Fade in: A 20-something wakes up on a bus headed to Austin. At the bus station, the man climbs into a taxi and launches into a three-minute monologue about ontological questions posed by “The Wizard of Oz.” “When Dorothy meets the Scarecrow and they do that little dance at that crossroads and they think about going in all those directions and then they end up going in that one direction,” the man says as the stone-faced cabbie does or doesn’t listen, “all those other directions, just because they thought about it, became separate realities . . . entirely different movies, but we’ll never see it, because we’re trapped in this one reality.”
“I think I was the oldest on the crew at 28,” Linklater, 50, recently wrote in an e-mail. He not only wrote and directed “Slacker” but also played the young man puzzled by the myriad possibilities the yellow brick road offered. “The film accidentally became a ‘portrait of a generation’ only because it got grouped in with Doug Coupland’s book, ‘Generation X,’ and the grunge scene that was breaking out at the time — ‘Slacker’ was the third wheel of the cultural medallion at that moment.”
That moment, now two decades old, looks a lot older. A narrative-free peek into the lives of a seemingly random collection of unnamed, mostly young Austinites, “Slacker” documents an age before Bill Clinton, cellphones, the Internet, public smoking bans, the war on terror and Twitter. It’s about that recession before the Great Recession, that funny part of the 1990s when gas was cheap and jobs were hard to come by that looks a little bit like the 1980s if you squint but feels like something else entirely.
“I think we were called ‘baby busters’ at the time,” Linklater writes. Although he has directed Hollywood flicks such as “School of Rock” and the “Bad News Bears,” as well as art-house fare such as “Tape” and “Waking Life,” Linklater is wary of the business of becoming a generation’s spokesman: “It was interesting when people were talking about the non-narrative or unique storytelling aspects of [the film], but I sort of checked out when it became about broad cultural statements, labels, and, could it be . . . a new MARKET!”
“The point of ‘Slacker’ is that these people aren’t slackers,” Louis Black says. Editor of the Austin Chronicle and co-founder of Austin’s South by Southwest music festival, Black is a longtime champion of the hardworking creative community that inspired Linklater’s film. “People make films, have blogs, are in bands,” Black says. “They’re slackers because they don’t have jobs.”
“What happens in each scene came down to my budget limitations, making it in my own neighborhood here in Austin,” Linklater told an interviewer in 1995. With a $23,000 shooting budget, far eclipsed by the “couple of hundred grand” Linklater says distributor Orion Classics spent marketing it, “Slacker” jettisoned plot because it was too expensive. “It was the kind of film I could make at that time with no money,” he said.
That subject matter — half hyper-, over-intellectualized self-analysis, half lowbrow humor — owes a debt to Woody Allen and National Lampoon but anticipates the Upright Citizens Brigade improv group. In vignettes, an aging lefty stops a would-be burglar with praise for Leon Czolgosz, President William McKinley’s anarchist assassin, and a mentally unbalanced restaurant customer who insists she’s a doctor harangues a timid man, insisting that he “must never harass a woman sexually.”
“An alternative title to ‘Slacker’ might be COLLEGE TOWN,” writes Linklater, who still calls Austin home. “While it is very specific to Austin, it sort of represents these medium-sized towns all over the country that have Universities. I think that was part of the appeal at the time — it wasn’t New York or L.A.”
“I worked at Whole Foods, right down the street from where our scene was filmed,” says Abra Moore. A former member of the folk-rock outfit Poi Dog Pondering, then based in Austin, Moore was one of many local musicians Linklater recruited to appear in “Slacker.” Credited as “Has Change,” she refuses to give another character change for a dollar even though she has it. “I was on my way to work,” she says. “I shot the scene, went down the street and went to work.”
Black, who plays a paranoid man in a restaurant, had a similar casual experience on the set. When Linklater invited him to appear in “Slacker,” the director didn’t give him the hard sell.
“[Linklater] said, ‘I’m making a movie, and if you wanna be in it, you should show up . . . if not, we’ll get one of the grips,’ ” Black says. His cameo as a paranoid newspaper reader — “Quit following me!” he barks — came from the heart. “That was very much me at the time,” he says.
Black doesn’t hesitate to liken “Slacker” to a more popular film that’s held up as the touchstone of a different generation. “Rick is a visionary,” he says. “I don’t even think ‘American Graffiti’ is close to it.”
Still, Linklater can’t quite go home again, even if he never left. “Rents have gone up in Austin quite a bit,” he writes. “Maybe my character would still be looking for someone to move in with and mooch off of.”