From Slacker, Orion Pictures, 1991
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.