FILM REVIEW: Slacker (1991, Austin, and I)

Did you miss me? Absence makes the heart grow fonder, after all. After writing over 660 blog posts in six years, it was time for a break, so I took it. I’m not sorry I did. Some might say that makes me a slacker, defined in the pejorative sense: “A person regarded as one of a large group or generation of young people (especially in the early to mid 1990s) characterized by apathy, aimlessness, and lack of ambition” (Wikipedia). I may be guilty as charged, or at least I resemble that remark. But director Richard Linklater had a more positive meaning in mind when he made his influential, independent, experimental yet really interesting and fun film, Slacker:

“Slackers might look like the left-behinds of society, but they are actually one step ahead, rejecting most of society and the social hierarchy before it rejects them. The dictionary defines slackers as people who evade duties and responsibilities. A more modern notion would be people who are ultimately being responsible to themselves and not wasting their time in a realm of activity that has nothing to do with who they are or what they might be ultimately striving for.”[24]

The 30th anniversary DVD

In other words, rebels. Slacker came out the very same year I first moved here to Austin — 31 years ago. Most auspicious, Buddhists would say. It was actually shot in 1989, premiered in 1990, got a sort of wider release the summer of 1991, but it didn’t find a cult following until later on video tape. As one person in the movie points out, “Time is just a human construct anyway.” The flick is an interesting artifact, covering a day in the Texas capitol in the life of dozens of random, mostly young people of my Generation X (the title of Douglas Coupland’s 1991 book that I LOVED; he wrote the intro to Linklater’s book). It’s short on action, with almost no plot, and long on dialogue. It’s got plenty of philosophical conversations, music of the period, and iconic but now often non-existent locations. It’s simple, but not easy to describe. Like most things, it’s better experienced firsthand (as far as a movie can be). Whether you’ve seen it, are curious to know what I think and how I relate to it, or might watch it after this review, please read on. In other words, don’t be a slacker. (Don’t worry, there are no major spoilers here.)

The 30th anniversary DVD (Digital Versatile Disk) which I checked out of the library comes with a slew of extras, which I’ll not get into here except to say they look pretty cool. I decided to watch the film itself on VHS video cassette for some authenticity, a little cinema verite. (I had to look up what VHS stands for — it’s Video Home System.) How this all came to pass was like a scene right out of Slacker itself. The disk wouldn’t play (a big reason this post was delayed), so I went back to the library from whence it came. (A Dude loves the library.) The librarian said a co-worker was knowledgeable about this sort of thing, and that guy’s been working there a long time and knows me, so I left him a note. The result of that was that I was invited over to said second librarian’s house, which is a very Austin, very slacker thing. Only the best in concierge services for this dude!

My new best friend / favorite bookmonger (yes, I just invented that word, I think) had offered to loan me a DVD player, the VHS tape just in case, and a book about the film. Meanwhile, he was going to try to clean up my dusty combo DVD/VHS player. What a guy! So I pulled up to his house to find a little beat up beige trailer adjacent to a little beigeier shed full of TV’s, video equipment, and a bed. A lithe young woman who looked like she stepped out of a late 80’s metal band’s MTV shoot came from within the main house (you guessed it – beige!) with a beautiful head of blonde, feathered hair. It turns out she’s a one-woman band and library man does video effects for her shows. Slacker vibes still abide.

A brown-headed kid waltzed through the scene, the first time ignoring me, the second time saying, “The dude’s here.” (How he knew my name, I don’t know). My savior greeted me mildly, as if he had library patrons drop by on the regular. He’s a thin man with long hair and the laid back vibe of, well, an Austin slacker librarian. I guess what I’m saying is he could easily have been in the movie himself. He wasn’t, but he knows some people who were and who are still around, including the woman on the DVD cover. Which is pretty cool. At this point, for no other reason than this paragraph is a little short, I’ll mention the Church of the Subgenius, which was also a countercultural movement led by the fictional The Reverend Bob Dobbs started in Dallas in the 1970’s. His catchphrase was “There must be slack.” I don’t know if there’s any relationship, but it was probably in the zeitgeist. Or the water. I often joke that I drank the Austin tap water or Kool-Aid.

Anyway, I made it back home and the next night sat down to my long-anticipated screening. I chose the VHS, and truly loved the grainy look, hearing those forgotten chunking and whirring sounds of the machine swallowing the tape, and having to rewind it at the end! The film opens with a man (played by the director) awakening from a nap on a Greyhound bus as it pulls into Austin. (During my 15 years being car-free, I used to take that bus regularly, going back and forth to visit my mother in Dallas, and I am not a mile from that same station.) As he gets into a cab and starts talking about his dream and different realities (foreshadowing The Matrix by 10 years), the camera takes in the town as the backdrop. There was far less traffic and far fewer buildings; unsurprising but jolting. He gets out and talks to someone, and then the film just goes on from there. Jumping from one interaction to the next. Kind of like a real day in real life. Some scenes or characters are a bit weird, but the people are so earnest they’re endearing, and I found most to be pretty relatable in one way or another. A guy works on his car. Another laments a break-up. Some women ride bicycles to a bar. (See? It’s relevant to this bike blog.)

Watching Slacker again after all this time (I’d probably only seen it a few times since it opened) was like opening a time capsule partially of my own life. Gas, milk, beer, cover charges at clubs, rent — everything was cheaper, of course. Clothes and cars different. I could expound at length about the people and places of the time. I knew people like some of those characters; maybe even was a bit of one myself. Or how I even met a few people from the film. And how I still know the actual cinematographer of this movie. (Not well, but we once were on a group trip together about five years after the film came out, and I occasionally run into him.) Or how every time I go up to Mount Bonnell, I think of this movie. Then there was one time after a screening of something else when I was alone in the theater with Rick Linklater himself. I asked him if he knew the time, and he said no. I tell people he wouldn’t give me the time of day. But the truth was he didn’t wear a watch, so he didn’t know it.

In early 1991, the first Gulf War had just ended, and after getting into the University of Texas twice but never attending, I had moved down Interstate 35 from Dallas. I became a vegetarian and was canvassing door-to-door for Greenpeace Action. In the office, there was a photo of Dan Quayle, the often mocked Vice President, with his face over Dustin Hoffman’s as the autistic Rain Man, saying “I’m an excellent politician. I’m an excellent politician.” I wasn’t good at asking for money or handling the rejection, so I gave up soon after a very rude, obese man in San Marcos kept saying over and over “Don’t need any!” to my questions about clean air and water. The truth is, I only lasted in Austin a few months this time. It was too hot and humid, I wasn’t doing well at my next jobs as substitute teacher and didn’t love waiting tables again, plus young love was calling me to Seattle. That didn’t work out, but I survived three winters in the Pacific Northwest. I eventually made it back here, and now it’s my third stint, so it seems it’s home by now.

The Austin of 2022 is hardly recognizable from the Austin of 1991, or even 2001 or 2011. A lot of Austin old timers (I guess I am one now) talk about how much it sucks that those days are gone. Remember what the Bald Bard of Long Island, Mr. William Joel, once wisely sang, “The good old days weren’t always good and tomorrow’s not as bad as it seems.” I used to think about doing van tours of spots in the movie, but most of them are gone or are something different. (“They paved paradise and put up a parking lot,” Joni Mitchell said.) You can still find vestiges of Slacker around town. Quackenbush’s Intergalactic Dessert Co. & Espresso Cafe is still here, in another location, just called Quack’s. It’s original spot is vacant again. Les Amis is a Starbucks. Here’s a handy link to some of the surviving locations.

I could — as the characters in the movie certainly do — ramble on about Austin, capitalism, politics, art, and so much more as referred to in Slacker, or as I relate to it. Instead, I’ll refer you to the movie itself. You can maybe find it at your library, Half Price Books, watch it on Amazon Prime or at the Criterion Collection. (Both require paid subscription but at the latter site you can get a 14-day free trial period.) If you need any more bona fides, in 2012, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.[3] I’ll close with this quote from Sean O’Neal in his excellent Texas Monthly article last summer on the 30th anniversary:

…seeing Slacker forever changed my perspective on my home state. There are plenty of restless dreamers and fringe thinkers here, all driven by the kind of optimism and stubbornness only Texas can produce. In his introduction to Linklater’s Slacker companion book, author James L. Haley points out that Texas itself was settled by those who might be called slackers. “The discontented, the rebellious, the in trouble, and the troubled came to Texas,” Haley writes, and everyone from poets to politicians gravitated to Austin as a mecca for minding your own business.

Or as Mackey puts it in the film, “This town has always had its fair share of crazies. I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.” 

Texas Monthly

The book

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12 thoughts on “FILM REVIEW: Slacker (1991, Austin, and I)

    1. I’m glad you got to see it, Anthony! Fun to watch after 30* years. Put also a little sad because Austin’s drink so much.

      Also thanks for following my blog (again)? Although I’ve slowed down to focus more on my book, there are many there are many, many posts to enjoy.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I thought I was following your blog. I didn’t unfollow you. Life/WordPress is weird sometimes.
        I have heard lots of great things about Austin–food, music and stuff like that. I do hope to see it one day.

        Liked by 1 person

  1. Like a day trip back to my cosmic years. While I was in Dallas for college+, having grown up in San Antonio (“Keep San Antonio Lame”), I coukd certainly appreciate Slacker at the time, and with nostalgia now. Excellent post, ADude!

    The hubby still points out, “That scene was filmed here” often as we drive around town. We’re still relative bewbies, having been here since ‘08, but even in the 13 years we’ve been here the skyline has changed, and bigly! Fortunately, the same weirdness that drew legions before us is still bringing them here today. Maybe a little slicker than before—to cater to the techies—but still with enough of that weird patina which differentiates Austin from its fellow large cities in Tejas, and even its Silicon Valley cousins. Nowhere else we’d rather live. Hell, we moved back from a stint in Canada for Tex-Mex and Barbeque!

    Liked by 1 person

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