Linklater and Slacker culture
“I don’t know where I’m going, all i know is I’ll hit the ground running” – Hit The Ground Running (Smog)
“I think the cheapest definition [of a slacker] would be someone who’s just lazy, hangin’ out, doing nothing. I’d like to change that to somebody who’s not doing what’s expected of them. Somebody who’s trying to live an interesting life, doing what they want to do, and if that takes time to find, so be it.” – Richard Linklater
Richard Linklater’s first film is Slacker (1990); a film which then propelled another famous slacker, Kevin Smith, to sell his much adored comics collection to self produce and shoot his directorial debut Clerks in 1994. He then went on to have a directorial career centered exclusively around slackers, in Dogma (1999), not to be confused with Dogma 95, even his archangels are slackers.
Linklater is self taught and it shows in his aptitude towards cinema and in his unconventional choice of subjects; in Slacker he follows around all sorts of characters during a day in Austin, Texas, all of whom share the main trait of being somehow associated with the concept of the “slacker”. Slacker was initially a derogatory term used to describe and criticize people who lacked work ethic and generally did not want to work, hence the term, ‘slacking off’. In his debut Linklater took the term and gave it a completely new meaning, an entirely positive connotation. Perhaps in our hyper productive society, in which most of us are overworked, underpaid and underrealized in regards to personal ambition, lacking all ambition is a positive quality. If we’re all doomed to underachieve either way due to the odds being stacked against us in most cases, then we’ll be proud underachievers by choice.
The camera has an aimless sort of quality, it constantly wanders around. Slacker will follow a character for the span of an extremely passionate conversation on nothing and then move on to the following character and their extremely passionate conversation on nothing after the two characters briefly meet. The passing of the torch from one main character to the next is usually some sort of casual encounter, maybe the scene’s main character will be walking down the street and a stranger will ask them for a cigarette and then we will find ourselves following this stranger instead, maybe the stranger will harass and follow the character with the most bizarre conspiracy theory regarding the assassination of JFK, or maybe the stranger will just be sharing the space the main character of the scene is inhabiting for that brief moment and whichever place that stranger chooses next is the place the viewer will find themselves immersed in for the following moment.
Slacker is a collection of brief and fleeting moments, that will surely be gone, just like that, we will never see that character again, after sharing their space, their mind and even their soul just for a second and that must be enough; after that encounter both the viewer and the character will go on to live their lives and to share infinitely more fleeting moments with other strangers.
The slacker philosophy asks us to ponder if maybe that sort of brief, fleeting connection is all we need in life, to put it roughly, maybe the journey is more important than the destination, because most of us have grown disillusioned with the idea of a destination and thus the journey is all that’s left. The mindset of the slacker might seem quite pessimistic at first, but it would be a mistake to interpret the slacker’s disillusionment in society at large for a lack of interest in life in general. A slacker may lack work ethics, and ambitions regarding a career and may even lack meaningful relationships in the way we’ve been taught to see them, but will strive nonetheless to form their own connections and to realize themselves in a way that is true to them and them only.
Slacker (1990) is often considered a generational manifesto for gen x, a generation that is now in their fifties or sixties, and quite ironically often reprimand millennials and gen z of being lazy and not wanting to work. Nonetheless Austin, Texas, a city that represented the slacker subculture, has gone on to become one of the artistic capitals of the US, so even though gen x, the generation of our fathers, has long forgotten the ideals of their youth, the slacker mindset has proved to be a winning one, at least in regards to artistic production.
An artist that could be defined a “proto-slacker” is Nick Drake, his extremely short songs all have that sort of aimlessness and at times seem even content with the idea of living a life composed only of these brief moments. Obviously, when one mentions Nick Drake, it is impossible to neglect the depression that plagued most of his life and led him to his untimely death at only 26 years old.
In the optics of a slacker, is Nick Drake’s life a tragedy or an incredible success that defies the hyper productive logic of the late capitalist society we all find ourselves living in? We may never know, he never knew commercial success during his life, but his albums have gone on to become classics and a lot of slackers find themselves drawn to him and represented by his music.
Nick Drake was famously a stoner, even going as far as refusing to take antidepressants in the fear that they might interact negatively with his copious marijuana use. The Slacker subculture is tightly associated with the stoner subculture, even Linklater himself, is either a stoner, or very close nonetheless to stoner culture; as we see in Dazed and Confused (1993): a slacker isn’t necessarily a stoner, but a stoner is most likely a slacker.
Randall ‘Pink’ Floyd, the main character of Dazed and Confused, embodies this very connection; he’s a brilliant football player and could very well get a scholarship to play football in some prestigious university, however, to keep on playing football in his high school team, Pink needs to sign a document that has been provided to him by his coach in which he swears to never use any drug, including alcohol and cannabis. Pink would rather spend the entirety of the last day of school, getting high with his friends, pining after a girl who is obviously in love with him as well, but nothing will ever come out of it due to timing and mentoring a freshman on the world of high school, rather than signing that piece of paper. The movie ends with Pink getting stoned on the football field with his friends, a group that is composed of college dropouts, hard core stoners, and a guy getting held back from senior year. His coach finds him getting high on the field and severely reprimands him, urging him to reconsider his stance on marijuana use and to finally sign that piece of paper. Pink cramples up the piece of paper in a ball and throws it at his coach’s face, he then looks the coach in the eyes and tells him “ I gotta get going. Me and my “loser” friends, you know, we gotta get Aerosmith tickets, top priority of the summer.”
In a way Slacker (1990) and the slacker subculture perfectly embody the trajectory of Linklater’s career as a whole. As a director Linklater takes his time, sometimes that time might be 12 years like in the case of Boyhood (2014), or 18 like in the case of the Before Trilogy, but he is always committed to delivering the film that is most interesting to him, whether it be high art, a charming indie flick, or even a more commercial sort of film like School of Rock (2003); none of these distinctions are really relevant, when you are committed to doing what you want to do.
A lot of people tend to view Trainspotting (1996) as another example of a slacker film and even associate Lou Reed, another artist famous for his heroin use and much beloved by Trainspotting and the heroin subculture, to slacker culture. I would personally object to this reading, although I recognize the similarities between the two subcultures, due to the enormous despair of Reed and the characters in Trainspotting. These characters do reject social norms in favor of a life of their own choosing, but their incredible suffering and depressive states drive them to the point where, as Reed says in The Velvet Underground’s song Heroin, they try to “nullify their lives”. To me that’s fundamentally different than what a slacker does, although the reason why a slacker acts in the way they act, might be similar to why a heroin addict acts in the way they act. A slacker’s choice of drug will always be a lighter sort of drug like cannabis, which they might or might not use, either recreationally or as a form of self medication, much like in the case of Nick Drake.
For all that can be said about Nick Drake’s life and death it cannot be denied that his music is deeply influential and it could be traced as one of the main inspirations for the entirety of the slacker-rock subgenre of the early 90s.
Nick Drake’s masterpiece Pink Moon (1972) was famously adored by the “godfather of Slacker-rock”, Elliott Smith. Leaving aside the extremely intricate sensibilities of Nick Drake, another great influence of Smith is folk in general and in particular Bob Dylan. It’s not hard to imagine why the contentedness and interest folk music and Bob Dylan show in the most humble aspects of life resonates well with slackers.
Another artist that I would personally ascribe to slacker culture is alternative rock goddess Lisa Germano, who is known to the music nerd community as one of Piero Scaruffi’s favorite artists; Germano used to say that yes it was rather depressing to see her venues almost empty, but she also saw some people crying while singing her lyrics and that profound emotional connection that some absolute stranger had with her music was more than enough reason to go on.
“If there’s any kind of magic in this world it must be in the attempt of understanding someone sharing something. I know, it’s almost impossible to succeed but who cares really? The answer must be in the attempt.”
Says Céline in Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise (1994) and the fleeting relationship portrayed in the film between the two protagonists Jesse and Céline, destined to be with each other only for a day and then to go on with their lives on opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean, reminds us of those brief, fleeting encounters in Linklater’s Slacker; sure Jesse and Céline go on to meet again, in the following movie of the trilogy, years after their first meeting, but would it have mattered if they hadn’t? Linklater leaves the ending of the first movie open, the viewer won’t know whether Jesse and Céline do meet again, but he tells us that the answer to that question we’ve all been wondering must be in the attempt to form that emotional connection and that is the true essence of slacker philosophy.
Though disillusioned, slackers will try, in their own aimless way, that will probably lead absolutely nowhere, and might seem like a complete waste of time to the outside world, but to them the answer is in that very attempt.