In 1990, Austin Audiences Watched Slacker... and Saw Themselves
Richard Linklater’s indie milestone celebrates 30 years
It's a conspiracy. Whatever IMDB or Wikipedia tells you, don't believe it. Slacker did not open on July 5, 1991. That's the corporate line they want you to swallow.
OK, so maybe there's a bit of truth. That's when Orion Classics officially released Richard Linklater's groundbreaking second feature onto screens nationally, and the directionless children of the Reagan-Bush era finally saw themselves in a movie: hanging out, doing nothing, working out that the only destination is wherever you end up. But Austin could have told them what was coming 11 months earlier. On July 27, 1990, Slacker opened on one of the two screens at the now-defunct Dobie Theater, in the food court on the second floor of the 27-story Dobie Center dorms, just off the UT-Austin campus at the end of the section of Guadalupe known as the Drag.
That run is cinematic folklore. Linklater shot most of his film about students and wastrels, paranoiacs and philosophers, within 10 minutes' shuffle of the theatre. When he submitted it to distributors and festivals the silence was deafening, and he thought he'd have to make his $23,000 budget back by selling VHS copies through the classifieds in Film Threat magazine. That's when he struck a deal with Dobie owner/manager Scott Dinger: Linklater was already screening films under the still freshly printed Austin Film Society banner there, so Dinger agreed to schedule his micro-indie up against his guaranteed money-maker: The Brave Little Toaster. What they got was a full-blown one-screen blockbuster, selling out screenings for weeks.
Linklater didn't need to make a movie. He could have just knocked a hole in the wall and charged audiences admission, because anybody walking by could have been in Slacker. That was the point, and Beau Paul almost was. In 1989, he was fresh out of high school, living at 31st and Speedway, splitting days between being a good student at ACC and hanging out on the Drag. It was a cycle: bouncing around Le Fun arcade (before the Scientologists took the building over), drinking at Les Amis, picking up a pack of Gauloise at Pipes Plus, browsing the racks at Record Exchange before catching Ed Hall or Butthole Surfers "and then you get up and do it all over again. ... I remember seeing these fliers going, 'You should come audition for our weird movie.'" He didn't see it as anything to get excited about. "Fliers would appear on Guadalupe every day," he said. "We had no idea that this was going to be the juggernaut it became."
When the movie crept in the Dobie the following year, he was part of the crowds. He was already a regular: In simple terms, it was the Drafthouse before the Drafthouse, the only place to see foreign and independent film on the big (well, not-so-big) screen. Future filmmaker Karen Skloss remembered it "run down and seedy [with] a thin haze of smoke, and it was nasty. But everything on the Drag was like that." That was what made it cool. Summer of 1990, she was between junior high and high school. Sometimes she'd convince her parents to drop her off on the Drag, and she'd hang out at Let's Go skate shop just north of campus and watch boys, then go to Captain Quackenbush's Intergalactic Dessert and Coffee Cafe for coffee, and play chess or read Kerouac ("My guy friends in high school would think they were misplaced beatniks," she recalled). If they were feeling really daring they'd go to the suspicious-looking massage parlor up the street, the one with a lady carved into the doorway, "and everyone would knock on the door and run." For a suburban kid in Catholic school, this was bohemian bliss, and it got even better near the end of Slacker's run. "There was this guy that I liked and he went, 'Well, do you want to go to the movies and see this movie?'"
That night changed the trajectory of her life. First, she ended up dating that guy for seven years. But, more importantly, "I was just amazed, because so much of that movie was my wonderland."
For Paul, Slacker had "a Jacques Tati, wander-around quality about this community of lunatics and saints," and what struck him first was the authenticity. At the time, he said, "Twin Peaks was the hotness, and one of the first blurbs was 'Twin Peaks has nothing on this place,' which I always thought was very amusing, because I thought Slacker was home movie time. I'd walk down the Drag and hang out with these people, and it turned out there was this filmmaker hiding in bushes following us."
He literally knew some actors/characters onscreen, or would get to know more. Louis Mackey, the philosophy professor who plays the old anarchist who muses about the UT Tower shootings, was the father of one of his Drag rat friends. Later that year he started taking some acting classes with Marianne Hyatt, who played "Late Night Pick-Up," and she introduced him to future Asylum Street Spankers co-founder Wammo ("Anti-Artist"). Paul said, "It was very hard to not know someone in that film if you were in the music scene or the movie scene."
It seemed everybody knew somebody in it, like Mike Blizzard, who was friends with Brian Crockett before he was cast as "Sadistic Comb Game Player." Yet it wasn't so much the people as the details Blizzard recognized onscreen, like trying to rub the ink from an admission stamp onto your friend's hand so you could save the $5 cover charge for a gig. Or the less sanitary option: "We would do this thing of putting your hand in the exhaust of a car just to blacken it up."
In 1990, Blizzard wasn't some kid on the Drag: If he was any character, he would have been "Budding Capitalist Youth." He'd graduated from UT, a little strait-laced, and had taken a year off, working the graveyard shift at the notoriously sleazy Rio Motel at 48th and I-35. Now he was back on campus, studying for a psychology Ph.D. he would never finish. "I didn't really know what academia was like. It was just the next thing to do." He'd hang around the Dobie a lot, and the sign for Slacker was on the marquee forever, so he finally decided to go see what the fuss was about. Within a couple of years, he became a self-described "vegetarian political canvasser hanging out at Quackenbush's and I think Slacker had a lot to do with it."
Looking back, the actual screening at the Dobie, and the famous lines, don't stand out that much. After all, it didn't take much to make the cramped little cinema look crowded. What stuck in his mind was the shoes. He was a pretty conventional college kid, wearing either hi-tops, boots, maybe some dress shoes from the back of his closet. "I remember being astounded by the wide variety of footwear, because a lot of people were wearing this thrift store style." Slacker's genius was in embracing that anti-uniform. Unlike other pop culture zeitgeist films, there were no "sides," no Sharks or Jets, no bikers and preppies, no hippies and townies. Blizzard said, "By its very lack of a coherent definition of these characters, it was very indicative of the time."
Yet it was hard to recognize the importance at the time, just because it was so a part of the scene. Bob Ray was another Let's Go regular like Skloss, but he was 20, drinking and partying, catching the rare metal and punk show that bypassed San Antonio, working on comics and graphic novels that he never finished, and playing around with a video camera while his friends tried tricks on their boards. He was also a Dobie regular but, he admitted with almost a twinge of embarrassment, the experience of Slacker didn't stand out as a life-changing event at the time. Understandable: This was a time of wild cinema at the Dobie. Slacker could stand proud alongside Hated: GG Allin and the Murder Junkies, or the 3D porno he saw there. "When you see something that's weird and takes a stylistic approach," Ray said, "you go, 'Well, that's fucking cool.'"
It wasn't just cool. It was cool at the right time, in the right cultural context. Sub Pop was the hip record label, releasing the three albums – Tad's God's Balls, Nirvana's Bleach, and Superfuzz Bigmuff by Mudhoney – that would be the distorted holy trinity of early grunge. Out in the Mojave Desert, before Coachella got gentrified, Douglas Coupland was living off the $22,500 advance check for Generation X: Tales From an Accelerated Culture, and the book would become standard reading material for disaffected twentysomethings when Slacker got its national release. The moment was ripe for a film like Slacker in a way that it wasn't when Tobe Hooper released its spiritual forebear, Eggshells, 21 years earlier. Moreover, Slacker caught the disparate nature of Austin's new creative scene. Blizzard said. "It made it OK to live that way, because it put a name on it."
It was that sense of recognition that turned the 1990 run into a phenomenon – both internationally, locally, and personally. The sell-out run helped convince Orion that Slacker was the title to revamp their image as a fusty importer of foreign films into the home of the new American auters, and gave Linklater the distribution deal he needed. It was also a game-changing moment for Austin, as it became a destination for the dispossessed: somewhere you ran to, not away from. Ray said he heard the same words from new mouths all the time: "'I lived in Podunk, and I saw this movie and went, 'Oh there's a city full of people like me.'"
At the local level, the audience saw that if Linklater could do it, they could too. Now an actor, Paul has become a fixture on Austin stages, as well as a game designer, writer, and film critic on the One of Us podcast network. Blizzard turned "vegetarian political canvasser" into a career track, ubiquitous around City Hall as a progressive campaign operative before sliding onto the board of Austin Film Society, then into filmmaking, and now he's a credited producer for Linklater's next film, Apollo 10 ½: A Space Age Adventure. Ray picked up the camera and forged his own Austin time capsule, 2005's Roller Derby documentary Hell on Wheels. Skloss is now an in-demand editor and director, and seeing Slacker in its natural habitat helped her realize that she could make films too. "It opened your world, and made you realize that there are so many more possibilities."
But it wasn't that it made Austin bigger or more mythic. If anything, it demystified and democratized the creative process, made it all more reachable. A couple of years after the Dobie run, Skloss decided to audition for Linklater's big-budget follow-up, Dazed and Confused. She walked in the room at his Detour Film Productions office, and saw the director. Or rather, saw another of those folks from the slice-of-her-life movie. "I went, oh my god, you're the guy from Slacker in the taxi!"