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Slacker

Slacker may be the only film with a sensibility that’s discernible just by perusing its cast of characters. Writer-director Richard Linklater, who delivers a hilarious monologue about dream logic in the opening scene, is credited as playing Should Have Stayed At Bus Station. Others sport “names” like Grocery Grabber Of Death’s Bounty, Budding Capitalist Youth, Based On Authoritative Sources, and S-T-E-V-E With A Van, each of which instantly calls to mind exactly which character the actor plays. Running close to 100 names (nearly all of which are speaking parts), the cast list is funny enough to be freeze-framed multiple times and savored, but Linklater’s use of signifying descriptions isn’t merely a lark. At its core, Slacker is an inventory, showcasing the multitude of idiosyncratic personalities that make up a city like Austin, Texas, where the movie was shot for a pittance sometime around 1988 or ’89 judging from the “Ron Paul For President” fliers visible in the background. (It was released in 1991.) Despite its title, it isn’t so much about slackers as it is about dreamers, obsessives, and other assorted misfits, many of whom are more industrious in their rejection of conventional society than are the folks who choose to conform.

For most viewers, Slacker either lives or dies by its unusual baton-passing structure, which had been employed by previous films (notably Max Ophüls’ adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler’s La Ronde), but never quite to this extreme. Should Have Stayed At Bus Station takes a cab into town, then witnesses a hit-and-run; Linklater’s impressively mobile 16mm camera observes interactions among a few passing pedestrians before picking up the driver of the car, who’s circled around to park in front of his own building. The cops quickly arrest that character, whereupon the movie starts following a random guy strolling past the perp, carrying a guitar case. Cut to him performing on the street, and then the focus shifts to a woman who drops some change into his case as she passes by; she walks into a coffee house, where three pompous college-age guys discuss “intensity without mastery,” and so on and so forth, with the protagonist changing every few minutes (or less) for the entire duration of the film. 

That may sound like a recipe for frustration, or at least for severe unevenness. Yet while every viewer will have favorite interludes, Slacker is remarkably homogeneous. (Favorites most likely include the crazily intense woman, played by Teresa Taylor, attempting to sell her friends a genuine Madonna pap smear—Taylor became the movie’s go-to mascot and is still on the cover of the Criterion release, which just received a Blu-ray upgrade.) There isn’t a narrative, exactly, but the series of offbeat encounters coalesces in much the same way that James Joyce’s Dubliners or J.D. Salinger’s Nine Stories do; despite the constant shifting and diverting, a coherent whole gradually forms. Each of Slacker’s briefly glimpsed archetypes represents an element of a collective worldview, which Linklater regards with roughly one part derision, three parts affection. Even the old man who responds to a home invasion by taking the thief out for a walk and showing him the tower from which Charles Whitman killed 17 people in 1966 (“this town’s finest hour,” he terms it, whining that he wasn’t there that day) comes across as an amusing eccentric rather than a lunatic.

But there’s a danger in working too hard to fashion some sort of thesis for this movie, which is just nonstop fun for those on its offbeat wavelength. Linklater cast local non-pros (and friends like future Attenberg director Athina Rachel Tsangari, as Cousin From Greece), and while he didn’t discover an entire new generation of movie stars, as he would for Dazed And Confused, he did assemble a motley collection of memorable faces, tics, and attitudes. There’s the dude who recommends his favorite JFK-assassination books to some poor former classmate—as well as his own tome, as yet unpublished, but with two possible titles: Profiles In Cowardice or Conspiracy-A-Go-Go. There’s the hippie chick passing out Oblique Strategies written on index cards, which were inspired by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt; one of Linklater’s cards (“Withdrawing in disgust is not the same thing as apathy”) would in turn inspire a lyric in R.E.M.’s “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?” There’s the hostile bum who turns a student’s video project into his own misanthropic soapbox. (“All you workers out there: Every single commodity you produce is a piece of your own death!”) That last guy is named Hitchhiker Awaiting ‘True Call’ in the closing credits; it’s Slacker’s unusual genius that that sobriquet applies equally well to almost everybody onscreen.


Also this week: Criterion’s latest invaluable box set, 3 Films By Roberto Rosselini Starring Ingrid Bergman, includes the canonical masterpiece Voyage To Italy, the fascinating curiosity Stromboli, and the relatively little-seen Europe ’51. Olive Films continues to release lesser gems on Blu-ray, adding The Americano (1955, starring Glenn Ford), The Big Combo (also 1955, with Cornel Wilde), and Tam Lin (1970, featuring an older Ava Gardner and a very young Ian McShane) to its catalogue. Horror buffs will be happy to see new hi-def editions of Psycho II and Psycho III, as well as John Carpenter’s Prince Of Darkness, all via Shout Factory. And while 1976’s Voyage Of The Damned is little remembered today, it did earn three Oscar nominations, including a Best Supporting Actress nomination for Lee Grant.

The most notable of the week’s brand-new releases depends on individual interests, really. Those who prefer mainstream fare will be stoked for Iron Man 3, which was much more warmly received than the franchise’s lackluster second installment, and perhaps curious about the Jason Statham vehicle Redemption, which originally sported the less generic title Hummingbird. Arthouse aficionados have much more to choose from, including the acclaimed documentary Room 237, about fan theories concerning Stanely Kubrick’s The Shining; Olivier Assayas’ memoir of May ’68 and its aftermath, Something In The Air; an Israeli drama about arranged marriage, Fill The Void, which The A.V. Club’s A.A. Dowd compared favorably to Jane Austen; and François Ozon’s meta-narrative In The House, about a high-school teacher who becomes obsessed with a student’s creative-writing project. Falling between those two stools are the Sundance favorite The Kings Of Summer, which squanders a couple of superb child performances on a whimsy-heavy tale of kids who build their own house in the woods, and the obligatory sequel V/H/S/2, which assembles several more horror shorts that have nothing to do with analog technology.

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