Low-budget 'Slacker' attracting cult following


HOUSTON -- In 1989, with $23,000 in borrowed money, some of it from credit-card advances, Richard Linklater set out to make an affectionate pseudo-documentary about the alienated college graduates, neo-beatniks and assorted eccentrics in Austin, Texas, his hometown.

The result was "Slacker," a shoestring production that is rapidly accumulating favorable notices and a cult following as it makes its way into theaters around the country.

"Slacker" has been playing at the Angelika Film Center in New York City since July 5 and has opened at theaters in Los Angeles, San Diego, Houston and Dallas.

Critics have praised it as an inventive portrait of twentysomething malaise on the fringes of collegiate life.

The 100 or so people in the film drift in and out of coffee shops, bars, second-hand-book stores and ramshackle houses, almost seeming to bounce off each other.

Now, with earnings of $216,519 since its national release last month, "Slacker" is becoming something of a sleeper hit.

It is a surprisingly healthy showing for an offbeat comedy with no plot, no character development, little movement, let alone action, and a mild current of nihilism flowing through it.

"I knew it was watchable and that a lot of people who live in the kind of world it portrays would relate to it, but its appeal is much wider than I ever thought it would be," Linklater said by telephone recently from the Sundance Institute in Park City, Utah, where he was speaking at a producer's conference.

The 29-year-old Linklater, who appears in the film's opening vignette as a taxi passenger who natters cheerfully about alternate realities and roads not taken, offered his own description of the subculture depicted in "Slackers."

"There has always been this part of the population that was on the margins, that was intentionally outside society or at odds with what was expected of it," he said. "They have been pretty much ignored for the past 20 years."

The young people in his film, he said, are "intelligent, creative people who just don't buy into traditional roles in society."

These so-called slackers, he continued, "haven't found out what they want to do yet, but they know what they don't want."

Linklater, a self-taught filmmaker, grew up in Houston, the son of an insurance agent and a speech pathologist. He dropped out of Sam Houston State University after two years. His major was English, he said, but college cut too deeply into his reading time.

He worked on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, hung out and read French and Russian literature. He moved to Austin in 1984, went to movies, hung out and read philosophy.

Eventually he founded the Austin Film Society, and in 1987, when he wasn't reading, made a short 8mm film called "It's Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books."

"Being a slacker was a very productive period in my life, though it did not look that way to anyone else," he said.

Linklater booked the original 16mm film into Austin's Dobie Theater, where it played a record 11 weeks, and entered it in film festivals, where it was often but not always rejected.

But "Slacker" drew raves at the Seattle Festival in 1990, and Orion Classics, an autonomous division of Orion Pictures, took note. It signed a distribution deal, blew the film up to 35mm and remixed the sound track.

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