'Slacker's' wall-to-wall ruminative dialogue has for too long been tentatively embraced as part of the film’s charms.
New Year’s Day: my first film viewing of 2013 is Richard Linklater’s Slacker. My revisit was prompted by its inclusion last month in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress for preservation as part of America’s essential film heritage. What I didn’t count on was that the film would serve as ideal New Year’s viewing. From the initial image of a bus traveler (played by Linklater) opening his eyes to the first blue of dawn, there’s an invigorating sense of life viewed with a fresh lens.
That vision is carried like a baton over 95 minutes among 99 characters across roughly 141 shots, including some impressively sustained tracking movements over the wide streets of Austin, Texas. Bela Tarr, Gus Van Sant and others would be feted in years to come for this kind of cinematographic showmanship, but when Slacker improbably became a cause célèbre in 1991, it had almost nothing to do with its virtues as a work of cinema. It was hitched to the issue du jour of the Gen X “slacker” generation and what it stood for, almost solely by virtue of its title. (I remember, as an industrious teenager, avoiding Slacker for fear of the title alone, that it would corrupt me with the values it represented and thus derail me from getting into a good college).
Seeing it 22 years later, one can no longer file the film as a time-capsule curiosity, because it is stunningly current in both style and content. The film’s wall-to-wall ruminative dialogue has for too long been tentatively embraced as part of the film’s charms, attributable to the endemic quirk of indie film, the weird collegiate culture of of Austin or the intellectual wheel-spinning of a tragically underachieving generation. But if dialogue is art, nothing of the past two decades comes close to this communal roundelay of words and world views, the bracing onslaught of private mental activity unleashed in public spaces. And what once might have been dismissed as harmlessly creepy (a guy driving around with loudspeakers declaring that everyone should carry weapons) now hits almost too close to home. Maybe it took a decade of war on terror, an increasingly uncivil and polarized political discourse and the fresh memory of the most tragic mass shooting to date, but the frequent moments where the free-for-all mental musings take turns towards violent fantasy now seem downright prophetic.
However our present crises are resolved, by projecting beyond its era onto ours, Slacker contains multitudes of people, perspectives and predicaments. It pulls off a very difficult feat of presenting a Joycean cavalcade of people’s naked, borderline risible mental activity, but never for jest or terminal judgment. It helps that the opening monologue by Linklater’s character sets the stage: he relates a dream he had where he experienced alternate realities branching from each decision point in his life, extending infinitely even to the point where one alternate reality may actually be dreaming the one he presently is in. It’s a cosmic vision that’s both awesomely terrifying and liberating, where one conceives of his self and many alternate and even anti-selves, which may very well be represented by all the subsequent characters in the film. To perceive everyone around us in all their glorious and horrific humanity, to hear the noise and music of their thoughts; to find oneself large and open enough, if only for a moment, to entertain this grand parade perpetually teetering into chaos yet proceeding. It’s not a bad way to start the year.
The open, accepting quality of this vision is virtually antithetical of that annual tradition of self-improvement-cum-self-flagellation, the New Year’s Resolution. Perhaps true to its name, Slacker is beautifully irresolute in its procession from one set of characters to the next, no matter how seemingly resolute each individual worldview may be expressed (there’s always a juxtaposition or tonal counterpoint to keep it from being one-dimensional). So here’s a video extracting ten moments of New Year’s “irresolutions,” statements that sound like New Year’s Resolutions bent upside down and sideways. And as a tribute to our nation’s narrow escape from the fiscal cliff, the video closes with a shot that literally jumps off a cinematic cliff. Slowed down, this filmic free-fall has its own arresting beauty both violent and lyrical.
Video Essay: New Year’s Irresolutions
Brief notes on the “irresolutions:”
1. I wanted to find a way to spotlight the film’s wondrous camerawork, specifically the many tracking shots of people traversing the screen from one encounter to the next, moments that resonate with the entering of new realities that Linklater’s character prattles on about. I also love how Linklater’s visionary mapping of alternate existences shrinks into a final statement of regret. There’s something indelibly human about that trajectory, and you see that undertow exert itself again in the film.
2. Speak of the devil: the lovelorn speaker of this monologue is quoting a Russian novel because it describes a man’s moment of realization of his woman’s infidelity, but the existential ramifications of the statement go well beyond an expression of being jilted to something approaching the liberating significance of being unhinged from the shackles of a linear existence. Shouldn’t he feel happier about that?
3 + 4. A couplet of clips about the action of inaction.
5. This clip does have a time capsule quality, as the woman’s monologue amounts to a string of pseudo-philosophical aphorisms that were fashionable across the ’90s.
6: Delivered by a character who reportedly held his dissertation reviewers hostage and killed them. The act of self-taping one’s homicidal/suicidal intent is a little too prescient.
7. Delivered by one of the film’s most intriguing characters, a disaffected old man who seems a bit too enamored of anarchistic acts of violence without having taken part in any himself, but is eager to foster this mentality in a impressionable young man.
8. A polite duel of coping mechanisms over amorous disaffection, verging on a sober gaze into the nature of unhappiness before reeling back into passive-aggressive admonishment.
9. Beautifully tranquil and lucid, and yet cut at the end by the noise of the world, unconcerned with what wisdom this man has arrived at over a lifetime.
10. Sadly, I don’t find this scene nearly as absurd as when I watched it years ago.
Kevin B. Lee is Editor in Chief of IndieWire’s PressPlay Video Blog, Video Essayist for Fandor’s Keyframe, and a contributor to Roger Ebert.com. Follow him on Twitter.