New York City is the great circling bathtub drain that young people from the college towns and mid-sized cities of North America disappear into, unable to resist the siren song of their own cosmopolitan ambitions. The drainage of souls from second- and third-tier cities like Cleveland, Columbus, and Houston culturally balkanizes the nation—the family-oriented and content stay at home, breeding more of the same, while the driven and career-minded pack off to New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco to join thousands of others like them in the endless cultural orgy.
The most effective propaganda for the young urban way of life is friends. Many of those who stay in hometowns inevitably end up consuming the lives of their New York and California friends on Flickr and Facebook—their all-night parties and hangover brunches, their real careers, their expansive dating pool, their avant-garde theatre and Upright Citizens Brigade, until they eventually decide to give in and make a considered move to the city to join the party. This cultural natural selection—the coasts thriving and the middle dying out—is quietly undermined by a fifth column of factions that resiliently stick around smaller, less glitzy places to build them up and make them better places to live. These cultural Maoists bunker down against the forces of gravity to start up community spaces, independent video and record stores, and bike shops, seemingly undaunted by the losing war they’re fighting against attrition.
In Richard Linklater’s 1991 portrait of Austin’s freak gentry Slacker, there is a piece of recurrent graffiti that reads, “If you don’t like NYC, don’t go.” This early lumpen premonition of the coming Friends-era migration seems to be a preoccupation for this filmmaker. After a short stint living in New York, Linklater moved back to his Texas hometown and made Slacker on a shoestring budget of loans and maxed-out credit cards. When the film met with success, Linklater refused to move to Hollywood—instead he took an unconventional route, bunkering down in Austin and buying a two-story warehouse for Detour, his fledgling film production company. Nurtured by Detour and the Austin Film Society nonprofit, Linklater in Austin built up a small-film cottage industry. Slacker, though often canonized as a portrait of 1990s youth culture, is at root a local film. It was shot and produced entirely in Austin with local non-actors and musicians like the Butthole Surfers’ drummer Teresa Taylor. The fictionalized, documentary-style film doesn’t have a plot or recurring characters—long, omniscient shots track from one set of Austin hipsters to the next—but it manages to succeed on its own terms. Now, Slacker feels like a terrarium—a little universe of the living ideas and archetypes of a bygone time, preserved behind glass.
The largest, most enduring American cities had humble beginnings as pioneer outposts blessed with an advantageous set of geographic circumstances—rich soil and a tolerable climate for agriculture, located beside well-traveled rivers and bays, easily accessible to trade. Similarly, the most thriving burgs of alternative culture were built on a bedrock of propitious circumstances—cheap, gritty semi-abandoned towns, often by a river as well. The same question can be asked about subcultures that Jared Diamond asks about civilizations in his book Guns, Germs, and Steel: why do some survive and others perish? A college in town ensures a continuous flow of warm young bodies to the scene—idealism on tap. It takes successive generations of people sticking around, suffering and dying off like the first Pilgrims, to finally cement down the freak flag. And then just as quickly as a culture rises, it can return to dust. Places like Williamsburg, Austin, Portland, Oregon, and Athens, Georgia rose to prominence fueled by their lively, yeasty subcultures.
Today these places, like Britain after the Empire, live on in an afterglow, preceded by their own loud cultural legacy. They become museum-like, historical Meccas of hipsterdom. That mysterious youth alchemy that once drove them slowly atrophies and becomes parody. Places like Portland crest the top of the roller coaster and then spiral inward, becoming navel-gazing and occluded in a way now satirized by Carrie Brownstein on the TV show Portlandia. A living culture can be declared dead once the developers start to market property with “quirkiness;” when new wealthy residents and art gallery owners are made to feel comfortable while the city council shuts down artists’ warehouses and squats; when “Keep ____ Weird!” bumper stickers adorn passing cars but the landscape is anything but. The destruction of a legitimate, vibrant culture is the tragedy; the propping up of its cadaver to sell to latecomers is the farce.
Youth culture, and the parameters of cultural rebellion, have always been defined by market forces. The lush alternative landscape of the mid and late ‘90s, fed by the tech boom and Clinton surplus cash, was like a historical indolent child, at liberty to rebel because it had been given everything. The early ‘90s depicted in Slacker feel closer to our current epoch—the recession-tainted youth aimlessly wandering the streets, emailing their resumes into the void. But watching the film today, one can’t help but feel a certain if they only knew forbearance for the naively innocent radicalism of the time—the way they compared George H. W. Bush to Hitler, they way they casually drop slogans like “Remember, terrorism is the surgical strike capability of the oppressed!” The dilemmas the youth of the late ‘90s faced—do I vote for Gore or Nader? is it ethical to drink corporate coffee? should I take the high-paying dot-com job or remain unemployed and detached?—seem privileged compared to the periods that came before and after.
The world Linklater presents in Slacker is a fleeting snapshot of a time and place that no longer exists—the fliers stapled to the telephone poles have long since disintegrated and disappeared. The independent video stores have mostly gone out of business, replaced first by Blockbuster, then by Redbox, now by at-home streaming. The J.F.K. conspiracy theorists that used to wander the streets looking for a sympathetic ear for their rants can now, on the Internet, find an audience from the alleged comfort of their own homes. There seem to be fewer and fewer pedestrians on the streets, fewer random interactions with strangers as concrete cities are made into virtual ghost towns by cloud computing. With all these devices, we live in a endless summer of social relations. Loneliness has effectively been banished. But is it possible to appreciate it without the contrast of the other seasons? Watching Slacker, there’s the creeping sense that without incidental human encounters, life loses some of its meaning. Places like Austin in 1991 don’t seem to exist anymore—today, the revitalized city centers all look the same, filled with people in American Apparel clothing, working side by side on matching aluminum Macbooks. With the demotion of the physical realm, some essential nutrient required for genuine weirdness to thrive is lost.
It is interesting to speculate on what an artist might have become had he remained uncompromising and ruthless in his vision. In 1926, to protest Stalin’s expulsion of the Trotskyist Opposition from the Politburo, Trotsky’s friend and loyal ally Adolf Yoffe committed suicide. In Yoffe’s goodbye letter, he provided a brutally final character assessment to his mentor:
I have always thought that you have not enough in yourself of Lenin’s unbending and unyielding character, not enough of that ability which Lenin had to stand alone and remain alone on the road which he considered to be the right road.
Like Steven Soderbergh, Linklater has attempted to walk the margin between mass appeal and artistic independence. While Soderbergh wavers back and forth between individual films, making a blockbuster, then an indie, then a blockbuster, Linklater has tried to fuse the two worlds together, aiming for that ever-elusive sweet spot between radical potency and popular appeal. For the most part this has involved an aesthetic retreat. Dazed and Confused, his idealized portrait of teenage life in the 1970s and a more traditional film, doesn’t cut to the bone in the way that the more loose and journalistic Slacker did. While Before Sunrise and Before Sunset work well with their gentle conceit—two strangers meeting on a European train—and bloom outward organically, Linklater’s 2001 dream film Waking Life is overwrought with its unnecessary cartoon rotoscoping, beat-you-over-the-head artfulness, and cloying intellectualizing. Waking Life artificially tries to recreate the sensibility that had Linklater achieved naturally in Slacker a decade earlier. Other recent Linklater like School of Rock and Bad News Bears abandon such pretensions completely, aspiring to nothing more than kiddie-and-smart-parent crowd-pleasing. To see them is to experience the mild discomfort of watching a director loosen his ethics.
The sense emerges that Linklater was a young man who intuitively knew how to make a film like no one had made before. But after Slacker, personal progress inevitably meant attempting to work within established forms—plots, characters, and genres. Time did its cruel work, Linklater learned the rules and grew up. Twenty years after its release, Slacker has stood the test of time. The hipsters in the film are ageless and illimitable, their unresolved digressions on the eternal concerns of youth—how to live and how to fill a lifetime—preserved on celluloid. Like the characters in Godard films, the hipsters in Slacker look better every passing year—the girls with their black lipstick and asymmetrical haircuts, the men with their worn boots and tattered shorts. In Slacker, Linklater created a vérité portrait of a lumpen Southern reality—real accents, real street corners, real diners, real wandering lost romantic youth—without fictional put-ons. He made it seem effortless, capturing a time in his hometown and the ideas that brought it to life.