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SLACKER
Blu-ray Edition

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Richard Linklater, Jerry Delony, Teresa Taylor, Frank Orrall, John Slate, Denise Montgomery
Director: Richard Linklater
Audio: PCM Stereo
Video: Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio: Criterion
Features: See Review
Length: 100 minutes
Release Date: September 17, 2013

"This town has always had its share of crazies.  I wouldn't want to live anywhere else."

Film *** ˝

For more than a decade, Richard Linklater has been one of the most respected directors upon the American independent film circuit.  A native Texan, Linklater first achieved widespread fame with the cult indie film Slacker (1991), set in his lazy college hometown of Austin, Texas.  His film captured the spirit of the Bohemian subculture of Generation X, even popularizing the term "slacker" into household vernacular.  As a quirky portrait of a typically hot summer day in Austin, Slacker soon established Linklater as the voice of a generation.

Slacker was filmed in 16mm stock with a budget of $23,000 and a large cast of non-actors.  It was photographed in frequently long, uninterrupted takes, which gave the film a documentary feel.  Despite Slacker's improvisational style, it was actually carefully scripted, with many scenes based upon real-life anecdotes.  Often though, the dialogue often felt real and just natural, one of the hallmarks of a Linklater film.

The film, as Linklater envisioned it, was primarily about "people on the fringes of any meaningful participation in society."  Eschewing a conventional plot, Slacker instead presented a sequential narrative of multiple inter-related episodes, each one offering brief glimpses into the lives of eventually over one hundred different characters.  Each mini-storyline, complete with eccentric personalities, begs a single question that is ultimately the film's unifying theme - how might life be different upon the path not taken?

Linklater himself even appears as the film's first character.  He is a traveler, arriving at a bus depot and then hailing a taxi.  During the ride, this young man disserts upon a lengthy monologue about dreams and choices.  He ponders what would happen, hypothetically, if we choose path B over path A?  How might things be different?  Where would the direction of our lives go?  Are there infinite realities then that might reflect these alternate routes, and where would they lead?  These very questions form the essential premise of the film's structure.

Certainly, the film's very nature makes Slacker somewhat of an acquired taste.  It is essentially plot-less, very much in a stream-of-consciousness mode.  Slacker is filled with many characters whose lives drift only briefly into contact with one another.  As one character wanders off-screen or passes another person along the street, so then the camera (and the storyline) might choose to follow the new character, abandoning the just-developing storyline of the previous character.  This pattern is repeated again and again, and by the film's end, we in the audience have encountered many fascinating characters, all of whom might just as easily have been the subject of his or her own film.  Slacker's structure reveals glimpses into the multiple pathways of life, those infinite realities all of which play out whether we are present or not.

The film makes use of familiar settings in Austin, Texas, most notably the Les Amis Café, a formerly favorite hang-out for students, artists, and even professors.  In fact, several members of the Slacker cast were even recruited from the restaurant, and many were accomplished musicians or band members.  Austin, in Slacker, looks a bit like a sparsely-inhabited hick town where people seem to be very diligently trying not to perform any meaningful task.  In one sense, the film is a celebration of the art of not-doing, of non-creation.  Characters walk around aimlessly or sit in cafes or their homes and engage in intellectual or philosophical discussion.

Despite the huge cast and the massive flow of information directed at audiences, Slacker never feels rushed or forced.  It possesses an almost laid-back, casual pace that allows audiences to register the undeniably intriguing quirks of the film's Texan personalities.  Among the more interesting encounters, we meet one character who tries to sell a pap smear slide from a famous celebrity singer.  Conspiracy theorists abound on everything from aliens to the JFK assassination.  Every deli or coffee shop seems to harbor philosophy students.  Everywhere else, there are anarchists and marginal beatniks and disaffected limbo-dwellers.

Strangely, there is a sense of loneliness to many of these encounters.  For all the conversations that occur in this film, no one appears to be truly listening.  The speakers expound upon their favorite subjects, while listeners only provide modest displays of awareness or acknowledgements - a nod now and then, occasional eye contact.  Sincere interest, as when a failed robber listens intently to an elderly anarchist, is rare and to be cherished.  Ultimately, all these natural yet fresh characterizations provide Slacker with its vitality and cultural footing.  These are the qualities which helped the film to spark the independent film movement in America during the 1990's. 

Linklater concludes Slacker with a wonderfully delightful jazzy montage sequence.  Set upon a mountain dawn, this ending expresses a wondrous joie de vivre, a flashback to the true joy of filmmaking and life that once permeated so many films of yesteryear, especially those of the early New Wave films.  Of course, Linklater, being an avid film buff, would know.

Slacker is not a film about any particular story.  It is a film about a presence of mind, a love of life and independence.  It encourages everyone not to be afraid of self-expression or individualism.  If all these things are what define a true slacker in today's youth culture, then perhaps the world might benefit from more slackers.

Video *** ˝

Slacker is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio.  A 16mm interpositive was used for this transfer, which was supervised by director Richard Linklater and Slacker's cinematographer, Lee Daniel.  Due to the 16mm film stock, the image quality is slightly grainy but otherwise quite sharp and fairly pristine in its presentation.  Portions of the film were also shot in super8.  Linklater mentions in one of the commentaries that the contrast level of certain scenes was adjusted, so the film actually looks clearer now on disc than it did originally in the theaters!

Audio ***

Slacker is presented in its original English stereophonic sound.  English subtitles are also available.  The audio presentation is adequate, since the film is almost entirely dialogue-driven.  Much of the sound was recorded on location, so there are occasional background noises (airplanes, cars, etc.) but nothing that drowns out the dialogue.

Features ****

"Withdrawing in disgust is not the same thing as apathy."

Accompanying the film are three different commentary tracks.  The first track is a director commentary, featuring Richard Linklater.  He describes the premise behind the film and how it evolved during the production.  He also comments on certain aspects of Slacker which, in light of recent events around the world in this new century, may seem either prescient or subversive.  More significantly, Linklater expresses some regret that the term "slacker" has come to embody certain negative connotations, as he has always felt that a slacker was an intelligent, independent person, one unconcerned with commercial interests or "selling out."  The film is filled with such opinionated, well-spoken people, often deemed as hippies or other such unconventional people (just the sort of crowd one typically finds around any college town).

The second commentary track brings twelve members of the original cast together to offer their words of wisdom or foolhardy.  The comments are frequently funny and usually enlightening.  One commentator even reveals the true origin of the term "slacker," which has actually been around for decades.

The last commentary track unites Richard Linklater with best buddy and cinematographer Lee Daniel and co-producer Carl Walker.  Daniel had a touch of laryngitis during the recording session, so he often sounds like a mafia moll on the few occasions he can summon the breath to speak.  Generally, there is a lot of fun banter spiced up with small details and trivial facts pointed out by the commentators.  They also point out the original locations in the film of several deleted scenes and the ways in which limitations in equipment dictated how certain scenes were photographed.

Next on the disc is No Longer Not Yet, a 45-page treatment for an early script of Slacker.  It is an interesting read, with some similarities to the actual film but also many differences.

Showing Life features a few brief introductory pages by Richard Linklater and his casting director Anne Walker-McBay about the audition process.  Included are excerpts of the actual video interviews (14 min.), whimsically revealing that some of the real people did not differ so greatly from their on-screen personalities.  Following that is Taco and a Half after 10 (12 min.), which presents home videos made during production of the film.

A ten-minute trailer for Viva Les Amis, by Nancy Wiggins, explores the communal role of the once-popular Austin cafe (long-since replaced by corporate America, in the form of Starbucks).  Wiggins was herself a waitress for several years at Les Amis Café.  The documentary is a nostalgic concession towards the inevitable process of urban renewal.  The trailer itself is quite a cool trip back in time but regrettably, even at ten minutes, feels so very short and leaves audiences hungering for more.

Shooting from the Hip is a portrait gallery with over three hundred entries (stills, photographs, publicity shots, production shots, video captures, etc.).  This is an extremely huge gallery, so be prepared to spend quite some time if you wish to see everything in it!.

Perhaps the next biggest feature is the 85-minute super8 film, It's Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books (1988).  Plow is mostly a quiet film with incidental dialogue or background ambient noise.  It follows the voyage by a young man after he accepts an invitation by a friend to hang out.  This was Linklater's first feature film, an "oblique narrative" about the bleakness or monotony of everyday life in general.  The film's super8 stock results in an understandably soft and grainy image, and the sound quality is variable (for best results, I would recommend keeping the subtitles on).  Considering that the film was shot for only $3000, it's not bad as a travelogue about the alienation and banality of the urban American landscape.  The origin of Plow's cryptic title is also revealed later on in the film.

As a bonus, there is another commentary track by Richard Linklater.  He speaks at length about the challenges of making his first feature film, which he considered akin to a graduate thesis.  Interestingly, Linklater suggests that Plow's main character, played by himself, is the same as the taxi passenger of Slacker, as played by Linklater.  In this sense, Slacker could be considered a continuation, briefly, of this character's story.

There is another movie - Woodshock (1985), an early seven-minute 16mm short by Richard Linklater and Lee Daniel.  Its subject is the Woodshock music festival held annually around Austin to promote local music.  The image quality is a bit dirty and grainy with lackluster contrast levels but otherwise captures the youthful exuberance and chaos of the typical summer concert scene.

The next section offers information about the Austin Film Society, co-founded by Linklater to help promote independent filmmaking.  There are articles by Denise Montgomery and Lee Daniel about the early days of the society during the mid-1980's.  Also included are scans of several dozen flyers used to promote various movie screenings during the society's early years.

"The Roadmap," a working script for Slacker, is the next bonus and includes nearly thirty minutes of fourteen deleted scenes or alternative takes.  These scenes can either be viewed separately or within the context of the script pages themselves.  Among these scenes are an extended Linklater taxi scene, an extended UFO-paranoia guy scene, more bizarre fun with a schizophrenic deli woman, more lecturing by an elderly anarchist, and an offbeat destruction-of-mankind-via-termites conversation in Les Amis.  For the most part though, these scenes are unnecessary, and their exclusion from the final cut was justified, but some are fun to watch.

Following a promotional trailer for the film is "Slacker Culture," an essay by Linklater, in which he attempts to define what he feels a "slacker" is, as opposed to what a slacker has generally been perceived to be.  In a nutshell, Linklater describes a slacker as anyone "who is striving to attain a realm of activity that runs parallel to their desires," even if that means rejecting the conventional hierarchy and expectations of society.

Lastly, but most interestingly, there is "End of Interview," chronicling the 2001 screening for Slacker in Austin, Texas.  Present are many former members of the cast and crew, and seeing how they have changed (or not) over the years is quite cool.  It's like a fun high school reunion!

As if all the features on this Blu-ray set weren't enough, Criterion has included an impressive 64-page booklet.  It contains a huge number of essays and publicity shots from the film itself.  Among some of the more unusual features are a list of production expenses and many memorable quotes from the film.

The first article, "Slacking Off" by John Pierson (host of IFC's Split Screen), relates the twisting post-production odyssey of Slacker from the film festival circuit into the consciousness of the American film-going audience.

"Slacker's Oblique Strategy," by Ron Rosenbaum, argues that Slacker, behind its humor and eccentric quirks, is similar in heart and tone to the metaphysical aspects and philosophizing of Russian cinema and literature.  It is an intriguing article and sounds very much like one that could have been written by any of Slacker's college-age characters.

Among the other articles, there is "Freedom's Just Another Word for Nothing to Do," by Chris Walters, which discusses the impassivity of the film and the existential sense of loss or aimlessness exhibited by its many characters.  "Looking Back," by Michael Barker, co-founder of Sony Pictures Classics, is a short documentation of the film's voyage from indie film to cult phenomenon from the distributor's standpoint.  "From the Notebooks" is a selection of quotes and notes used by Richard Linklater to motivate the cast and crew and to keep them in the proper spirit of the film.  And finally, "It's Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books," by Monte Hellman, is a brief introduction to this early film by Richard Linklater.  After this article, the remaining second half of the booklet is jammed with promotional artwork, photographs, quotes, and many cast/crew portraits.  

Summary:

Slacker is Richard Linklater's revelatory snapshot of one day in the life of native Texans.  The film is as refreshingly engaging and fun now as during its original release.  The Criterion Blu-ray release of this experimental yet generation-defining film is truly tremendous.  Highly recommended!

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