A few years ago, the director Richard Linklater was made to answer for a pair of cameo appearances from one Alex Jones in his films Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly. Jones is known far and wide today as one of the nuttiest wingnuts of the alt-right political movement, his Greatest Hits of paranoid fake news including QAnon and the suggestion that the Sandy Hook school shooting was a hoax perpetrated by “crisis actors,” much to the chagrin of parents grieving their slain children. To someone reared on Texan public-access television during the late ’90s and early ’00s, however, he was little more than a colorful local character. “He was this hyper guy that we’d all kind of make fun of,” Linklater explained in a 2018 interview with the Daily Beast. “But he wasn’t so virulent, he just had all that energy… I just thought he was kind of funny.”
Linklater’s not wrong — Jones was and is funny, the comic appeal of his soup-consistency brain complicated only by his ascent under Trumpism and according empowerment to do actual damage beyond the vacuum of late-night Austin-area TV. Without a national platform, without influence, Jones’ looniness would spin in impotent circles like a dog trying to bite its own tail. He’d be left as a community kook, the exact sort of eccentric that populated Linklater’s 1991 walkabout quasi-comedy Slacker. Released into theaters 30 years ago this week, the plotless film ambles through the college town that Linklater had made his stomping ground and checks in on a series of oddballs doing their own thing on their own terms. In the sweet, innocent pre-Internet world of the early ’90s, Linklater can cultivate an uncomplicated affection for these disaffected weirdoes shrugging off the demands and norms of mainstream society, left to obsess over their strange hobbies in a friendly real-world enclave. Everyone has the luxury of being the harmless version of themselves; even a penny-ante burglar can be reasoned with, related to, and talked out of his crime in progress.
In his scene, the would-be thief gets set straight by an elderly anarchist (Louis Mackey, a University of Texas at Austin philosophy professor of Linklater’s, one in a handful of regionally-known minor celebrities) who explains that more connects than separates the two of them. He won’t stop the younger man from taking anything, stopping just short of declaring that much a god-given right, but he does lay out a worldview that places them in the same stance of opposition to the indignities of a capitalistic economy pitting its weakest participants against one another. They’d both be better off not taking part, or “withdrawing in disgust,” as an Oblique Strategies card advises later on while crucially distinguishing that dissent from apathy. Slacker’s title gave a name to this lifestyle of minimized ambitions popular among Gen X, and clarified its basis in principle rather than laziness.
Not everyone we meet applies this framework in such a lucidly political manner, instead using the freedom it affords on wackier pursuits. At an independent bookstore, a Kennedy truther holds court on the labyrinthine assassination rationales that would be explicated again later that year in Oliver Stone’s tinfoil-hatted epic JFK, and elsewhere, a UFO enthusiast unspools his conspiracy theory that we have all been unwittingly living on the moon since the ’50s. In either case, their quirky hobbies bear no intent more sinister than that of the vintage TV set collector who spends his days stuffed in a closet full of screens telling anyone who will listen about “the psychic powers of the televised image.” Their isolation renders them innocuous, where in present-day America, the connection engendered by the computer and its virtual social circles leaves lonely, alienated people susceptible to recruitment and manipulation by more nefarious forces.
We can glimpse the seedlings of that hucksterism in the film’s most-known scene, when a chatty hipster (Teresa “Nervosa” Taylor, drummer of the seminal punk outfit Butthole Surfers) attempts to sell a pap smear from none other than Madonna to a couple conversing on the street. She gives the sales pitch that it’s the ultimate piece of merch, a way for a fan to be closer to the pop star than a simple signed poster, but the potential customers doubt its veracity, unverifiable as it is. Her mild pushiness sets this segment apart from the copacetic vibes Linklater courts, in keeping with its anomalousness as one of the few exchanges oriented around the commerce everyone else tries to avoid. She takes their no-thanks in stride, however; “You can’t blame me for trying!” she chirps before walking off. Everyone’s cool around these parts.
Linklater’s compassion for the assorted personalities passing by his camera’s lens comes from an understanding of and sympathy for the thought process that leads a person to fringe beliefs. His characters know full well that the government and other institutions collude to protect and reinforce existing systems of authority at the financial, physical, and spiritual expense of the individual. If a questioning thinker can wrap their heads around that much, especially if they have the old anarchist’s granular knowledge of the dirty work America’s done to vulnerable countries in the name of foreign policy, their cynicism will place them a hop-skip-jump from Pizzagate and the like. The broad reasoning behind even the wildest suppositions can be pretty sound — not a particularly trustworthy country, the USA — as the conclusions drawn from it go haywire. Of Alex Jones, Linklater said, “I talked to him a bit during the Bush-Cheney years. He always positioned himself as anti. So when you’re anti, he’s your bedfellow.” As the Daily Beast piece stated, “…when [Jones] would say, ‘Look what the government’s doing!’ during the Bush era, Linklater would think, ‘Yeah, he’s kind of right.’”
In his filmmaking technique, Linklater himself embraced the ethic of rejected status quo in favor of charting one’s own path. Though his later years would lead him to partnerships with the studios, he circumvented the business side of things in his sophomore feature by piecing together a minuscule $23,000 microbudget in borrowed money and credit-card advances. (The $1.2 million in box-office returns made the film a spectacularly profitable non-blockbuster.) Like the crustpunks and dirtbags of his onscreen Austin, maintaining a low overhead enabled him to live without concessions, indulging his more experimental whims. The final minutes break into a sprint, switching to sped-up 8mm photography with Horst Wende’s jaunty rendition of the South African tune “Skokiaan” accelerated to match on the soundtrack. With the peppy quality of a Benny Hill short, a group of friends skedaddle up to a clifftop overlooking a river and make merry for a minute before one of them grabs the camera and flings it into the water. By giving up everything, these hooligans gain an enlightenment bordering on the Buddhist, just one of the creeds pondered in this exercise of intellectual curiosity. The last thing to go is the film itself.
But before the screen cuts to black, we assume the POV of the thrown camera rather than the one shooting the guy while he chucks it. As the music crescendoes into its grand finale, the image swirls into a vortex of abstract kinetic motion, unbound by anything in the purest realization of the film’s liberation ideal. Seen from the vantage of 2021, the shot is defined by its ephemerality as much as the glory of its flight, thrilling but doomed not to last. This subculture that Linklater charted as if on safari would enjoy some good years, but rising post-gentrification rents would drive townies on this frequency out of their neighborhoods and, in some instances, into the clutches of shadowy Internet creeps preying on their open-minded disillusionment. Slacker freezes the moment before it all went downhill, and in doing so, makes it last forever.
Charles Bramesco (@intothecrevassse) is a film and television critic living in Brooklyn. In addition to Decider, his work has also appeared in the New York Times, the Guardian, Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, Newsweek, Nylon, Vulture, The A.V. Club, Vox, and plenty of other semi-reputable publications. His favorite film is Boogie Nights.
Watch Slacker on The Criterion Channel