This story originally published June 29, 2001.
Simply put, "Slacker" is one of the best American films about the 1980s, and maybe the most romantic. Filmed in 1989 but not released nationally until the summer of '91, scant months before Nirvana's "Nevermind" woke mainstream America up to that which had been thriving under its sleeping eyes, Richard Linklater's ode to joy may have felt for some like a beginning, a shot of liberation, a benediction for a new decade. The Reagan era -- and all it implied -- was over. Time for something new.
Well, not quite. It turned out "Slacker" was an exquisite coda, a dreamscape memorial to a time and place and a group of people who might not have literally known each other but were part of a community that existed because everyone assumed that it did. "Slacker" is a movie about 24 hours among the American cultural underground. It moves almost like a nature film, recording the thoughts and habits of teens and twentysomethings on the fringes of American pop life. A loose network of citizens that thrived on well-written fanzines, rock bands on tiny labels, odd videotapes, libraries pilfered for boho-wisdom, midnight film fests and conspiracy theories. "Slacker" did no less than take the dreaded 1980s and force viewers to think, "what a great time to be young and alive." It spoke of and to a brotherhood and sisterhood that communicated with each other "mostly by rumor," as they say in the 1965 cinematic ode to goofing off, "A Thousand Clowns."
Of course, one of "Slacker's" charms is that it's not impossibly hip, that it doesn't paint its cultural allegiances on its celluloid sleeve. "Slacker" didn't need to oversell itself. It lives in the hearts of its fans because fans of the culture on display knew that they could walk up to any character and know where that person was coming from. (Well, except the Traumatized Yacht Owner. We can only hope the best for her.)
And it's not to say the film has become dated. In fact, it's remarkable how well it has stood up. Sharply and subtly edited, "Slacker" never asks more of a scene than is necessary; Linklater knows when and how to end a particular rant perfectly. The monologue from the character known as Been on the Moon Since the '50s (Jerry Delony) seems to go on slightly too long every time you see it, but of course, it's supposed to: There's a reason the Looking for Missing Friend person ditches him.
But it's also remarkably well cast. A lasting and somewhat mystifying fondness for Ethan Hawke aside, an eye for underknown actors is one of Linklater's most enduring gifts. Just take a look at the layers of young talent stacked like cordwood in "Dazed and Confused," the most dazzlingly well-cast studio film of the '90s.
For "Slacker," Linklater drew from the community, casting the film by handing out cards on the street to folks who looked right and then subjecting them to an interview. He knew what he was looking for, but God knows it would be tough to explain to an actor. For a film about the underground, you gotta draw from the underground's well.
And this underground was everywhere. (I've always thought that "Slacker's" unacknowledged companion film was the video for Sonic Youth's "Teenage Riot." A montage of '80s bohemian icons -- Black Flag, "Pee Wee's Playhouse," Daniel Johnson, Sun Ra, William Burroughs -- the "Riot" video displayed the philosopher-kings of this secret realm, while "Slacker" was a portrait of the kingdom's proles, the everyday people who did the day-to-day heavy lifting, water carrying and film-fest attending.)
Which brings us to one of "Slacker's" enduring myths: that it could have been filmed only in Austin. Of course, it could only have been made in Austin as Austin is where Linklater's heart is. You only need to see that final shot of the video camera going over Mount Bonnell to know that above all else "Slacker" is a film profoundly, madly, deeply in love with a place. But it's also a film in love with a time and a mind-set, a mind-set that existed in urban and suburban centers all over the country: that in spite of what the larger culture was telling these fringe-dwellers, there was value in their everyday lives; that the choices these characters make may not look like much on the surface, but they matter.
The commonality of the felt experience presented in "Slacker" ensured that not only could it be understood all over, but that it, or something like it, could have been made in Minneapolis or Detroit or Philadelphia or Portland or a dozen other places.
The boho wheel turns everywhere; you just have to know where to look. Linklater looked at Austin, and the result was a modern classic. The question for a 10th anniversary is the same for any movie so honored: Could "Slacker" or something with its singular charms be created today?
I don't think so; communication is simply too good. The Internet has taken the "sub" out of subculture, radically changing the way nonmainstream culture is consumed and experienced. Got an interest, an obsession, a hobby, a theory, a fetish? Someone, somewhere agrees with you and has a Web page about it. The underground no longer needs to communicate by rumor. But the message hasn't changed a bit: There are others like you. You are your own liberation. Do it yourself.