Eschewing traditional plot in a non-documentary feature film is a challenging proposition, one that more often than not results in failure. Plot is such a primary and, for the audience, enveloping element of most movies that to succeed without it requires an extremely well-defined and executed concept. If any modern director can be considered the master of such non-traditional form, it would have to be Richard Linklater, and Slacker one of his master works. Hit the jump for my review of the Blu-ray, released as part of the Criterion Collection.
Slacker creates a tapestry of counterculture life in late 1980s Austin, TX, fluidly flowing from one character to the next in a giant, almost stream-of-consciousness web, rarely spending more than 5 minutes on each. The characters range from artists to those refusing to take part in the normal flow of society, from children to senior citizens, espousing ideas from philosophy to conspiracy theories and from politics to dreams, in sum and in the process encompassing everyone who could be considered a slacker–and everything that makes up being a slacker.
And in creating this picture, this definition of the word “slacker,” somehow Linklater makes a movie without a traditional narrative work. The viewer feels the completion one would normally associate with the end of a story in the new understanding of who and what drives this counterculture. Indeed, without such a defined concept as the goal, the film would otherwise have failed.
Watching Slacker, if it seems like the actors are real people, that’s not far from the truth. Linklater cast non-professionals, many playing roles not far from who they were in reality. Couple the acting with the film’s cinema verite style (inclusive of the graininess of the 16mm 1.33:1 picture and raw locations) and with the liquid transitioning from one snippet of life to the next, Slacker delivers truly naturalistic cinema.
In hindsight, it is easy to see how Slacker became an instant cult classic in the pre-internet/smartphone/pervasive media era and a landmark film in the ‘90s explosion of American independent cinema.
Considering the Slacker’s modest origins (shot for a mere $23,000 on the aforementioned 16mm stock), the movie has probably never looked better than it does here having undergone the Criterion Collection Blu-ray treatment, A handful of random specks have been missed, but otherwise the picture looks as clean as can be imagined for the grain involved. Color has also wisely been left muted, as too much saturation would have detracted from the naturalistic feel of the film. The sound by the movie’s very nature is minimalistic in design, so the audio of this Blu-ray release does not exhibit the spectacular characteristics of a more sound-centric film, but it is clear and sharp.
This release includes the full compliment of Criterion Collection supplements–inclusive of the always excellent commentaries, both recorded and printed, delete scenes (entitled “Ain’t No Film in That Shit”) and the original theatrical trailer–and then some, at least compared to some of the other Criterion releases I have seen recently. Most notable is It’s Impossible To Learn To Plow By Reading Books, Linklater’s first feature film, shot on Super 8 for only $3,000. Following a college student who largely does day-to-day life activities, Linklater himself describes it as somewhat of a visual essay on alienation and travel–in many ways it is a less-polished precursor to Slacker, less refined in terms of structure and style as well as filmmaking technique. However, the roots of what Linklater would become are visible here. Picture is about as good as can be expected considering the source, but the sound leaves a lot to be desired, dialogue (what little of it there is) often nearly inaudible.
Also from the Linklater archives is Woodshock, a documentary short about the 1985 rendtion of the Woodshock Music Festival in Texas. Less about the music than about the people and feel of the festival, Woodshock provides another early window into the character of Linklater’s work.
Other bonus features: “Showing Life” (cast auditions), “Taco-And-A-Half After 10” (raw, rough behind-the-scenes footage, not of the clean, slick variety from a studio EPK), “…End of Interview!” (interviews and more from the 10th anniversary screening), and “Viva Les Amis” (an extended trailer for a documentary on the cafe of the same name that was a location for the movie). An eclectic mix; interesting, yes, though not quite what I would call essential.
All in all, Slacker is a modern masterpiece worthy of this Criterion Blu-ray treatment.