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‘Slacker’ (R)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
August 23, 1991

"Slacker" is a work of divine flakiness. The heart and soul of this small-budget gem by independent filmmaker Richard Linklater are devoutly given over to that deep, rich vein of crackpot Americana. Set in the college milieu of Austin, Tex., it presents a gaggle of anarchists, master's candidates, castoffs, drifters, parlor philosophers, all of whom talk, nonstop, for the sheer pleasure of hearing themselves talk. They talk because they have to; they're unburdening themselves, obsessed with the whirring of their own psychic gears.

The film's spirit is that of late-night radio call-in shows, where the log of the nation's consciousness is rolled over and all the hidden, crawly things underneath are caught in the bright flashlight's beam. The film was scripted, but it doesn't feel like it. In fact, it doesn't seem written at all; it's more like Linklater merely scribbled down transmissions received in the fillings of his teeth.

The film has no story per se or dramatic development; it's an orgy of wacko yammering -- Linklater's Tower of Babble. People enter the film, deliver their spiels, then disappear, never to be seen again. One gabs about his book on the Kennedy assassination called, tentatively, "Conspiracy a Go-Go, another about how NASA and the Soviets have conspired to hide the fact that we've been on the moon since the '50s, and still another about how, on Saturday morning cartoons the Smurfs, who are blue, are preparing children for the arrival of Krishna, who is also blue.

In one encounter a young man and his friends are chatting on a street corner when a stringy girl runs up enthusiastically, jar in hand, claiming that it contains Madonna's Pap smear. In another, a group of housemates enters the room of one who, during the night, had cleaned out all of his stuff and moved on, leaving only a stack of cryptically encoded postcards on the floor. The last one says simply, "Stay tuned for future episodes."

There's a relaxed openness to surprise in Linklater's direction; it's filmmaking without maps, or at least that's the impression it gives. Linklater moves from one exchange to the next with miraculous ease; it's the sort of seamlessness you find in the late films by Bunuel, in which the filmmaker seems capable of shifting narrative gears at will. Linklater's control seems all but invisible here. But this kind of stylistic lucidity can only be the result of determined calculation and planning. The kind of happy accidents he captures don't come about by accident.

Perhaps the special insight Linklater has into the muddled psyches of these disenfranchised, mostly white, mostly college-educated kids contributes to the film's lackadaisical poise. He knows his turf, and he identifies with the unstructured, going-nowhere lives. He celebrates their marginality, their dedication to not working, to just hanging out. As one character puts it, "I may live badly, but at least I don't have to work to do it."

There is a genuine sensibility here, a sense of rebellion, connecting the lives of these fringe-dwellers, but it would evaporate instantly if any attempt were made to define it. That's its beauty -- its grungy amorphousness. In another age, these characters might have been hippies or anarchists; they have disdain for the so-called workaday establishment, but it's a passive resistance that they offer up. No programs, no platforms, just nonparticipation. One character's words might represent the whole mind-set: "Withdrawing in disgust is not the same thing as apathy."

Of course, Linklater indicates, all this verbiage could amount to nothing more than an elaborate rationalization for doing nothing. But doing nothing, posing, pontificating and just getting by emerge here as chosen alternatives. These people are doing just what they want to do; they may be about 90 percent cracked, but they're free, and Linklater pays homage to their home-grown, wiggy independence. This is a work of scatterbrained originality, funny, unexpected and ceaselessly engaging.

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