Austin’s Original Slacker
Rick Linklater appears in front of the lens in a new documentary being screened in Dallas.
Karen Bernstein, a documentary filmmaker, was living in New York when, in 1991, Richard Linklater released Slacker, the cult classic, stream-of-consciousness character sketch of his old stomping grounds of Austin during its pre-high-rise, pre-California-transplant halcyon days. It stunned her to see a movie come from off the grid and help give birth to the next wave in indie film.
At the time, it was popular in New York to play “exquisite corpse,” a surrealist parlor game that generally entailed a player writing random words on a sheet of paper, folding it up, and passing it on to another player for his or her contribution and so on—a sort of organic, collaborative, performance-art piece. “People were trying it in different mediums,” Bernstein said. “So when Slacker came out, I think people were like, oh my God, yeah, there you go—a successful manifestation of this.”
Bernstein moved to Austin in 2001, drawn by the scene Linklater had fostered with fellow Austinites Robert Rodriguez, whose El Mariachi came out in 1992, and John Pierson, author of the seminal Spike, Mike, Slackers & Dykes: A Guided Tour Across a Decade of American Independent Cinema and a key player in fostering the careers of Linklater as well as other directors such as Spike Lee and Michael Moore.
Bernstein befriended Linklater right away. She had worked on the PBS series American Masters, about the lives of creatives. She would go on to win an Emmy for her documentary on Ella Fitzgerald and a Grammy for another doc on Lou Reed. It would be just a matter of time until she sunk her teeth into Linklater. But it took more than a decade and the buzz of an impending Linklater movie about the maturation of a boy, filmed over the course of twelve years—the Oscar-nominated Boyhood—for her to pool the resources to get it done.
“I think in many ways Richard Linklater’s life is the American dream,” Bernstein said. “You can look at his trajectory from a kid who loved baseball and football and went on to become a kind of all-American hero on the field, who played out the American dream, and then he decided for whatever reason not to do that and was able to turn his focus to the arts. For me, that’s very much a dreamlike story.”
Richard Linklater: Dream Is Destiny, Bernstein’s biographical look at Linklater, premiered earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival. Eventually the movie will be broadcast on American Masters, but it is currently enjoying theatrical screenings through the Independent Film Channel. On Wednesday, Texas Theatre, in Dallas, will show it, with Bernstein and co-director and co-producer Louis Black present to answer questions. Black is the editor of the Austin Chronicle, the alt-weekly newspaper, and the co-founder of South by Southwest, the popular festival focusing on interactive, film, and music. In the late eighties and early nineties he and Linklater helped define the Austin that has now become a tourist attraction. Black was also a character in Slacker. Searching for context about Austin during Linklater’s ascent, Bernstein pegged Black as the person who could represent the sleepy college town as the “central repository for all the weirdnesses in Texas.”
Dream Is Destiny starts with the bus scene in Slacker, segues into present day with Boyhood, and then backtracks to an interview Black conducted with Linklater in the wake of Slacker’s local release in Austin, at the Dobie Theatre, during the summer of 1990. There is archival footage and interviews with the likes of Ethan Hawke, Jack Black, Matthew McConaughey, Julie Delpy, and members of the Linklater family. The main through line is an interview with Black in which Linklater goes through journals and mementos and muses about the details of his life’s work.
“What I am most proud of is how we managed to incorporate Louis without making it smack too much as a puff piece or personal documentary,” Bernstein said. “I said, if one person says in a review that it’s a love letter to Richard Linklater, I will shoot myself. And nobody has.”
Dream is Destiny uses Linklater’s 1988 feature-length debut, It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books, to establish his rise. A meditative work that is considered to be a prequel to Slacker, the movie presents Linklater as the main character traveling from Austin to San Francisco and Missoula, Montana, by train and bus. He shot it on a Super 8 and recorded the audio on a Sony Walkman, in a DIY style similar to making a movie with an iPhone today. From that experiential lesson in filmmaking, Linklater went on to build a repertoire that includes entries from all over the map, from Dazed and Confused to the Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, Before Midnight trilogy to School of Rock. But despite his critical success, the mainstream hasn’t really given Linklater his proper due. (Cough . . . Oscar snub . . . cough.)
“What Louis and I realized pretty soon after starting this film is that one of the reasons that Rick’s not the household name that, say, Quentin Tarantino is, is that he has explored so many different genres of filmmaking,” Bernstein said. “And you can see the similarities there, but aside from Slacker and maybe Waking Life and the correlation there, you can’t just look at a Linklater film and say, yep, that’s a Linklater film. It doesn’t scream out its stereotype somehow.”
Dallas, Texas Theatre, August 17, 8 p.m., thetexastheatre.com
Other Events Across Texas
Courts in Session
The punk-rock band Parquet Courts was born in Denton, and though now residing in Brooklyn, the group hasn’t lost its Texas cred. While recently performing on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, the Houston rapper Bun B joined the band onstage for the song “Captive of the Son,” from its new album, Human Performance, which it will bring to Austin for its sole Lone Star State date.
Mohawk, August 15, 7 p.m., parquetcourts.wordpress.com
Singing for Scholarship
The singer Gina Chavez was appointed the 2014 Austin Musician of the Year at the Austin Music Awards. But she is also one heck of a philanthropist, which she will display, along with fellow Austin musicians Sara Hickman and Suzanna Choffel, at a show on Saturday to raise money for girls in El Salvador to attend college.
Stateside at the Paramount, August 13, 7 p.m., ginachavez.com
Perhaps because he started out as a fashion photographer, Irving Penn saw beauty in everything. Appropriately, his retrospective exhibit, open through this weekend only at the Dallas Museum of Art, is titled “Beyond Beauty,” with more than 140 photographs featuring subjects such as Salvador Dali, an Enga tribeswoman from New Guinea, and frozen foods.
Dallas Museum of Art, August 12–14, dma.org
The Sixty-Mile Rainbow
No matter the meteorological outlook, starting Tuesday visitors to the Amon Carter will for two years be greeted in the atrium by Plexus no. 34, a rainbow of sorts constructed of more than sixty miles of multicolored thread “sewn” into the open air by Gabriel Dawe, a Mexico City native who has exhibited at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Amon Carter Museum of American Art, August 16 to September 2, 2018, cartermuseum.org
The Art of Zen
To achieve a state of total zen is near impossible. Instead, zone out and watch someone else go there, like the Tibetan Buddhist monks who will converge on the Asia Society for a few days to painstakingly create a sand mandala composed of millions of grains of sand.
Asia Society, August 18–21, asiasociety.org/texas