Tuesday, July 05, 2011


The longest tracking shot ever

By Edward Copeland
OK, technically, Slacker isn't one unbroken shot, but it almost feels that way, even 20 years after it finally completed its long, arduous journey toward a major U.S. release on this date (major for an indie arthouse film anyway). It only took writer-director Richard Linklater two months to film it in the summer of 1989, but the task of getting it released took two years. On the commentary track for the Criterion DVD that Linklater recorded in 2004, he says that he wanted the film to be "one long take" and re-watching it, Slacker still stuns me by how close it comes to evoking that feel, even though it's artifice. In many ways, it's an experimental film, so it's quite remarkable that its appeal became as broad as it did, that it remains so enjoyable on repeat viewings and that it even got made in the first place, especially for that fabled budget of $23,000.

Slacker covers 24 hours in Austin, though as Linklater points out in his commentary, it's actually only a small portion of the Texas city — confined mainly to the west side of the University of Texas campus and a few downtown clubs. The film contains no plot or narrative or central characters (In fact, characters don't get names as much as descriptions.); it just follows one person who then leads to another and another and so on, as if it's a funky sort of relay race with the baton constantly being passed. Miraculously, almost every character we meet and every short scene that plays out turns out to be as entertaining or fascinating as the one that came before. Slacker truly lacks any dead spots because we're watching all forms of humanity on display and though it's fiction, it almost plays like a documentary. "It seems spontaneous, but we always knew what was coming next," Linklater says on the DVD. The writer-director also is the first character to launch the chain, playing what he says is sort of a continuation of his first full-length feature It's Impossible to Learn to Plow By Reading Books, which is on the Criterion DVD and I'd planned to watch but simply ran out of time. Linklater plays Should Have Stayed at Bus Station who gets into a cab and tells Taxi Driver (Rudy Basquez) about a dream he had, which more or less sums up the idea behind Slacker itself.
"Do you ever have those dreams that are just completely real? I mean, they're so vivid it's just like completely real. It's like there's always something bizarre going on in those.…There's always someone getting run over or something really weird.…Anyway, so this dream I just had was just like that except instead of anything bizarre going on, there was nothing going on at all.…I was just traveling around…When I was at home, I was flipping through TV stations endlessly. Reading. I mean, how many dreams do you have where read in a dream?…it was like the premise for this whole book was that every thought you have creates its own reality, you know? It's like every choice or decision you make, the thing you choose not to do, fractions off and becomes its own reality, you know, and just goes on from there, forever. I mean, it's like you know in The Wizard of Oz where Dorothy meets the Scarecrow and they do that little dance at the crossroads and they think about going in all those directions and they end up going in that one direction? All those other directions, just because they thought about them, become separate realities. I mean, they just went on from there and lived the rest of their life…you know, entirely different movies, but we'll never see it because we're kind of trapped in this one reality restriction type of thing."

His full monologue runs much longer than that, but I had to cut it down a bit, but you don't know it the first time you see Slacker, but in hindsight and later viewings, he's giving you a lot of foreshadowing. For one thing, he mentions there is "always someone getting run over" and when he exits the cab to start the first handoff, that's the first thing he sees: a mother, Roadkill (Jean Caffeine) plowed down by a car we'll learn was driven by her Hit-and-Run Son (Mark James) as a couple of witnesses gather. Which one will we follow though? The movie of the Jogger (Jan Hockey) or the businessman Running Late (Stephen Hockey)? Maybe the third person to appear on the scene, Grocery Grabber of Death's Bounty (Samuel Dietert). Nah. They all were just links waiting for the Hit-and-Run Son's car to reappear so we can see his story which, according to Linklater, may have been based on a true story which had become sort of a neighborhood legend, since the murdering son waited around for the police — reading no less. He also talks about flipping channels endlessly and we will eventually meet Video Backpacker (Kalman Spellitich) who has flooded his room with all types of TVs showing different images — he even has one strapped to his back. Should Have Stayed at Bus Station says the book with the different realities concept he described must have been written by him since it's in his dream and the part is played by Linklater after all, who described the structure of the film as "jumping from movie to movie" and said the content of the film was of less concern to him than the form. When I first saw Slacker, I laughed when Should Have Stayed at Bus Station made the comparison to The Wizard of Oz because ever since I was a kid and saw that movie for the first time, I always wondered what would happen if Dorothy and the gang decided to follow one of those brick roads of another color. They had to lead somewhere, didn't they?

While true that the structure formed the basis for the idea for Slacker, the budding filmmaker, who celebrated his 29th birthday during shooting (It's hard to believe Linklater is 51 now), also selected the premise of a plotless film where one character leads to the next as a matter of convenience. It eliminated the need for continuity concerns. A character once they appeared wouldn't be coming back later in the film, so hairstyle changes or other things weren't a worry. However, because Linklater wanted the movie to appear seamless, every decision on where to make a cut or edit became a "big deal." Since the film aimed to cover a 24-hour period but wasn't going to run 24 hours, at some point the movie had to switch from day to night and he did that with a dissolve that, at least in 2004 when he recorded the commentary, he still felt "was a cheat" 15 years after he'd done it. He employed 16mm, Super 8 and even a Fisher-Price toy "PixelVision" cameras to film the movie which were able to produce a viewable 16mm print but, Linklater admits, did present problems getting all actors in the 1.37:1 aspect ratio frame. Otherwise, Linklater had a relatively easy shoot, even laying down dolly tracks on public streets without permits and not getting in trouble for doing so.

Linklater did have some tryouts for roles in the movie, but many were played by friends, many who seemed to have been former or future roommates. His funniest recurring comment on the DVD is that everyone in the cast is a musician unless otherwise noted. That applied to the person in the movie's most infamous scene, Teresa Taylor, who portrays Pap Smear Pusher and also was the drummer for the band The Butthole Surfers, whose song "Strangers Die Everyday" plays over the end credits. What's forgotten in the memory of someone trying to sell Madonna's pap smear is that before she brings that up, she tells a pretty hilarious story about a man speeding down a highway squawking like a chicken and firing a gun in the air with one bullet ricocheting inside the car for awhile and another lodging in a girl's ponytail and the girl "called the pigs." An interesting note from Linklater's commentary track is that he wanted to avoid references that might date the movie too much and he pondered, since it was filmed in 1989 and Madonna had only been a star for about five years at that point, if her fame would last long enough that audiences well into the future would know who she was.

Because so many in the cast are playing characters that resemble themselves, you're not certain whether to praise someone's acting because you can't be sure that acting is taking place. However, there were some real or beginning actors in the cast, including a person who played a character that made quite an impression and that's Charles Gunning as Hitchhiker. Gunning had started acting not very long before Slacker: Joel and Ethan Coen discovered him and put him in Miller's Crossing. His scenes contain so much power that I believe he's the only character who doesn't just hand off to the next person he encounters: Linklater wisely lets him linger a little longer. In fact, Linklater liked him so much that he used him again in his underrated film The Newton Boys and Waking Life. As Hitchhiker, Gunning's off-kilter deadpan delivery truly proves riotous, whether he's telling Nova (Scott Van Horn), the passenger in the convertible he's hitched a ride in, that he's coming from a funeral and Nova says he's sorry, "Fuck it — should have let him rot." As he explains further that the dead man was his stepfather who always got drunk and beat on his mom, him and his siblings. "He was a serious fuckup. I'm glad the son of a bitch is dead. Thought he'd never die.…I couldn't wait for the bastard to die. (pause) I'll probably go back next week and dance on his grave." Once he's left the car, even though he's already bummed a cigarette off the guys in the car, he asks a man at an outdoor cafe if he can have one, palms two and sticks the extra one behind his ear. He then gets stopped by the Video Interviewer (Tammy Ringler) who wants to see if he'll answer some questions, which he agrees to do. She asks if he voted in the last election. "Hell no — I've got less important things to do." She asks what he does to earn a living. "You mean work? To hell with the kind of work you have to do to earn a living. All that does is fill the bellies of the pigs that exploit us. Hey, look at me — I'm making it. I may live badly, but at least I don't have to work to do it." Just reading his lines doesn't do justice to Gunning's delivery. Sadly, Gunning died in December 2002 due to injuries from a car wreck. He was 51.

Members of the cast who aren't actors or musicians do pretty damn well too, though I suppose being a philosophy professor at UT as Louis Mackey was at the time when he played the Old Anarchist requires performing skills as well and Mackey shares them delightfully in another of my favorite scenes. The Old Anarchist and his daughter Delia (Kathy McCarty) enter the movie as they witness the apprehension of the Shoplifter (Shelly Kristaponis) outside a grocery store. Delia tells her father that Shoplifter was in her ethics class and he comments, "Well, I'm always glad to see any young person doing SOMETHING" only he's referring to the shoplifting, not the ethics class. When they arrive home, they happen upon Burglar (Michael Laird), a particularly inept criminal who fumbles with his gun and didn't get a chance to try to steal anything because he was reading one of the many books in the house. The Old Anarchist easily takes the gun from Burglar and befriends him immediately, telling him, "No one's going to call the police. I hate the police more than you probably. Never done me any good." Just the idea of some aging, white-haired anarchist who says the things he does was pretty damn daring for a filmmaker trying to get his career off the ground and forming his first major work around a specific city. Old Anarchist would praise Leon Czolgosz as an American hero and lament not being on campus the day Charles Whitman went up into the tower with a sniper's rifle "because my fucking wife — God rest her soul — she had some stupid appointment that day. So during this town's finest hour, where the hell was I? Way the hell out on South Congress." You would think there would still be enough survivors or relatives of Whitman's victims in Austin that the film would have been reviled there, but it was embraced. Linklater says on the DVD that he "really thought Slacker had something in it to alienate everybody on some level or another." In referring to the Whitman lines, he even referenced what I thought of when I saw it — Alan Alda's character's formula in Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors : "Comedy equals tragedy plus time." Mackey though plays the nutty old kook wonderfully as he tries to impart life lessons on the would-be thief. "It's taken my entire life, but I can now say that I've practically given up on not only my own people but for mankind in its entirety. I can only address myself to singular human beings now."

As far as I can remember, Slacker never played in my city in 1991 as was often the case with many arthouse films back then. So, as would often happen, I would either drive to Dallas by myself or with friends to catch those types of movies, usually at the Inwood on Lovers Lane. That's where I saw Slacker. Austin may have been able to get past the Charles Whitman part, but I wasn't there to know if they laughed. I do know however that Dallas moviegoers still carry sensitivity relating to JFK's assassination. The whole scene, involving the character called JFK Buff (John Slate) is pretty funny. Linklater even calls it one of, if not his favorite scene in the film. However, when JFK Buff appeared on screen wearing a T-shirt with a big picture of Ruby shooting Oswald, my visiting friends and I all laughed out loud. I don't think our laughter was particularly noisy — it just stood out from the others in the audience who were from Dallas and in complete silence. I even caught one or two people look our direction. If I weren't a strict proponent of not talking during movies, I might have said, "Relax. Neither you nor your city killed him and that was almost 30 years ago (at that time)." As you would expect, JFK Buff was an authority on all things Kennedy, conspiracy and otherwise and he's advising a young woman called Girlfriend (she's not his, but played by Sarah Harmon) who is browsing through the Kennedy section of a bookstore which are the best books to read. He's also writing his own JFK book which he wanted to call Profiles in Cowardice, but his publisher suggested issuing as Conspiracy-a-Go-Go. He suggests she "snap up" the book Forgive My Grief which has the story of how Oswald and Officer Tippet were supposed to have their "'breakfast of infamy.' Yeah, the waitresses went on the record, in the Warren Report, as saying Oswald didn't like his eggs and used bad language," JFK Buff tells her. Ironically, as recently as 2006, John Slate worked as the city archivist for Dallas so he actually works with Kennedy assassination documents.

When you have a 100 minute film that's stuffed full of so many unique and interesting characters and memorable moments, you can't possibly highlight them all, no matter how much you might want to pay tribute to them on this anniversary. There's the Dostoyevsky Wannabe (Brecht Andersch) "Who's ever written the great work about the immense effort required NOT to create?"; I'd really love to write at length about the scene with Been on Moon (Jerry Deloney) "So they must like children too, because FBI statistics since 1980 say that 350,000 children are just missing — they disappeared. There's not that many perverts around."; Bush Basher (Daniel Dugan) and his ideas on how the nonvoting majority wins ever election; Prodder (Steve Anderson) who makes Jilted Boyfriend (Kevin Whitley) perform ritual sacrifice of items related to his ex-girlfriend with Boyfriend (Robert Pierson) along to watch; Scooby-Doo Philosopher (R. Malice) explaining how the cartoon teaches kids about bribery and how he thinks Smurfs has something to do with Krishna so people will be used to seeing blue people; Having a Breakthrough Day (D. Montgomery) handing out her oblique strategy cards and I could keep going, but I'll stop with Old Man (Joseph Jones), who appears toward the end walking down a road talking into a tape recorder and saying, "When young, we mourn for one woman. As we grow old, for women in general."

When it comes to picking the best part of Slacker, selecting that choice doesn't require any mulling or contemplation because Richard Linklater himself serves as the film's strongest and longest-lasting legacy. Slacker belongs in that same category of film as Citizen Kane (I'm not saying in terms of greatness) where its structure guarantees its freshness because it's so unique no matter how many times you see it, you're never certain what comes next. Not all of Linklater's films have turned out to be gems, but then that's the case with most great filmmakers. Robert Altman and Billy Wilder had their duds too. In fact, with the exception of School of Rock (which I love) and The Bad News Bears remake (which I still refuse to see), he reminds me of Altman in the way he avoids commercial prospects when picking projects. He's also been very prolific, to the point that I think some of his movies escaped people's notice altogether.

Look at the body of work he's compiled since Slacker: the great Dazed and Confused; the exquisite yet complete change-of-pace that was Before Sunrise, which I got to interview him about on the phone; the very good adaptation of Eric Bogosian's off-Broadway play SubUrbia; The Newton Boys, long overdue for reappraisal; Waking Life, which admittedly works better as an experiment in style than as a film; the underseen and very strong Tape featuring searing work by Robert Sean Leonard, Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke; the aforementioned blast that is The School of Rock; Before Sunset, the unlikeliest sequel ever made; turning a nonfiction best seller into a fiction film with the same message in Fast Food Nation; A Scanner Darkly, his venture into Philip K. Dick and sci-fi using the animation technique from Waking Life; Inning by Inning: A Portrait of a Coach, a documentary about Texas' baseball coach who holds the most wins in NCAA history, a film I didn't even know about until I was going through IMDb; and his most recent film, Me and Orson Welles, which is simply one of the best he's made. Later this year, there should be a new Linklater crime comedy called Bernie that reunites him with Jack Black and Matthew McConaughey and also starring Shirley MacLaine.

Back to Slacker, the film I'm saluting. On that commentary, Linklater says that much of the movie really revolves around deciding whether or not to do something or, as he put it, "To act or not to act." If that is the question Slacker poses, Linklater chose the positive response and film lovers are better off for him doing so.

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Love, love, love this film! A buddy of mine and I were obsesses with this film in college the year it came out on home video. We must've worn out that tape we watched it so much. There is just so much to absorb and so many different characters and scenes that even if you're not crazy about one it eventually moves to another before you get too bored.

I think that the Been on Moon sequence is still my fave. I just love how the guy rambles on and on oblivious to the fact that the guy he's talking to hardly says anything and doesn't seem all that interested. In fact, it looks like he's trying to get away from this nut!

I remember this coming out around the same time as other Gen-X films like SINGLES and REALITY BITES but this one is still the best of the bunch, IMO.
This is really a amazing movie.One of my favorite part in this movie is the Been on Moon sequence is still my fave. I just love how the guy rambles on and on oblivious to the fact that the guy he's talking to hardly says anything and doesn't seem all that interested.
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