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While the production and release of Slacker are surrounded by film legends, it speaks well of writer, producer and director Richard Linklater that neither he nor the film have been overwhelmed by them. It cost $23,000 to make and grossed 1.2 million, was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award and the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Festival, and it was the film that inspired Kevin Smith, and many others, to become filmmakers. It was also one of the most influential films of the resurgence of independents in the early 1990s. Of course, there is also the Madonna pap smear scene--the sort of thing that could force a filmmaker out of obscurity for a long time.

In a new DVD release from the Criterion Collection, these remarkable facts are a part of the background noise; the focus is on the path Richard Linklater traveled to make the film that jumpstarted his career, from the promise of an early short and his first feature, to the process of writing, casting, shooting, and promoting the film that was his breakthrough.

Over a decade after the original release of Slacker, Richard Linklater's films still reflect the views espoused by the bony-elbowed young man (the director himself) who hops in a taxi in the first scene. His opening monologue not only sets up this film, but the philosophical, conversational spirit of the film to follow. His character energetically tells the indifferent driver that he believes each path you choose not to take acquires a life of its own. Then, in his role as director, he expands upon this theory as he follows a group of hyper-educated Austin, Texas, residents through one path, and conversation (or, in many cases, monologue), after another.

Aside from their refusal to participate in mainstream society, and the town they walk through, there is no common thread among these characters. Some talk, others listen; some are busily occupied with their obsessions, while others can't even work up the energy to dress themselves; some are sure of themselves and their pursuits, while others sink into crime, depression, or even oblivion. Linklater follows them along blistering hot sidewalks to coffee shops, night clubs, houses, and bridges. He shows them arguing, cajoling, and philosophizing--all firm believers in what they are saying, whatever their enthusiasm about the lives they lead.

Linklater regretted the negative connotation the term slacker took on after the release of the film. In the years to follow, it came to symbolize listless and lazy young people who rejected the working world and the mores around it simply out of lack of ambition. The film refutes this definition; while there are plenty of lazy characters wandering the streets of Austin, most of them are busy with their interests and don't reject the button-downed life out of sloth but because they don't find it fulfilling. (In an ironic footnote, most of the actors in the film had to arrange shooting schedules around their jobs.) In an essay on the Criterion Collection disc, Linklater finally explains the concept and beliefs of the slacker in full detail.

Other special features on this double-disc set flesh out the creative world in Austin, including notes about the Austin Film Society (founded by Linklater and his film collaborator Lee Daniel) and an extended trailer for a documentary about Les Amis, the well-loved local café which served as location for many scenes in the film. There are also several audition interviews for parts in the film. Many of these actors show up again in a short clip from the tenth anniversary celebration of the film in 2001.

Here also, for the first time on a home release, is Linklater's existentialist first feature, You Can't Learn to Plow by Reading Books (1988). In it, he already shows a knack for eavesdropping on private conversations and observing real life in action, while adding contrasting philosophical and reflective elements that are more cinematic than the events of everyday life. He also shows an early aptitude for capturing interesting characters in his short film, made with Lee Daniel, about the Woodshock music festival in Austin in 1985.

Several of the DVD special features focus exclusively on the production of Slacker, from an early script (with many scenes that were later dropped), to home movies of the production and hundreds of stills and headshots of cast members. There are three commentaries to choose from. The track with Linklater is by far the most informative and lucid. The two tracks with cast and crew are significantly less intriguing, but there are enough interesting facts about the production and the Austin area in each to reward a little patience.

Since the release of Slacker, Linklater has not strayed far from the formula he employed here, though this is not to say that he has not evolved. While the settings and circumstances of films such as Dazed and Confused (1993), Before Sunrise (1995), and Waking Life (2001) are diverse, they all possess a similar view of reality blended with a tinge of art school sensibility and a grad school student's flair for analysis. They work as entertainment, but the topics they explore and the questions they raise help them to hold up through multiple viewings. It is these very qualities that may also help the films of Richard Linklater, including Slacker, to endure.

Slacker is now available from the Criterion Collection in a director-approved special edition double-disc set. The new high-definition digital transfer was supervised by director Richard Linklater and director of photography Lee Daniel and was made from original 16mm film elements. Special features: three audio commentaries featuring Linklater and members of the cast and crew; casting tapes featuring select auditions from the cast; an early film treatment; home movies; a ten-minute trailer for a documentary about the landmark Austin cafe, Les Amis, which served as location for several scenes in Slacker; a stills gallery featuring behind-the-scenes production and publicity photos; It's Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books (1988), Linklater's first full-length feature with commentary by the director; Woodshock (1985), an early short 16mm film by Linklater and Lee Daniel; "The Roadmap," the working script of Slacker, including 14 deleted scenes and alternate takes; footage from the Slacker tenth-anniversary in Austin, Texas in 2001; and an original theatrical trailer. Suggested retail price: $39.95. For more information, check out the Criterion Collection Web site.