Slacker, 25 years later

Spurred by the big Richard Linklater profile in the latest New Yorker, I decided to rewatch Slacker, the film he made in 1989 (it was released in 1991). When it came out, it was supposed to represent my generation, more or less — I was in high school then — but what strikes me about it now is how completely it inhabits a kind of just before.

Slacker is a film about isolation, dislocation, alienation. The characters drift, no one really seems to know anyone else very well, and the only people who seem to be doing anything are obsessives and cranks: the woman trying to sell Madonna’s pap smear, the guy who collects TVs and video tapes, the Kennedy conspiracy theorist who’s working on a book you know he’ll never finish. Watching the film from 2014, what’s astonishing is how many of these people’s problems are solved by the Internet. For the TV guy, there’s YouTube. For the Madonna girl, there’s TMZ and eBay. For the Kennedy conspiracist, there’s pretty much the whole damn Internet. For the guy who says you really ought to read the paper, and for the guy who can’t manage to buy himself a USA Today, there’s all the free news on the web.  For all the artists with weird ideas, there’s Kickstarter. Heck, for the very end of the movie, when the guy throws a movie camera off a cliff, there’s GoPro.

Throughout the film, with its talk of conspiracies and new forms of consciousness, you can feel the characters yearning for the kind of interconnectedness that was just about to become possible. We are living in a new consciousness. When you’re in it, of course, it’s much less magisterial than the Age of Aquarius or some kind of New Age breakthrough. It just feels like life, and life hasn’t ceased being difficult. But the last 25 years have brought a profound change in the way that we understand ourselves in the world.

Last night I was walking along the street in New York, speaking into a small device that I carry in my pocket, and my girlfriend was speaking back on a similar device from inside a palace in Seoul. Tomorrow I’ll fly to the other side of the world to join her, and I’ll let all my friends and family know when I’ve arrived — the word will go out to Seoul, Phoenix, New York, California, Japan, who knows where else. Last weekend I went to Tobago for a wedding, and now the steel drum band I saw there is visible to you. The isolation and alienation of the Slacker moment is unimaginable today.

That’s not to say that we have banished loneliness, done away with drift, overcome alienation. The age of social media has its own forms of alienation: distraction, envy, endless mediation. But it’s a different world. Slacker is a fine film whose characters yearn for the things that people of that generation were about to create. The last five minutes, when the movie goes from clever to brilliant, point to the way forward. What was hailed at the time as a kind of manifesto of nihilism was in fact a DIY manifesto: a kind of a guide or a roadmap to what to do next, once we invented a better way of talking to each other.