Dir: Richard Linklater (1991)
I’m still not sure I want to watch this film, even as I slide the box out of its yellowing sleeve. Even as I press play on the DVD remote I’m not sure it has anything to say to me any more. And as the trailers play out (remember trailers?) I’m recalling the last time I tried to watch it and got no further than about 20 minutes into the movie.
Why this film? Why now? As various online articles attest: We get older, Slacker stays the same age.
I saw the film probably in 1992 or 93, a year or so after its US release, at the suggestion of a friend. I don’t think either of us really appreciated the kind of film it would turn out to be. I don’t think we properly knew what a “slacker” was, at least not in the director’s coining of the word, but something about it spoke to us. Generation X was out and had started to catch on as an idea in a tabloidy kind of way, McJobs and all that.
But we didn’t really have slackers in the UK – we had the Protestant work ethic. We had loafers, layabouts and scroungers, the feckless and the workshy, dole-ites, people asking you when you were going to pull your socks up, get your finger out, get a job, get a real job.
I was definitely a slacker. Signing on during the extended summer holidays from uni. Staying up late, waking up whenever. Playing in bands. Playing chess. Wandering the streets of a New Town in decline, secondhand Pentax K-1000 round my neck. Making animated cine films in my attic bedroom. Painting in the greenhouse. Reading the Beatniks. And travelling. Always looking for my next ticket out of a town I was completely at odds with.
We might have had The Jesus and Mary Chain, we might have had Roddy Frame, but if East Kilbride had once been the Town of Tomorrow, it was never going to be Austin. It’s just not big enough, or warm enough. You don’t really get flâneurs in cold, wet climates. We had Rockschool, the Key Youth Centre, the Village Theatre, John Menzies, the entertainment section of the EK News, and the bus into Glasgow.
What were my concerns back then? What were my ambitions? I had a curious mind, but an undisciplined intellect. I was doing a version of what I’ve continued to do my whole life, trying to find my place in the world by wandering about and sort of bumping into it.
A line in the film jumps out:
The First Hurdle of the True Warrior:
To those humans in whom I have faith,
I wish suffering, being forsaken, sickness, maltreatment, humiliation.
I wish that they shjould not remain unfamiliar with profound self-contempt, the torture of self-mistrust and the misery of the vanquished.
I have no pity for them.
Because I wish them the only thing that can prove today whether one is worth anything or not: that one endures.
The Slacker generation is my generation. I was too young for punk. Punk sent its energy outwards, a seismic shockwave that took years for its ripples to reach the suburbs. It was performative, social, communal. Slacker/ Generation X was an equivalent force for introverts, nerds and misfits filled with self-contempt and self-mistrust.
There’s a community-of-sorts being defined in this film. Perhaps it’s a reflection of the film’s structure, but it feels like the people who form this community are more like individual links in a chain rather than a mass gathering of like-minded souls. A collaboration of coordinated individualism, perhaps. Relationships are almost always, one-to-one, personal, intense.
Watching the film requires a bit of work, it’s not a film you can tune out of easily. There’s no protagonist, no plot, no “stakes”, no denouement. Nothing really happens. It’s like a giant mix tape of eavesdropped campus stoner chat. I take notes. I list the scene transitions, give the characters nicknames. I list the subjects of conversation. I’m not sure I get any closer to the truth of the film than if I’d just sat back and let it happen, but I’m more engaged with it. I breeze past the 20 minute mark.
There’s a lot of conspiracy stuff – Warren Commission, JFK, FBI, moon landings. Pop culture stuff – Smurfs, Scooby Do, Wizard of Oz, Madonna, Elvis. Politically it veers from anarchy into a kind of freelance conservatism. There’s stuff about dreams/ reality, freedom/ slavery, destruction/ creativity, ways of seeing/ ways of being. A lot of ripped jeans and terrible shorts. Meaningful t-shirts. Beers n smokes. Sex n (traffic) violence. Philosophy n prophecy. And walking. A lot of walking.
Where do the film’s philosophical insights take us? I watched Slacker, and later its follow-up-of-sorts Waking Life, hoping some of that sagacity would rub off, that I would incorporate at least some of it into my everyday life, that it would lead me out of my own self-contempt and self-mistrust towards something like an enlightened self-sufficency which would allow me to create great art, or at least create something.
In 25 years, nothing has changed. Still with the self-contempt, still with the self-mistrust. No closer to enlightened self-sufficiency. Still ambling, still looking to bump into my reason for being.
I watch Slacker now as a 44 year old and I want to say to half of the characters, “Quit wasting your time with that shit, man. Read some real books. Get some real skills.” I catch myself shaking my head, thinking, “You’ll learn, kid”. I’ve become the one saying “When are you going to get a real job?”
To the others, I want to say, “I totally get where you’re coming from!” I want to join in their conversations. I realise I’m engaging with these characters as if they’re real. I simultaneously wish I was one of them, while accepting the world they inhabit isn’t just gone – it’s ancient history.
These characters gave rise to the hipster – essentially, a slacker with an iPhone and a job in the digital economy. The Austin they inhabited in 1991 is now a hipster boom town, the Austin of SXSW, the live music capital of the world, unofficial headquarters of corporate creativity that now, ironically, campaigns to hang on to what remains of the place that Linklater’s heightened sense of the local helped to define, that made it attractive to the kinds of homogenising forces that are now levelling out the kinks.
Globalisation in 1991 really only meant Coca Cola. Now it’s the very air we breathe. Every conspiracy is available online to indulge – no need to go ferreting in bookstores. No need to visit the scrapyard to fillet junked cars for parts – just hand your car back to the leasing company and get another. The guy who disappeared leaving a pile of cryptic postcard-length messages – all the mystery lost in a series of tweets.
The film ends with a convertible full of kids with Super8 cameras, riding around in the dawn, making movies. The last scene shows one of the group tossing a camera off a cliff, the resulting whorls and swooshes, one imagines, are the retrieved (and processed and edited) film. Derek Malcolm found this scene “tiresome”. I find it exuberant and joyful and beautiful. It recalls every night staying up till sunrise in the company of fast friends and lifelong alliances. It wordlessly recalls every moment of unselfconscious creation, of earnest conversation, of endless possibility. It’s the blur and the tumult of youth, the “fuck it, why not”, the leap into the void.
We may grow old; Slacker may stay the same age. But like the best of all art, its message is timeless.