Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel

SLACKER (1991) ***1/2.

Written, produced and directed by Richard Linklater. Photographed by Lee Daniel. Edited by Scott Rhodes. Cast: 105 mostly non-professionals. Released by Orion Classics. 97 minutes. Not rated (probably PG-13).
Thanks to the festival circuit (Sundance, San Francisco, among others) SLACKER was eventually picked up by a commercial distributor. In the Pesaro (Italy) Festival's huge section on American Independent Films, where I first saw it, this work was one of the very best entries.

In and around the West Campus of the University of Texas (Austin), students, former students, drop-outs, academics and non-academics of all types hang out. They are "slackers", the latest breed and variant of what used to be called beatniks, and , according to Linklater " the generation that would have been aborted; it just wasn't hip at the time."

There are 105 of them, mostly in their twenties but with older people thrown in too. Very few in the cast had any acting experience. About 30% of the 105 were acquaintances. The rest came off the street.

SLACKER depicts a period of 24 hours in their lives. Since the movie deals with many types, all democratically given equal weight, it cannot be an in-depth portrait of any one individual. Rather, it is the casual, off-the-wall and often very funny illustration of a whole -- not a collective but the sum of its parts.

The camera starts on A who is a compulsive talker. A meets meets B (as a rule, also a compulsive talker). B's path crosses that of equally loquacious C who discusses life and things with D... and so on . By the time we reach Z the daisy-chain stops. There is no circle to close, no plot or story to satisfy. Instead, the zig-zags flow to an end, as in real life .

SLACKER is original, inventive and undjudgmentally ironic. Its approach is systematic but not at all monotonous. Imagine a road novel or movie, dense in characters but sparse in physical scope. What we are given is like fragments of a picaresque work, with routine events devoid of high drama, and contained within one day and a few city blocks.

There is neither rush nor claustrophobia in this strategy. Linklater's scripted yet candid semi-documentary does a great job of its subculture , a subculture not one unified by purpose but rather by aimlessness. There is an odd passivity here, but it is not total: there are active touches brought in by gentle freaks and semi-nuts.

The transfer from person to person is done less through the camera than through looking and eye contact. The development is done through talk. This ranges from sophomoric profundities to mythomania, manias, delusions or illusions. And this talk can be hilarious, as when a spaced-out girl tries to sell a phial of Madonna's Pap test.

The place being Austin, where Charles Whitman shot people from the Unversity's Tower, and the state, Texas, where John F. Kennedy was killed, it is no wonder that a lot of the slackers are obsessed with murder --especially Presidential -- and with conspiracy theories that encompass politics as well as outer space.

SLACKER is not an improvised movie. Everything was tightly scripted and rehearsed before the camera rolled. Carefully planned too was the style of the movie, a choreography based on long takes and minimal use of montage. "This style would not fit an action film, but it is perfect for a study of characters, since we wanted to avoid distracting the viewer with an excessive use of the camera." (Linklater).

Richard Linklater, born in 1962 in Houston, briefly studied English literature in college, dropped out, briefly worked on an offshore oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico and briefly visited courses at the University of Texas. Disappointed by the way film was taught, he quit and made his first movie, in Super-8, IT'S IMPOSSIBLE TO LEARN TO PLOW BY READING BOOKS (1987).

Linklater's passion for film (he was involved in the Austin Film Society, a local operation by movie-buffs) shows in his work. "SLACKER" he says " is an amalgamation of everything I've seen in the last five years." But whereas too many films use movie references gratuitously, Linklater incorporates his organically, with freshness and creativity. For example, the influence of Jean-Luc Godard in SLACKER's absurdist gags is pleasantly obvious, as in the opening scenes with Linklater as a cabbie's voluble fare, and the subsequent accident which has echoes of BREATHLESS.

Most of SLACKER's 97 minutes are varied, vastly entertaining, perspicacious and sometimes touching. College people should not miss it, nor, for that matter, anyone else who needs the comfort of unusual, non-commercial, imaginative film-making.

[written October 1991, Copyright 1991, 1997 Edwin Jahiel]

Copyright © Edwin Jahiel

Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel