Director Richard Linklater kicked off the thirtieth-anniversary screening of his debut, Slacker, by welcoming members of the film’s cast and crew to join him on the Paramount Theatre stage on July 13. There were a lot of them—37 in all, taking turns recounting how they’d become part of Austin and indie film history, way back in the summer of 1989, when production began. But their circle extended into the sold-out crowd, too. It encompassed the many friends there who hadn’t actually made it into Slacker, but had lived the lifestyle that the film now preserves as a kind of historical curio. And in many ways, that group included everyone else who moved to the city in the film’s wake, drawn by its dream of gloriously squandered youth.
Just as he did at Slacker’s tenth anniversary in 2001, Linklater likened the occasion to “a high school reunion where you actually want to see everybody.” (The recycled line still got a laugh.) And as with any reunion, nostalgia soon mingled with talk of the dead. Not just among the cast, although a post-film “In Memoriam” confirmed several more had passed since even the last anniversary. As is so often the case, celebrating Slacker also offered the occasion to mourn Austin itself. “You make a film, it exists, and you’ve gotta deal with it the rest of your life,” as Linklater told the Paramount audience. That’s true of Austin, too. Austin made Slacker, and it’s had to cope with it ever since—watching as the zeitgeist swell it created overtook the city, then spending three decades grieving what was lost, forever looking back.
Most of the cast’s stories revolved around long-gone institutions—primarily the coffee shops Les Amis and Captain Quackenbush’s Intergalactic Dessert Company and Espresso Café on the Drag, where Slacker’s overeducated, underemployed characters hold forth on Dostoyevsky and the subtext of Scooby-Doo over endless coffee and cigarettes. They’re also where Linklater and his filmmaking partner Lee Daniel found much of the film’s on-screen talent, drawn from the actual baristas and waitstaff. The Paramount crowd gave mournful awwws at these stories, as it did whenever one of these landmarks appeared onscreen. We grieved loudly for things we didn’t even realize we missed until we saw them again—like the original, ugly facade of the Castilian dorm, or the old blue faithful that was Roy’s Taxi. If you’ve lived in Austin for more than a decade or so, you’ve become conditioned to this wistful feeling, forever playing the game of “that used to be . . .” on newly disorienting streets.
Of course, even more than cheap rents or greasy diners, people just miss being young. Slacker’s cast captured an entire generation of Austin scenesters in their prime, when they had all the time in the world to waste on being happy. One by one, the cast talked about finding their kindred spirits Xeroxing show flyers at Kinko’s, or bonding over late-night breakfasts at Magnolia Cafe, or attending marathon Andrei Tarkovsky retrospectives. These are the kinds of things that only happen in your twenties, when you have no real reason to get up early, and you can stay up talking about books and movies and music forever. It’s only natural to get a little melancholy about that.
But there’s a more philosophical bent to this lamenting, too—one that has to do with Austin’s lost spirit, or “soul.” It’s something Austin has been doing since before Slacker was even born. Austinites carry a default attitude of “You just missed it”—as in, all the really cool stuff already happened. As Linklater pointed out in his post-show Q&A, that’s something he and his friends heard back in the eighties from all the hippie cowboys who’d seen the city’s “true” heyday in the sixties and seventies. Linklater pointed to the Slacker scene where local noise rockers Ed Hall played their song “Sedrick” to a near-empty Continental Club. Its lyrics, Linklater said, perfectly sum up the Austin point of view: “Things were so much better before you were here / . . . So much better in the past / I had myself a real gas.”
Slacker comments wryly on this sentiment, revealing it as myopic and defeatist. But almost immediately after its release, the film became an emblem of it, too. To many, Slacker captures a time and place when Austin really was better—or, at least, way less of a hassle. The film’s very existence provides evidence of the kind of looser, freer city Austin used to be, when Linklater and his crew could just take over the streets and sidewalks of West Campus, sans permits, without worry of being bothered. The only location fee they’d ever paid, Linklater said, was the twenty bucks he grudgingly offered to a guy whose property abutted the spot where they’d hurled a typewriter off the East MLK bridge. The police got involved exactly once, pulling over a car fitted with loudspeakers seen near Slacker’s end—the one driven by a guy ranting about bloody carnage through quiet residential streets. The crew told the cops they were making a movie, Linklater said, and they just let them go.
If you live in Austin, it’s impossible to hear those stories and not mourn the city a little. Maybe you even feel a little culpable for your own hand in ruining it. Speaking personally, I’ve felt low-grade guilty about it since I arrived here in 1997. I was another Gen-X cliché who contributed to the city’s transformation into a frayed nerve center for everyone with vague ambitions toward making art—or at least, not doing any “real” work. I’d encountered Slacker during my first year of college, a time I spent slouching around my local coffee shop in Arlington before briefly bouncing up to Boston. The film offered a vision of that intellectual bohemian lifestyle I’d been dimly pursuing: I also wanted to be in a band, or make movies, or maybe join some kind of anarchist art collective. Mostly, I wanted to sit around with my friends, smoking and overthinking eighties cartoons and peeling the labels off of Budweisers while we waited for something to happen. I could do all that in Austin, without paying big-city rent and never living more than a three-hour slink back to my hometown? It was a revelation.
“The thing you choose not to do fractions off and becomes its own reality, you know, and just goes on forever,” Linklater himself says in Slacker’s opening scene. His character (credited only as “Should Have Stayed at Bus Station”) is monologuing to a taxi driver about an imaginary book he’s just read inside a particularly vivid dream. But really, he’s talking about Austin. Slacker presents the city as a universe willed into existence by those who chose not to do anything. It’s a liminal way station floating between the places where you’re supposed to be, which means you can just do whatever you want. Throughout the film, characters express an overarching philosophy of refusal, valorizing idleness as the only truly noble way of life. “Who’s ever written the great work about the immense effort required not to create?” asks one of its many coffee-shop sages, a line that lampshades the entire movie. “In this passivity, I shall find freedom.”
This inertia is sometimes framed as a political rebellion. Photos of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels peer over characters’ shoulders as they waste perfectly good afternoons asleep on the couch. In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, the late Waxahachie-born actor Charles Gunning plays an irascible hitchhiker who rages against the capitalist machine to a student documentary crew. “I may live badly, but at least I don’t have to work to do it!” Gunning sneers, jabbing a finger into the camera that’s aimed at every employee in the world: “Every single commodity you produce is a piece of your own death!”
Later, Denise Montgomery plays a gregarious woman who offers passersby “oblique strategies” cards, one of which reads, “Withdrawing in disgust is not the same as apathy.” This is reinforced during the swirling Super 8 montage that closes Slacker, when the camera pauses fleetingly on what may be the film’s Rosetta stone: a copy of Paul Goodman’s subversive 1960 classic Growing Up Absurd. In it, Goodman argues that young Americans are increasingly disaffected and delinquent because society offers them nothing but meaningless, soul-draining jobs. The only way to be liberated from this cycle of exploitation and abuse, Slacker argues, is to simply opt out.
There’s a more cynical, fatalistic aspect to Slacker, too, one underscored by the film’s preoccupation with death and violence. Linklater’s character steps out of his cab and immediately encounters an old woman (played by local punk rocker Jean Caffeine) lying in the street, having just been run over by a car. He and the other witnesses who approach her seem absurdly unconcerned. One guy starts flirting with a jogger over her body; another walks off with the groceries she’s dropped. Throughout the film, death is reduced to an abstract or an entertaining anecdote—a mass shooter on the freeway, a fatal stabbing inside a bar. These stories are met with silent nods of acceptance, or nothing at all. Slacker’s characters live in a world they know to be chaotic and cruel, where they could die at any moment. This risk is everywhere, so none of it feels particularly real or urgent. The persistent threat of mortality only deepens the characters’ resolve to ignore it.
Thirty years later, all those dark themes seemed to hit differently for those at the Paramount screening—even the director. During the Q&A, Linklater explained that he’d been ruminating at the time on the idea of “secondary sources,” on how everything we know or experience is always filtered through someone else’s perception. Linklater also acknowledged the natural tendency to romanticize the extremes of violence and morbidity in your youth, when nothing much else is happening. “I wouldn’t have made it that way if I were a dad who cared about the future,” he said.
In particular, Linklater added that he might not have kept one of the film’s most controversy-baiting moments, where the “Old Anarchist,” played by University of Texas philosophy professor Louis Mackey, fantasizes about “pulling a Guy Fawkes” at the Texas Capitol, then turns around and praises mass shooter Charles Whitman, of all people. Gazing toward the UT Tower where Whitman killed fourteen people and wounded dozens of others, Mackey proclaims the massacre as “this town’s finest hour”—a line that provoked shocked laughter from the Paramount audience, commingled with groans. Mackey’s bit about blowing up the Texas Legislature, meanwhile, garnered whoops and cheers. Both of these moments embody the kind of punkish, scorched-earth anger that most people tend to grow out of—as Linklater clearly did—but that still hangs around the margins of Slacker.
This is partly what made Slacker such a touchstone for Generation X. I’d argue also that it’s why Slacker feels so distinctly Texan. There is a tendency to exclude Slacker from the canon of Texas films, likely because it feels so specific to Austin, a city often marginalized from “Real Texas.” But Slacker is part of a Texas cinematic lineage—one that includes other uniquely Texas stories like The Last Picture Show and the movies of Eagle Pennell—about the restless people who mark time and make do here. Slacker draws on Texas’s turbulent history (it even pauses for a lengthy monologue from a JFK assassination buff) to underscore just how volatile and thin the veneer of civilization can seem down here. It prods at our innate suspicion of outsiders and authority, as captured in its characters’ paranoid rants about NASA plotting its globalist machinations “just up the road” in Houston. (There’s even a laugh-provoking cameo from a “Ron Paul for President” billboard.) Texans, perhaps more than anything else, are united by their dislike of others telling them what to do. And I’d posit that you’ll find no Texas film that better expresses our mistrust of, and general apathy toward, the rest of the world.
This Texanness wasn’t always so apparent to me as a kid, when I couldn’t wait to escape to some artsy enclave on one of those pre-approved coastal cities. But seeing Slacker forever changed my perspective on my home state. There are plenty of restless dreamers and fringe thinkers here, all driven by the kind of optimism and stubbornness only Texas can produce. In his introduction to Linklater’s Slacker companion book, author James L. Haley points out that Texas itself was settled by those who might be called slackers. “The discontented, the rebellious, the in trouble, and the troubled came to Texas,” Haley writes, and everyone from poets to politicians gravitated to Austin as a mecca for minding your own business. Or as Mackey puts it in the film, “This town has always had its fair share of crazies. I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.”
By the time I arrived in ’97, the Austin of Slacker was rapidly fading, felled by an influx of the very hipsters it had inspired. I got here just in time to see Les Amis turned into a Starbucks and the general milieu of Slacker turned into a sitcom by MTV’s Austin Stories. Over the years I’ve watched that already-diminished Austin become increasingly paved over. The days of noble unemployment are long gone. The threat of violence that the film once toyed with as “secondary,” some exciting diversion in a vacuum, now seems far more real. And the philosophy of refusal and carefree rambling that Slacker propagated now seems so alien to a city that manages to turn everything into work. The slacker has been replaced by the hustler. Nobody here can afford to withdraw in disgust, unless you’re ready to move out to Manor.
On a more optimistic note, however, that indolent creative class Slacker celebrates didn’t have nearly as many avenues for finding personally meaningful work. Slacker’s characters might have railed against capitalism in theory, but a lot of them were still out to earn a buck. Maybe today, instead of hawking Madonna’s pap smears, they’re doing graphic design for some boutique marketing agency, or trying to monetize their TikToks. Granted, they aren’t spending all day in a coffee shop, unless it’s hunched over a MacBook. It’s doubtful they’re subsisting on beans and rice, unless it’s some $14 version with duck fat.
But beneath these bourgeois trappings, there is some tiny ember of the stubborn individualism that’s always defined the city (and our state) burning within those who find themselves drawn here. Before the screening, the Austin Film Society’s Holly Herrick read aloud an email from Louis Black, cofounder of the Austin Chronicle and South by Southwest (and Slacker’s “Paranoid Paper Reader”). Slacker, Black argued, is not some frozen time capsule. It’s “a blueprint for the future,” showing us the timeless possibility of people who dedicate themselves to art and the pursuit of happiness above all else. We clapped, believing—defiantly, optimistically, without any real reason to—that this had to be true. Austin, like Texas, is a state of mind, one we’re perpetually chasing. We just missed it. But we’ll keep trying.