Slacker: How a Low-Budget Film Inspired an Entire Subculture

Slacker Scott Marcus & Teresa Taylor in Slacker (Orion Classics)

Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema and the filmmaker’s own biography. This month, in honor of his latest film Where’d You Go, Bernadette? we turn our eye to Austin’s favored son, Richard Linklater. Read the rest of our coverage here.

The numerous characters in Slacker are all one piece of a larger puzzle. There isn’t a protagonist among the numerous Austin, Texas residents Richard Linklater chronicles in his directorial debut, and none of them have any precedent over each other. Instead, the camera just follows one or two characters for a brief period of time before casually tilting its attention elsewhere. Through this structure, the playing field is level. Everybody, young, old, intellectual, rocker, rich, poor, they all get their time in the spotlight during the riveting run time of Slacker.

Making a film in this unique of a manner means Slacker ends up feeling like Linklater’s typical style of filmmaking fused together with the structure of the Simpsons episode 22 Short Films About Springfield. It turns out to be a wonderful mixture, especially since the resulting movie carries a number of features that would continue to appear in Linklater’s later work. Whereas it sometimes takes filmmakers several movies to settle into their groove as artists, Linklater already had a number of facets of his artistic modus operandi solidified.  

For example, much like his most acclaimed later endeavors Boyhood or Before Midnight, Slacker is a small-scale, dialogue-driven feature following the exploits of mundane life. Slacker also feels like a precursor to Linklater’s second directorial effort, Dazed and Confused, in how it expands its focus far and wide across a whole swath of human beings residing in Austin, Texas, while the frequently paranoid figures that the camera lingers on tend to recall the similarly paranoid characters of A Scanner Darkly. Even an early sequence that wrings dark comedy out of characters’ varying detached reactions to a woman lying unconscious in the street can’t help but feel like a showcase for the type of comedy that would fuel Bernie.

To watch Slacker is to watch traces of Linklater’s future as a filmmaker flicker on the screen before your eyes. However, this 1991 directorial effort isn’t just around to provide clues about where writer/director Richard Linklater was going with his future cinematic works. Slacker also works plenty well as its own standalone movie, especially in regards to the memorable and realistic personalities it brings to the screen. One of the earliest scenes showing a conspiracy theorist in a Batman t-shirt babbling to a stranger about how man has actually colonized Mars for decades leaves one in stitches, both because of how funny it is, and how truly authentic the character feels.

We’ve all met somebody like this — heck, it’s not far-fetched to suggest that some of us have even been this guy at some point in our lives, just relentlessly jabbering away without consideration for what the other person in the conversation is thinking. From this scene onward, Slacker continues to produce all kinds of different characters brought to life through performers who lend their roles a discernible sense of authenticity. Another rambling conspiracy theorist, this one specifically obsessed with the JFK assassination, has an especially impressive performance, simply for the way in which it viscerally channels realistic awkwardness. One can feel themselves squirming in their seat as the woman this conspiracy theorist is talking to tries to subtly leave the conversation.

To watch Slacker is to watch traces of Linklater’s future as a filmmaker flicker on the screen before your eyes.

Such palpable realism in this particular scene of Slacker, and in the rest of the movie, is heavily informed not just by its myriad of performances, but also by Richard Linklater’s screenplay. Specifically, Linklater’s writing puts in great effort to make sure that the individual people we follow around refrain from becoming monotonously repetitive. There isn’t just one person to be found in any city, let alone one as eclectic as Austin, Texas, and Slacker clearly recognizes the level of variety you can find just looking at the various people walking down an average street. 

Even the conspiracy theorists we encounter in the story (a physical reflection of the political turmoil present in Texas in the early 1990s) turn out to be heavily idiosyncratic as individual people, rather than just the same tinfoil hat wearing stock type repeated ad nauseum. There are worlds of differences between, say, the elderly anarchist, who maintains an amusingly welcoming attitude to everyone who crosses paths with him, and another fellow with a TV strapped to his back living in a room adorned with TVs and sketchy VHS tapes.

Making sure those differences between its countless characters are both heavily discernible, and endlessly interesting, is what allows the individuals of Slacker to come alive as people, rather than just derivative caricatures. Taking a tour through its vision of Austin allows the viewer to gaze upon a city filled with almost as many different beings as there are walls littered with graffiti. It’s a tour made all the more fascinating thanks to the subtly thoughtful camerawork, which is used to effortlessly segue from one scene to the next.

There aren’t pronounced indicators like on-screen text or music cues in Slacker to indicate that we’re about to move onto a new storyline. Such techniques just wouldn’t fit into its extremely casual aesthetic. Instead, transitions between characters are frequently accomplished by something as simple as the camera gliding over from an already established character in a restaurant to a brand-new character in a nearby booth. It’s like the camera represents the point-of-view of a person at the bar whose attention keeps shifting from one fellow patron to another.

How fitting that a movie named Slacker would have such a chill way of shifting the focus of its story. It’s a simple mechanism, but it’s an extremely effective one that shows how just one conversation (specifically, an opening discussion between an unnamed man played by Linklater and his cab driver) can eventually spiral out into so many different storylines. Like so many future Richard Linklater movies, Slacker emphasizes how little moments of mundane life can end up adding up to something bigger in a larger context. Also like a number of his future movies, Slacker is an excellent film, and a remarkably refined directorial debut for this one-of-a-kind filmmaker.

Slacker Trailer:

Liked it? Take a second to support The Spool on Patreon!