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Colin Bartie digs the countercultural theme in Slacker and other films by Richard Linklater.
The subject of Richard Linklater’s debut 1991 film Slacker was a disenchanted generation that refused to buy into the prevalent society of America, and in doing so gave its name to a new way of life, so-called ‘slacking’. As a result many young people choosing to opt out of consumer society headed for Austin, Texas, Linklater’s working base – not unlike the early hippies who had gone to San Francisco in the 60s, and the beatniks to Greenwich Village in the 50s.
Slacker follows an ensemble of bohemians, dreamers and misfits living in and around the Austin University campus, over the course of a single day and night. The camera follows various characters and scenes, never staying with one character or conversation for more than a few minutes before picking up someone else in the scene and following them instead. Linklater’s direction follows whatever character from the slacking community happens to walk into an ongoing conversation – a dazzling technical triumph that is made to look deceptively easy. Among others, the characters include a UFO buff, who proceeds to expound all sort of conspiracies involving alien abductions, secret government operations and covert scientific studies; a JFK conspiracy theorist; an elderly anarchist who fought in the Spanish Civil War; and a woman trying to sell a Madonna pap smear, complete with pubic hair.
In the opening credits of Slacker we are given three definitions of ‘slacker’: a person who shuns or avoids work or other obligations; a person who avoids military service; or an educated person who is antimaterialistic, purposeless, apathetic and usually works in a dead-end job. Although ‘slacker’ can mean all these things, in Linklater’s work it comes to mean much more. It is my contention that with this term we are seeing the emergence of new meaning, the creation of popular culture. The term ‘slacker’ in the hands of Richard Linklater becomes ‘a site of social struggle’ – the very essence of popular culture. ‘Slacker’ is a term that may come to have a similar significance to ‘beatnik’ and ‘hippie’ for earlier generations – part of what Linklater calls “the youth rebellion continuum”. As Jason Wood puts it in 100 American Independent Films, the term ‘slacker’ captures the film’s “Zeitgeist factor in its ability to directly connect with the rapidly emerging Generation X types being heavily hyped by the media.” Douglas Coupland, the author of the novel Generation X, wrote the Foreword to the print version of Slacker, and in it describes the slacking lifestyle in Canada.
‘Slacking’ is a much misunderstood concept, and in the hands of Richard Linklater it means nothing like ‘laziness’. In Linklater’s own words: “Lazy? No, no, no! Not at all! That’s a total misconception. Slackers, in one way, are on a track to something much better”. Interestingly, Linklater is fond of quoting Robert Louis Stevenson’s defence of idlers: “Idleness so-called, which does not consist in doing nothing, but in doing a great deal not recognised in the dogmatic formularies of the ruling class, has as good a right to state his position as industry itself.” “Withdrawing in disgust is not the same as apathy” as one of the characters in Slacker so eloquently puts it. Indeed this statement could be the motto of all countercultural movements. In many ways Linklater is like a modern Socrates, the Greek gadfly philosopher. He’s asking the youth of America to question everything. Like Aristotle, Linklater has returned to the original moral question, “What is the good life?” He certainly does not believe it can be found in the American way.
Slacking was something that was clearly going on in a lot of different locations circa 91/92, and as Linklater observed “for a film like Slacker to gross well over a million at the box office, for Generation X to sell more than a hundred thousand copies, and for Nirvana to be top of the charts, I just think, yeah, something is going on and a lot of people are participating.” ‘Lazy’ people cannot be creating all this activity. “People judge them as lazy, but they [slackers] are aggressive non-participants in a society they don’t see much point in.”
When Channel 4’s The Art Show devoted an episode to Richard Linklater, the presenter Ben Lewis made the point that Slacker is the only American movie that has given its name to a worldwide youth movement. Along with Coupland’s Generation X and Nirvana’s Nevermind Linklater’s Slacker sent shock waves all the way up to the White House, provoking the new president Bill Clinton to make several speeches condemning “the so-called generation X, filled with cynics and slackers.”
On the other hand, the actor Jack Black (who later starred in Linklater’s 2003 movie School of Rock) spoke for many of his generation in his appraisal of the movie’s impact: “When I first saw the film Slacker I remember thinking ‘God damn it! Where is that in America? I want to go there, to that strange bohemian paradise of lost dreams. Who made this fuckin’ film? I want to hang out with this guy. He is really on a quest to find the center of the truth of the thing’.”
In The Art Show Ben Lewis interviews Ernest David Sosa, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Austin, and asks him about Linklater’s philosophy. Sosa tells Lewis that Richard Linklater is not only an important film auteur, but heir to an ancient Greek philosophy of doubting (scepticism) which goes back at least to Pyrrho of Elis, who in about 500BC was encouraging the same kind of approach as Linklater: “It doesn’t mean you do not believe anything, but you do question the possibility of absolute truth.” Lewis points out that Linklater’s films constantly seem to pose “certain philosophical questions – ‘can we be truly free?’ for example, and ‘what is consciousness?’ and ‘how can we know what is real, when each of us is stuck in a one-reality-restriction type thing?’”
Slacking is ‘the good life’ for Linklater – this is how to live. You then have plenty of time to daydream. In an interview with Movie Maker Linklater is unequivocal: “Work is hazardous for your health! Create your own world. Daydream.” Many of the characters in Slacker spend their time daydreaming, as they do in Waking Life (2001), Linklater’s animated feature that picks up where Slacker left off ten years earlier. If anything Waking Life is a comprehensive study in (day)dreaming, a surreal movie that tries to reconcile dream with reality, highlighting the perennial philosophical question asked by the father of modern philosophy René Descartes: How can we tell the difference between dreams and reality?
Waking Life follows the dreams of one youth, Wiley Wiggins, and his attempt to find the absolute difference between waking life and the dream world. Whilst trying to wake up, Wiley connects with many people on his way. Waking Life has a peripatetic structure very similar to Slacker, but this time there is one character that connects the disparate others. Many of the characters in Waking Life offer one sentence asides on life; others offer soliloquies, delving deeply into existential questions and the mysteries of life. At times we become the main character ourselves, asking the questions, seeking the answers. Wiley Wiggins’ dream becomes our dream. It is our questions being asked. Can we control our dreams? What do our dreams tell us about our life, about death? What do they tell us about ourselves: where we come from, where our destiny lies? The film doesn’t answer these questions for us, but like any good philosophical text, inspires us to ask the questions ourselves and to set out on life’s quest for answers – to ‘know yourself’.
Linklater also uses the character of Wiley Wiggins to stress and illustrate another of the main tenets of his philosophy: everything is in some way connected to everything else – it is up to us to see and understand the connections. Wiley Wiggins had earlier been one of the main protagonists in Linklater’s Dazed and Confused (1993). Now, near the start of Waking Life we see Wiley Wiggins waking up with his head propped against the window of a train, a mirror image of the opening sequence of Slacker, where we see the character played by Linklater himself waking in the same position and getting off a bus to catch a taxi and deliver a monologue about the possibility of dreams, and the potential for living different lives, inhabiting different realities.
In the ‘Special Features’ addition to the DVD edition of Slacker, we are told that the monologue Linklater speaks at the beginning of the film “serves as the key to the rest of the film’s structure and is accreditable to the ‘Schrödinger’s cat paradox’ from quantum mechanics”. This thought experiment shows that if the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics is true, then a cat could be both alive and dead at the same time. This led to the rival ‘many-worlds’ interpretation of quantum mechanics, which Linklater discusses. The same sequence however, could be equally accreditable to Nietzsche’s concept of ‘the circle of time’ in ‘Of the Vision and the Riddle’ in Thus Spoke Zarathustra; or to the shamanistic conception of reality and time enunciated in Carlos Castaneda’s writings in The Wheel of Time. Later on, one of the characters in Slacker refers to how Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle supports the view that all reality is subjective, and that in the very act of looking at an object we change reality. This is not a million miles away from the view of the philosopher Bishop Berkeley, that material objects cease to exist when we look away from them [if it were not for the considerable influence of God in the matter – Ed].
Just as Linklater’s first, undistributed film, It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books (1988) can be seen as a prequel to Slacker, in many ways Slacker was a prequel to the even more philosophical Waking Life. Indeed many of the philosophical questions raised in Slacker are dealt with in greater depth in Waking Life. Like one of his great heroes, Robert Bresson, Linklater could be considered ‘a philosopher with a camera’, as Ephraim Katz called Bresson.
Linklater’s one-time flat-mate and director of photography, Lee Daniels, talks enthusiastically about how important the films of Robert Bresson were to both of them, and how they watched the long tracking shots of Lancelot du Lac (1974) over and over again. The structure of Slacker bears a striking resemblance to Bresson’s L’Argent (1983). L’Argent (Money) is in turn based on a short story by Tolstoy, called The Forged Coupon. In Bresson’s film the action follows the circulation of a forged 500-franc note from the hands of a greedy bourgeois schoolboy, to middle-class shopkeepers, and into the hands of an unsuspecting oil worker; an innocent who is led down a path whereby he loses his job and his family, and eventually becomes an axe murderer. Bresson masterfully, but with great economy, outlines a chain of exploitation that shows how the greed of the bourgeoisie is linked to violence in the lives of the working class, who consistently pay the vicious price of a class-based society.
However, Slacker’s scenes are not connected by the circulation of an object, but by the ephemeral circulation of ideas, and by the ambiguous conceptual connection that is slacking. So like Bresson before him, Linklater refuses to structure Slacker in terms of a conventional plot or characters, but on the movement of an idea. The idea that moves in Slacker is slacking itself – that which is happening in the space outside the area where people work for ‘the Man’ – the space where people are cultivating creativity in the world of ideas that are anathema to governments.
When asked for his definition of ‘slacking’ the actor Wiley Wiggins, expresses it well: “How does the character in Slacker put it? ‘Withdrawing in disgust is not the same as apathy.’ I think that was a pretty good definition. Not wanting to have a tedious office job that creates absolutely nothing of your own, that’s not laziness – I think that’s wanting to have a meaningful life.”
As the Greek philosophers knew, and as we are increasingly rediscovering, living a meaningful life is what it’s all about.
© Colin Bartie 2006
Colin Bartie is a Philosophy Lecturer at Jewel & Esk Valley College in Edinburgh and teaches courses on ‘Philosophy and Film’ and ‘Popular Culture’.