Slacker (1990) and Walkabout (1971)

Dir. Richard Linklater. Starring the entire population of Austin, Texas, but not nearly enough Butthole Surfers.

Dir. Nicholas Roeg. Starring Jenny Agutter, Luc Roeg, David Gulpilil

Do you have a favorite drip in Jackson Pollock’s Full Fathom Five? Does one of the nails he hammered into his canvas stand out? It’s much the same in Slacker, an egalitarian film framed by a single individual and then exploded into constituent parts with the same kind of falling colors and at-random paths one expects in Pollock’s art. It’s a little harsh to say something is wrong with these people, with the exception of the guy who kills his mom offscreen in the first ten minutes of the film. But something’s up with them. Many of them have been addled by their dreams, by Dostoevsky, by Czolgosz, by every conspiracy theory under the sun. Some of them are newcomers to the city, or have been away for a long time, or seem not to fit the community they live in; it could be argued that a great many of them are keeping Austin weird a little bit too well. The frame, spoken into existence by a sleepy man who probably shouldn’t have sprung for a cab ride, posits that everyone continues to exist even when we don’t see them. (His actual topic is about how thought becomes reality, so that a different series of thoughts creates a different series of events; Slacker is not that high.) In The Wizard of Oz, he remembers, Dorothy and the Scarecrow go to a number of paths before they finally choose the correct one that will take them to the Emerald City. Who knows what we would have seen had they chosen a different path to go down? And more than that, they may already have done so. Slacker believes in the big map, a galaxy brain bumper cars of experience which allows us to see anything we like so long as it holds our interest.

Walkabout, particularly when the elder Roeg puts down his characters in the same way the younger Roeg puts down his toys, has much more Rothko to it; in photographing the rising sun, the burning sand, thorny devils and scorpions, ants and red kangaroos, he has made his own take on Orange, Red, Yellow. The strokes of Walkabout are by and large broad, too; what occurs here is a transplanted pastoral, if you want to read it that way, or the outgrowths of some fabular epic. Roeg uses contrast like a hammer in the film, cross-cutting his way to cultural comparison and subtextual meaning. From the beginning of the movie, when he shows us close-ups of rock compared to close-ups of brick and stone walls, he’s actively contrasting the two worlds. The most perfect of these is seen from the view of a man in his apartment, looking down on his children in a turquoise swimming pool not far from the royal blue of the ocean; active human manipulation has even changed the color of the water. The world of Adelaide, with its corporations, its schools, its busy streets, and its scurrying people quickly comes to mean something different than the bush, which seems to move laconically until it becomes a swirl of motion. Roeg cannot entirely reject an anthropocentric story, but mercifully he does not force the civilization-nature binary further than he has to. The father (John Meillon) drives out to the desert with his children (Jenny Agutter and Luc Roeg), where we come to understand that he intends to off the entire family. He fires some shots in their direction, gives up, and shoots himself once his Volkswagen is thoroughly ablaze. In that moment the film shifts—Roeg has brought the divergent Australias together and united them in a single process. No one says the word “survival” in the film, but it’s clear that it’s the concept of living another day that Walkabout has at its center. And as much as “survival” implies different things in Adelaide than it does in the wilderness, it’s still a word with a single, powerful, and dreaded antonym.

Slacker and Walkabout have a weird number of surface-level differences, including their early positions in their directors’ oeuvres, their one-word titles, their almost identical running times, and their remarkable evocations of place. But what comes to mind first for me is the vitality in both movies, especially the vitality created by movement.

Slacker goes from person to person with such speed, and sometimes even unpredictability, that it’s like the world’s longest relay race. The baton is passed dozens of times to dozens of actors, of whom almost all say at least a little something. When an idea runs out of breath, the baton is passed to the idea coming up behind it, and that idea takes its time around the track. But just because some thematic idea or major thinker is brought up by a character does not mean that the idea is left behind. In one scene, a young couple begins arguing on their way to a movie theater because the girl (astutely, so far as I can see) thinks the boy is completely indebted to his own tenderfoot interpretations of philosophy rather than to some serious cognition behind it. After that scene, an old-school anarchist brings forth his view of the changing world and the changing vision of anarchy; an employee at a bar critiques the nature of art itself. A pair of men in a bar wonder about the submissive messages children might be learning from Scooby-Doo or The Smurfs. (That conversation is a superior version of the in-too-deep cultural criticism likewise used in The Last Days of Disco, when the characters argue about what kids might learn from Lady and the Tramp.) In a desperate and deeply ironic search for symbolism, a man throws a typewriter off a bridge before reading aloud from Ulysses. Linklater doesn’t need to call attention to that running theme of questionable philosophical interpretation; it simply arises, like grass from dirt, over and over again, and can only do so because we walk or drive or run into this city within a city. That growth is essential to the activity of Slacker.

Likewise, the constant physical but obviously more focused movement of Walkabout builds its intensity. There is significantly less fear in the children than one would expect; the boy does not realize until he and his sister are nearly to safety that his father is really dead, and the girl sheds no tears for her father’s shockingly violent death. (The Picnic at Dusty Middle of Nowhere is a MacGuffin, sure, but it’s an effective one, and more than most MacGuffins indirectly characterizes its principals.) They have a bottle of lemonade, little food, and no good way to procure any of the nourishment they’ll need. They do not know where they are; their radio has a limited battery life. They walk up a mountain to see if they can map their whereabouts from there, but from there they begin to tire. At one point, the exhausted girl is forced to carry her even more exhausted brother on her back; their faces are ugly with sunburn. They find a waterhole, drink, eat, relax, and then find that the waterhole has dried up overnight. The girl makes as basic a lean-to as she can with sticks and the thin cloth they were to have picnicked on and lays still. To move is to live; to stop is to invite death. Even at this moment, there are no histrionics; both of them appear to be too worn down to make much of a fuss. When they are rescued by an Aborigine (Gulpilil) on walkabout, they quickly rediscover their energy as they follow him. He hunts, the boy fetches wood, the girl swims. In an extended scene, the girl rejects the Aborigine when he makes his play for her, dancing and jumping. When we see him next, he is dead, hung up totally still in a tree; he is as motionless as the corpses of buffalo that he saw shot down by white hunters not long before.

After so much movement, it’s interesting to see how both films end contemplatively. At the end of Slacker, we’ve been introduced to a small group of friends climbing up their own mountain. After watching a movie that is almost contemptuous of cuts, the sheer number of them in the last two minutes or so of Slacker makes it feel like these people running uphill have been shot out of a cannon. “Skokiaan,” as far as I can tell, is playing in the background. One of the young people is standing on the edge of this cliff and looking out on the valley below. He pours out his water bottle, puts it down, and corner kicks it into the gap. He has his camera and seems to be thinking about what to do. He wants to throw it, clearly, but can’t quite bring himself to do it. He pump fakes, cradles, and eventually flings it away.

Walkabout quite abruptly fast forwards into the future. Now a housewife married to a business type not unlike her father, she welcomes him home to the same apartment she used to live in. As he reports some vague turmoil at work, her mind wanders; she imagines herself swimming with the Aborigine and her brother, in motion once again. In the apartment, she is trapped by windows, a counter, the dinner she’s preparing, the man inches away from her. Outside of it, her mind returns to the boundless places of her past, where splashing water and pirouetting strokes were natural and unhindered.

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