Review by Rumsey Taylor
Posted on 11 October 2004
Source The Criterion Collection DVD
Decades are a sort of default epoch for films; they’re arbitrary, misleading, but convenient means of canonization, and serve to elicit attention to films whose success or innovation would be overshadowed by another, similar rendition in an adjacent decade. Richard Linklater’s Slacker is a perfect example. Released in 1991, the film possesses over a hundred characters, lots of talk, and no conclusions. The film is poised permanently at the threshold of a decade that houses similarly minded and similarly spoken independent films. Surely, Slacker is of some influence.
Seven years prior, Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise was considered similarly epochal, only it is more simplified and concise in its ambitions to concern the mundane than the later film. Save for Jarmusch’s contrived ending, the two films are similarly comfortable to observe the nature of realistic characters and their idiosyncrasies, new-age beatniks with neither the fashion nor poetry, populating a culture that’s distinguished by its lack of culture.
Although Slacker is now a familiar exercise, the film is nonetheless laudable for its relentlessly irreverent discourse. It’s a rendition of Neo-ennui that characterizes so many contemporary American independent films, each with subjects made eligible by their T-shirts or social malaise. To Linklater’s exclusive credit, Slacker is replete with these sorts of characters, and every one manages to make an impression in relatively little screen time. The film is so inclusive that there’s not even enough time to introduce many of the characters’ names – each is credited by his or her actions in the few minutes he appears in the film (Linklater for one, the first character to appear in the film, is “Should have stayed at the bus station”). It’s superficial that these people are distinguished by what they do and say – but this is the very intention of the film: to exploit a social artifice, and observe people whose predominant concerns may sound collective but their practices are entirely personal.
In spite of what the film’s title suggests, Slacker is remarkably photographed. The camera is constantly distractable, meandering within a varied tableau of characters and situations. It inherits every sporadic interest as it moves about Austin during a two-day period, lingers long enough to observe the general nature of what’s happening, and moves elsewhere. There is little coherence to this film, but its mise-en-scène is ironically accomplished and even cohesive. The film’s ending, a structural if not narrative closure, finds a gang of Super-8 toting teens, and the film suddenly becomes their grainier footage. In its entirety Slacker is a mechanism driven by its many characters, and appropriately concludes at their whim.
As an exercise, Slacker retains an inherent, fascinating novelty, even in multiple viewings. The same characteristic is executed to much greater effect, however, in Linklater’s Waking Life. Its innovative animation excepted, Waking Life possesses the same sort of characters, locale, and more fine-tuned ruminations and beatnik philosophy. As noted in these two films alone, the slacker motif is Linklater’s aesthetic, and characterizes his best films – a group in which Slacker is included although somewhat unexceptional.