Twenty years ago, you did not have to be a film buff or hipster (there weren’t any back then) to know something about a little film from Texas that loomed large in the popular imagination. Richard Linklater’s lazy, perambulating, yet oh-so-watchable Slacker was celebrated as much for its irreverent technique and rambling dialogue as for the fact that it was seemingly, strangely, about nothing. Composed of a series of obliquely related vignettes shot throughout Austin during the spring and early summer of 1989, Slacker premiered in July 1990 at the Dobie Theatre, near the University of Texas campus. After months of festival showings, Linklater’s film was released nationally in 1991, securing a place for “slacker” in our collective vocabulary. 1
Nowadays we use the term to label a certain kind of high-minded, intelligent person who floats merrily through the flotsam and jetsam of life. Think of Ignatius C. Reilly, the antihero of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, perpetually ready to quote lines from the Bhagavad Gita, strains from a Bud Powell solo or passages from Dostoyevsky — and put him in a band. Slacker follows anonymous characters — credited with names like “T-Shirt Terrorist,” “Scooby Doo Philosopher” or “S-T-E-V-E with a Van” — throughout Austin, eavesdropping on their conversations, which are alternately paranoid, obsessive, lyrical, comic and mundane. Early in the film, the iced-latte-sipping “Dostoyevsky Wannabe”(Brecht Andersch) inadvertently encapsulates the central conceit: “Who’s ever written a great work about the immense effort required in order not to create?” Yet despite all the verbal and pedestrian meanderings, the pop-culture references and conspiracy theories, Slacker is anything but effortless. It is a highly structured work, obsessively formalist and deeply methodical in its approach to the city — qualities that should endear it to architects.
In Los Angeles: The Architecture of the Four Ecologies (1971), historian Reyner Banham famously declared that “like earlier generations of English intellectuals who taught themselves Italian in order to read Dante in the original, I learned to drive in order to read Los Angeles in the original.” 2 He reminds historians and architects that a proper understanding of a city’s natural and built environments requires us to meet the city on its own terms, through its own habits and devices. This is why the car is necessary to Los Angeles. And in a similar way Slacker is necessary to Austin. And that is why I watch Slacker: to read Austin in the original.
I have been a frequent visitor to Austin for over 20 years; I am also a former resident. Sometime in the late fall of 1988, my parents and I drove from Houston to visit my father’s alma mater, the University of Texas. We looked at the old, concrete handball courts. We strolled near the University Tower, then closed to the public, and the Old Texas Union, site of a legendary 1961 set by a drunken Johnny Cash. Then we crossed Guadalupe Street and walked down “The Drag” to get our first taste of Austin weird. Heading south past the hippies and junkies, the Church of Scientology storefront and Captain Quackenbush’s Intergalactic Espresso & Dessert Company (Austin’s first coffeehouse, which appears in Slacker), I ended up at Sound Exchange, on the corner of 21st and Guadalupe. This was the record store in Austin so renowned that my high school friends would drive three hours from Houston to consume its holdings. The side of the building was home to one of the city’s most famous murals: a 15-foot-tall version of the cover art for Daniel Johnston’s freak-folk masterpiece, Hi, How Are You?
I took the Texas Bar Exam in the summer of 1996, around the time that I rented a VHS copy of Slacker from a grocery store in Northwest Washington, D.C. The following summer, I drove halfway across the country and moved to a small house off South Congress Avenue in Austin, not far from the Magnolia Café. Afternoons were spent faxing resumés to law firms and rehearsing with various bands (one named after a Chinese novel from the Song Dynasty). 3 My mental atlas of Austin from that time is a loosely-wound skein of beer gardens, burger joints, brunch places, concert halls and second-hand music stores. This lasted until 1998, when I left for San Antonio to work at a large corporate law firm.
Since then, with each successive screening of Slacker, in a theater, on television or on my computer, I experience something like phantom-limb syndrome. It’s not just that I recognize the film’s slackerdom (aren’t all academics, in a certain sense, slackers?) or that I’ve met some of the actors (in high school, my band opened for Glass Eye, featuring Slacker alumni Kathy McCarthy, Scott Marcus and Stella Weir). 4 It’s that I recognize the experience of walking Austin’s asphalt streets, hot as anvils under the summer sun. For me Slacker is about maneuvering though the squat warehouses and loading docks in central Austin, or strolling down the Drag, avoiding horseflies and the occasional Zendik Farm convert. It’s about the low-hanging cedar elms and live oaks shading the sidewalks and residential streets, their branches covering a sonic pas de deux between grackles and cicadas. It’s about the skeletal frames of the stately Moon Towers groping into the central Texas sky. 5 Some of these things remain; some are gone. Much of the physical landscape is still recognizable. Yet the atmosphere captured on 16mm film in that spring and summer of 1989 lingers only faintly. Over the years Slacker has come to function as a record of the city at a pivotal time — at just that moment when its status as a certain kind of cultural center was about to take off, when the city had not yet become the self-conscious nexus of music and media — and money and fame and power — that’s now epitomized by the spectacle of the annual festival South By Southwest.
To write history is to participate in an act of telepresence. We interpret the diverse records of the past to construct an understanding of a period that is gone even if the place still remains. The same is true for cinema. The flickering of light and sound collapses time and space onto a single screen. Art historian Erwin Panofsky described cinema as both a “dynamization of space” and a “spatialization of time.” I would go even further: film is a mode of transport, a conveyance that reveals the past in surprising and elegiac ways. To watch a film is to engage powerfully, immediately, with the images and sounds of another time. No wonder, then, that we are entranced by Woody Allen’s New York movies, or François Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel series; they are dysfunctional love letters to the cities that serve as backdrops for the characters’ lives. Yet to watch Slacker is to experience one of the most unusual and intense depictions of a city in film, in which the city itself becomes the story.
In 1992, soon after Slacker’s completion, Linklater published a short volume documenting his experience making the film. 6 If contemporary newspaper articles provide the film’s factual history, this book offers the origin myth. Here, we find a very young Linklater (he was in his early twenties) spending equal time in movie theaters and on oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico, before moving to Austin and cofounding the Austin Film Society, which screened experimental and avant-garde cinema at local venues. 7 As a hotbed of early ’80s punk and alternative culture, the city was an epicenter for anything off the radar. Linklater traces Austin’s history and explains the city’s role as a waystation for slackers all the way back to the days of the Texas Republic. And yet Austin has never been a backwater; it is a city of contemporaneity and contingency rooted in the present. With Slacker, Linklater sought to document “the accredited sources of information or the image we officially have of ourselves as a society. This seems to be the place where the actual buzz of life goes on, where the conspiracies, schizophrenia, melancholy, and exuberance all battle it out, daily.”
The production notes describe a mode of filmmaking uniquely suited to the project. Under the heading “VERTICAL NARRATIVE,” Linklater writes:
A film as one long sequence in which each shot, each event and character lead only to the next.
New scene/new start: each complete in itself, the next is simply juxtaposed to it. The relationship between various scenes can be connected later (or before — cause can follow effect).
The audience itself will construct causal relationships.
The scenes and characters change … but the preoccupations remain the same.
Under the heading “VISUAL”:
Camera: quiet but eloquent (especially when it moves).
Colors: muted, not bright, muddied by the environment.
Fiction … entering into a documentary. Documentary of characters acting out a fiction?
Lack of establishing shots: has a partitioning effect (same with the characters’ lack of development).
Environment: suggests documentary.
Sketchlike and personal, these notes read more like reminders than directions. They are the skeleton key that allows us to decode the film. Together, these passages read almost like a recipe, a method for capturing the energy and contours of Austin’s “now.”
Linklater composes almost all scenes with close and medium shots, framings that obliterate familiar traces of the city. There is no sight of Elijah E. Myers’s Texas State Capitol (1885), which evokes the U.S. Capitol in pink granite, nor of the Austin National Bank Tower (now the Bank of America Center), whose obsidian curtain walls absorb the relentless Texas sun. We don’t see the dammed-up waters of Town Lake, bisecting South Congress Avenue, cleaving and fading into an unknown terminus in the landscape. Instead, we see characters standing against walls, storefronts and façades. Except for the occasional street sign or landmark, it is difficult to get a sense of exactly where the film takes place. The director’s formal gestures put people and the built environment in a carefully wrought equipoise. In this Austin — the phantom city that stretches between Linklater’s document and my experience of it over a period of 20 years — the characters are as much a part of the landscape as the buildings are.
Consider two of the more memorable scenes from the film. In the first, we see “Ultimate Loser” (Scott Marcus) walking along a series of loading docks. An overcast sky casts a gray pallor, and in the distance, a street sign reveals that he is walking toward 2nd Street. The street is lined with live oaks; cars speed toward the I-35 entrance ramp. These are clues that place this scene in Central Austin, somewhere between Congress Avenue and the freeway. A character known as “Stephanie from Dallas” (Stella Weir) approaches from the opposite side of the street and begins an awkward conversation. A third character appears, a waif-like mumbler (Teresa Taylor) who tries to sell an item of biological contraband to the other two. They decline, and the Marcus character bids farewell and walks away.
In another scene, a young woman (Kathy McCarthy) accompanies her father, an elderly anarchist professor (Louis Mackey) to his apartment, where they find a gun-wielding burglar (Michael Laird) rifling through his books. 8 The professor gives the burglar a short course on the history of anarchism and political action, with reference to Leon Czolgosz (President William McKinley’s assassin), George Orwell and, finally, Charles Whitman, the engineering student who climbed to the top of University Tower on the University of Texas campus on August 1, 1966, and started firing at people on the ground, killing 14 and wounding 32. This conversation takes place with the tower in the distance; it was still closed to the public when Linklater filmed Slacker, but its presence is significant.
These vignettes reveal specific moments in the lives of a small group of imaginary Austinites. In each, the character who walks away participates in the next scene. As the camera marks its dérive through Austin’s pool halls, diners, walk-up apartments, coffeehouses and bars, the scenes do more than flow into each other — they create the sense of a seamless urban tissue, the mood of unscheduled days where one experience flows into and blurs with the next. There is something about this that is quintessentially Austin.
Cut to August, 1996. I am driving a rental car north on Congress Avenue en route to the Palmer Auditorium for the first day of my bar exam. This is one of the most photogenic drives you can take anywhere, one of the few places where you can get the sense of a city by driving through it at high speed. I drive past the Continental Club’s retro signage, catch a glimpse of the tumescent sign in front of the Austin Motel, and then turn left on West Riverside Drive to subject myself to six hours of multiple-choice questions about Texas Torts, Texas Contracts, Texas Civil Procedure and Texas Oil and Gas Law.
If I were to continue driving north across Town Lake, I would suddenly see myself riding in the backseat of a white, tricked-out GTO convertible headed for Central Austin. In a scene from Slacker, two mechanics, “GTO” (played by Lee Daniel, Slacker’s cinematographer) and “Nova” (Scott Van Horn), wearing soot- and oil-stained trucker caps and dungarees, drive the weather-beaten “Hitchhiker Awaiting ‘True Call” (Charles Gunning) along South Congress Avenue to someplace on Trinity Street — a drive that I must have made hundreds of times in 1997 and 1998.
Rewind. Before we get to this point, we see Nova and GTO stealing automobile parts from a local junkyard. GTO agrees to meet Nova outside on the other side of the lot, which means he has to cut through a hole in the fence. Only then do they pick up Hitchhiker. The seamless, understated shift from bombed-out junkyard to boiling-hot blacktop, and then to built-up skyscrapers and warehouse loading docks, could only take place in the Austin of the late ’80s, then in the early days of what would become rapidly accelerating development. As Linklater observes, Slacker is “a film locked in with the moment and place of its own making.” Now, such juxtapositions are rare; the junkyards, blacktops and warehouses have been replaced by hotels and boutiques catering to convention-goers and expense account jockeys. Slacker is thus more than a portrait of urban life; again, it’s a tour of the city at a moment of transition and reflection as it comes to grips with its new role as a cultural capital for hipster-artistes.
But that was the secret to Austin, wasn’t it? For those of us who came of age in Texas in the mid- to late-1980s, weaned on SST Records or Touch and Go bands, Maximumrocknroll or Thrasher magazine and all-ages shows at Emo’s or Raoul’s, who made road trips to midnight screenings at the Dobie, who responded to the Big Boys’ rallying cry “Go start your own band!” — for us Austin was a kind of lingua franca, a place we valued for its ability to accommodate those who seemed to be interested in things no one was interested in. 9 We thought it was the center of the world — everyone else was just slow to catch up, and that was fine with us. The wide streets, scrubby mesquite and broken chain-link fences in Slacker present a visual counterpoint to a famously laid-back city on the verge of irrevocable transformation.
In 1985 MTV — which was then still a young and nervy network — came to Austin to produce an episode of the punk-underground music show I.R.S. Records Presents the Cutting Edge. Early in the show, we see a panoramic shot of the city. The camera, mounted on the horizontal arm of a construction crane, moves up and down and swivels around. In one shot — eerily reminiscent of Laszlo Moholy-Nagy’s vertigo-inducing aerial photographs taken from radio towers in Berlin in the late 1920s — the camera tilts downward, revealing the base of the crane upon which it is mounted. Watching this, you get the sense that Austin, circa 1985, was much like Berlin after the collapse of the Wall: a city in the process of redefining itself. A vision of development. A city of cranes. An endangered bohemia where artists’ squats and underground bars were giving way to developer lofts and nostalgia tourism.
During the MTV sequence, Cutting Edge host Peter Zaremba waxes proto-elegiac: “They say that 90 people a day move to Austin. Signs of growth are everywhere. Changes are not always welcome, however. Some of Austin’s best clubs have disappeared. Liberty Lunch, one of tonight’s featured clubs, won’t be around much longer, either. Through it all, the bands survive. They play at parties, outdoors, and yes, sometimes even in real garages.” We viewers don’t know exactly who “they” are, and yet Zaremba’s narration is given testimonial weight. His statement seems matter-of-fact, equally descriptive and defeatist, a curious way to begin a television show that is supposed to promote a music scene and a city. Such talk of “survival” betrays the feeling that failure was imminent; in some sense it had already happened.
The very last scene of Slacker is perhaps the most poignant for the film and for Austin. A long-haired “Ranting Driver” (Kendal Smith) has just delivered a soliloquy on violence via a large outdoor speaker mounted on top of the roof of a beat-up car. Suddenly, “Five Young Partiers” drive up in a Cadillac convertible. Two of them train Super 8 cameras on the Ranting Driver. The final moments of the film consist of this Super 8 footage — giddy, jerky, grainy images set to an upbeat 1947 recording of “Skokiaan” played by the Bulawayo Sweet Rhythms Band. The Partiers’ car goes under a bridge and crosses the river towards an arid bluff, and then they get out and drink beer, dancing on top of Mount Bonnell. One of the Partiers goes to the very edge of the summit and throws the camera off a cliff. The rest of the image is a dizzying, colored swirl as the camera flies through the air and crashes into the ground before the final credits begin. These last moments of Slacker recorded on Super 8 suggest the (literal) vision of a younger generation. They have just captured the Ranting Driver’s screed and thrown it away over a hill, destroying the last vestige of the bohemian, irreverent Austin that Linklater captured so brilliantly.
Slacker is a definitive work. It made Linklater’s career and it set a new course for independent American cinema. It is a record of Austin at a particular moment and a record of a particular mode of urban filmmaking. But it is not a love letter to Austin — its various contrivances are as flawed and complicated as the city it presents to us — and Linklater doesn’t memorialize the city; his Austin isn’t a precious artifact. His masterstroke, his recourse as Austin slipped into its latest and now familiar version of itself, was to capture the city during this dynamic moment, and then to destroy it cinematically. Throwing the Super 8 camera from the top of Mount Bonnell is a radical act of historic preservation. It makes the past accessible to us by making it immutable. It reminds us that we can’t go back, and that’s a good thing. Slacker captures a particular iteration of Austin and makes it a world unto itself, presenting it in the original.