Armchair Cinephile

Long live slack

One of the coolest, and in its way most influential, of all Texas movies, Richard Linklater's Slacker (Criterion Collection) has taken its sweet time getting to DVD shelves. And while associating the film with laziness misses the point, it's easy to imagine some of its inhabitants having misgivings about the format: "I don't know, man, I heard that DVD stuff was invented by the Philips Corporation - and, of course, you know they have a history of attempts at mass brainwashing ... "

At any rate, it's here, and not a bit too soon. For a long stretch during the '90s, the film seemed a life-affirming celebration of idiosyncrasy; these days, it is harder to laugh off the paranoia and menace that color so much of the dialogue. It's still awfully funny, but even viewers who loved it from the start may find it meatier than they remember. Then there's the extra treat of having a twenty-something guy sitting in his living room, talking about how the (first) Bush presidency isn't really legitimate, since such a small percentage of the electorate voted. Some things never change.

For the uninitiated, the movie's effortlessly experimental structure will make a big impression: A daisy chain of conversations, it focuses on no single character for more than a scene or two. Twenty-four hours or so pass, during which you meet enough interesting people to carry at least a dozen movies. It's a magically weird film, both tied to its time and drifting away on another plane entirely.

Slacker was treated pretty shabbily on VHS the first time around, which makes this rich Criterion Collection edition even more sweet. A double-disc package, it has all the extras a fan could wish for - some of which are far more valuable to Central Texans who spent much time in Austin during the '80s than they would be to film buffs in New York or Paris. There are three commentary tracks, of course, such as the one in which an amiable Linklater tries to figure out just what sort of person listens to those things. There are essays recycled from old publications, such as Linklater's musings on "slacker culture," original reviews and present-day reassessments, and the relevant chapter from the memoirs of legendary indie film rep (and recent addition to the University of Texas faculty) John Pierson.

A couple of romantic essays and a treasure trove of program flyers capture the early days of the Austin Film Society, the silver-nitrate-laced primordial soup from which Slacker emerged; a 10-minute trailer for a homemade documentary pays tribute to Les Amis Cafe, the now-demolished site of some memorable Slack; and a chunk of Disc One is devoted to more production snapshots than anyone could possibly want to see.

The film's unusual casting process is documented, with "audition" videos showing which actors were just like their characters and which weren't. There are early script drafts, behind-the-scenes home movies (yes, kids, they built dolly tracks and rented cranes!), and a trippy 1985 short documenting the Woodshock music festival/beer bash.

The deleted scenes have some entertaining moments, but they'll also be cherished by hipsters who happened to be at UT-Austin during this weird era: The late, much-lamented Tamale House on Guadalupe, for instance, and the Varsity Theater, which was replaced by a now-defunct Tower Records.

The big news for die-hard Linklater followers is the inclusion of It's Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books, the filmmaker's rarely seen first feature, made with a crew of one. Tributes from cult director Monte Hellman aside, the nearly action-free film is not for everyone. It's not an insult to say that Plow is more interesting to watch with the director's commentary than without it; Linklater's memories of immersing himself in cinema, of why and how he took the next step and made the film, are just the thing for nascent cinephiles.

Finally, this DVD edition can make a nearly unique boast: In one way, it's better than seeing the movie in a theater. Slacker was shot on 16 mm film, in the TV-shaped 1.33:1 ratio. When it was sold for theatrical distribution, transferring it to 35mm required chopping off the top and bottom of the frame to make it widescreen. Characters' heads were chopped off mid-forehead, and frame compositions were marred. Here, the movie is presented in its full-frame glory. Leave it to a film as nonconformist as Slacker to make nitpicky film lovers say, "Thank goodness they're not releasing it in widescreen." •

John DeFore on DVD


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