Because Richard Linklater is the odds on favorite to win the best director Oscar next month for his work in Boyhood there have been a lot of think pieces about his career lately. Taken together, they paint an interesting portrait. He's a man who has made iconoclastic art films, but he also directed the Bad News Bears remake. His films are often set in his home state of Texas, but they have the sensibility of a European auteur like Truffaut. He often makes semi-aimless movies that exude laid back charm, but he has to be a seriously driven person to have remained in the independent film world for so long, especially since many of his films are difficult sells. (Anyone who thought that A Scanner Darkly, which is an animated film about a schizophrenic cop with a bad drug habit, was going to be a blockbuster just because it starred Keanu Reeves is crazy.)
All of those thinkpieces made me want to revisit Slacker, which is Linklater's first film. Slacker is an interesting movie, and you can see why it put Linklater on the map in the early 90s, but it does have a lot of the roughness that early efforts often have. The film is a series of linked vignettes, where a few characters will have a conversation, then as they walk past another group of people the camera shifts focus, and then we follow the new conversation for a few minutes. It's a unique gimmick that makes the film stand out, but it also makes the film feel uneven, because not all of the conversations are equally interesting and not all of the amateur actors are equally good at giving monologues.
The script is both the movie's greatest strength and it's greatest weakness. It has a lot of plusses: some of the monologues are really funny, and they reflect a left of mainstream viewpoint that still feels refreshing all these years later. Furthermore, because no one person has to anchor the whole film you never know what you're going to get once a new scene starts - we could catch someone carping over a minor issue in full or obsessing over a big issue in passing. Another bonus: you're also always aware that whatever speedbumps Slackers hits will soon be in the rearview mirror because the movie doesn't focus on any one thing for too long.
Unfortunately, the script also has a lot of problems. The monologues aren't always fully fleshed out, and several of the vignettes echo each other a bit too much. (Austin might have been a haven for conspiracy theory nuts at the time, but Slacker would have been better off sticking to a single speech about what really happened to JFK in Dallas and then forgetting the other diatribes about what the media isn't really telling you.) The roving point of view gives you an interesting take on what life in Austin Texas felt like in the early 90s, which is great, but it also gives you the sense that a guy who was basically casting his friends should maybe have written a script with fewer speaking parts.
If you look at Slacker in isolation, the film is charming but kind of light weight - it's sort of pretentious, but it's also funny enough to be enjoyable. However, if you put Slacker into the context of Linklater's whole career, the film is much more compelling, because it shows many of Linklater's obsessions in their embryonic stage.
Like a lot of people, my favorite Linklater films are the Before Trilogy, which are three films that follow a couple named Celine and Jesse as they talk, bicker and flirt at different times in their life. Slacker's interest in character and conversation over plot mirrors the Before movies, although Slacker suffers from the comparison because it's less polished. Before Midnight, the most recent of the series, focused on middle aged concerns about life, death and family, and it betrays a maturity that's light years ahead of Slacker, which occasionally touches on deep issues but ultimately feels like a lark. It's a bit of unfair comparison because Linklater made Slacker when he was in his twenties and Before Midnight in his fifties, but everything in the entire Before series from it's writing, to it's camera movements, to it's acting is more affecting than what you see in Slacker. One discusses profound issues, but the other actually achieves profundity.
A Scanner Darkly is another movie that makes an intriguing companion for Slacker. Where Slacker only had the budget to tell you about some of Linklater's more conspiratorial ideas, A Scanner Darkly can actually show them in depth. The rotoscoping process Linklater used to animate Scanner really sells it's central themes, because it's a film about a man who doesn't really know who he is and it's visual style reflects that - it's characters look real and fake at the same time. Furthermore, A Scanner Darkly uses it's web of conspiracies to explore serious questions about how an individual person comes to understand their place in the world, while Slacker mostly uses conspiracy theories as off color jokes. Both films dip into paranoia, but Scanner shows while Slacker tells, and that makes a big difference.
A more fair comparison might be between Slacker and Boyhood, because the dialogue between those two films isn't disrupted by Slacker's more imperfect qualities. Slacker is all about simultaneity: the only link between the various dialogues is that they are occurring next to each other in the same place. It's trying to document one day from start to finish, emphasizing a place over any one person. In contrast, Boyhood is about a nuclear family across a large expanse of time, documenting the life of one kid as he moves from place to place and the people around him come and go. Both films are explicitly using time as a framing device, but to opposite ends, and when they're juxtaposed they ask interesting questions about how we move through the world.
If Linklater had made Slacker and then disappeared, there would still be a certain cult around him - this movie has enough charisma that it would appeal to people who can look past some of it's more amateurish aspects to embrace the variety of ideas it's expressing. But the film is definitely more engaging in the context of a broader career, because it shows how much he's grown as a thinker and as a technician while still maintaining a core of integrity. He isn't a perfect filmmaker by any means, but he is doing the work of a real artist, and I wish him the best of luck when the big ceremony rolls around.