Sunday, January 15, 2023

90's Watch: Slacker (1990)

Watched:  01/15/2023
Format:  HBOmax
Viewing:  Unknown
Director:  Richard Linklater

I'm pretty sure I saw Slacker during a limited run in summer of 1990 in Houston.  Apparently wide release occurred in 1991, but I know I saw it in 1990.  So.  The film was part of the dawn of the indie film movement that would define film over the next decade.  In some minute ways, it also opened the door to Austin, TX as a cool, hep city - which is a designation which will eventually fuck up a city beyond all recognition, which is where we're at today with the Capitol City.

But in the summer of 1990, just moved from Austin to Spring, TX, somehow my brother and I talked our mom into driving us downtown Houston from our suburban enclave to see the movie.  To say "art film" is not my mom's bag is putting it mildly (it's more of a "what are you talking?" than an angry aversion), but she knew she'd see familiar sights as the movie was shot around the central core of Austin as it was then, and heard the movie was a comedy.  So.  We loaded into the GMC conversion van and made our way downtown.  I believe film-participant and former Butthole Surfers drummer Teresa Taylor (RIP) was in the audience with us, but could never be sure.

Like any white kid of a certain age from Austin, Slacker can feel weirdly personal.  By the age of 15 when I moved away from town, we were already making voyages down to the University of Texas campus to explore and shop at the college-kid record stores (and covertly see college girls).  And in a town the size of Austin at that time, there was some bleed between the college and 20-something culture and hep high school kids looking to emulate what they say near campus.  In short - even at 15 I was pretty familiar with the look and whatnot of the cast of Slacker as folks I saw around town and whose ranks I would be joining when I returned to Austin in '93 for five glorious years of undergrad. 

The folks in the film have a decade or more on me, so they aren't peers.  The film was shot using locals - actors and otherwise - and this time I did check the credits to see if any colleagues from over the years were included in the cast.  (I have long known my Film I instructor was the Greek cousin who appears briefly and doesn't want to have her arm licked to get a stamp to get into a show for free.  I also once pee'd next to Moonlanding Guy at Baby Acapulco - on my 21st birthday, to be exact).  

I've seen the movie within the past decade or so, and my shock at seeing the Austin of my memories is now slightly muted- but on one viewing I had a deeply emotional reaction, like seeing a long lost scrap-book of family photos. The intersection of 6th and Lamar, in the film a low-lying auto-dealership across the street from the now-gone GM Steakhouse, is now the HQ for Wholefoods, and a massively trafficked cross-ways in town.  Austin was not a wealthy town, and it often seemed like we were living in the remains of post-war prosperity, depending on where you were - especially on side-streets where clubs would sit.  Storefronts were often boarded up, former warehouses had broken windows and rusting equipment inside.  Curbs were broken and crumbling.  

The initial boom of the late 90's started the change, and now all of that has been cleared and built over.  The old-style houses occupied by cast in the film are all now gone and replaced with skyscraper condos for well-to-do college kids.  The Half-Price books shown was a pretty good bar and grill at last check.  Les Amis was plowed under for a strip-center featuring a smoothy place and a Panda Express and a short-lived Johnny Rockets.  Fuck.  How did Quack's ever close?  And I miss Sound Exchange.

But what is Slacker about?  

It certainly captures a critical moment.  Other movies tried to get it on the heels of this film (see: Reality Bites), but only Coupland's Generation X also reflects the generation that came to be in the wake of the Boomers, growing up with a certain nihilism and in the wake of the ego-centrism of the Woodstock-reliving, Me-generation, which spilled no small amount of ink constantly asserting themselves as *very* important.  The characters of the film live on a sunny Austin summer day (the sun is so oppressive), able to survive on meager means as long as you can afford beer and cigarettes.  This is before the internet came along five years later and everyone suddenly had jobs and money.  But there was a hot moment when we really weren't sure what we were supposed to do for a living as overly educated people raised to be white collar workers but with minimal interest in what that looked like peered into the future.  We took McJobs.  We drank beer.  We tried to find perspective and enjoy whatever this was going to be.

The characters of Slacker are a medley of under-employed college graduates, as Austin often was (the gag was every waiter had their PhD in Medieval Literature, and it was often true), waxing rhapsodic as they piece through the philosophy classes they took, what it means to perform actions or not (and isn't not performing an action an action?), and kind of cooking with the idealists hope for a revolution if only someone would do that for them, maybe they'd join in if it doesn't conflict with band-practice.  Within a few years, all of this would be a little *too* familiar, and if you weren't one of these folks (I wasn't really) you certainly knew them.  It's both a truth and a bit of the film that really sticks out now that these folks live in the remnants of better years, in houses built for families and professors, now occupied by a rotating cast of friends and acquaintances, walking between repurposed and derelict buildings with paint jobs that haven't been touched since the LBJ Administration.  

There are recurring themes, like Tolstoy, anarchism as a romantic (and possibly fraudulent) concept, self-perfection versus societal expectations, what it means to travel and have roots or not, utility of philosophical conversation.  Conspiracy theories may all be true in the world of this film, from government moon-landing and cosmic kidnappings to the many JFK theories.  And there's a blase attitude to horror and potential horror that I think The Kids don't get is a hallmark of a certain stripe of Gen-Xer (y'all didn't grow up being told you'd die in a mushroom cloud every day the way we did, nor with people who were in the Holocaust, Depression and other joys of the 20th Century).  But it's also a particularly Texan flavor of all this, which I think gives it some charm. 

The scenes are mostly bite-sized, moving swiftly from one collection of thoughts to another, the film following each person as they touch each other - another thing that feels 90's Austin is that you were usually only 2-3 degrees away from knowing somebody - it was a small town.  The actors aren't pros, but somehow it feels more believable that way as awkwardly phrased conversations spill out ideas all over the table.  I have favorite scenes and less favorite scenes, but on the whole, I love that someone took the idea they warn you NOT to do in film school - think your late-night convos with your pals would make for great cinema - and makes it absolutely work.  If you have patience for it.

The film is trying to find beauty in the mundane, in the hilarious intersection of action and in-action, of the absurdities of trying to sort it all out over beer and cigarettes rather than doing.  It's not judging too many of the characters.  

It's not impossible to imagine Slacker in 2023, even in Austin, but the lifestyle presented isn't affordable here anymore, the bars are now swarmed by tourists, and the collection of young people has shifted to the East Side, which is nowhere present in the film (the deep Whiteness of Austin is also very, very present in this movie, likely by accident, but reflects the core of the city of the time).  The internet and smartphones have no place here.  This is a quotable but not a memeable depiction of reality.  

I know the movie would drive some people insane.  The do-nothing bo-ho's of the film, sitting around pondering imponderables or celebrating violence, or the fact it seems almost unAmerican to eschew industriousness kind of misses the mark.  There's massive potential here, but this is what a world we've created that we're still sailing on the momentum of decades prior, looks like when you have time and aren't sure what to do with it during your time on this planet.  


Steven said...

Nice coverage of a time gone by. I saw it in 1995 at the tail end of the Good Austin era as I was a freshman.

I recall seeing Dr. Louis Mackey (he's the one who counsels the robber on the really intense revolutionary books he should be reading) in the film when I would occasionally catch sight of him in Waggener Hall.

Moonlanding Guy saw him at the arcades on Guadalupe and I remember now the dealerships and mishmash of zoning that was there in what's surely been paved over with Whole Foods Global Enterprises: sparkly gold tinsel running down from Klieg lights making off-season Christmas trees over used cars with LOW LOW MILEAGE.

I never imagined I'd most relate to it as a snapshot, an amber cube of A Before Times, but it's become such a good one in the intervening years.

JAL said...

Funny. I watched this about three days ago and commented to a friend that there was not one ridiculously overpriced car in the whole damn thing. What a time.

The League said...

the people who are coming here now have never even heard of the film, and when you tell them about it, they just look confused and maybe irritated. They don't want to hear they missed something or see it. But, yeah, it really is a snapshot now of a far chiller time in Austin.

Groboclown said...

This used to be my Christmas movie, but it's been a few years since I've seen it. Still one of my all time favorites. I quote so many bits from it all the time: "What a day, what a day." "This town has certainly had its share of crazies. I wouldn't want to live anywhere else." And, of course, when any discussion of Smurfs come up, I have to mention Krishna.

After it came out, my high shool friends and I would try to find all the filming locations. I had a small stint at the Cap City Playhouse, where I worked with Gina ("The next person who passes us will die within a fortnight" woman).

I went to one of the showings of Slacker 2010, which was a homage to the original, but couldn't capture the feel of the original. I'm still upset that they didn't follow through with the punchline to the papsmear joke (the super fan didn't realize that the cap on the jar was Madonna's real last name).

The League said...

I was curious about the 2010 effort, but figured if folks don't talk about it in 2023, it's probably not a slam-dunk.

Thanks to Internet, I did find this handy guide to locations.

Groboclown said...

My mistake - Slacker 2011. Not great, but a nice send up to the original. You can see a few scenes on YouTube. To me, the best scene in the remake was the replacement for the Government Weapons Give Away (I used to have a link, but it's broken now) - it's a person riding a bicycle extremely slowly and blocking traffic while quietly giving the speech.