By Brad Cook | October 14, 2004

As they do with other media, critics love to dissect the history of film into different periods. You have the silents, the early talkies, the pre-Hayes Code era (when filmmakers were unrestricted and consequently pushed boundaries), the rise of big budget spectacles during the 1950s (a time when the movie business was worried that TV would ruin them), the institution of the ratings system in the late 1960s and the subsequent loosening of many Hayes rules (once upon a time, you couldn’t show a couple in bed without one of them keeping a foot on the floor; I s**t you not), and, of course, the age of The Young Turks, when Lucas, Spielberg, Coppola, Scorsese and a host of other filmmakers currently recognizable by their last names made their mark and created the idea that the director is king.

But as the corporatization of the studios stifled those Turks’ potential and new ownership looked at movies as “products” geared toward maximizing shareholders’ profits, a new group again decided to do it themselves and skirt the system, much as many of their heroes had done. It’s an interesting bit of serendipity that I wound up reviewing the “Clerks X: 10th Anniversary Edition” right before taking in “Slacker: The Criterion Collection” because Kevin Smith cites Linklater’s achievement as his primary inspiration for making movies. And, of course, “Clerks” hit Cannes the same year as Quentin Tarantino’s brilliant “Pulp Fiction,” thus marking the late 1980s and early 1990s as The New Young Turks era, what with Soderbergh’s “Sex, Lies and Videotape” (1989) and Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs” (1991) also thrown into the mix.

“Slacker” is a film best appreciated by those willing to check their expectations at the door and just experience something, as opposed to insisting that what they watch conform to some kind of pre-packaging. Sadly, 30 years of corporatized “product” has ingrained too many expectations that you can’t really un-teach at this point, not without some kind of cultural revolution complete with re-education camps. (Hey, there’s an idea…)

And that’s really the only way you can watch “Slacker.” On its surface, it seems to be a movie about nothing, a 100-minute random jaunt around Austin that turns its eye on a young man (Linklater himself) spouting existentialist thoughts before spotting a woman lying on the road, the victim of a hit-and-run perpetrated by her own son, who gives a blank reaction to a phone call with the news and continues watching home videos of himself and his mother before the cops arrest him in front of a musician who writes and performs a song about the incident… And so on, a series of increasingly bizarre characters who sometimes spout philosophy, sometimes rant about conspiracies, sometimes focus on base instincts and sometimes just go in a direction you’d never expect. The film defied probably every “rule” ever set down by Lew Hunter, Robert McKee and an army of screenwriting “experts” and yet still managed to carve out a slice of the movie-going public when it was released in 1991.

With over 100 characters to follow, there are no leads in “Slacker,” no first act problem-setting and second act twists and third act resolutions. But maybe Linklater is actually treading into territory established by many before him, such as Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Instead of placing its focus on characters and their conflicts, “Slacker” actually contrasts ideas, giving its characters words and actions that turn the film into an essay on the meaning (or meaninglessness) of existence. Or the deconstruction of media (witness the literal destruction of a TV, a movie camera and other such devices). Or whatever you think the film is about, because, like “2001,” “Slacker” is simply interested in offering an experience, not telling you what to think about what you just watched. Unfortunately, it can become tedious at times, but it never implodes from the weight of its own self-conscious rambling.

Unlike Kubrick, however, Linklater actually doesn’t mind discussing his films, and this Criterion Collection release of “Slacker” features him on two of the movie’s commentaries, with the third composed of thoughts by the various actors as they watch their specific scenes. One of Linklater’s commentaries is a recently recorded solo effort. While he thankfully doesn’t tell you what “Slacker” is supposed to be about, he does offer up an explanation of how the film came together and his approach to making it. Good stuff that’s a mandatory listen for fans. Those interested in going the low-budget route themselves will also want to hear Linklater’s other track, which includes co-producer Clark Walker and director of photography Lee Daniel. The trio get into the nuts and bolts of low-budget filmmaking, one of those “film school in a box” tracks that can be invaluable if you have a script, a camera, a few bucks and no clue how to put it all together. Like many actor and actress commentaries, however, the one featured here is only worth listening to once you’ve exhausted everything else in this set.

Disc one also offers a few other goodies: “No Longer: Not Yet,” the original script for the film, before Linklater changed the title; a series of casting interviews, prefaced with a text introduction by casting director Anne Walker-McBay; a dozen minutes of home movie clips shot on the set; “Les Amis,” a ten-minute trailer for the documentary film of the same name, which is about the Austin restaurant that was featured prominently in “Slacker” and later became a Starbucks; and a whole pile of behind-the-scenes and publicity photos of the cast and crew. If you want to read a hidden essay called “Austin and the Fine Tradition of Slack,” head to the Supplements A-Go-Go section, highlight Shooting From the Hip, press the left arrow and then press Enter.

Disc one would have been enough for a decent Special Edition, but, hey, this is Criterion, home of multi-disc sets. So we have disc two, where the main attraction is “It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books,” Linklater’s first movie from 1988. According to the back of the DVD case, this is the first time it’s been available on home video. It’s more impressionistic than “Slacker,” consisting mostly of footage of the director as an unnamed character who travels by car, train and bus to visit a friend. It features very little dialogue but plenty of traveling shots of serene landscape. In the accompanying commentary, Linklater calls it an “oblique narrative,” which is pretty spot-on. While “Slacker” keeps your interest through its dead spots because you know the camera will eventually turn to someone else, “It’s Impossible to Plow” is essentially 85 minutes of what might as well be a home movie. If you’re a die-hard Linklater fan, though, I bet you’ll still want to sit through the whole thing.

Disc two also includes “Woodshock,” a seven-minute short film made by Linklater and Daniel in 1985 as they visited the music festival of the same name. This one is more engaging, and it displays Linklater’s interest in irreverent people and situations, something “It’s Impossible to Plow” sorely lacks.

Rounding out the second platter are: a section of information about the Austin Film Society, which Linklater co-founded, complete with some text materials and flyer reproductions; the working script for “Slacker;” 14 scenes that were either deleted or changed from the working script, which you can view either as you come to them in the script or by pressing “Play All;” the original theatrical trailer; Linklater’s 1991 essay about what he calls “slacker culture;” and 20 minutes of video from the tenth anniversary screening of the film in 2001.

Finally, Criterion also tossed in a neat little booklet that reprints essays by indie film promoter John Pierson and others, in addition to thoughts lifted from Linklater’s notebooks, behind-the-scenes photos, random montages of text and images and more. During a time when the major studios are cutting corners with many DVDs and not even including chapter stop inserts anymore, it’s really cool that Criterion was willing to go the extra distance for a movie that’s not a blockbuster release.

I don’t know if Richard Linklater attracts the same fanaticism that Kubrick, Spielberg, Lucas, Ridley Scott, and even Kevin Smith, attract, but I don’t see how any die-hard fans can pass this one up. You’ve got hours and hours of bonus materials here, including stuff that’s never been available on home video. Enjoy.

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