Director: Richard Linklater
Screenplay: Richard Linklater
Starring: Richard Linklater, Mark James, Tommy Pallotta, Jerry Delony, Teresa Taylor, Mark Harris, Louis Black, John Slate, Louis Mackey, D. Montgomery
Year: 1990
Country: USA
BBFC Certification: 15 (TBC)
Duration: 100 min

Richard Linklater has been a much-loved director for a long time, working on a range of projects, from indies to studio films to animations since the late 1980s. It was 1990’s Slacker that first put him on the map though. It wasn’t his debut feature, that honour went to It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books, which was finished in 1988. That was very much an experimental film though and made very cheaply, with Linklater doing pretty much everything himself, even featuring as the lead actor. Slacker saw the writer-director making his first attempt to do things ‘properly’ though, with a full crew and a huge cast.

Linklater says the film came about when he was trying to get another project off the ground but wasn’t getting anywhere with it. During this downtime, he came up with the idea to create an experiment in storytelling. He wondered what a film would be like if people spoke their inner monologues out loud.

So, Slacker was born. There’s really not that much more to summarise the film’s ‘story’. It simply presents a day in the life of Austin, Texas, with the camera moving from one conversation to another, never returning to any of the characters we meet, though some linger slightly longer than others.

As the title suggests, some of these characters might be described as ‘slackers’. None of them seem to be working, or at least not in a particularly demanding job. However, they don’t appear to be lazy either. Linklater isn’t interested in deriding these people, far from it. He’s celebrating the offbeat community that makes (or at least made) the city of Austin what it is.

Whilst some of the more rambling philosophical discussions are shot down by other characters or played off as nonsense, the speakers are shown to be intelligent, strangely productive and, most importantly, passionate. These people can be obsessive and occasionally a little irritating but it’s a genuine pleasure to delve in and out of their outlandish outpourings.

The enormous cast were largely friends and friends of friends (though they were still given screen test interviews). They’re mainly local musicians, plus a few crew members and artists. I don’t think any were professional actors, though one or two went on to join the profession, following this. Linklater got by this lack of experience by not giving his cast strict dialogue initially, just giving them ideas and letting them imbue their characters with their own personalities, following some pre-production interviews. They did rehearsals too, further developing their dialogue before shooting. As such, it wasn’t totally spontaneous and improvised, as it may seem on the surface.

The structure of the film might seem daunting to many, with no central story to grasp onto. Linklater sees Slacker as a film where we catch short glimpses of other films but never quite get the full picture of any of them. Surprisingly though, this works rather well and I found myself mesmerised by the film, for the most part, though I found myself drifting from time to time. Luckily, there was always a new set of characters around the corner to reset things.

Also keeping me interested was the visual style. Whilst the film largely just consists of conversations, many of which play out more like monologues, it’s shot quite beautifully. Linklater and his DOP Lee Daniels use long takes whenever possible, with the camera moving gracefully along with the cast, occasionally transitioning us from one scene to another without cutting. This use of movement, courtesy of a mixture of Steadicam and dolly and tracks, gives the film a wonderful fluidity that goes hand-in-hand with the concept. It feels like you’re walking around Austin yourself, bumping into these quirky characters as you travel from place to place.

There are some playful stylistic touches here and there too. Most notably, different film stock/cameras are used in a pair of scenes. One sees a toy Pixelvision camera being put to use in a club and a surprising but fitting style-shift in the final scene transitions to Super 8 film.

Overall, whilst the aimless and rambling nature of much of Slacker can make it a little challenging, the film somehow manages to be quite hypnotic. With a host of interesting and unusual characters, each with their own strange interests and outlooks on life, it’s a fascinating glimpse of a particular time and place and a celebration of oddballs everywhere.

Film:

Slacker is out on 17th June on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by The Criterion Collection. Presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, the film handles its heavy 16mm grain effectively. Colours are pleasing and it’s a clean picture, so I can’t imagine the film looking much better. The audio is very strong too.

DIRECTOR-APPROVED BLU-RAY SPECIAL EDITION FEATURES

– Restored high-definition digital film transfer, supervised by director Richard Linklater and director of photography Lee Daniel, with 2.0 surround DTS-HD Master audio soundtrack
– Three audio commentaries, featuring Linklater and members of the cast and crew
– It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books (1988), Linklater’s first feature, with commentary by the director
– Woodshock (1985), a 16 mm short by Linklater and Daniel
– Casting tapes featuring select “auditions”
– Footage from the Slacker tenth-anniversary reunion
– Early film treatment
– Home movies
– Ten-minute trailer for a 2005 documentary about the landmark Austin café Les Amis
– Deleted scenes and alternate takes
– Trailer
– English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
– PLUS: a booklet featuring essays by author and filmmaker John Pierson and Sony Pictures Classics copresident Michael Barker; reviews by critics Ron Rosenbaum and Chris Walters; production notes by Linklater; and an introduction to It’s Impossible to Plow by Reading Books by director Monte Hellman

Linklater’s solo commentary is excellent. It’s loaded with fascinating and fun facts about how he made this low-budget film and his intentions behind it. I enjoyed the track a great deal.

The other pair of commentaries are strong too. One has Linklater joined by DOP Lee Daniel and another one or two crew members (I missed their names I’m afraid). The group have a great rapport, making for a fun track that’s still packed with interesting behind-the-scenes stories. The final track is made up of thoughts from various cast members. This is equally as wonderful as the other tracks, with plenty of amusing anecdotes to be told. Some contributors take the job more seriously than others too, making for a range of takes.

A big selling point to many will be the inclusion of Linklater’s first feature film, It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books, including a commentary by the director. The film was made pretty much by himself and Linklater used to think of it as more of an experiment than anything else. He says he was “obsessed with banality at the time” and the film largely consists of a character (played by Linklater himself) going about his day-to-day business and travelling around, meeting a few people along the way. As such, it’s not an easy watch and will only appeal to those with a taste for minimalist, experimental cinema. However, it’s definitely worth watching with the commentary, as it’s interesting to hear what Linklater’s intentions were behind the film, how it was put together and what he thinks of it now. He also goes on to talk about the beginnings of his love of cinema, his career and what advice he’d give to those looking to get into making films.

Woodshock is Linklater and Lee Daniels’ short documentary about the titular festival. It plays things loose, focusing on the audience rather than the bands (though it has a cool music bed of recordings from the festival) but the film captures the atmosphere beautifully. It has a couple of slightly experimental sections too. I enjoyed it.

There’s also a 10-minute trailer for a documentary about the Les Amis restaurant which was the setting for 3 scenes in Slacker. The piece offers a more up-to-date look at Austin and how it’s changed since the film. There are some wonderful stories and archive photos from the city over the years too, including a couple of soundbites from Linklater. It makes a nice accompaniment to the film.

The reunion piece, which is the only extra new to the Blu-ray version (everything else appeared on Criterion’s old DVD release), is warm-hearted and enjoyable. It sees much of the cast meet at a celebratory event where they trade memories.

‘No Longer/Not Yet’ is an extra that consists of pages from the initial script for the film under its original title. It’s an interesting read, showing how it began as only loose outlines of scenes. Much is similar to the final film, but quite a lot has been changed or lost. The opening is particularly different, before the hit-and-run incident.

You also get 15 minutes worth of interviews recorded during the casting process. This is supplemented by a caption explaining the unique casting process. The casting director describes how the process drove her a little crazy, speaking to so many people about their strange obsessions, kind of like being stuck in the film for a couple of days. The interviews themselves play out here like a kind of lo-fi shortened version of the film itself.

‘A Taco and a Half After 10’ is a collection of home video clips taking us behind-the-scenes of the production. It’s rough around the edges, particularly the audio, but it’s nice to see an unfiltered view of the shoot.

You also get 28 minutes of deleted and alternate scenes. These are worth a watch, extending the experience of watching the film.

I didn’t receive a copy of the booklet, unfortunately.

So, whilst Criterion haven’t added much to their previous DVD release of Slacker, they didn’t have reason to, as it was already a superb package. Plus, we never had that edition released in the UK, so I’m delighted to have it on Blu-ray now. As such, it comes very highly recommended.

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Editor of films and videos as well as of this site. On top of his passion for film, he also has a great love for music and his family.

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