May 26, 2011 / Filmwell
Kenji Koiso has his summer vacation all planned out: he and his friend Sakuma have …
October 17, 2008
(Ed. Note: Originally published at Film-Think.)
I have always been troubled by Slacker, as it is been the only Linklater I haven’t been able to enjoy immediately. It is an hour and a half of disconnected dialogue, each scene focused on a conversation or monologue that ends as the character from the upcoming scene appears and then wanders out of the old frame into a new one. This cycle repeats from the first scene, a young Linklater talking to an oblivious cabby about dreams, choices, and parallel universes (ideas which crop up again in Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly). From there on out, each scene tracks Linklater’s obsession with the idefinite nature of moral choice and philosophical conversation. The erratic structure of the film flits through people and conversations, either unwilling or unable to let itself sit still long enough for a narrative to settle in.
In a later essay on “Slacker Culture,” Linklater defined a slacker as someone “who is striving to attain a realm of activity that runs parallel to their desires,” often by abandoning cultural norms in terms of career and authority. This then would make Slacker the charter for most of Linklater’s other films, as they are all populated by characters wrestling with the difference between their desires and their activities. The theme is easy to see in the Hawke and Delpy films, the rotoscoped films, and Tape. But to argue from greater to lesser, we could even pick something like School of Rock and talk about Jack Black’s character as a slacker with a Hollywood ending. It is easy to imagine Jack Black searching Austin’s rock scene for AC/DC glory, Ethan Hawke talking your ear off about a lost love, or Matthew McConaughey passing out on someone’s couch. And Slacker also introduces us to Linklater’s long takes. These shots are like eavesdropping in a cafe, where you know that if you turn away even briefly you will probably lose track of the conversation. I guess it took this kind of listening to actually film slackers in their natural habitat for the first time.
But I have still always had a problem with the film, put off by the amount of planning and concentration that went into most of the scenes. Many of them are as ham-fisted as senior art shows. I wonder now, though, how relevant that is. This particular segment of Austin society seems a few more apples shy of a bushel than the rest of town, but many of Slacker‘s stories and conversations are biographical. Unlike Gummo, which with Slacker could be what Herzog called the “entertainment of the future,” Slacker isn’t just posing. It is real posing, authentic posing, and in this way it is one of the first documented ironies of Generation X. It was so well received because its first audience was just as lost in post-college digestions of cultural theory, religion, and philosophy. It had already adopted the pose Linklater was developing in a cinematic way, his direction partaking in the sense of narrative time enjoyed by a Slacker Culture disconnected from the 9-5 grind. It seems that my problem with the film was that in being about Slacker Culture, it became a slacker aesthetic. The way this aesthetic merges a cinema high, referencing the gaze of other directors historically linked with spiritual/political reflection, with a narrative and conversational low is not as offensive as I thought. (And may have something to do with how much I like Van Sant.) In hindsight it is prophetic, as Slacker is like a blog that I would definitely put on my rss feeder. Each conversational episode is like a blog post in a community of similar voices.
The last episode of the film is a hike up a trail to a rocky overlook, like Brakhage’s Dog Star Man shot in a grainy and mythical low millimeter stock. In between two dizzying sweeps of the lens we see a copy of Paul Goodman’s Growing up Absurd (the the Slacker roadmap) lying next to the Southwest Fiction Anthology by Max Apple. This brief glimpse of these books is telling, identifying their reader as a certain kind of person with certain kinds of Slacker thoughts. Like a blog post this shot is an off-hand Twitter on life referencing a number of sources at the same time. The reader is tuning in and turning on. He is dropping out, but he is doing it in the Southwest, in Austin. Like Percy’s Moviegoer he has a keen sense of place but nowhere to go. Immediately after the shot of the two books, Linklater throws his camera off the cliff, the frame spins around as if we are seeing the last few seconds of life from the point of view of the camera, and the film is over. This is an unexpected finale, but it is playful and exuberant, Linklater throwing his hands up and exclaiming: What more can I say? This is a slacker conclusion.