If you ever find yourself too dazed and confused to comprehend the plot of Dazed and Confused, then Richard Linklater’s lesser-known film, Slacker (1991), is the next stop you should make. Although it might not necessarily fit within the confines – if there are any – of the stoner film (nobody smokes weed on screen), it does feel as if it were made for those nights when it’s hard to focus on any particular storyline for very long. Its floaty, uncommitted form lulls the (potentially inebriated) viewer into a state of low-stakes entertainment that can easily be talked over for ten minutes, then re-entered without confusion. That may seem like a criticism – and for a lot of movies it would be – but for Slacker, this state of willful apathy with regards to plot and character development is calculated with precision.
Slacker does not contain any narrative in the traditional sense (one might even call it anti-narrative), nor does it exhibit much in the way of aesthetic sensibilities. There are two types of shots in this film: either the camera is completely stationary while a character rambles on about anything from The Smurfs to the JFK assassination, or the camera follows the movements of characters moving from one place to another. The latter technique contributes to Slacker‘s shtick: the film’s focus shifts from subject to subject almost every time there is more than one character on screen. There is no cohesion; there is no “plot”; but there are delightfully entertaining and surprising segments at every turn.
The first character we spend time with – played by Richard Linklater himself – is perhaps the only diegetic clue concerning what Slacker is about (if it’s even about anything). The camera shows him riding on and departing a bus, then getting into a taxi. Within the taxi, Linklater’s character talks to the driver for three full minutes in one continuous, stationary shot, about a dream that he had recently – a particular type of dream that he has “every two years or so” – in which everything is “completely real” and vivid. He describes how, in this dream he had on the bus, he was reading a book in which “every choice or decision you make – the thing you choose not to do fractions off and becomes its own reality.” He verbally explores this idea for a few minutes (it’s not clear if the cabbie can even hear him: he is absolutely unresponsive), speculating that, maybe, if he had stayed at the bus station instead of taking a cab, he would have met some beautiful woman and gone back to her apartment. (This character is aptly credited as “Should Have Stayed at the Bus Station.”)
So early on in the runtime it is not obvious that this character’s philosophizing has anything to do with the film itself, but as the camera’s gaze moves from person to person, audiences concerned with what movies are “about” may find themselves reflecting on the ideas laid out in Slacker’s initial moments. After Linklater’s character gets out of the cab, he walks down the street and sees a woman get hit by a car. A few people congregate around her body, trying to figure out what to do, and the camera zooms out until the guilty driver parks his car a block away from the crime scene. The “Hit-and-Run Son” (it turns out the hit-and-run victim was his mother) goes into a house and starts performing some vaguely ritualistic acts until the police show up and he gets arrested. The camera then moves on to follow some people walking down the street, discussing the crime. The “storylines” in this film focus on cause and effect on a widespread scale, showing how minuscule actions can create great changes. But, unlike the scenario described in the dream book, Slacker never asks, “What if things happened differently?”
Fortunately, there are abundant non-diegetic clues that can help decode Slacker – namely, Linklater’s 2001 feature Waking Life (a much denser film). Waking Life is not nearly as inebriate-friendly as Slacker (unless you’re feeling particularly contemplative), but it can be regarded as a sort of spiritual sequel to Linklater’s more laid-back feature. Both movies frequently shift perspective; but where Slacker’s timeline is perfectly linear, Waking Life adheres to dream logic: the focus is upon one character, but his “story” constantly jumps around in time and space. And, where Slacker’s dialogue is easy to follow, usually concerning the politics and conspiracy theories espoused by the outcasts of the 90’s, Waking Life is centered around the heady conversations one might encounter in a philosophy class, like existentialism, personal responsibility and universal consciousness. So, while the two films are structurally and tonally dissimilar, the topics explored in Waking Life – individuality vs. community, the world of dreams, free will – can be observed, less explicitly, in Slacker.
One of the opening shots in Waking Life is notably similar to the first shot of Slacker: a young man (credited as “Main Character,” played by Wiley Wiggins) with shoulder-length hair looks out of the window of a bus. When he gets off, instead of taking a taxi, he tries to call a friend to get a ride, but gets no response. He sees a beautiful woman sitting at the station, but doesn’t talk to her. He gets a ride from a stranger in a boat car. When the main character cannot decide where to be let off, the passenger next to him says, “Go up three more stre ets, take a right, go two more blocks, drop this guy off at the next corner.” When the main character asks where that is, the driver says, “I don’t know either, but it’s somewhere, and it’s gonna determine the course of the rest of your life.” This scene is a clear parallel to the opening of Slacker, in which a man aimlessly disembarks from a bus; but, more importantly, it hints at the concept that exists at the center of Slacker: seemingly meaningless actions alter not just the subject’s life, but the lives of everyone else in the world.
The parallel continues: almost immediately after getting out of the car that picks him up at the bus station, the main character of Waking Life walks into an intersection and finds a piece of paper on the ground that says “Look to your right.” To his right is a speeding car. In the next scene, the main character wakes up, suggesting that the rest of the film may just be his dreaming moments before death. The main character spends the next 90 minutes flying across town, listening in to strangers’ conversations. This form is eerily similar to the way that Slacker bounces around from person to person right after the first character witnesses a hit-and-run. Linklater’s character complexifies this parallel in the opening scene when he says of his annual vivid dreams that, “there’s always something bizarre going on… it’s like, there’s always someone getting run over, something really weird.” Slacker, unlike Waking Life, has no single conscious mind that guides the film’s explorations through people’s interactions, but the similarity is striking nonetheless: through the world of dreams, one gains access to universal consciousness.
These types of analyses may feel like a stretch if you’ve seen Slacker (it is, at its core, an innovative take on a stoner-film), but a side-by-side viewing with Waking Life reveals compelling parallels like the ones above that are fun to toy around with. Of course, that’s not strictly necessary. Endless opportunities for different interpretations and viewing experiences is part of what makes Slacker so magical: pick it apart and put it back together, or enjoy it with a beer (or three) and a group of friends. However you watch, you won’t regret revisiting this masterpiece for its thirty-year anniversary.
For more cult classic reviews Click Here.