When James Joyce first published his now celestial-seeming classic novel Ulysses, he was asked why he put so much effort into the specifics of the book’s geography, focusing a great amount of text on street names and building placements and so forth. In his reply, Joyce articulated that “if I can get to the heart of Dublin, I can get to the heart of all the cities of the world. In the particular is contained the universal.” For Joyce, getting all the details of Dublin with a certain painstaking exaction was essential, for if he could do that, he could truly capture Dublin in all its uniqueness and eccentricity.
It is that uniqueness that makes Dublin Dublin; however, one of the myriad strange paradoxes in life is that in that uniqueness lies something far more relatable and downright universal than all the cliches in the world. A cliche, by nature, comes off as so forgettable and platitudinal because it is baseless. A cliche is a notion, a mere whiff of an idea, that is grounded in very little. The specific, the place names and facts, are grounded in the precisely real. It is the cliche expanded, the general made specific, the unexplainable notions explained. Joyce could have written about some generic city where the streets were named after trees and everything looked the same, but he didn’t. Not only would no one then read his book, but then that universality of his Dublin would be lost. To get to the heart of all cities in the world, one cannot try and capture all the cities in the world. No, one only has to capture Dublin. Capture Dublin, and you capture everything. Capture everything, and damn, you’re one hell of an artist.
Richard Linklater is the James Joyce of cinema, and yes, he’s also one hell of an artist. As is evidenced from Linklater’s illustrious career, he is a man of tremendous ambition. One only has to look as far as his 2014 film Boyhood, in which he followed a kid around for twelve years to make a film about something as grand and abstract as childhood, to see that. With his magnificent Before trilogy (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight), Linklater followed a couple for about twenty years and mapped the ebb and flow of their relationship. Keep in mind, Linklater did all of this under the pretense of fictional filmmaking. The audience was watching real people grow and change, but they were doing so in the hermetic confines of a movie screen. Ambitious he most certainly is.
Yet, Linklater, to most, never came across as a man of ambition. He’s been lauded from the start, but “visionary” never seemed to be the title anyone was affixing to the man. This is because Linklater was almost too focused on the specifics. His best films eschewed plot almost entirely to document the mundane musings of seemingly regular people. Linklater wasn’t David Lean; he found no interest in the yawning desert or the crashing sea, for those are cliches of grandeur and ambition, not the Real McCoy. In the basements of high school friends, in the Austin backroads, in the anarchist coffeehouses. This is where the real ambition lies for Linklater. If he could focus, really focus, on the menial conversations of the modern proletariat, of the slackers and drop outs, then he could get to the heart of all of America. In his surreal Texas landscape lies the very real landscape of everything, of planet fucking Earth.
There’s a scene in Slacker, Linklater’s 1991 debut masterpiece, where a cowboy-`hatted petty criminal stumbles across an Austin hippy giving out cards she refers to as “Oblique Strategies.” The cowboy criminal draws a card that reads: “It’s not building a wall, but making a brick.” It’s not in the universal, but in the particular. Focus on that particular and then you get the universal. With Slacker, Richard Linklater has made a brick. He has captured Dublin.
Of course, there’s no point in philosophizing and engaging in endless academic inquiry unless one gets some actual enjoyment out of it. Waxing poetic on bricks and Dublin is nice and all, but who wants to experience that, when all is said and done? Linklater understands this quandary and perhaps he understands it far better than Mr. Joyce ever really did. Perhaps Joyce focused too much on the theoretical and thematic underpinnings of the brick rather than on what makes up the brick itself. To put it more simply, Joyce forgot what makes the subject of art so fun and interesting in the first place. Linklater, thank the cinematic gods, did not forget. Slacker captures the glorious weirdness of Austin, TX so well that it appears to capture every college town, and by extension, every town in America. Linklater, though he is manufacturing the scenes he presents his audience, comes off more as a sly documentarian than anything else. But all the conversations and seemingly pointless exchanges are damned interesting, and even more, they are fun. And what else should movies be, if not fun?
Towards the beginning of Slacker a bearded man with a paunch and a Batman tee shirt follows a college kid out of a coffee shop and exuberantly informs the kid about a number of nefarious conspiracies afoot in the U.S. of A, circa 1990. His rapid monologue encompasses everything from government brainwashing to moon colonies to the end of western civilization as we know it. At the very start of the film, an uber-young Linklater lectures a taxi driver about a dream he just had in which he was reading a book. In the book, every decision a person even considers creates an entire new reality. For example, Linklater then explains, “It’s like in the Wizard of Oz when Dorothy meets the Scarecrow and they do that little dance at the crossroads, and they think about going in all those directions and then they end up going in that one direction. I mean, all those other directions, just because they thought about it, became separate realities.”
Both of those scenes carry an immense amount of comic relief and are quite entertaining in isolation. What makes Slacker such a joy to watch is that the seemingly meaningless fragments of small town Texas life Linklater is displaying are all so profoundly interesting. Every wacky conversation and eccentric deadbeat truly is worth the time and money of the audience. But as the film progresses, it seems something else is at work. Slacker is a terrific and aimless look at a town at a specific time and place, but it’s much more than that as well. It’s a manifesto, a goddamn clarion call for every citizen of the world to hear. In his mundane, Texan chaos, Linklater has found an order.
The aimlessness of everyday life, Linklater is saying, is chock full of meaning and profundity. Those who merely sit and watch may be called slackers by the unenlightened elite, but they’re not really slacking. They are making bricks. They are trying deeply to understand the multifaceted, musical world they inhabit. They’re wandering the streets searching for those extraneous realities. At the tail end of the film, an old man speaks yearningly into a tape recorder, saying: “The necessary beauty in life is in giving yourself to it completely.” A few moments later, a car full of teenagers drive to a cliff, drunk and laughing, and throw their Super 8 movie cameras off of said cliff. It is the ultimate summation of Linklater’s philosophy. Observe and capture what you can, but in the end, the best thing you can do is chuck your camera off a cliff and hope for the best. Perhaps in that spinning free fall as your camera plummets to almost certain destruction, it will capture something beautiful and real and true. As one character in the film says: “The passion for destruction is also a creative passion.”
So smash the bricks and break down the wall; there is nothing for you there. In the rubble, the diminutive remains of the clay and mortar, there may be an answer to all of life’s most pressing questions. And if not, if it is all for naught, then at least you can take comfort in the fact that you’ve captured Dublin. If you can do that, then damn, you’re no slacker; you’re one hell of an artist.
Featured Image: Orion Classics