Though few people listened to the Velvet Underground when they were making records in the 1960s, it’s said that those who did went off and started bands of their own. Something similar happened 20 years ago when writer/director Richard Linklater released Slacker. Not many people saw the movie at the time, but many who did left the theater believing for the first time that they could make movies, too. Everything about Slacker—from its meandering, plotless structure and minimal editing to its endearingly amateur performances and meager $23,000 price tag—screamed “Do it yourself.” Like John Cassavetes before him, Linklater’s true genius was realizing that anyone with a camera and an idea can make a movie, that studios and big-name actors and million-dollar budgets simply aren’t necessary. This may not be surprising in our age of digital video and instant YouTube uploads, but it was a revolutionary notion back in 1991.
Linklater would go on to become one of Hollywood’s go-to directors, helming both hit studio comedies like School of Rock and Bad News Bears and pop-art experiments like A Scanner Darkly and Waking Life. But unlike most small-city filmmakers who make it big, Linklater didn’t run off to Los Angeles. He stayed in Austin and nurtured the local scene, mentoring younger filmmakers and starting the Austin Film Society. This summer the city has repaid him for his loyalty with a tribute: The Film Society and the Alamo Drafthouse theater enlisted 24 local directors to remake Slacker, scene for scene, as Slacker 2011, an “homage to twenty years of independent filmmaking, presenting the city’s changing face and showcasing some of its most exciting talent.” In other words, it’s not just a tribute to Richard Linklater, but a celebration of the independent film world he helped create in the middle of Texas.
Many of Austin’s best filmmakers are involved in Slacker 2011, including Bradley Beesley (The Fearless Freaks), Jay Duplass (Cyrus), and Amy Grappell (Quadrangle). Several have admitted in the press that Slacker was the reason they both decided to become filmmakers and to move to Austin. Slacker didn’t just open the door to the possibility of making one’s very own movie; it expanded the map of places in America where creative types could reasonably live—a short list now, an even shorter list then.
Though not a filmmaker, I was among those who saw Slacker as a youth and got enthralled by Austin. Here was a city that appeared to be an artistic frontier town. Everything in the movie—from the physical to the conversational landscape—looked and sounded undeveloped, uncharted and unmapped. The artists seemed free, the filmmaker seemed curious, and the city itself felt welcoming and wide-open. Slacker painted a picture of a land of possibility.
Slacker 2011 is a different kind of movie, and its producers must have felt a different kind of pressure. No longer is Austin an untamed wilderness; now it’s an established movie center, an adult with responsibilities, a reputation and history. The new movie is not simply a movie but an extended round of applause for the scene that Linklater and Slacker put on the map. Linklater’s coffee-shop political theorists, itinerant pop-philosophers and mussy-haired artists are all still here, though cleverly updated. The film’s main conspiracy theorist no longer reads books about JFK’s assassination; now he watches DVDs about the 9/11 attacks. But this new version of Slacker is filled with inside jokes and winking references for locals to indulge, and its cast of hundreds includes cameos by prominent and recognizable city figures, many of them non-actors who were chosen because they symbolize Austin … but only to other Austinites. For all its strong moments (and there are many), Slacker 2011 feels like a celebration of cultural and geographical insularity—a secret handshake familiar only to the inhabitants of a confined world—rather than the fount of boundless wonderment and inclusivity that was the original.
Slacker 2011 premiered at Austin’s Paramount Theater in August, complete with a red carpet and an official municipal proclamation from the mayor. The building was packed with filmmakers, local celebrities and film fans, many of whom participated in the making of Slacker 2011 and all of whom owe at least a little of their creative lives to Slacker. Linklater appeared on stage briefly, dressed in cargo shorts and a T-shirt—”Slacker wear”—as if to lovingly but pointedly admonish everyone for the ceremony, the suits, the fuss and self-congratulation. What’s the big deal? he seemed to be asking. It’s just a movie I made once. Still, the crowd was enthusiastic and partisan, and they laughed boisterously at the insider references peppered throughout the movie. If you didn’t know these people, places and locales you’d have to wonder what all the cheering was about, and that’s the problem. Twenty years ago, Slacker opened up Austin to the world. Slacker 2011 gently shuts the door to anyone who doesn’t already know the place, and turns the key.