Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Detour as narrative on the streets of Austin

A man arrives in Austin, Texas. It’s 1989. He took the bus here, and seems to have been traveling a great deal. He leaves the station, gets in a cab, lets loose a monologue in which he describes a dream in which he read a book about splintering realities, different dimensions, other versions of himself and of everybody else, even his possibly mute employee of Roy’s Taxi currently driving him around. Soon both dream-raconteur and his stoic audience-of-one slip into the background, making way for a guy in a BE ALL THAT YOU CAN BE t-shirt watching super-8 home movies, for a cheerful babbling conspiracy theorist, for a pedantic youth pontificating on idleness as a route to liberation, for some dude who says he can get three girls into a gig but actually can’t, for a self-described “anti-artist” who claims to destroy works of art (I wonder if he went on to become a film critic), for a young woman who claims to possess Madonna’s pap smear—she knows a gynecologist in Hollywood. Who is the hero of this movie? The answer, of course, is everyone.

Slacker (1991), Richard Linklater’s second feature and a key work in the story of American independent cinema, is one of those rare films that succeeds at pluralizing the protagonist, at capturing a community, a spirit, a place and time—the anniversary of the moon landing, the ’88 presidential election, the leaning towers of VHS tapes and the death of L. Ron Hubbard all provide Slacker with a timestamp. Employing what Linklater described as a “vertical narrative,” the movie moves like a narrative relay race in which no one is in a hurry. The story, as such, goes wherever the next character takes it. The production company is titled ‘Detour,’ a nod to Edgar G. Ulmer’s beloved poverty row noir, but also a directive for a trajectory devoted to alternate routes. The movie seems inspired by late period Luis Buñuel; it is rigorously associational. Which is not the same as random—Slacker’s cast are very much all of the same world, sharing many of the same preoccupations: the unseen hands that control modern life; freedom as something inherently elusive, given our insistence of laying traps for ourselves (a theme explicitly alluded to in the title of Buñuel’s The Phantom of Liberty); and the potential heroism in passivity.

This last theme isn’t mere irony or slacker bravado. The notion of passivity as being socially useful is critiqued in Slacker’s very first transition, when numerous passersby come upon the unconscious, possibly dead victim of a hit-and-run splayed out in the road and each of them passes the buck, uninterested or unwilling to get involved. There is a dark side to this seemingly mirthful, seemingly humanist, seemingly ambivalent movie whose title is totally misleading: this project was a tremendous, ambitious undertaking, and Linklater, still in his 20s at the time, was anything but lazy. He would soon after prove to be one of the contemporary cinema’s most prolific directors, with an astonishing range of works under his belt, most notably Dazed and Confused (1993), School of Rock (2003), the Before… trilogy (1995, 2004, 2013), and Waking Life (2001), which unfolds like a series of dreams and to which Slacker is most closely related—Slacker’s first line: “Man, I just had the weirdest dream.” Previously available only on DVD, Slacker is now available from Criterion on a lovingly packaged new blu-ray edition. It remains striking original, frequently hilarious, at once loose and mesmerizing, and an inspiration for anyone who feels cinematic form to be riddled with constraints. 

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