Retrospective: Richard Linklater Part One: My Low-Budget Travel Dreams

Dazed and Confused was the first Richard Linklater film I saw. I was 12. It’s next to impossible to not get completely wrapped up in the time and place Linklater sets the film in. Every character contributes. Every single scene matters. I felt then, as I do now, that the only real problem with Dazed and Confused is that it has to end.

Dazed and Confused is very much infused with a certain amount of 70’s nostalgia, but it never overindulges. Linklater defines the time and place as casually as possible, and then lets everything else that’s great about the film do the rest. I think that’s what makes the film feel timeless. The music, the cars, the conversations, the clothes, and a thousand other little touches all remind you that the various narratives making up the film take place in the 1970’s. It doesn’t have to put these things in neon lights reaching for the heavens to make you aware of them. Linklater has faith in his characters, in writing so natural that it sometimes feels as though the film’s excellent cast is making it up as they go along, and stories that are remarkable when taken as a whole.

I say “when taken as a whole” because none of the loosely-connected plot threads in Dazed and Confused are extraordinary. There is nothing about Mitch Kramer (Wiley Wiggins) trying to escape sadistic Senior class hazing traditions that is particularly cinematic, nor is there anything profound about his long night in the company of older, sympathetic kids. Cynthia Dunn, (Marissa Ribisi) Tony Olson (Anthony Rapp), and Mike Newhouse (Adam Goldberg) wanting to do something memorable on their last day of high school is the kind of thing that would be played out in a much bigger way if any other filmmaker had been responsible for relating their evening. That’s not to say that these stories (and the other ones that populate the film) are boring—everything in the movie is just so low-key that you don’t necessarily appreciate on the first or even third viewing that you’re watching one of the best films of the 90’s.

We are instead invited to follow Linklater’s camera as it moves across the unassuming landscape of an Austin, Texas suburb. Richard Linklater is far from the first filmmaker to craft a loose storytelling structure that combines several different perspectives, but he is one of the best filmmakers to ever utilize the style. It doesn’t really feel as though we’re experiencing a film event with Dazed. Rather, it plays out so naturally that the moments captured feel like remarkable good luck on the part of a documentary crew. At 12, I just appreciated the tour Dazed and Confused took me on. As I got older, I began to appreciate how much this film accomplishes.

Dazed and Confused made me hopeful that my own high school years would be filled with these kinds of misadventures. As I moved through those years, I would watch the movie again, and feel cheated at being denied the experiences afforded to the characters in the film. It wasn’t that I wanted the exact same stories, all I wanted was to be aware within the moment that what I was going through could later make up the details of my own films. If nothing else, I at least wanted flashes of nostalgia later. I wanted to remember those points in which everything was a big deal, and in which the future had a tentative-yet-optimistic chronology. From 1999 to 2003, I felt like I was being screwed over.

It took a distance from high school of several years to realize that I had lived through my own version of Dazed and Confused. I would also argue that what brings a lot of people back to it as they get older is the ability to watch the movie, watch those stories, and trade notes on the similarities and differences. When I recreate myself in my memories to reflect a cool, confident stranger entering the room, I might not be playing Dylan’s “Hurricane” in my head, like in the scene in which Wiley Wiggins walks into the pool hall with his new friends, but I do have a soundtrack firmly in place. Linklater uses music brilliantly in Dazed and Confused. It’s not that they’re in the movie only because they are the good representations of their era. Every song is used because not only do they represent the era well, but because they also enhance the overall scene. Every track, from Foghat’s “Slow Ride”, to Alice Cooper’s “No More Mr. Nice Guy” (used in another iconic scene from the film) is there for a reason. It’s not window dressing.

When most people reflect on the film these days, their main points of interest are Matthew McConaughey, as the coolest guy in town (nothing in this film is referenced more than his immortal line about high school girls), and the fact that this was the way most of us were introduced to some guy named Ben Affleck (I think he makes movies now). Most great films remain in the public conscience for one or two key characters or scenes. I’m perfectly content with whatever keepsDazed and Confused alive. I don’t think it’s in any danger of becoming an obscurity or relic anytime soon.

In twenty years, people will turn to Dazed and Confused for a variety of reasons, one being the way it captures people and culture in a particular time period. Linklater created with Dazed and Confused a time capsule of the decade it takes place in, a time capsule of the decade in which it was made, and finally a much smaller time capsule of films that are both of those things. Linklater has made a few great films, several good ones, and a couple of bad ones. In all likelihood, he will make several more films that will fall under one of these three categories. But it’s almost impossible to predict if he will ever make something that hits as many notes as Dazed and Confused does. It’s a hallmark film.

In terms of how I came to watch it, Slacker was a wonderful accident. I spent most of my teenage years skipping sleep, surfing the Internet, and watching as many movies as possible. When I couldn’t possibly manage that (school was a blunt burden for many reasons), I would simply leave a tape in, hit record, and find out the next day what was captured over the course of six hours. Sometimes, I taped things just because something about them struck me as interesting. Sometimes, that compelling element was as simple as the title. And then there were things that, for one reason or another, I had to see as soon as possible. Having specific movies to look forward to was great, but I think I liked just leaving a tape in even more. That’s how those wonderful accidents often came about.

For VHS Roulette, almost any of the countless movie channels we had were fine. However, and you can blame this on a good, heady mix of early pretentiousness and a craving for the unusual, my preferences were with the Independent Film Channel and Sundance. Both channels promoted themselves as showcases of the unusual and/or independent, and they gave me those things more often than not, but IFC was the clear winner. Their catalog was more expansive, and I was big on some of their theme nights and marathons (IFC was how I learned about Criterion).

But I do sometimes miss coming across something that wasn’t recommended to me. It’s just one of those things that helped foster my weird fixation on films in the first place. Something didn’t feature an actor, writer, or director I admire. Basically, I loved wanting something that had nothing to guarantee or even suggest that it was going to annihilate notions and change the way I saw films or even the world.

I probably would have found Slacker eventually, but I will be forever grateful that it was just something in the middle of a six hour videotape. In the same way that Dazed and Confused fueled my dreams at 12 of living in exciting times, Slacker fueled my dreams at 14 of traveling.

It’s not that Slacker necessarily filled me with a desire to visit Austin, Texas. It did, but only in terms of giving me another locale to put on the to-visit list. When I was 14, I was eager to see more the United States, having only really seen small sections of the country at that point, and most of that from the claustrophobic comfort of airports. I wanted to fill the archives of my mind with strange characters and unforgettable personalities. I took to the film because it did such a flawless job of showing me the kinds of people I wanted to meet in my own travels. People I didn’t think I would get to meet living and going to school in rural Virginia. I appreciate the film for several reasons now, but the individuals and exotic backdrops of Slacker were the first things about the movie that made a serious impression on me.

Slacker plays out even more like a documentary that got lucky than Dazed does. There are a few similarities between this and Dazed and Confused. Both films are very distinctly Linklater films. The differences between the two is that Slacker is a far less polished film and the camera wanders considerably more. Dazed and Confused has a narrative structure, containing several plotlines that occasionally crossed paths, whereas Slacker is far more freewheeling in its presentation. There isn’t really a story, per se, but rather a vast array of faces and eccentric voices, with stories that barely connect to one another. Dazed and Confused works on a certain level as a visual tour of a time and place, but Slacker takes that concept far more seriously. We don’t spend very much time with any of the characters, largely played by non-actors, over the course of the single day we spend up and down the streets of Austin. The JFK conspiracy fanatic bothering the girl at the bookstore only lasts a short period of time. At a different point, we meet another conspiracy theorist, this one expounding on several fantastical opinions about the government, to a man who clearly can’t wait until he gets to where he’s going. It would be interesting to see a map of where in Austin Slacker and Richard Linklater takes us, and the people we meet along the way.

Austin is a town noted for its eccentric characters (and a music festival you may or may not have heard of). Slacker certainly depicts the city in that light, at least in terms of how it might have been in the 90’s. This film has been hailed as an early, honest depiction of Generation-X. I think there’s a lot of truth to that, but I don’t think that should be the only thing that marks this film. There are a number of characters in Slacker who could certainly qualify as members of Gen-X, but there are several characters that most certainly wouldn’t fit the description in the strictest sense of the label. Some are definitely weirder than others, but virtually everyone in Slacker is a misfit, weary traveler of life, or general outcast in some way. You could certainly apply any of those terms to the young man whose attempted break-in of a suburban home turns into a friendly, potentially life-changing (maybe?) walk and talk with an elderly scholar and anarchist. Everyone in Slacker is going about their day, and through following them we learn a lot about how some people view the world, and how some people endure a wide range of circumstances.

One of the enduring victories of Slacker is in the way it shows us everything, and rarely does so in such a way that we only have one option for relating to it. Frustrations are expressed, with daily life and the political machine that seemingly dictates everything. Strange rituals are attempted, in order to put the proper exclamation point on a messy breakup. A recluse with time to spare watches and records footage from dozens of TVs simultaneously. A woman (Butthole Surfers drummer Teresa Taylor, who has been immortalized on the cover of every home release of Slacker) tries to sell two people Madonna’s pap smear. The social and political perspectives expressed in Slacker are fascinating. It’s possible to get a gleam of what was on Richard Linklater’s mind by listening to his characters, but nothing about Slacker is aggressive (and if you’re under, say, thirty, you may not even know what some of the characters are talking about sometimes). It existed then as an incredible, seemingly-disorganized descent into the lives and thoughts of the strange, the believable, and the absolutely bizarre. It has those things now, but it retains a watchable quality in the present for its celebration of people, of conversations both ordinary and just-plain-weird, and for creating something endlessly engaging on a budget of roughly $20, 000.

Slacker is credited as one of the films that jumpstarted the 90’s independent film movement. There’s definitely something to be said for that theory. On a shoestring budget, without the benefit of Hollywood actors (and again, many of the people in the film are played by people who weren’t actors at all), Linklater was one of the filmmakers who reminded the world at large that there was room at the cinema table for smaller, more unique stories. His career began with the minimalist It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books (a worthwhile watch that displays the natural talents Linklater would carry with him into future films, which is available on the essential Criterion edition of Slacker), and he would take that minimalism into more ambitious territory with Slacker. This is not a loud film, but it contributed to a school of filmmaking thought that would make a considerable amount of noise as the 90’s progressed.

This historical context is nice to consider, but the point remains that Slacker deserves its indie film street cred, its status as a small classic, and its worthiness of being enjoyed again or even discovered in 2013. Not a whole lot of anything happens in Slacker, and yet it remains to this day more entertaining and fascinating than countless films straining to show you something you’ve probably seen before.

I didn’t get all of this from the first time I saw it. I simply loved the non-specific story, the weirdos, the geniuses, and the geeks, and I was left with that desire to go out into the world, find real-life versions of these characters, and engage them in my own way.

In the years since, I’ve been to Austin. I’ve been lucky enough to travel around a good portion of the United States, and I hope to continue doing so as soon as humanly possible (it’s been a while since I’ve dropped in on a few of my favorite places on the map). Slacker wasn’t the first film, but it was definitely one of the most important to give me that urgency.

And I’ll tell you this, if I’ve gleaned anything from my travels (besides the knees of a 90-year-old man), it’s the following: The people of Austin as Slacker displays them are not celluloid ghosts. They are alive and well, and they are all over the United States.

Next: The unlikely “Midnight” trilogy”.