"Slacker" dir. Richard Linklater, 1991

I became aware of "Generation X" in my early twenties, in the early 90's, while I was working as a line cook in a fast food restaurant, taking classes at a community college, and reading the eponymous Douglas Coupland book about "my" generation.  I was on the low end of the age spectrum in the mainstream media's attempt to couch the whole phenomenon in demographic terms.  And, to be quite frank, I played the part.  I listened to Jane's Addiction's "Nothing's Shocking" a lot, and when Halloween rolled around--the one day of the year the Wendy's corporation allowed us to wear something other than our Wendy's uniform--I put a sign around my neck that said "Aimless College Student" and went to work flipping burgers in the Gen-X uniform, flannel.  And, it seems that I've maintained some of the same feelings about the whole Gen-X thing that I had then; primarily that if any part of that demographic should be labeled with an "X" it should have been those who managed the Wendy's I worked at, not me.  This was the "X" generation as I saw it, more in their early to mid-thirties, working jobs in the day they were desperately tied to financially, returning home at night to kids they didn't want in the first place.  As the general public began to come into an awareness of the "Gen-X" label, which, for most people, defined a generation of "slackers" who had disengaged from the idea of defining oneself through engagement with consumer culture and were meeting the new global crisis with an awkwardly manifested gesture of collective apathy, I was becoming increasingly convinced that Richard Linklater's attempt to capture this in his film Slacker was the beginning of something meaningful.

Last week I wandered into one of those "full circle" moments of life at the Big Muddy Independent Media Center in Carbondale, IL, current home of the "Occupy Carbondale" movement, where a former cinema student of mine was screening the film.  I was a bit late, missing Linlklater's opening monologue and then some.  And, I never did see my former student at the small, ramshackle gathering of activist film buffs, wrapped in winter coats and stocking caps, occupying couches and rickety office chairs in the drafty space, six out of seven of them seemingly conscious.  Still, it was curious to wander into what was essentially a deleted scene from Slacker...where Slacker was being screened.  It reminded me that twenty years ago I was fairly obsessed with this film, and for good reason.  It is easily one of the most invigorating American films of the last twenty years, primarily because it is so unapologetically a movie of ideas.  Weighed against the output of the Sundance era indy film boom, it is still unique in this respect, not to take anything away from the films that reinvigorated that entire era (sex, lies, and videotape; My Own Private Idaho; Simple Men; The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover;  as well as anything by Jarmusch were also in heavy rotation for me then).  Although the late 80's/early 90's ushered in some much needed changes in the cinema landscape with the works of Steven Soderbergh, Gus Van Sant, Hal Hartley, and Quentin Tarantino, the multiplex world was still dominated by the likes of Dances With Wolves, GhostDie Hard sequels, and Gary Marshall movies (some things never change!).  The contrast between the box office draws of the early 90's and the emerging independent work was nearly as stark as the old Hollywood musicals like Hello, Dolly! co-existing among the likes of They Shoot Horses, Don't They and Midnight Cowboy in the late 60's.

Frankie and Johnny
My Own Private Idaho
In the small town existence of my late high school and early college years, communicating the originality and excitement of what was going on beneath the Hollywood surface of movies seemed of the utmost importance.  Slacker is, in that respect, the perfect example of the kind of movie that was peaking my enthusiasm at that time.  I showed Slacker to a number of friends in those days, almost as a test to see how the aggressively anti-narrative structure of it all struck them, and I think the film became a kind of barometer for me across a few relationships in that same way.  And, frankly, that structural aspect which initially attracted me still transcends what is often written off as "gimmicky," as the film wanders from subject to subject through the hipster mecca of Austin, Texas. Of course, Slacker is a picture that has become synonymous with "indy" film making, so it is only natural that it suffers from the usual host of sub-par, no-budget performances.  But, watching it for the first time in almost a decade or more, even the most artificial, contrived performances in Slacker seemed to resonate with some kind of truthful expression about that era.  In many scenes there is an underlying sense of young actors striving for a degree of naturalism that isn't always achieved, but that never seems to detach from the goals of the film, since the film never really sets standards of plot-based realism for itself and is ultimately attempting to explode those expectations, still marked triumphantly by a whimsical, drunken Super-8 finale where we follow the perspective of a camera tossed into a ravine, contorting the final frames of Slacker into an homage to another non-narrative cinema master, Stan Brakhage.

Richard Linklater in Slacker
Stan Brakhage
And now, for those of us who took that final anarchic gesture as an artistic call to arms and tried to create freely while sitting politely through Linklater's failed commercial forays like The Newton Boys (1998) and The Bad New Bears (2005), those destructive impulses linger in new contexts.  As the elder Anarchist in Slacker reminds us:  "the passion for destruction is also a creative passion."  In the meantime, that idea got rotated to a nearly meaningless angle by Chuck Palahniuk and David Fincher with Fight Club (1999), and spit back out into the new millenium as a new excuse for unchecked male aggression, while Soderbergh made Ocean's 11, 12, and 13.  To be fair, Soderbergh's career path has had similar admirable qualities to Linklater's, always promising to "make it up" to those of us who anticipate their more adventurous turns.  In fact, Linklater would improve upon Slacker in 2001 with Waking Life, a collaboration with animator Bob Sabiston that used emerging digital technology in combination with the same existentialist tendencies of Slacker, this time augmented by healthy doses of film theory and surrealism.  Waking Life is a momentous union of ideas and technology, form and content.  I can only hope that Linklater decides to elaborate on what he established with Slacker at least every ten years for the rest of his career.

Waking Life

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