Blu-ray Review: Slacker

Richard Linklater’s 1991 indie giant Slacker, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection, is about that weird and wonderful post-college period of a young American’s life, when they are released into the world armed with just a little bit too much knowledge, unable to find a job, and free to lose themselves into a poverty-stricken, largely meaningless but infinitely important miasma of exploring new philosophies, having coffee shop conversations that feel amazingly groundbreaking, engaging in cheap bar hookups, indulging in self-promotion, and allowing yourself to live somewhere in between motionless apathy and art. It’s told entirely through unconnected conversation, low-fi doc-like observation, and and indie sense of bracing (and embracing) narcissism. It’s one of the most important and best films of the 1990s, and should be required viewing for any and all college students in this country.

I have also fallen in love with it.

People drinking, talking, and merely riffing on the deep thoughts that have been swimming around inside their heads are the ultimate forms of quiet catharsis. Some of the thoughts are nonsense (many of the people given voice in Slacker are clearly a little bit off). Indeed, most of the conversations sway between philosophical rambling and outright nuttiness. But it’s the kind of talk that feels important until that horrible day when you have to get a real job.

Never having any sort of central dramatic thrust, bust casually cresting and troughing throughout the day, Slacker starts with Linklater himself talking to a cab driver. He gets out of the cab, and the camera follows some people he passes by. Then it just as casually shifts to yet someone else, and onward throughout the film’s 100 minutes.

We do not revisit characters. Some talk to themselves. Some talk to unwilling listeners. Some engage each other. The topics talked about have no real unifying thread, but they all feel vaguely connected. Aphorisms and ethos are flung about casually. Withdrawing in disgust is not the same as apathy (a phrase that made it into an R.E.M. Song three years later). A character who calls himself an “anti-artist.” A would-be Dostoyevsky who queries in a coffee chop “Who has ever written the great work about the immense effort required not to create? Intensity without mastery. The obsessiveness of the utterly passive. Could it be that in this passivity, I find my freedom?”

This may be a low-budget indie with no narrative thrust The film was made for only about $23,000), but it’s constantly tantalizing the audience into a bemused state of philosophical playfulness. That it references Dostoyevsky is telling: Each character may be seen as a philosophical avatar. But at the same time, it has drunken losers talking about the politics of “Scooby-Doo” over a table littered with empty bottles of Bud.

Or maybe they’re just jerking off. Which is another beautiful thing to explore. The 1990s were end of the millennium, and the dominant ethos of the time was that there was nowhere to go but nowhere. Apathy (or perhaps just withdrawal in disgust) was seen less as an insensitive response to the tragedies of the world, and more the only appropriate response to a world that was post-everything. This was the milieu of Generation X, but also the tempting mindset of all post-college young people. What now? Just talk, non-participation, and self-awareness. How do we perceive fame in this universe? Wanna buy a Madonna pap smear?

But there I go, rambling again.

Slacker was an enormous success, and was one of the key films that helped ring in the decade-long American indie boom. Critics and authors have revisited it time and time again. Many of the essays about the film (including the 1996 essay by John Pierson from the seminal film book Spike, Mike, Slackers, and Dykes) are included in the Blu-ray. Indeed, most of the special features are, fittingly enough, printed essays about the film, and recorded commentaries.

All of the features, as per Criterion’s usual practice, have been been ported directly from their 2004 DVD release. Seeing as Slacker was shot on 16mm, a Blu-ray’s ultra-crisp digital imagery may not necessarily be the best way to view the low-fi homemade look of it. If you have the DVD, a Blu-ray upgrade will not add anything. The special features are most certainly worth owning, although watching the film itself on VHS will be just as bracing and excellent as it will be on a more visually complex medium. Indeed, given the flick’s 1990s ethos, it may be more appropriate.

Slacker will frustrate many viewers, of course, for its aimlessness and lack of structure. Since it’s a film about talk, there will be no drama. Some may even see it as self-indulgent and whiny and narcissistic. It is certainly all those things. But it is also a capsule of a time, a delve into thought, and clarion voice of a very particular era of filmmaking. If you’re in college, watch it immediately.  

Witney Seibold is a featured contributor on the CraveOnline Film Channel, co-host of The B-Movies Podcast and co-star of The Trailer Hitch. You can read his weekly articles Trolling, Free Film School and The Series Project, and follow him on “Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind. 


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