Slacker: “It’s not building a wall but making a brick”

By Matteo Tiratelli

Slacker, dir. Richard Linklater, 1991. Runtime: 1 hour, 45 minutes

Slacker begins with Linklater himself sitting in the back of a taxi, pontificating on his theory that every time you think of a possibility, that possibility becomes a separate reality on some other plane of existence, to a completely indifferent taxi driver. The taxi pulls up at Twenty-Fourth and Nueces just as a woman is hit by a car, which then speeds off down the road. The camera pans round in a leisurely circle until it stops at a house where the same hit-and-run car has just pulled up. Following the driver inside, we pick up his story until his arrest for the murder of his mother. As he is led outside by the police, the camera hesitates, and then follows a different passer-by down the road.

This fragmentary structure allows Linklater to follow a character for a scene or two before spinning off into new stories, all of which are unintroduced and unfinished. This technique is borrowed from the surrealist tradition, particularly the later films of Bunuel, but is taken to a new extreme here as scenes and characters flit by in minutes in a film in which “instead of anything… going on, there’s nothing going on”. This dream of nothing which Linklater’s character describes in the opening taxi ride is the first of many moment of self-reflection in a film with precious little action to hold onto. This self-reference is most obvious in the final scene which enters directly into the world of home videos which Slacker is so clearly indebted to. As we follow a car down the road, another pulls up alongside filled with kids laughing and pointing their cameras. Suddenly we are inside their home movie and a jaunty, traditional Zimbabwean pop song starts to play. The film then ends with the camera itself being hurled off a cliff. As the kid runs to the cliff edge, there is a moment of silence before the image begins to spin and the music starts up again. In a film with no plot or action it’s hard to see how it could have been ended apart from through the death of the camera itself.

Instead of making a film with a plot, developing characters, having moments of crisis and resolution, Linklater is indeed making bricks; crafting beautiful, natural fragments which are sewn together purely by camera angle. Just as in real life, stories remain unfinished as we are distracted and blown off-course, the camera here veers off at alarming moments to listen to passing stories and conversations. In fact geographical continuity is the only thing which directly links the many stories together. Long tracking shots join unconnected passersby and unrelated chance encounters. This puts the camera itself (and the director) centre stage. However, instead of seeing the camera as an artificial, external observer, it is embedded in the scene almost like a friend holding a home movie camera. For example in the famous scene where someone tries to sell one of Madonna’s pap smears, space is made in the circle for the camera. There is therefore a tension between the artificial presence of the camera, which draws attention to itself by wandering down the road and so obviously choosing which stories to follow, and the realism of the acting and the natural way they accommodate the camera without ever acknowledging it. This tension is often used for comic effect but it is also a reflection on our own position as an observer in the stream of enacted narratives which go on around us.

Slacker often feels as if we were sitting on a train getting glimpses into different stories as other passengers get on and off around us. In Rear Window the idea of a block of apartments offering glimpses into other lives is used to mirror our partial, persepectival understanding of all the stories which go on around us. But less attention is paid to the way one can flick between these different stories simply by looking up and down at different windows. Slacker is full of this but here the directorial choices are all made for us. And it often seems like Linklater is playing with us, teasing us with glances at stories which are then pulled away from us, whilst all the action (the hit and run, the trial, the car crash) takes place off camera. We deal with aftermaths and build ups, or frequently with the merely incidental, with awkward greetings and chance encounters which are as devoid of significance for the participants as they are for us.

Like the “slackers” whose lives are fondly displayed here, Linklater has created a film in which nothing is accomplished and nothing happens. The idea of consciously choosing apathy as a way of life (as the Oblique Strategy card reminds us “withdrawing in disgust is not the same as apathy”) might not represent the radical act of resistance some would like it to; but for Linklater as a filmmaker it is a powerful choice. Ironically it’s a far more radical choice for him than for the students his film follows. This lack of plot also means that times passes in a way which curiously lacks significance. Like the woman with the Oblique Strategy cards for whom “time does not exist”, day gradually turns to night but remains meaningless. There are no obligations, deadlines, plans or things to accomplish. There is only the physical rotation from day to day. In a way this mirrors the aggressive non-participation of the ‘slackers’ who reject all the social constructs around them, even our problematic relationship with time.

The nonconformist, ‘slacker’ life styles are affectionately portrayed but there is a constant sense of playful teasing. There is the man overheard in the coffee shop celebrating his “opportunistic celibacy” (if you can’t get laid, turn it into a principle), the anarchist historian who lives within the law but celebrates Charles Whitman and pretends to have fought alongside Orwell in the Spanish Civil War. Most self-referential of all though is the character described in the credits as “Dostoyevsky wanna-be”, who asks whether anyone has ever written a book which describes the colossal effort required not to create anything. This principle of noncreation and passivity is something Linklater himself has obviously ignored. His creation has a laid-back, stream-of-consciousness appearance which owes more to careful planning and scripting than anything else. The many references to aleatoric art betray the fact that the film gives off the appearance of chaos only by remaining carefully ordered.

These two stylistic strands: the total lack of action and the use of geographical continuity; allow Linklater the space to develop his own self-referential riff on being a slacker. Indeed the structure of the film follows the many digressions and distractions that define it. In a way these distractions are about being distracted; the lack of action is about their principled commitment to nonactivity, to just hanging out. Yet hiding behind this is an obvious attraction to more serious philosophical issues. Much has been made out of the allusions to Russian literature in the film and, just like his heroes, Linklater seems to be unable to resist confronting these issues and ideas. Even if he often hides behind a playful, happy-go-lucky tone, real attention is paid to the problem of purely academic anarchism, to the problem of whether to invest our lives with projects, meanings and ambitions and whether at the end of the day this can really be avoided.

One Response to “Slacker: “It’s not building a wall but making a brick””
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