08.01.2016
culture

25 Years of 'Slacker' and the Quarter Century of Indie Cred It Spawned

For a while, Richard Linklater made indie film—and everything else—totally cool.

After a quick run in the Austin, Texas, area where it was shot, Slacker, the 16-mm, $23,000 debut feature by writer-director Richard Linklater, opened nationwide on August 1, 1991.

Linklatter’s plotless, roaming-camera chronicle of one sweltering day of typically atypical weirdness among Austin’s local crackpots and visionaries set off the decade’s indie film revolution.

Audiences embraced Slacker immediately, signaling a wave of cultural change. The movie’s million-dollar-plus profit financially cracked the door enough for the likes of Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Smith, Todd Solondz, and Linklater's fellow Texan Robert Rodriguez to barrel on through to the (relative) big time.

To celebrate a quarter century of Slacker’s hazy, easy, laid-back innovation, fire up the proper refreshment and mull over a few key aspects of the lackadaisical masterwork’s enduring legacy.

Richard Linklater

Slacker established its 30-year-old creator as a new and, in many ways, unprecedented voice in filmmaking. Linklater upped the stakes by translating Slacker’s loose approach and anthropological insight to Dazed and Confused (1993), a medium-budget Hollywood comedy about high school in 1976 that came to reign as one of the defining highs of stoner cinema.

Linklater has maintained his vision through an awesomely eclectic career. His work includes the acclaimed series of largely improvised Before… films with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, the smash hit School of Rock (2003), the animated experiments Waking Life (2001) and A Scanner Darkly (2006), personal projects such as Fast Food Nation (2006) and Bernie (2011), the Dazed and Confused semi-sequel Everybody Wants Some!! (2016), and the shot-over-12-years drama Boyhood (2014), for which he earned multiple critics prizes and Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay. 

Generation X

Prior to the movie, the term slacker repeatedly turned up at the dawn of the ’90s to describe a surly, often overeducated population in their twenties who seemed directionless, cynical, hard-bitten by latchkey upbringings, and contemptuous of mainstream society. Only ’70s pop artifacts, Rolling Rock, and punk-rooted “alternative” arts and entertainment seemed to supply these moochers with any non-sneering moments (and even then…). 

Graphic novelists Peter Bagge and Daniel Clowes chronicled such characters in their Hate and Eightball comic books respectively. Seattle’s SubPop Records captured the sound of the moment. Douglas Coupland’s 1991 novel Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture provided a convenient label. Slacker, though, gave an identifiable cultural presence to society’s newly arrived (and annoyed) post-Baby Boom segment of young adults.

If anyone wonders what it felt like to be young and disenfranchised in the ’90s and unwittingly about to take over the world for what would be the shortest run of any post-WWII cultural force, Slacker provides an accurate answer.

'Keep Austin Weird'

Austin, Texas, is the main character of Slacker. To outsiders, Austin had been best known as the state capitol and the main smoking grounds of country music superstar Willie Nelson. After Slacker, the rest of the world caught on to the city’s go-your-own-way nonconformity wonders. 

Local heroes who turn up in Slacker include Austin Chronicle co-founder Louis Black, singer-songwriter Abra Moore, and Butthole Surfers percussionist Teresa Taylor a/k/a Teresa Nervosa, playing a passerby who claims to be peddling the medical remnants of Madonna’s recent pap smear. 

In Slacker’s wake, Austin has attracted young, creative types in a manner akin to Brooklyn, Portland, and the eastern districts of Los Angeles. In 1997, MTV attempted to cash in with the scrubbed-up ersatz Slacker series Austin Stories. It lasted 12 episodes. 

Do-It-Yourself Cinema

The “pick up a camera and go” explosion ignited by Slacker has moved away from the big screen, now commanded by blockbusters that are opposite to what Linklater and cohorts represented, to screens so small they were unimaginable back when the film first opened (smartphones and mobile devices).

Slackers' spirit turns up on YouTube, streaming video services, and other “all-access” technologies. Slacker foreshadows this development, temporarily switching over to grainy, black-and-white footage shot with a Fisher-Price PXL2000 camera that captured images on audio cassette. The message then, as now: Make your movie with whatever you can get your hands on.

Conspiracy Culture

Austin is a hub of unconventional political thought and thinkers. Often loudest among them are libertarian-leaning conspiracy theorists, the most famous being multimedia gadfly Alex Jones.

Slacker taps into this sense of paranoia in the movie's overall feel, and specifically when showcasing John Slate as a the author of Conspiracy-a-Go-Go spouting off about the JFK assassination, Nigel Benchoff and Jerry Delony as characters named “Building Capitalist Youth” and “Been on the Moon Since the ’50s,” and Mark Quirk, as Papa Smurf, breaking down the inherent fascism and potential Krishna overthrow of the little blue creatures for whom he is named.

Public fascination with secret and suppressed forces flowered throughout the ’90s after Slacker, blooming into The X-Files on TV, Art Bell on overnight radio, and countless ’zines photocopied and traded worldwide.

Linklater eventually utilized Alex Jones himself in Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly. Jones plays, respectively, Man in Car with P.A. and Street Prophet. 

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