1991’s “Slacker” captures roughly 24 hours in the lives of dozens of hipsters in the city of Austin, Texas. As one of the first movies of the so-called American independent film renaissance, Richard Linklater’s first feature remains his best — an intelligent film whose unorthodox narrative structure remains as innovative today as it was 20 years ago.
“Slacker”’s most compelling aspect is its lack of an overarching storyline. There is no real beginning or end except for the passing of time, the whole film consisting of a series of seemingly unrelated vignettes. A typical scene has the camera following a man walking across a lawn, stepping into his home, debating with his girlfriend about possibly venturing out, then shifting its attention to a group of children spying on the couple through the window, following them as they run away giggling.
The entire movie is shot that way, one sequence drifting into another as if the audience are momentary intruders peering into the lives of strangers. But if it lacks a traditional plot, “Slacker” makes up through its original portraits of strange and hysterical characters, whose idiosyncratic personalities brilliantly capture the diversity of a college town. There are UFO conspiracists, musicians, political radicals, film buffs, existentialists, and more. Most seem unemployed, spending their time smoking cigarettes, drinking beer, and conversing a la “Seinfeld” about nothing at all, with no apparent concern for the future.
These twenty-something slackers reside in that purgatory between college and a career, unable (or unwilling) to take that first step into a bourgeois existence. In one especially funny scene, a film crew asks a man on the street “What do you do to earn a living?” To which he answers, “You mean work? To hell with the kind of work you have to do to earn a living! All it does is fill the bellies of the pigs who exploit us.” Most of them display a similar kind of adolescent rebelliousness toward “traditional” society. Fortunately, the film treats their political naiveté irreverently. Even if we don’t agree with them, their philosophical musings are nevertheless hugely entertaining.
“Slacker,” along with other nineties favorites such as Kevin Smith’s “Clerks” and Wes Anderson’s “Bottle Rocket,” all examined a similar period in young American adulthood. But whereas the protagonists of those latter films metaphorically grow up by the conclusion, Linklater’s remain defiantly trapped in the cosmos they’ve created for themselves.
The director seems to echo their sentiment, saying in an interview,“Slackers might look like the left-behinds of society, but they are actually one step ahead, rejecting most of society and the social hierarchy before it rejects them. A more modern notion would be people who are ultimately being responsible to themselves and not wasting their time in a realm of activity that has nothing to do with who they are or what they might be ultimately striving for.”
The question that Linklater never answers is: What exactly are they striving for? The one older slacker shown is a pathetic man who fantasizes of blowing up the state house, its shining dome visible from his home. He’s so at odds with reality he’s even invented himself a heroic past fighting alongside George Orwell in the Spanish Civil War. He’s a charming individual— a kind of Quixotic hipster—but he’s hardly a model to aspire to.
Then again, perhaps that’s not the point of “Slacker.” Maybe Linklater does not provide models to emulate, but fleeting glimpses of a privileged moment in the life of modern Americans — one that their parents, or at least their grandparents, certainly could not enjoy.
“Slacker” is currently available to stream via Netflix. Richard Linklater’s latest film, “Bernie”, starring Jack Black, is now playing in theaters.