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Slacker Fest: Slacker
When slacker conventions rise to experimental art
Welcome to Slacker Fest, where we document our research and analysis of mass media’s “slacker” archetype, part of our effort to broaden the genre with a slacker film of our own. Find our master list of entries here. Previous entry: Friday
(PROGRAMMING NOTE: Big Quit Energy is on hiatus from regular essays on work culture and workaholism until the end of November. Until then, enjoy our backlog of Slacker film analysis and “Friends With BQE” podcasts episodes!)
This isn’t technically the OG slacker film (by decades, at that), but it may well be the spiritual OG. Not only because it’s the genre’s namesake, but because it embodies slacking most thoroughly in both content and form, pushing the genre’s conventions to wild extremes. I was going to open the series with Slacker, but after remembering how disorienting it is, I decided it was a bit much for a first entry.
(I must admit, I watched it in school and hated it because I was a moron with a Wes Anderson DVD box-set for a brain.)
Well, here we are: six films in, warmed up enough to take in and appreciate this extremely weird, awesome film!
Release year: 1990
Premise: A day wandering around Austin, TX—the Mecca of the unambitious—meeting a couple dozen of its eccentric, apathetic, and disillusioned (sometimes violently so) citizens.
Auteur: Richard Linklater, someone with great perspective who’s always willing to try crazy things. You may know him from titles as varied as Dazed and Confused, Waking Life, School of Rock, Boyhood and of course the Before Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight trilogy. Slacker was his first major breakthrough.
Notable characters: Because there’s too many to list (and none have names), I’ll use this space to celebrate that the movie consisted of cameos from non-professional local local professors, musicians, artists, as well as a bunch of Linklater’s friends.
I know I wrote about my skepticism of using projects to maintain friendships, but I’m not gonna sit here and tell you that making movies with buds isn’t one of the funnest things in life.
Meet the slacker: everyone (…but mostly the film itself?)
Depending on how you count, Slacker has 39 vignettes portraying different people, and no one features for more than a few minutes. This movie is nuts.
But here’s an interesting bit: notice that, despite its abundance of slackers, the film is called Slacker, singularly. I interpret this as referring to the film itself, which feels purposefully designed in story and technique to embody the slacker attitude.
I wouldn’t be surprised if Linklater’s intention was to help us, as viewers, get into a less rigid mindset by denying us any of the linearity and predictability we’ve come to expect from films. In the meta story of this film, we’re the straight-laced squares and Slacker is the sidekick teaching us to relax a little.
Their world: late ‘80s Austin, Texas
A college city whose motto is “Keep Austin Weird,” and definitely was when this film was made. Full of intellectuals and drifters, it’s the perfect setting for a film like this, its history and politics intertwined in many of the vignettes.
You’re excused for not recognizing today’s Austin in it, though, as the city is now marked by incessant construction, tech bros, and self-driving cars.
What do our slackers want and what’s in the way?
There is no main desire or driving force here as far as I can tell. Some of the characters may discuss minor desires, but they’re not doing much to pursue them.
The film itself doesn’t explicitly build toward anything, though its ending (someone throwing a camera off a cliff) feels like the punchline to a manifesto that says…eh… it says….“fuck film convention”….? “Fuck the usual structures through which we tell stories and to which we’re expected to mold our lives?” I could buy that.
The recurring antagonistic forces that characters complain about include authority figures, the government, and societal pressure.
How does the film define a “slacker” in broader terms?
Linklater himself defines his characters as “people on the fringes of any meaningful participation in society.” I think there’s a deeper character trait that underpins them and their lack of participation. They’re all, in one way or another, meandering. There’s a lot of ways a slacker can be meandering, and you see them all on display in this film.
It can manifest as indecision, not knowing where to go or what to be (for example, the guy whose band constantly changes names). This isn’t necessarily bad: many of our slackers are open-minded, free-associative thinkers and artists attracted to the spiritual and the non-concrete. Linklater himself plays a character who obsesses with parallel universes created by different decisions. His film shows creative “indecision” as well, starting lots of stories and never finishing any.
For slackers who have chosen a direction, it often “meanders” from the “straight” path that mainstream American society expects its members to take. You have an unhoused man who’s very proud of his lifestyle, people who advocate countercultural political systems (Marxism, Socialism), or whose vocation is pursuing conspiracy theories (I can’t help but remember that Austin produced Alex Jones). In more menacing cases, these paths veer into the criminal: from petty thieves to aspiring terrorists who revere the UT tower shooter.
For others, the meandering path is not a choice, but a consequence of mental illness. Linklater shows this most poignantly with a lady at the diner who keeps repeating “You should quit traumatizing women with sexual intercourse. I should know, I’m a medical doctor,” a line that implies the injuries that our rigid society inflicts on people, preventing them from being able to participate (the “medical doctor” part a sad parody of what a “respectable participant” would say).
Could anyone other than a White dude pull off slacking in this story world?
This is a very White movie, even with all its protagonists. I thought maybe it had the excuse that Austin was a very White city in 1990. Unfortunately, I found that, even back then, 36% of its residents were people of color. By my rough count, only 5% (two people) of the slackers are Black, and I didn’t notice any Latinx or Asian ones. I guess the film reflects Linklater’s 1990 social circle more than it fully reflects the population of Austin.
As far as who the Black characters were, they’re not even THAT slacker-y. One is an enterprising activist who sells shirts and zines. The other, a woman, is trying to get her boyfriend to leave the house for once—a voice of reason role. Shame.
To its credit, the film does show a lot of White women playing slackers. This includes the most iconic slacker of the film, and maybe the most iconic female slacker of the genre (there aren’t that many): the titularly pictured woman trying to sell a Madonna pap smear.
Does the film “approve” of slacking? Is it a broader antiwork statement?
There’s one vignette in particular that lays out explicit antiwork sentiments: the unhoused person who turns his on-camera interview into a manifesto that casts working as “[filling] the bellies of the pigs who exploit us,” and tells workers that “every commodity you produce is a piece of your own death.” I need this guy on our podcast!
That said, we can’t assume that the film endorses this gentleman’s POV more than any other in the film, which is full of highly subjective, “unreliable” narrators.
Linklater has said that Slacker is a loving homage to people living in the fringes, so the film clearly doesn’t reject this type of life. However, it doesn’t necessarily advocate it either. I think it’s just trying to make us realize that lack of structure and aimlessness is more common than we admit, even in the most cravenly ambitious country in the world, and that we’re better off accepting it.
What does the film see as “the enemy” in broader terms?
There’s one cultural attitude that the film goes out of its way to critique: collective indifference. It introduces this theme quickly, ending the first vignette with a hit-and-run in which the driver leaves a struck pedestrian (his mother, turns out) dying in the street.
Onlookers come to see what’s happening, but they’re all clearly trying to evade the responsibility of helping while nominally checking to see if someone’s called for help. One of them, a businessman with a nice car (so perhaps one of the only “non-slacker” characters), even tries to set up a date with another witness with the dead woman laying at their feet.
This is the most extreme example, but most everyone in the film has an air of nonchalance even toward their own troubles—perhaps feigned non-attachment to hide fears and anxieties. This isn’t exclusive to the slackers–constant indifference permeates the whole world of the movie, and everyone (especially those who are destitute and/or ill) has to endure it.
Maybe the “slacker” in the movie’s title is the world itself–society “slacking” on its responsibility and empathy toward the very people it calls “slackers.” Maybe this collective lack of empathy is the very thing that drives them toward their slacker lifestyles and attitudes.
Walt Wiltman’s favorite line
Tony Robbins’ take
“This movie was a drag. One huge bad day. And I don’t have bad days. I’ve trained my leader state to churn out testosterone. But to get over this movie, I had to do power poses for 36 straight hours.
“These seem to be bright kids. But all that wandering around with no conviction, that body language–it’s tragic! We need to train them into leaders of their lives, their families, and their community. We’re going to transform this dumpy city, one workshop at a time, one conference at a time!
“The next time they make a film about Austin, it shall be called Leader. Keep Austin Leading!”
Are there any slacker-like innovations in the technique of the film itself?
Plot / Setting
Everything about this movie evokes meandering.
Let’s start with its complete lack of plot. Slacker denies the audience any linearity or continuity. Ironically, this makes viewers “work” (or better said, “labor”) by making us sit in the ambiguity. If you can relax into this lack of structure and take the vignettes moment-by-moment, coherent themes emerge in the recall between different conversations and situations.
You become able to construct some meaning outside of a defined story path, kind of howwould say you can construct your own meaning outside of a defined career path. In a sense, slackers do the extra labor (which the rest of us run from) of finding a fulfilling path in places where none is apparent. As the film’s unhoused antiwork thinker says: “Hey look at me! I’m making it. I may live badly, but at least I don’t have to work to do it.”
Cinematography / Camera use / Color / Mise-en-scéne
Like the story, the camera constantly meanders from person to person and group to group. There are tons of elaborate and often slow tracking shots that give the movie a sense of flowing to and from. The characters are often walking in these shots, themselves meandering around town.
Though some of the vignettes are edited conventionally with multiple shots, many are composed of single long shots. This centers long monologues or conversations, allowing you to explore the scenes without having your attention “guided” by the editor.
Sound / Music
What would I want to keep for our slacker film? What do I want to leave or improve?
Mainly, I want to have at least little of the meandering that oozes through this film. Even the more conventional films I’ve watched in this series move leisurely, with at least a scene or two that doesn’t explicitly move the story forward.
Beyond that: the guerrilla scrappiness with which it was produced. Namely, Linklater’s refusal to get permits or pay for any of the locations. Casting non-professionals for at least some of the roles sounds cool too.
Overall, this film is so one-of-a-kind, I couldn’t recreate much of it even if I wanted to. It is inspiration more than a viable blueprint. A true artistic classic.
Next up: The Big Lebowski