“Wow,” I thought as I recently rewatched Richard Linklater’s first film, Slacker, “Austin hasn’t changed at all!”
That, of course, isn’t true. Slacker was filmed in 1990 and first released in 1991. It’s 20 years old and the entire world — including Texas in general and Austin in specific — has changed quite a bit since then. Slacker is a film about the people of Austin, following one person and then another as they walk down the streets of Austin and, in classic Linklater fashion, have conversations about everything from sex to pop culture to conspiracy theories. It’s a film that was made before social media and no one carries a phone with them. The majority of the people the we meet in Slacker would, today, probably be too busy posting 100-tweet threads to actually get outside and walk around the city. (And, in the age of social distancing, the idea of walking up to a stranger on the street and having a conversation is not only unthinkable to a lot of people but illegal in some places up north.) Slacker was also made long before SXSW turned Austin in a national hipster hotspot. There are definitely hipsters in Slacker but they’re all of the Texas variety, as opposed to the Silicon Valley-on-vacation variety.
That said, Slacker does contain an essential truth about Austin that has never changed. Austin has always been a town that has welcome the eccentrics, nonconformists, and self-styled intellectuals. As both the capitol of the greatest state in the union and a college town, Austin has a unique style all of its own. It’s a place where all of the contradictions of Texas — the fierce independence mixed with a strong belief in tradition — meet. Some people refer to it as being “The People’s Republic of Austin” and the town is considerably more liberal than the rest of the state. In general, though, Texas liberalism has never been quite as annoying or authoritarian-minded as the rest of America’s liberalism. There’s a strong Libertarian streak that runs through even the most liberal parts of Texas and it seems somewhat appropriate that Ron Paul makes a cameo appearance of sorts in Slacker:
Slacker is one of those films that’s beloved by film students because it’s very easy to watch it and to think, “Wow, anyone could do that!” Of course, the truth of the mater is that there is a very definite structure to Slacker. Despite the way it may occasionally seem, the film is not just a bunch of random footage of people wandering by each other while discussing the Moon landing, the Kennedy assassination, and Madonna’s pap smear. Instead, each conversation builds on the other until, eventually, Slacker presents a portrait of a community and a generation that has created a culture based on television, movies, and obscure historical references. Slacker is a film that has been very carefully constructed to appear to be random but there’s a definite structure to it. The film may look like it was made by someone who just turned on a camera and wandered around for day but Linklater definitely knew what he was doing and I’ve seen enough bad attempts to duplicate Slacker that I can definitely appreciate what Linkler accomplished.
The film, which had a largely nonprofessional cast, is full of interesting and, if you live in Texas, familiar characters. The bitter hitchhiker, for instance, will be familiar to anyone who has ever had a conversation with an older inhabitant of a college town. The conspiracy theorist who is writing his own book about the Kennedy assassination can be found in just about every independent bookstore in Texas. I know people who actually took a class taught by the old man who (foolishly, in my opinion) idolized Leon Czolgosz. As I said, the film is 20 years old but it captures the essence of Austin so perfectly that it remains timeless.
Slacker was Richard Linklater’s first film. Appropriately, he’s also the first person to appear in the film and the first one to speak. (He had a dream while on a bus.) Linklater has gone on to become one of Texas’s greatest filmmakers. At a time when cinematic and political conformity is too often celebrated, Linklater remains a unique and authentic voice.
And it all started with a film about Austin, a film called Slacker.