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The Criterion Collection

Written and directed by Richard Linklater

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Review by Gregory P. Dorr                    

If Steven Soderbergh's Palm d'Or-winning Sex, Lies and Videotape (1989) was the fuse that lit the indie explosion of the 1990s, Richard Linklater's Slacker (1991) was the first chunk of burning shrapnel to lodge itself in the collective moviegoing eye. While it's hard to imagine such an assuming project leading the flood of more supercharged, low-budget indie hits that would include Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Kevin Smith's crass Clerks (1994), the comparatively easygoing Slacker's milieu of aimless, media-saturated youth opportunely collided with a new, receptive, tailor-made Generation X audience hungry for a reflection of their self-absorbed selves, but also cynical enough to revel in the irony of seeing themselves exposed as shiftless, over-educated philosophers about nothing.

Written and directed (and edited) by Linklater, Slacker creeps through a lazy day in Austin, Texas, jumping from one group of wayward intellectuals, hipsters, freaks, and/or burnouts to another like a stream of consciousness through the spectrum of post-college ennui. The featured denizens of Austin (not playing themselves, exactly, but people like them, enacting quirky scenes Linklater for the most part experienced or heard about) spend their day deconstructing each other; deconstructing themselves; committing crimes petty and major; wandering without purpose; talking about books, movies, TV, and music; participating in half-baked rituals mish-mashing the spiritual with the banal; trying to get laid; fantasizing elaborate conspiracies; avoiding work as a philosophical imperative; and spewing out mindless dissertations about anything that comes to mind, including discourse itself. And yet, Slacker is not critical of its subjects; unlike the "slackers" themselves, Linklater affably lacks cynicism and affectionately captures their often amusing, carefree, and listlessly self-indulgent post-modern ways, which include destroying the very methods of media (a typewriter, a TV, and, finally, a movie camera) that inform their way of life.

Simply as a movie, detached from its cultural relevance, Slacker is a mixed bag. Some of the amateur cast members (many of whom seem to have been pulled from local bands like The Butthole Surfers, Poi Dog Pondering, and more) acquit themselves better than others, but, for the most part, even the flatness of the worst performances works within the overall vibe. Slacker works best on its initial viewing, whereas on repeat viewings some of the less crazy dialogue borders on monotonous. Still, the true nuts like Been on the Moon Since the '50s (Jerry Delony), Conspiracy A-Go-Go Author (John Slate), Papsmear Pusher (Teresa Taylor), Traumatized Yacht Owner (Lori Capp), and Hitchhiker Awaiting 'True Call' (Charles Gunning, the only real actor in the group) remain amusing time and again, and keep the film entertaining for sober revisits. While Slacker is not by a long shot Linklater's best film (his follow-ups, Dazed and Confused [1993] and Before Sunrise [1995] are far more satisfying experiences), its status as a cult classic is well-earned. With impeccable timing, Linklater's Austin crowd fortuitously (and very un-slacker-like) produced a defining piece of pop culture that anthropologized a large youth movement early in its ascendancy.

*          *          *

Also conspicuously un-slacker-like is the effort to pull together a two-disc set for this film. The wide variety of extra features, perhaps, expects a far more intense degree of interest on the part of the audience than a movie entitled Slacker might feasibly elicit.

Disc One of this Criterion Collection release includes a good high-definition digital transfer of the feature film — shot in a combination of 16mm, 35mm, super8 and PixelVision, on a budget of somewhere between $23,000 and a little over $100,000 — in its native 1.33:1 with Dolby 2.0 Surround audio. There are three commentary tracks, the first of which features only Linklater, and is of the most interest. The second track features an assortment of cast members, most of whom comment on their own scenes, but very few of whom offer any insights of interest. On the third commentary track Linklater is joined for low-budget tech-talk by director of photography Lee Daniel and co-producer Clark Walker, the last of whom is hoarse and can barely contribute. Disc One also includes a reel of casting interviews that will appeal to diehards only, introduced by an essay from production manager/casting director Anne Walker-McBay; an early film treatment; behind-the-scenes "home movies;" a 10-minute collection of clips from a documentary about the Austin café, Les Amis, which served as location for several scenes in Slacker; and a stills gallery.

Disc Two piles on with Linklater's first feature-length film, the 83-minute 1988 8mm odyssey It's Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books, a self-described "'oblique narrative' about alienation, communication, the banality of life, and the mindset of travel," which demands a strong constitution from any viewer who attempts to endure the film without slipping into a self-made sequel to Linklater's dream-flick Waking Life. Linklater also provides a commentary, which is only slightly less soporific. If there is any such thing as a Linklater completist after his double duds SubUrbia (1996) and The Newton Boys (1998), this may be a compelling inclusion. More interesting is the six-minute "Woodshock," a 1985 16mm short by Linklater and Lee Daniel about a tiny music festival, which foreshadows the raucous chaos of the moontower beer bust in Dazed in Confused. Also included are Slacker's working script (more of an outline), which includes 14 deleted scenes and alternate takes; footage from the Slacker 10th-anniversary celebration attended by several cast members; the original theatrical trailer; a slacker culture essay by Linklater; and information about the Austin Film Society, founded in 1985 by Linklater with Daniel, including early flyers from screenings. The set is bound a by a nice-looking (but surely not very durable) fold-out digipak with a paperboard sleeve.

— Gregory P. Dorr

Disc One

Disc Two

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