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‘Slacker’ (R)

By Dana Thomas
Washington Post Staff Writer
August 23, 1991

It's about finding yourself. About rejecting the status quo for something more passionate and soulful. It's about being true to yourself, even if that means economic hardship.

It is a phase, says 29-year-old filmmaker Richard Linklater, and he's captured it in his first feature film. "Slacker," opening at the Key Theatre today, is about being in your twenties and debunking society's formula for happiness. "You kind of have to deprogram yourself of everything, of what your parents wanted you to do or what education has taught you and really find out what you want to do," he says.

Some contend the current generation of "twentysomethings" have no direction, are apathetic and heroless. Not so, says Linklater. Everyone goes through this self-discovery stage. Sometimes it takes a few months, sometimes years (and then there are those few cases where it takes a lifetime). There are just more now, perhaps. "It's a yuppie backlash in a way," he says.

Yuppies they are not. The 100 characters in "Slacker" wear faded T-shirts and torn-up jeans and high-tops. They need haircuts. They favor microbuses to BMWs. Their Texas accents are more of a street-refined whine than a soothing parlor drawl. They eke out a living as waitresses, bouncers, cashiers, rather than as big-spending bond traders or commercial real estate brokers. Says the Hitchhiker Awaiting a True Call: "I may live badly, but at least I don't have to work at it."

Since Linklater is writer, producer and director of this film, it makes sense that "Slacker" reflects his philosophy. He thought about it for seven years -- while working on an offshore oil rig (a typical slacker job); while taking a few artsy classes at a "little Texas school"; while sitting through double features of "Citizen Kane" and "The Magnificent Ambersons" at some repertory cinema. He wrote all his thoughts down, these far-out ideas and encounters, in composition books he has stashed in his house in Austin. And while he was experimenting with some Super 8 movie equipment, he told his family over and over, "Well, someday I'm going to make a real real movie, and I'll need some money."

That movie became "Slacker," a 97-minute stream of soul-searching characters. There's an old anarchist who talks a gun-wielding thief into joining him for a cup of coffee, a couple of earth girls who map out their menstrual cycles with clay pots in a park, a video junkie who lives in a room of televisions, a quiet young man who just ran over his mother.

"Slacker" did well on the film festival circuit, and many critics have embraced it, calling it, among other things, "a compelling comedy of zonkitude." It is hip today to love an independent filmmaker.

But "Slacker" has an even stronger draw -- or brilliant marketing tool, depending how you look at it. The budget was listed as $23,000.

Of course, says Linklater, there is no such thing as a $23,000 film. That's just how much he had spent by the time he had a decent print. There's always debt. "I'm starting to pay people off now," he says.

Well, some of them. He didn't pay any of the 100 "actors" a dime -- most were friends who just wanted to be in a movie. He filmed scenes in his own house, in friends' places, in restaurants and bars he frequents. When things got tight he sold off his Super 8 equipment, maxed out his credit cards and hit his family up.

"It was like, 'We're going to shoot every day, like it's a real movie -- except no one's going to get paid,' " says Linklater. "It's a touchy political process."

He leans forward and drops to a whisper. "You have to be really charming and really manipulative."

And is he successful at both?

"Sure, when I have to be," he says, with a sly smile.

Like the characters in his film, Linklater stares off into space and rambles on about the deeper meaning of life. He philosophizes like a liberal arts major who has read too much 19th-century literature. He's blown away by things like french fries being served with his french toast, although he's in a French cafe, and when a local celebrity walks by the Georgetown restaurant window, he can't contain himself.

"Hey!" he blurts out. "That was Larry King!!!"

Otherwise, he's a quiet, gentle fellow, smallish, with soft, expressive hands and a potential receding hairline. He seems so young.

Like the characters in his film, he's sweet and wistfully idealistic. And like his characters, he's a little goofy.

"A lot of these people seem kind of eccentric," he says of his slackers, "but a lot of their thoughts, if you listen to what they are saying and what's in the air ... it's like shifts of perspective. Different ways of looking at things. A calibration of their life. The world's still the same but you see it in a different way, and that can change everything."

Since he had been chewing on this film for a while, the structure -- a series of vignettes, with no particular plot and no main characters -- made perfect sense to him.

"I wanted to capture the way you walk around for a day and have these brief encounters with people you kind of know," he says. "I wanted it to be like you're home alone after a full day of activity and you're like piecing it all together ... trying to make sense of it."

Then, he tried to explain it to his cameraman and dolly grip.

""They were like 'What?!' And I was like, 'No, no, no. We'll hold {the viewer's} hand. We'll have these transitional characters. ... It won't make any sense on paper, but will be kind of easy to watch in its own kind of weird way.' "

They told him to check out a couple of other films with a similar setup -- Luis Bunuel's "The Phantom of Liberty" and Max Ophuls's "La Ronde." He did, and he learned.

For his next film, Linklater would like to do another day-in-the-life docu-feature -- this one would follow a bunch of teenagers in a car at night. "Nobody," he says, "has made an honest film about teenagers."

And he would like to stay in Texas and make small, independent, soulful films. In fact, he wouldn't mind just being a slacker.

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