For the longest time, Richard Linklater’s shambolic Slacker was inevitably viewed through the distorting lens of its status as the poster-child depiction of the amorphous demographic then becoming known as Generation X, a label that was cribbed from Douglas Coupland’s contemporaneous novel, and subsequently slapped across any cultural product emanating from the twentysomething crowd. Slacker was also one of the films (along with the likes of Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape) that helped to put the American indie film movement on the map in the late 1980s and ’90s. Now that the hurly-burly’s done and the dust has long ago settled, it’s easier to see how Slacker fits into the contours of Linklater’s subsequent career. In a word, the film sows the seeds of everything from the Before series’s conversational divagations to the cross-sectional regional profiling of Bernie.
The opening scene introduces a nameless young man asleep on a bus as it passes through the early-morning Texas countryside. (That the youth is played by Linklater himself might just indicate that Slacker takes up where his feature debut, It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books, left off.) He alights at the bus station, decides to take a taxi into downtown Austin, and proceeds to regale the silent cabbie with a protracted account of the dream he just had: a quantum-mechanical fantasia of forking-path realities. Slap on some swirly rotoscope animation and this episode wouldn’t feel out of place in Waking Life. After witnessing a hit-and-run accident, Linklater’s character fades into the background, figuratively passing the baton to another, thereby setting the template for the rest of the film.
Essentially a series of interlocking vignettes, Slacker eschews conventional dramaturgy for concentration on character interaction and a subtly limned exploration of its characters’ worldviews. Despite an attention to details of milieu worthy of a neorealist director, Linklater isn’t interested in imposing any treacle-laden melodrama upon his material. At bottom, Slacker is a profoundly philosophical film that borrows its round-robin experimental narrative structure from art-house classics like Max Ophüls’s La Ronde and, more importantly, especially given the film’s underlying preoccupation with the possibilities of—as well as constraints on—human freedom, Luis Buñuel’s The Phantom of Liberty. In fact, it’s amusing to consider Slacker as a sort of spiritual sequel to Buñuel’s film. Both films emphasize the sovereignty of the imagination, as well as the dangers of lapsing into self-absorbed solipsism, and both are equally acerbic when pointing out the pitfalls of naively engaged political activity.
Calls to revolutionary action, not to mention the visual and verbal paraphernalia of vulgar Marxism, are peppered throughout Slacker, yet these clarion calls are almost uniformly the sort of superficial aphorism best suited to adorn a T-shirt (t-shirt?), say, or else they’re revealed to be largely fictitious, as is the case with the elderly anarchist who claims to have battled fascism alongside Orwell in Catalonia. Given the myriad failures of the ’60s generation to follow through on their revolutionary potential, and facing the harsh economic certainty that theirs was the first generation not to fare as well as, if not better than, the preceding, it’s hardly surprising that Generation X would be wary of overt political engagement, preferring instead a sort of curdled radicalism. The values of what Linklater calls the slacker’s “principled nonparticipation” (an ethical stance he simultaneously celebrates and slyly satirizes) are encapsulated pithily enough in one of the Oblique Strategies cards proffered to random passersby by a young woman (D. Montgomery) near film’s end: “Withdrawing in disgust is not the same thing as apathy.”
Criterion’s 1080p/AVC-encoded Blu-ray transfer boosts Slacker’s brightness and clarity, even lending a transient impression of dimensionality to certain scenes. Given the film’s 16mm origins, it’s hardly surprising that grain levels are fairly high throughout, and there’s even a stray artifact evident here and there. Colors are strong and stable, though there’s some black crush on hand in several shots that shift between various natural light sources. Contributing to the overall variability of the film’s visuals is the fact that Slacker employs a panoply of film and video sources: Various scenes incorporate footage shot in 8mm, Super 8, even PixelVision (a Fisher-Price novelty camcorder that recorded onto audio cassettes). Slacker’s audio gets a shot in the arm as well: The new DTS-HD Master Audio surround mix clarifies some of the denser dialogue exchanges and delivers the soundtrack with more dynamism than the earlier DVD’s Dolby track.
Supplements have been carried over from Criterion’s 2004 double-disc DVD set with a few noticeable exceptions: Gone are text-based extras like Richard Linklater’s slacker-culture essay and information about the Austin Film Society. Also absent is an extensive stills gallery of production and publicity photos—some of which migrate to the hefty illustrated booklet included with the Blu-ray. A copy of the working script entitled "The Roadmap" has been replaced with pages from the original script called "No Longer/Not Yet" and the deleted scene/alternate take compilation reel is here called "Ain’t No Film in That Shit." Otherwise the roster of extras is identical.
"Showing Life" opens with a statement from casting director Ann Walker-McBay followed by 15 minutes of video interviews with prospective cast members. The fairly inessential featurette "Taco and a Half After Ten" is rough video footage featuring some behind-the-scenes antics and a bit of location scouting. The more compelling "...End of Interview!" was shot during the 10th-anniversary screening at the Liberty Theatre in Austin and includes various on-stage interviews and moments of after-party camaraderie between cast and crew. There’s a 10-minute "trailer" for a documentary about the legendary Austin nightspot Les Amis Café that served as backdrop for several scenes in Slacker. An early 16mm short from Linklater and DP Lee Daniel, Woodshock documents the titular Austin music festival in a style that homages/parodies Michael Wadleigh’s legendary Woodstock documentary. Also included is Linklater’s feature-length debut, It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books, a brooding structuralist study in communication breakdown, with optional commentary from Linklater.
There are three separate commentary track options for Slacker: a contemplative solo track with Linklater going into the production and reception of the film in great detail (the source material for various vignettes provides especially interesting material), a boisterous group commentary with assorted cast members, and finally a track that has Linklater, DP Lee Daniel, and co-producer Clark Walker hashing out the technical aspects of ultra-low-budget filmmaking. Rounding out Criterion’s deep stack of supplements, there’s an illustrated booklet containing a handful of reflective and analytic essays on the film.
Criterion doesn’t slack on the extras or the audiovisuals with their satisfying Blu-ray upgrade of Richard Linklater’s shaggy-dog ode to one mixed-up generation.