Slacker trilogy

The morning after I saw Slacker, I overheard a couple of coffee-shop customers swapping anecdotes about automotive repo jobs. Preachers, apparently, are particularly self-righteous about avoiding bills. One local dealership is trying to improve the quality of its credit portfolio by making the salesmen responsible for reposessing cars from their own delinquent customers.
As a particpant and observer of Austin’s cafe culture, I expected Slacker to be a touchstone to Austin’s cafe culture, and so it was. The pickup conversation with the dogged conspiracy theorist, off-kilter petty scams, windy pop-culture critiques, convoluted romantic and roommate drama, each vignette unfolds after the other, in desultory succession.
Immediately after I watched the movie, I wasn’t sure how much I liked it. At the end of each scene, the camera follows a new person off to another weird tangent; without plot and character development, jolts of recognition and amusement war with ambient boredom. The film improves with recollection and comparison.
Clerks built on the low-budget, indy cred of Slacker. The setting is North Jersey, the anomie is post-highschool rather than post-college. Wierd misadventures afflict the convenience store clerks; a rabid anti-smoking advocate riles up customers coming in to feed their habit; a streethockey game is rescheduled to the store’s roof during business hours. Several of the anecdotes are truly funny, other scenes may have been funnier in brainstorming than onscreen, like the customer who obsessively checks for the perfect egg.
Despite the similar low budget, anedotal plot, and slacker characters, Clerks is a more conservative, wannabe Hollywood movie. Unlike Richard Linklater, Kevin Smith cobbles together a plot, tacks on a love interest – Dante, the antihero schlemiel clerk, has an affectionate, go-getter girlfriend but pines for a dramatic and inconstant ex. Smith adds a pop-psych denoument when Dante explains to his best friend the childhood origins of his pathologically passive attitude toward life. The Clerks have opportunities but lack get-up-and-go; there aren’t any opportunities for liberal arts grads in recessionary early 90s Austin.
High Fidelity is the slacker film turned into a sitcom, but I liked it best anyway. The John Cusack character is the owner of a small, starving-artist-snobby vintage record store in Chicago. His music geek clerks — Jack Black’s customer-hostile connoiseur and Todd Louiso’s adorable nebbish steal the show. Over the course of the movie, the characters learn to transcend slackerdom; Cusack learns that his love life is stuck on repeat breakup because he acts like a jerk; the clerks grow beyond roles as passive critics, becoming actors in love and music.
It would take a Chicago person to explain whether and how the film captures Chicago like Slacker captures the windy aimlessness of Austin cafe culture and Clerks gets the gritty ambition of working class North Jersey. I suspect that it doesn’t. Translated from Nick Hornsby’s London novel, some of the social types don’t ring quite right; the skater punks would probably be better as London working class; the egocentric high-chic girlfriend and would probably be better as British bohemian upper class.
Directed by veteran English-gone-Hollywood director Stephen Frears, the movie is more polished and more conventional than the other two slacker films. The movie tells the story of the sentimental education of geeky guys lightly and well. The retail and romantic vignettes are funny, the emotional tenor is wry and affecting.
In the week of a high-stakes election, the comedy of early 90s anomie seems far away.

6 thoughts on “Slacker trilogy”

  1. Slacker’s structure must have highbrow antecedents, in literature if not film, but I haven’t ever tracked them down.
    Have you ever seen Austin Stories? It was an attempt to capture Austin slacker culture literally in a sitcom. It was a one-season experiment on MTV and starred three Austin stand-up comics. I highly recommend it. I’d be delighted to loan you my VHS copies, but you’ll need to leave title to your first-born child or keys to your BMW as a deposit — apparently it’s never been made commercially available.

  2. That’s interesting. But I wasn’t thinking about the characters, rather about having the camera follow one person after another in a meandering fashion. I know I’ve heard of some post-Slacker movies which did the same thing (although titles escape me now). It seems too basic a technique for Linklater to have been its inventor, though.
    Have you seen Waking Life?

  3. Loosely connected vignettes — there must be oodles of them in fiction, though I can’t think of any off the top of my head. Joyce’s Ulysses meanders with a set of characters wandering around Dublin, but the characters recur and interrelate, so the form’s not the same.
    It’s much more ordinary to have a series of short stories that are set in the same fictional world but loosely connected. Movies have more of an obligation to carry a single plot through 90+ minutes for some reason.
    Austin Stories sounds like fun — I’ll put it on the list after addressing the top of my procrastination pile, to reduce the likelihood of endless guilt and miata reposession.
    Haven’t seen Waking Life, is it good?

  4. It’s the baton-passing connection of each vignette to the next which makes Slacker’s structure somewhat unusual — although I suppose under closer examination there may sometimes be a discontinuity without the baton.
    Waking Life is great.
    Linklater was an early adopter of an animation technique invented by Bob Sabiston here in Austin, in which a human artist paints or draws over selected frames of film and the computer interpolates the painting or drawing in between. It fills in a gap between animator-intensive traditional animation and programmer-intensive CGI, letting an individual artist apply his or her own vision to a scene in a reasonable amount of time without employing a sweatshop of cel-painters in Korea. It also has its own “look” which was new with Linklater, although by now you’d probably recognize it from TV commercials.
    But I like Waking Life just as much for its content. It is also a series of vignettes, structurally somewhat similar to Slacker, but instead of scenes of banality Linklater has a string of characters talking about philosophy, dreams and reality. In that respect it resembles My Dinner with Andre and many other “talky” movies, but the conversations are happening in a visually fascinating surreal environment.
    I’m your typical fawning Austin Linklater fan, but even among people who aren’t, Waking Life stands out as something unique.

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