Friday, February 03, 2006

From the Treadmill: Slacker*

When in Chicago, are you the type that likes to sit at a sidewalk café and just observe people as they walk by? At work, do you get a bigger chuckle when a co-worker utters a malapropism or exhibits some quirky tendency than if they were to fall face first into the coffee cart? If you answered yes to either of these questions, then do I have a movie for you.

This week From the Treadmill, we take a look at Slacker, a 1991 film directed by Richard Linklater who went on to direct the wonderful retro 70s flick: Dazed and Confused.

Slacker was shot in Austin, Texas on an infinitesimal budget of $36,000. This feat can be attributed in large part to the fact that many of the characters were played by non actors, mostly kids in their twenties who were living on the alternative fringe of the university town.

The movie is loosely structured and there is no apparent central plot. The camera follows a character around for a bit before turning its attention to a passerby and giving us a glimpse of that person’s life. There is one dramatic moment early in the film, but mostly it shows the type of activities that everyone engages in everyday, but that most movies find too banal to devote screen time to.

There are two types of slackers in Slacker. Those who use their self-imposed freedom from societal constraints to indulge fully their eccentricities, and those who are getting the creeping feeling that that freedom is taking a toll on their well-being, yet they cling to it for fear of becoming what they despise. What they despise is gainful employment as testified by one of the movies more memorable lines: “Sure I live bad. But at least I don't have to work to do it.”

Among the extreme eccentrics include a shut-in whose apartment is packed-filled with flickering television sets, a spirited lass trying to hock a specimen jar supposedly containing Madonna’s Pap smear, and my favorite: a JFK conspiracy theorist.

In an independent bookstore, the grassy-knoll buff accosts a woman he recognizes from a past literature class who had the misfortune of browsing through a book on JFK as he was passing by. Mistaking her mild interest in the subject for a fascination that rivals his own, he delivers a dissertation on competing conspiracy theories before plugging the book on the subject that he is writing that will be titled either “Profiles in Cowardice” or “Conspiracy a Go-Go.”

Some of the eccentrics have progressed towards full-blown dementia. A bearded man trails a stranger for several blocks, giving him the low down on the CIA’s extensive activities on the moon since 1962. (Spoiler Alert! It includes kidnapping lackeys here on Earth to do the grunt work in space.)

Among the disillusioned, the characters mainly concern themselves with discussing society’s ills while exhibiting no real motivation for doing anything other than hanging out or going to movies. One languid lad disengages himself from a conversation by saying that he has to mosey along because he has “band practice, in like, five hours.”

“Mosey” is an apt description of the pace in which the characters’ lives transpire. And for them, a single appointment still five hours in the future does make for a hectic day.

Despite the gloomy outlook of many of the characters, each scene contains a comic element in the form of a quirky gesture or an unintentionally funny line. The movie’s energy comes from its structure of following divergent paths as characters briefly catch the camera’s eye before being sent off down the road less filmed.

Although it is a very funny film, its content is ripe for dissection by sociologists and academics. It is also popular in film schools.

At a gathering celebrating the 10th anniversary of the film, footage of which is included as a DVD extra, one of the performers says that on the rare occasions when he gets recognized in public, it is invariably by a film student.

Slacker does require your full attention in order to appreciate its subtle wit and meticulous eye, but it is by no means inaccessible nor is it arty for arty's sake.

In the movie, the shut-in who collects televisions explains how viewing life through video recordings is better than witnessing it in real life because it is easier to pick up on the details and you can rewind things you may have missed the first time. That's the viewpoint that Linklater achieves with this film.

So if you enjoy people-watching, but also suffer from agoraphobia, Slacker is the movie for you.

*Thanks to my nephew Paco who gave me the collector's edition DVD of Slacker for Christmas. Without him, this blog post would not have been possible.


Anonymous said...

I like the bit about the smurfs indoctrinating American kids to accept Shiva.

BlogFreeSpringfield said...

One of but many of the comedic treasures in the movie. It's even funny when written in the comments section of a blog.