One Step Ahead [Slacker Movie Review]

A poster for the film

Given my penchant for slacking I thought it was only appropriate to finally getting around to watching Richard Linklater’s cult classic, Slacker. I wasn’t sure what to expect as I had only heard some details. I only really knew that it was more vignette based and that there wasn’t a singular plot that the movie revolved around. Other than that I figured it’d just show me the 1990s in Austin, Texas as what it was like for your general weirdo or slacker as Linklater calls them.

In the movie, slackers are usually people who just “hang out”. Appropriately almost no one has a conventional job, even jobs they hate. They either get by through stealing, living with others to minimize costs or when they do get jobs it’s things like playing guitar on the streets. I kept thinking that the film was set in Los Angeles for some reason, it was probably the weather.

To tell you what Slacker is about I’d have to be pretty broad in my scope since, as I mentioned before, it isn’t about one thing. It’s about many different people and their weird experiences being slackers in Austin, Texas. What resonated with me the most was the atmosphere that all of the characters seemed to live in. They seemed to be acting as if the 60s were still going strong in their hearts but in their heads they had given up. It was a mix of nihilism with pessimism and hedonism in the moment. Most of the characters do drugs or smoke or drink or try to enjoy whatever is in front of them.

Some of them try to use their environment against itself, for example one of the characters collects TVs and is trying to find a way for political radicals to use it as a form of protest against the establishment. Another character (in)famously tries to use celebrity culture to make a buck off of things like Madonna’s papsmear and sell it on the streets.

The nihilism of the 80s seems to pass seamlessly into the 90s of Austin with the only real hope being found in either short-term human connection that people typically aren’t sure about or the power of technology, most notably TV.

There’s a lot to the movie that also seems to satirize as much as it does encourage the sort of people that might enjoy this film. A couple of teenagers talk about the futility of moving around and that going anywhere wouldn’t really solve much. Most people suck and you always have to deal with weird people so why bother? I take it to be that the implied message is that this makes it ideal to slack around instead.

The word slacker was actually supposed to be a positive term. Linklater says:

Slackers might look like the left-behinds of society, but they are actually one step ahead, rejecting most of society and the social hierarchy before it rejects them. The dictionary defines slackers as people who evade duties and responsibilities. A more modern notion would be people who are ultimately being responsible to themselves and not wasting their time in a realm of activity that has nothing to do with who they are or what they might be ultimately striving for.”

Clearly most people who adopted the term slacker into their vocabulary didn’t see it this way though. They saw the slackers as losers (though to their credit, some of the people in this film seem to embrace loserdom, as with the guy who is a member of the band Beautiful Losers) and people not to be taken seriously. But Linklater himself never really takes them seriously either. He lets each character get their five minutes of fame (and sometimes a few minutes more) and then whisks them on to another person.

And really, no person is too weird. You’ve got three different kind of conspiracy theorists in this movie with one being a JFK buff, another group being about the Freemasons and the third one is an all around conspiracy theorist who’ll talk your head off for hours. But as opposed to a lot of films that might portray them and even though they come off as odd and slightly socially obtuse due to their communication style, they don’t come off as insincere. You could imagine running into almost any of the characters in this film in Austin or anywhere else.

In that sense, eventually the weirdness washes away to just a sort of “weird as the norm”.

As Vincent Canby of the New York Times wrote:

After a while, a certain monotony sets in, as well as desperation. It isn’t easy being eccentric, and it’s even more difficult to remain eccentric in the company of other eccentrics. A terrible transformation occurs: the unusual begins to look numbingly normal.

Toward the end of “Slacker,” a sane voice might bring down the house, but it’s not there.

The only sane voice I found was an elderly man who, after being in a tricky situation starts talking about anarchism and fighting in the Spanish Civil War, as well as critiquing modern day libertarians (he seems to mostly have objectivists in mind). It was very cool to see someone who was familiar with anarchism or at least have them portray someone who knew enough to quote Bakunin, likes Leon Czolgos and hates the police. That’s definitely not a recipe for a substantial anarchism perhaps but it was nice to see it anyways. I’ll take what I can get even if all it amounts to is a pleasant surprise.

The movie begins with someone sleeping and dreaming about not doing anything more than reading books and lounging around, it’s slackception, I suppose. And certainly a proper way to start Slacker.< But what's in this movie for anti-work people? Honestly? Not much. I wasn't really surprised that there were only a few quotes or statements about jobs and work. But when they are made, they're usually enjoyable enough. When one man is asked about his lifestyle he says that he may live badly due to not having a steady job but at least he doesn't have to work.

This definitely resonated for me as someone who doesn’t exactly live the richest lifestyle but still manages to get by through connections via friends and family. I may not live well but at least I’m not working and I’m also making sure that whatever scenario I am in, I am not leeching off the other person or that they don’t feel like they get the raw end of the deal.

Another thing that was of specific note was those who were jobless but used their time in academia or are still using it as a way to ascribe meaning to their life where most others wouldn’t. There’s one particularly obnoxious guy who talks about “slave morality” and the shortcomings of people who donate to the homeless. When the woman with him calls him an asshole he appeals to the idea that most people who changed the world were called assholes. This is obviously presuming a lot.

I especially like this one quote from her:

It’s like you pasted together these bits and pieces from your authoritative sources. … I’m beginning to suspect that there’s nothing really in there.

>Slacker doesn’t really hold back from mocking its audience as much as it tries to pay it homage to how weird and crazy slackers can be. Other people in the movie read through complicated ideas or discuss philosophical abstractions but it never feels like it ever actually amounts to some great insight. And often times the people they’re talking to aren’t even really listening.

In short, it all seems pretty pointless.

And maybe that’s part of what we’re supposed to get out of the movie. That a lot of the meanings in these peoples lives simply aren’t there. They’re wanderers who have no single purpose and they’re going to take their time about it. In that way the film is as much of a mocking as it is a celebration of the slacker lifestyle.

I recommend the film, but not strongly. I don’t think it’s a real must for anyone (even anti-work people) unless you’re interested in doing some sort of cultural study on cult classics, Austin in the 90s or something of that nature. And even then you might be better off somewhere else for all I know.

The film isn’t bad but it just isn’t…much. It’s not true for me but I think it’s true for most other people that this is one of those films that you’ll either really enjoy or really dislike. I doubt that I’m in anything but the minority in just giving it a vaguely positive shrugging of my shoulder.

Honestly, if I wasn’t anti-work this film wouldn’t interest me in the slightest. But given that it appealed to that sentiment a little bit and had a few interesting ideas and scenarios I’d probably say it was an above average movie overall.

Unfortunately Slacker is going to be off from Netflix soon after this is published. But if you can find it elsewhere, got a few hours to kill and don’t mind vignette styled movies then get on your best pair of sweatpants and strap in for some nihilistic 90s fever!