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Film 564/1001: Richard Linklater’s Slacker (or, where did those last 20 years go?)

I am not crazy or OCD enough to think I’ll ever get through all 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, but a few years ago when I got the book, I did want to tally up how many I’d seen from the list which begins with 1902’s Le Voyage Dans La Lune (A Trip to the Moon, d: Georges Melies) and ends with Kill Bill, Volume 1 – at least in the 2004 edition.

Janet Leigh as Marion Crane in Psycho (1960)

At the time of my first count, I’d seen around 550 – since then I’ve caught up with a few more and subsequent editions of the book have added 78 more titles from the 2000s and presumably slicing out films that no longer make the cut. I have seen 44 of the 78 newer films, or 56% of the 1079 total. This represents a self-guided film education, which has slowed down over recent years. Still, I sometimes get around to watching films from the 1001 list that I’ve always been meaning to see. The most recent – Slacker from 1991.

Director Richard Linklater is responsible for what I occasionally site as my favourite film, Before Sunset and its unashamedly romantic precursor, Before Sunrise. Those two films are rightly regarded as incredible achievements, even though the rest of his career is somewhat uneven.

The first Linklater film I ever saw was Dazed and Confused in a double feature with Reality Bites at the Valhalla Cinema (as the Westgarth was known through the mid-90s). It was a good double and I think it still is. Dazed captures the indie sensibility of the time, possibly even defined it, while Reality has a more Hollywood-esque sheen but certainly captured the attention of teens at the time. (Dazed is also a period piece, set in 1980, so the tones of both films vary wildly for that reason, too. Plus the two films’ attitudes toward drugs and indie culture couldn’t be more different.)

But before Linklater at least had a budget to make Dazed, he made a no budget film called Slacker – filmed in 1989 as Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies and Videotape was making it possible for indepedant filmmakers to break through with their debut features. Like Soderbergh, Linklater’s films are more deeply influenced by European arthouse than the rash of indie breakthrough directors only a few years later who were happy to rehash all the Hollywood they had grown up on; directors like Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Smith and Robert Rodriguez (who, like Linklater, splits his time between Hollywood and filmmaking in Texas).

Slacker captures that early 90s movement of young people who were distancing themselves from society, fearing it had nothing for them. Slackerdom was most clearly associated with the grunge movement of the time, but Linklater’s film even predates that – and feels like a once in a generational statement on how people in their late teens and early twenties ask philosophical and existential questions because they don’t know how they fit in the world.

The film’s narrative is an odd one, made up of vignettes – short stories across a day in Austin, Texas. And maybe it’s not merely a comment on a generation, but a critique of the city Linklater grew up in – which he’d continue to explore in films like SubUrbia or in the character of Jesse from the Before couplet. We begin with a guy getting off a bus (Linklater, himself) talking about destiny and choosing the right path and then as his story ends, we follow another man from his frame into another short story. And once his story plays out, we get dragged along in the current of another slice of life.

The structure feels a little forced sometimes and never really surprising, but the characters are all quickly defined and some interesting stories are told and observations made. Linklater would later delve further into existential quandries in his amazing, but slightly indulgent, Waking Life, which has even less coherence, playing out in a dreamscape.

But as an exercise in how to film a portrait of a city and its generation of teenagers and early adulthood, it’s a strong early film from the director. And it also has interesting things to say about other disaffected people who took history into their own hands, for both good and ill – with a recurring nod to several people in American history who attempted to assassinate Presidents. (Also, oddly amusing – the billboard in the back of one scene that declares: RON PAUL FOR PRESIDENT. He’s been trying that trick for a long time!)

Linklater’s career has tried to balance mainstream (his biggest success, School of Rock) with his smaller budget character work – and he continues to try interesting things when he’s allowed. For example, I can’t wait for his film Boyhood which is due for release in 2013 – which he’s been filming for over a decade, shooting the story of a young boy from 8 to 18.

For me, Slacker isn’t necessarily a film you must see before you die – I’d point to Before Sunrise and Sunset  for this director – but it’s definitely a film to remind us what the early 90s were like. For those of us who were there. Us slackers.

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