Slack to the Future

Austin gets older; 'Slacker' stays forever young

Richard Linklater (l) with cinematographer Lee Daniel during filming in 1989
Richard Linklater (l) with cinematographer Lee Daniel during filming in 1989

"Who's ever written a great work about the immense effort required in order not to create?"

– "Dostoyevsky Wannabe," Slacker

Everything can happen in 20 years, or nothing much. In a city like Austin (as if there were any other cities like Austin), the past two decades have witnessed a positively tectonic shift in culture, commerce, art, and identity that has left the once-drowsy Hill Country home of the Texas Longhorns and Charles Whitman, Janis Joplin and the Big Boys, Sound Exchange and Inner Sanctum Records, hugely changed. The skyline, the population, the sheer, overwhelming number of coffee shops and cafes and clubs and their attendant, insistent, midnight 4/4 beat, have all exploded – ferociously, gorgeously so. It's human nature to enshrine the past and lament the loss of imagined innocence, especially when that sunny nostalgia for those salad days is intricately wound into your own artistic inclinations, your own private cultural DNA. And Austin itself is locked in a sweaty and seemingly ceaseless battle between remembering what it was and discovering what it is, and, most importantly, what it wants to be. Two decades is a long time in the life of a city. Anything can happen.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of Richard Linklater's Slacker, the best – and maybe the most important – little arthouse film ever to come out of the Lone Star State. (On Jan. 24, the Sundance Institute and its preservation arm, the Sundance Collection, will honor the film with a special screening in Park City, Utah, of a newly struck print.) Slacker was released, officially and nationally, on July 5, 1991, by Orion Classics, after having proved its box office viability (in Austin, anyway) via a run at the now-defunct Dobie Theatre during the summer of 1990.

Filmed in and around West Campus; the Drag; a then-barely breathing, sun-bleached Downtown; and assorted other locations, Linklater's disarmingly nontraditional narrative study of the slow life in the 512 was embraced, almost overnight, as a bellwether of artistic achievement. It gently, teasingly wandered among – or, more accurately, simply trained its omniscient gaze upon – the myriad artists, students, layabouts, conspiracy jonesers, and Austin outcasts young and old before the storm that was the past two decades.

Watching Slacker now, you're struck by just how revolutionary a film it was at the time and how obviously influential it remains. Cinematographer Lee Daniel's camera doesn't so much follow the (often nameless) characters and laconic or loquacious nonevents as flow around them, the way the water at Twin Falls breaks around and reveals or highlights the semisubmerged detritus poking up into the sunlight on a shady summer day. Nothing much happens in Slacker, but – and here's the secret to the film's initial appeal and lasting impact – anything can happen. Watching Slacker from the futuristic vantage point of today, you get the distinct sensation of awesomeness in potentia. Something's coming – something big, maybe – and you can feel it in the restless, caffeine-and-alcohol-fueled dialogue that sprawls out of Captain Quackenbush's, wanders up the Drag to Les Amis, and then tools up to Mount Bonnell, where Linklater's lovely cri de coeur finally, literally, takes flight and tumbles end over end into the unknown, into the future.

Slacker as time capsule. Slacker as cultural alarm clock, forever hitting snooze one last time before Austin-then (population 465,622) yawned, stretched, woke up, devoured one last Mad Dog-and-beans-and-Shiner Bock brunch, and became Austin-now (population 1.8 million). Slacker as American independent filmmaking's closest, truest artistic parallel to Godard's equally untraditional and cinematically electrifying Breathless. You take from it what you want, what you need: inspiration, memories, a deep and abiding sense of weird. It's all there. Just try to bear in mind that "the most important thing is the thing most easily forgotten."


"We had a screening last week here in Austin for cast, crew and friends (about 250) that went great. I knew local audiences would be naturally sympathetic but at the same time critical in there [sic] own way. (Texans aren't used to seeing themselves on the screen as much as LA/NY audiences.) I was a bit nervous at first, but the overwhelmingly positive reaction makes me think once again that SLACKER is a definite crowd-pleaser for a particular niche of the population. I'm enclosing a recent Time magazine article about this "Twentysomething" audience which I would further define as: urban, educated (anyone who made it past their sophomore year in college), and one that typically reads up on movies before they see them. I feel it can also attract a slightly older audience with beatnik or hippie sensibilities – basically anyone in the entire post World War II period that has felt at all marginalized or at odds with their society.

"... I think the film just might exist in that underground/anti world and respectable critical circles at the same time. And in the year of the 50 million dollar budgets, I can already feel people going out of their way to support this $23,000, out-of-left-field, genre and plot denying, first time film (that in reality wants to be liked)."

– Letter from Richard Linklater to John Pierson, July 23, 1990


Director RICHARD LINKLATER and SLACKER producer's rep/University of Texas lecturer JOHN PIERSON are discussing the importance, influence, and history of the film with THE JOURNALIST.


There had been indie films prior to Slacker. Not a great number, but every couple of years, a UT grad would get together some money and make a movie, usually a horror film or some genre thing. I think Slacker's technical breakthrough was that you could make an indie film and get national distribution as an art film, you know? That's how Slacker was different. It was an art film. It wasn't a genre film, and it wasn't some version of the Texas archetypes. It wasn't Texans being cowboys. I remember being amazed that that would be accepted in New York City. I just didn't think anyone would ever be interested in a film from Texas with an extreme, formal design.


But the design – fluid, flowing – was always there, as part of the initial idea for the film? It works so well because it really mirrors the Austin vibe at that time. Just kind of wandering around, seeing what's up, what's going on ....


That was part of the plan. "We're not going to offer a story but at least we'll offer a comprehensive architecture that you can pass through and not feel completely disoriented." That was kind of the balance of making what makes no sense on paper somewhat audience-friendly.


There's not a single jump cut, and the passage from one scene to the next is always in a flow. There's not even a cut between scenes.

Richard Linklater (l) and John Pierson in early January
Richard Linklater (l) and John Pierson in early January (Photo by John Anderson)


The local geography was [inaccurate]. I remember people going to see it that first summer when we opened it ourselves at the Dobie, and it was selling out and everyone was talking about it. They were saying: "They're walking around Sound Exchange and then they walk around the corner and they're at Half Price Books! It doesn't make sense!" I remember trying to explain to some guy on the street that, "If you didn't know Austin, the film makes sense." They're still walking right to left. Syntactically, it works. It was just funny.


It really is like a time capsule of lost Austin. And it was released, oddly enough, in "1991: The Year Punk Broke," according to Dave Markey's music documentary of the same name.


Having lived here 27 years now, I've kind of battled that feeling of nostalgia, but there was really not much happening. You talk about the "Austin movie scene," but I didn't feel like there was much of a scene back then. The Film Society was four years old by the time we'd started shooting Slacker, but it was such a loose film scene. There were a lot of people sitting around wanting to make movies, a lot of film students talking about it, but I felt there was kind of a void there. I think it was a lot like any other town at that time. I'm sure that eventually technology would've come around and helped all that, but back then it was a big deal to make a film on film. That was good and bad. Bad, because it didn't happen much, and good, because when it did happen, it was like, "Wow, you made a film?!" Even if it wasn't very good, it got distribution. It's impossible to speculate where Slacker would fit in the film world of today. But back then it was such a big deal to have made and completed a film. It was such a rarity. And it was so expensive, too, that it just seemed prohibitive. When you talk to someone who's 21 today, they can't really understand just how prohibitive an art form it was.


You had that foundation that was already here, which, of course, you had helped to build.


Yeah, that's the thing. Slacker just sort of plugged into this infrastructure that the Austin Film Society had created. When we screened at the Dobie in the summer of 1990, we did that all ourselves, putting up fliers and treating it like a punk show. The social aspects of it, and a lot of the people who were in the movie, were just around. They were already part of the Austin vibe.


What sort of impact did it have on the Sundance Film Festival?


If you look at the narrative competition at Sundance by 1994, I swear to you 14 to 16 narrative competition films were made for less than $100,000, and some significantly less than $50,000. 1994 is the Clerks year, it's the Spanking the Monkey year, it's the year of What Happened Was ..., it's the year of Hoop Dreams on the doc side, it's Kelly Reichardt's first year. And it never happened like that again. By 1995 other things were happening, but from '91 to '94, I believe you had this sort of absolutely culminating moment on film, mostly 16-millimeter but not always, of the triumph of the under $100,000 film.


So much of Slacker is just a portrayal of this very social, very communal cafe culture that, let's face it, seems to have been supplanted by Austin's pseudo rebirth as a technological hub. You're more likely to hear about the latest conspiracy theories on the Internet or see the latest under $1,000 – or under $100 – digital movies on the Net. Madonna's pap smear would be on eBay today. And if you go to a coffee shop –



– it's people sitting alone with their laptop, yeah. I was sitting in a cafe talking to a friend about that the other day. There were eight other tables with people who were sitting together socially, but they were all focused on their laptops. My friend and I were the only two people actually talking face-to-face.


I can remember sitting at Quackenbush's on the Drag in the Eighties and just batting conversations around from table to table and then out the door and onto and up the Drag.


Oh yeah, of course! It was fun, and that was what the film kind of grew out of. There'd be that guy at Quack's who seemed like a really intelligent, intellectual guy, quoting things ... and then you'd realize, okay, he's some kind of mental patient on a loop, but still, so brilliant. You can't get that on the Internet. There's no place for that guy anymore.


Could you even do a film like Slacker today, with that sense of vital community, given that so much of that community/cafe-style discourse has gravitated to online?


I was thinking about that the other day, and, you know, it would be a different film. Slacker was that kind of film from the generation that was probably the first to have the TV remote. We were the first generation to begin creating our own narratives by watching five minutes of this and then one minute of that and then seven minutes of this. We were also the generation that, as a kid, got dropped off at the multitheatre, where there's eight movies, and you'd watch little bits of all these different films. That was in my head as a narrative possibility. I saw Slacker as you're either channel surfing or you're going in and out of different movies. And that was a really primitive version of what now would be exponentially more complex.


What is Slacker's legacy? To you?


I'm not sure, really, but ... I was always kind of pleased when I had people come up to me and [say] something like, "Hey, you know, seeing that film, it really kind of validated my life." Because it was, really, how a lot of us were living. You didn't have a lot to show for yourself, but you weren't an uninterested, unintelligent person, either. It sort of documented and maybe articulated, in some way, a lifestyle that wasn't unique in itself but had had a long continuum from the Beats and beyond. That kind of got lost in the go-go Eighties and the materialistic culture that sprang from out of that. You may have worked a busboy job but really you were in a band, you were a writer, you were an artist. That's how you defined yourself. And that sort of culture should always be that way, and to a large degree, it probably still is. Then again, I've had some people tell me that whenever they miss Austin, they put on Slacker and it reminds them of what they don't miss about Austin. It's very subjective, obviously.

"There's always something that was really cool and you should've seen it and it was the best thing in the world ... but it's gone, and now it's not here anymore."

– Newman Stribling, former owner of Les Amis, in Nancy Higgins' documentary Viva Les Amis

Say what you will about the fluxing nature of Austin, past and present, and the leapfrogging technological and economic advances that have resulted in a skyline unrecognizable from that which was captured on film in the summer of '89. Things change, sure, and cities shed their skins in favor of new ones periodically. But you could argue that Austin has, in many ways, stayed the same at its artistic, cinema-infused core. There are now more film festivals and more filmmakers and artisans in the city than ever before. Quite possibly the primary reason for that is Richard Linklater's Slacker, which in 1991 broke like punk across the land and set up something of a homing beacon for stray, broke, hopeful artists who (possibly finding Seattle rather crowded at the time) set their sights on the Texas capital and arrived, thrived, and set the stage for yet another wave of cinematic, theatrical, and general artistic creation. It's more difficult than ever to sneeze and not spatter a filmmaker, screenwriter, or actor who is in some small way indebted to Linklater's opening salvo (which itself, it must be said, came slightly over a decade past Eagle Pennell's The Whole Shootin' Match effectively both created the idea of Austin independent filmmaking and, as Robert Redford has stated, provided the impetus for the Sundance Film Festival itself). So there's something of a full circle from Slacker to now, or a maybe the overlapping sphericals of a Venn diagram, their diameters looping into decades. Whichever. Either one will fit perfectly within the borders of a coffeehouse/cafe cocktail napkin or a laptop's screen. Now go make your own film.

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