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‘Slacker’ (R)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
August 23, 1991

In "Slacker," a strange pall hangs over Austin, Tex.: post-Reagan reality. With nothing politically compelling to get unified about, the students in this college town wander around in alienated clouds of para-reality.

It works for them.

In a quasi-documentary, chain sequence of events, Richard Linklater's superb satire leapfrogs from person to person, and vignette to vignette. A pattern of ennui, absurdity, spaciness and misdirected intelligence emerges, as the movie probes this strange, yet familiar world. The experience is funny, surreal and weird. Sometimes it's even scary.

"Slacker" begins with a taxi passenger who reels out his manic credo about alternate trails of reality. It's like the crossroads before Dorothy and the Scarecrow in "The Wizard of Oz," he tells the cabbie. The directions they didn't take, "just because they thought about them, become separate realities."

No sooner has the movie introduced the "Oz" theorist (played by the director), when it moves to a hit-and-run accident. After this vignette (in which it turns out the driver was the victim's son!), the movie takes up with a passing guitarist. Then moves on again. And again.

The narrative ball never stops rolling. There's an exhilarating, relay pattern to it, like a Rube Goldberg contraption, or those physics experiments in which balls, pulleys, buckets of water and cannonballs perpetuate movement. "Slacker" follows the words and random activities of airheads, JFK-assassination conspiracy theorists, punks, street people and self-absorbed intellectuals.

A woman at a cafe, who identifies herself as a "medical doctor," declares, "You should never traumatize a woman sexually." A young lady energetically tries to sell passersby a Pap smear of Madonna's.

"I know it's sort of disgusting," she says, waving a bottle full of cloudy contents. "But it's, like, getting down to the real Madonna."

Their minds are cluttered with pointless factoids and secondhand assertions. They pursue single-minded, pointless missions, or they don't think at all. They do a lot of talking, but they have nothing to say. If there was any doubt about the pointlessness of existence, they firmly erase it.

"You're just pulling these things from the {expletive} you read," complains a student to her male companion -- in an obviously telling moment. "You haven't thought it out for yourself . . . It's like you've just pasted together these bits and pieces from your authoritative sources. I don't know. I'm beginning to suspect there's nothing in there."

Some of the encounters are short, the equivalent of one-liners. Others develop further. When a gunman holds up a teacher and his daughter, the older man talks the gunman out of it. The teacher then proceeds to reveal the contents of his mind, claiming to be a veteran of the Spanish civil war's Lincoln Brigade. Then he takes the gunman on an impromptu guided tour of Austin. This town, he says, "has its share of crazies. I wouldn't want to live anywhere else."

Later, his daughter points out her father's visit to Catalonia was a little late for the Spanish war. "More like the Hemingway brigade," she remarks. "I love him though."

Linklater has probed adolescent, slow-track America and found a spiritual dry rot. But though everyone's operating under a communal bubble of self delusion, they're also empathetic and normal. Linklater traces the dehumanized weirding of America -- as collectively defined by David Lynch, Errol Morris, Jim Jarmusch and others. But he does it with a detached, yet sympathetic sense of irony. It's reflected in the amusing credits following this multi-character movie: One person who asks, "Who's ever written the great work about the immense effort not to create?" is listed as "Dostoevsky Wannabe."

Linklater presents no particular solutions for this universe of adrift souls, although there might be something in this terse comment from one woman to a friend: "Do you ever just want to get the hell out of this country?"

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