By J.D. Lafrance
“I can see why people are asking me about a generation I happen to be a part of, but to me Slacker owes more allegiance to cinema than to a generation.” – Richard Linklater
“It was disturbing to me that an idea or a song could become something so different from what you originally intended. It’s like if a friend took a stupid picture of you at a party on their phone, and the next thing you knew, it was on every billboard.” – Beck on the surprise success of “Loser”
Even though I know they came out years apart, I always associate Beck’s hit song “Loser” with Richard Linklater’s film Slacker (1990). The former came out in 1993 and the latter had its premiere three years prior, but both took their time finding their audience. They also were touted by the media as defining what would be known as Generation X, a term popularized by Douglas Coupland’s 1991 novel of the same name, and used to describe people born in the early 1960s to the early 1980s. Also rather interestingly, both Beck and Linklater felt uncomfortable with being heralded as voices of their generation.
Despite being released years apart, “Loser” and Slacker have much closer inception dates than one would imagine and both came out of experiences that Beck and Linklater had in the late ‘80s. There was definitely something in the air in the early 1990s and these two artists were able to tap into it. The song and the film both feature fractured narratives with random observations about life. As Linklater said in an interview, his generation was the first “to have the T.V. remote … to begin creating our own narratives by watching five minutes of this and then one minute of that and then seven minutes of this … That was in my head as a narrative possibility.” It is that kind of channel-surfing mentality that “Loser” and Slacker tap into. It’s as if Linklater is controlling the remote, flipping around to see what various people from Austin are doing in a 24-hour period in which the film takes place.
Slacker opens with a fascinating scene. A young man (Linklater) has just gotten off a bus and is now en route to somewhere in a taxi. He begins telling the cabbie about a weird dream he had while riding on the bus, which leads into his theory concerning alternate realities. It’s a clever little monologue that has become a staple of Linklater’s films. It is also a fantastic way to start the film as this first scene acts as an introduction of sorts with Linklater himself kicking everything off by setting the tone. His films are wonderful non-narrative gems that appear at first glance to be about nothing in particular, but by their conclusion, reveal a lot about the big themes of life: love, sex, death, and the real meaning behind The Smurfs.
Made for only $23,000, Slacker is an aimless day in the life of the city of Austin, Texas, showcasing its more eccentric characters. The camera follows an individual, one pair of characters or a group until it gets bored and moves on to the next interesting conversation. This approach works well because as soon one segment runs too long we’re off on another tangent. Some people get several minutes of screen time, some only a few seconds. The segments vary tonally from amusing (the Moon conspiracy guy) to cryptic (the guy who mysteriously disappears, leaving a collection of postcards that explain what happened for his roommates to discover) to bizarre (the Madonna pap smear girl) to thought-provoking (the elder anarchist). It is this ingenious entropic structure — enhanced by Lee Daniel’s excellent camerawork with long, uninterrupted takes — that really sets Slacker apart from other independent films.
Linklater’s film invites repeated viewings because there is so much going on — both in the foreground and the background. Slacker presents an interesting, annoying and funny assortment of characters: obsessive types, like the man who believes that we’ve been on the Moon since the 1950s with the aid of anti-gravity drives (“A lot of truth in the Late Late Show.”) and a JFK conspiracy buff who rambles on obsessively about the minutiae of various theories (not surprisingly he has written his own book tentatively titled, Profiles in Cowardice or Conspiracy A-Go-Go). Unlike a lot of films, Slacker requires the viewer to be active as opposed to being passive by presenting all of these seemingly disparate vignettes with little to no context. And so we are left wondering, for example, why the son hit his own mother with a car and then let himself get arrested.
There are also more poignant characters like an aging anarchist who surprises a would-be robber at his house and instead of turning him in, talks to him at length about the city’s rich history of anarchism. There is a strong pop culture vibe that informs several segments, from a girl enthusiastically trying to sell a sample of Madonna’s pap smear (“Getting down to the real Madonna,” she gushes) to a guy who deconstructs Scooby Doo as a tool for teaching bribery. All of these characters come across as everyday (in their own way) people in between jobs and often relegated to the margins of life. As they appear and disappear you begin to realize that the film is not as random as it seems but in fact is very structured with links between encounters becoming more apparent upon subsequent viewings. The film’s title is somewhat ironic in the sense that a lot of the characters are hardly idle, from the guy on his way to band practice to the guy working on getting his book of JFK assassination theories published, or the two grease monkeys that go scavenging for parts at a junkyard. A lot of people in this film are hustling towards some end, trying to achieve something.
Slacker became synonymous with Gen-X and vice versa with Linklater suddenly catapulted into the position of spokesperson for a generation – something that he did not feel comfortable with. Slacker also paved the way for countless Hollywood clones like Reality Bites (1993), which tried in vain to capture the essence of Gen-X, but came across more like an episode of the T.V. series, Friends. Slacker presented realistic settings with realistic people, warts and all, while Reality Bites introduced perfect looking people with perfect problems. Slacker inadvertently became one of the signature films for a generation of disaffected young people who were overeducated and underemployed. For better or for worse, the moniker “slacker” defined said generation.
For one summer, a college buddy and I were obsessed with Slacker and must’ve watched it countless times. It was quite unlike anything we’d ever seen before and really felt like not just a cinematic game changer, but a pop culture one as well. It was the same summer that we got into Beck’s debut album, Mellow Gold and in its own way that felt like a game changer as well, which is another reason why “Loser” and Slacker are linked together in my mind. For me, when I think of the early ‘90s, I think of them and they really provide a snapshot for where my head was at.
Dombal, Ryan. “Beck: 15 Years.” Pitchfork. August 17, 2011.
Linklater, Richard. “The Art of the Interview: Self-Revelation or Self-Torture?” Austin Chronicle. September 20, 1991.