspapers, spout conspiracy theories, and on and on and on. But what is all this for? Why are all these people here? What is the point of all this aliveness? Some of our subjects attempt to examine the nature of their realities while many focus on minutiae contained within, but an argument can be made that they’re all working on solving the same equation/mystery whether or not they know it.

Midnight Cinematic Index (MCI) Rating: 5/5

I know a perfect rating right out of the gate! It is one of our favorite films, after all.

Characters: 5

Characters are what I sense people remember most about this film: the girl with the Madonna pap smear, the guy who throws the typewriter in the stream, the “you should quit” lady, the guy with all the TVs, the girl with the oblique strategy cards… each is so authentically them. This film provides abundant evidence of Linklater’s signature knack for capturing performances that feel almost wholly organic. This could be a function of shooting movies on actual film with your own money, but the consistent quality across a wide variety of non and semi-professional actors in Slacker reveals an undeniably exceptional talent for memorable, authentic characters.

Style: 5

Slacker has this hot, sunny, lazy vibe – certainly in the setting itself and the weathered color palette, but also in the actors’ way of being and the camera’s movement around them in space. Linklater frames the people and action – and moves the camera around to make us feel like we’re just kind of hanging out with the characters in each vignette. We ride along in the car, we walk alongside them on the street, we sit with them at the bar, we move through the restaurant, pausing at each table for a moment. Not at all flashy, its simplicity masterfully sets the tone and invites us, continually, deeper into the constantly evolving action.

Structure: 5

Though Slacker’s structure is subversive to linear narrative storytelling, so innovative it breaches into experimental – somehow the film keeps that totally welcoming, accessible mainstream charm that he settled into even more in his next couple films, Dazed and Confused and Before Sunrise. It is at once benign and gonzo in a way positions Linklater as a less cynical Goddard for disillusioned Gen Xers.

Ideas: 5

Many of the short vignettes could fry your brain for days. There’s so much amateur philosophizing and conspiracy theorizing in the characters’ dialogue – and the way that our perception of characters shifts as you see them move from one circumstance to another all kind of drifts around, continually pointing toward the big questions underneath human existence. Like many great works, Slacker is much more than the sum of its individual parts, which taken together present a charming worldview espoused by a generation on the precipice of paradigmatic social and economic change.

Midnight Rating: 5

Slacker is a miracle. It manages to be both completely of its time and place – a perfect encapsulation of a quirky, lazy, fun slice of youth and Texas in the early 90’s (that definitely no longer exists) – AND completely relevant to the types of things we’re thinking about in the present, as a Minnesotans creeping up on 40 in the year 2019. Its persistent, unflinching, clear-eyed authenticity is the source of its magic. Completely guileless and unencumbered by others’ expectations, Slacker’s strangely packaged honesty is magnetic.

Watch this movie if… you want to wander into a hot, late summer Texas day in the 90’s, for a hangout that is cerebral, a little anxious, but honest in a way that is deeply comforting.

Slacker is rentable (Amazon/Google Play).

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