Richard Linklater is an impressive and inspiring filmmaker. He was one of the founders of the Austin Film Society in 1985, which began as a way to get non-mainstream films to town and has since gone on to help establish the city as filmmaking hub with the creation of Austin Studios in 2000. His second feature, 'Slacker', was one of the films that ushered in the independent renaissance of the 1990s.
Shot on 16mm with a budget of $23,000, the film plays with narrative in a way that divides audiences. Rather than a typical story with characters facing a conflict they have to overcome, 'Slacker' presents a day in Austin, Texas and briefly focuses on approximately 100 people that inhabit it. Feeling almost like a documentary, the film quickly passes through different lives, moving on as characters come into contact with one another, no matter how obliquely.
Linklater plays "Should Have Stayed at the Bus Station" (the vast majority of characters are identified by a description in the credits rather than names, signaling that what they are better describes them than who they are) and is the first person we meet. After arriving at the bus station, he catches a cab and begins a monologue in the backseat where he talks about dreams versus reality and the idea that different timelines are created for each decision made. To have Linklater, the writer/director/producer of the film, talk about perception is a great casting decision in a meta sense because he will be dictating what the audience will perceive.
To give a sense how the narrative plays out, once out of the cab, "Should Have…" walks down the street and comes upon "Roadkill", an elderly woman who was the victim of a hit-and-run. A female "Jogger" warns him not to touch the body. The camera dollies back from the scene as "Should Have…" goes to a payphone to call 911. A man has pulled up and gotten out to see what's the matter. He's "Running late" so he offers no help, but demonstrates what a creep he is by offering his business card to "Jogger" so she can call him some time, which she has no interest in doing. The camera continues backwards down the street. The people get smaller and "Should Have…" can barely be seen. A car whips into frame, pulling up along a house. The driver runs in and the audience goes with him. He conducts some business and is soon arrested by two police officers for being a "Hit-and-run son". A "Street musician" walks by and is informed by "Grocery grabber of death's bounty" what has just happened. The film plays out like this throughout, offering scenes of varying lengths comprised of long takes. Once the camera moves on, the viewer doesn’t see the character again.
The people in Austin, at least the ones shown, form a society where most seem to reject society norms. Rather than being shown pursuing careers and families, they do their own thing, much of which is talking in order to make sense of things. Many don't trust what they've been told, as seen with the JFK-assassination aficionado whose writings have made him the "Conspiracy A-Go-Go author", the "Bush basher" who doesn't buy the election results or the two major political parties, and the middle-aged man who knows America has "Been on the moon since the '50s". Yet there are some trusting souls, like "Pap smear pusher" who hopes to sell a jar containing some of Madonna's cells on a slide.
Most of the characters are twenty-somethings and 'Slacker' seems to epitomize their culture at the time. The then-current wave of young adults, dubbed Generation X, in part because of Douglas Coupland's novel Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, also released in 1991, were passively rebelling against society's expectations. Linklater presents them here without offering judgment. Unfortunately, many of the characters and their conversations are forgettable and not worth overhearing. What is captured in authenticity and realism comes at the expense of being engaging and entertaining, causing the film to suffer as a result. The film's narrative structure is a great idea, but the writing and acting falter in the execution.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Slacker' (#247 in The Criterion Collection) is a 50GB Region A Blu-ray disc. It boots up directly to the menu screen without any promotional advertisements. Included is a 68-page booklet containing "Slacking Off," a chapter from John Pierson's "Spike, Mike, Slackers & Dykes" with a new introduction for the Blu-ray release; a 2001 "New York Observer" column by Ron Rosenbaum; a 1990 "Austin Chronicle" article by Chris Walters; a 2001 piece from the program of the AFS' 'Slacker' ten-year reunion by Michael Barker; notes Linklater wrote to guide the film; and Monte Hellman writes about Linklater's first feature 'It's Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books', which is included as a bonus. The disc and booklet and housed in a cardboard slipcase.
The video has been given a 1080p/AVC-MPEG-4 encoded transfer displayed at 1.33:1. "Supervised by director Richard Linklater and director of photography Lee Daniel, this high-definition digital transfer was created on a Spirit DataCine from a 16mm interpositive. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, warps, jitter, and flicker were manually removed using MTI's DRS and Pixel Farm's PFClean, while Image Systems' Phoenix was used for small dirt, grain, and noise reduction," as stated in the booklet.
The film opens with "Should Have…" riding a bus in early morning hours. The limited amount of light combined with the limitation of 16mm result in a great deal of film grain. Once there is a good amount of light, the grain subsides to an unobtrusive state; however, it becomes very prominent in two other scenes. Inside a house as an a older man and young girl walk in on a potential burglar and a night exterior inside a van as a guy drives three girls to see his buddy play.
Colors come through in solid hues and reds really pop. Blacks are strong but not consistent and lighten on occasion. There is adequate detail on display but didn't see a lot of sharpness to make the textures stand out. Minor print damage is evident in a couple of scenes. When a grocery-store security man stops a woman who may have stolen, a mark can be seen in the top left portion of the screen. As an elderly man walks by speaking into a recorder hairs pop up on bottom of the screen.
The film's appearance takes on two different looks of diminished in quality because they were captured in different formats. At a bar, a pixelvision camera is used and the monochrome video was shot off a monitor. The film concludes with a group of kids using Super 8 cameras.
The audio is available in English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 and "was remastered at 24-bit from the original soundtrack print. Clicks, thumps, hiss, and hum were manually removed using Pro Tools HD. Crackle was attenuated using AudioCube's integrated workstation."
The film is predominantly dialogue, which was as clear and understandable as the actors were. However, the dubbed parts were obvious because they sounded flat. Music played on occasion with limited dynamics. Soft sounds came through as evidenced by the sounds of a yearbook page being cut with an X-Acto knife. There was a nice moment of imaging when the car turned after hitting the old woman. I didn't hear any ill effects from wear or age.
The film's narrative structure keeps me from making a general recommendation to everyone, but for those who like non-traditional storytelling and Richard Linklater's films, 'Slacker' is certainly worth a look. Criterion brings the film to high definition in fine form, and the plethora of extras is sure to delight fans of the film and the filmmaker.