Wednesday, January 19, 2011

TV Bites: Slacker

Les Amis Cafe Black Beans & Brown Rice

Celebrating the 20th Anniversary of its screening at the Sundance Film Festival this week is Slacker where it will be shown again in tribute. So it's time for it to be served up in TV Bites... and to rant about my current hometown a bit.

A little over a decade ago, I had recently moved back to San Francisco. It was a pretty strange time. A rash of kids in Porsches mowing down pedestrians en masse, and mass evictions of renters by house flippers looking to cash in on the property boom. It was the land of dot-com millionaires and millionaire wannabes. It was like McTeague all over again.

I was heading down to Austin for what would be my 3rd visit and 2nd time for SXSW and decided to watch Slacker the night before I left. I don't think I'd seen it since it had come out almost a decade earlier. I remembered when I first saw it in LA, and as I walked out I said to the girl I was with that "it was the first time I think I ever saw a movie where I felt like I knew all those people." And as the movie ended this time, I realized that the film's community of oddball, interesting, and intelligent non-comformist people was what I had come back to San Francisco to find after leaving LA, and was what was missing for me there. All people wanted to talk about was their idiot Internet start-up idea or what restaurant they ate at last night. (Now, if only there was a website where trendy idiots could post their unintelligent and inarticulate reviews of where they ate last night, I could make a fortune... oh yeah.)

So I arrived in Austin, and within 72 hours I began plans to move and buy a home. It was still a relatively small town then, less than a half-million (which for an American city is on the small side). Today, it's doubled in size. You can't just drive up to a movie theater and buy a ticket five minutes before the film starts anymore. The thing that made Austin so livable for so many was that people cared more about their quality of life than their number of hours worked. And if being repopulated by folks who think a $300 t-shirt is a bargain isn't bad enough, we've now been onslaughtered by 3rd rate hipsters who confuse the ability to have feelings with the talent to express them artistically. Once there was a slogan, "Keep Austin Weird," which somehow morphed from a battle cry against the forces that were trying to turn it into yet another mid-sized American city that mostly lacks charm, into a marketing campaign to promote locally owned businesses (granted, as a defense against big box and chain stores and restaurants).

Some newly arrived folks like to mockingly joke how everyone in Austin says it was better before they got there. I guess it all depends on what you came here expecting, doesn't it? If you came for overpriced drinks, hipsters, and really gawd awful traffic, you've come to the right place.

But yet there's still a little Austin left in Austin, though it's getting harder and harder to find. Trying to live as a true slacker (read Background & Context below) these days, you gotta swim upstream in some shallow water. But that's the whole point, isn't it? Otherwise you would be just like everyone else.

You can watch Slacker for FREE @ Hulu and YouTube, and you can purchase the Criterion edition DVD @ Amazon.


"Withdrawing in disgust is not the same thing as apathy."

Described cutely as an "end-of-the-road movie," Slacker's plot structure falls into the category of, what Gerald Mast in his book The Comic Mind, called "riffing" (but adds it could also be called "goofing" or "anomalous gaggery") Mast uses examples of the Mack Sennett silent comedies, explaining how they would "take some initial situation - perhaps a place [or event, or object]... and then run a series of gags that revolve around this central situation." Mast includes films like (our last TV Bites) A Hard Day's Night, and Help! in this category.

"I guess the original idea was the form of it. The way it wouldn’t be a traditional narrative," recalled writer/director Richard Linklater. "It was a really early idea, I thought about for about five years before actually making the film. It was one of those early radical ideas you have when you’re just getting into something, trying to break out of everything that’s come before. I remember I was driving from Houston and thinking ‘Why can’t you just make a film that goes from character to character? That could be a whole film.’"

"For a film that seems so structure-less," said Linklater, "in a way it’s all about the structure. But within that structure, there’s a whole lot of freedom."

The film begins with Linklater taking a cab from the bus station into town where the rest of the film will take place. He muses to the cab driver as they go, explaining his theory of parallel universes and that perhaps if he hadn't taken this cab, he might have met some girl and wound up moving in with her, and because of that thought, there is now this parallel reality where he is not taking the cab. Through this scene, Linklater sets us up for the rambling structure of what we will be watching in the rest of the film - a series of vignettes intersecting almost randomly with each other, but not tied to each other. By the end of the film we been given peeks at over 100 different characters in about 100 minutes.

"I really wanted people to be thinking that ‘Well, we’re just viewing these people, but it could other people.’ Like everyone has a life but we’re only going to see two minutes of these 100 people’s lives," Linklater stated.

Roger Ebert, in his review of the film nicely puts it: "We don't get a story, but we do get a feeling. We are listening in on a whole stratum of American life that never gets paid attention to in the movies...."

And while there appears no central physical character, it is Austin itself, or at least the part of Austin around the campus of the University of Texas as it existed during the late 80's, that is the film's true central character.

Cinematographer (and actor) Lee Daniel remembered coming home one day to the place he and Linklater rented, and went to the refrigerator to get a beer. "[I] reached in there looking for a cold beer, and it was filled up completely with 50 brand-new rolls of 16mm film. I was like, 'Wow, he's serious.'"

Linklater had already been pretty serious about movies so far in his life. He had made some short films, a Super-8 feature, and started the Austin Film Society, which continues to this day with his input.

For Slacker, Linklater took out some loans from friends and relatives and received a grant from the Southwest Alternative Media Project (SWAMP). Later, when he was shopping it around as a "work-in-progress," he got money from the West German television network.

"I think the total budget was something like $23,000," Daniel said. "Rick had a Shell card, so we used it for everything we needed, from Gatorade to gasoline -- including snacks, because we didn't have catering or meals -- and signed it with a forged signature. I was always worried we were going to get busted."

"It was the kind of film I could make at that time with no money. The poverty of the film itself reflects, and is intertwined with, the subject matter," Linklater said.

"I kind of wrote it all in a 24 hour period," he recalled. "I probably had dialogue for only about 30 percent of it before I started showing [the script] to people. The we would cast people. We had a big casting search, mostly locally, mostly nonprofessionals - just people I thought embodied the essence of what I wanted for that character. Then I’d be working with them I would often type up the sample dialogue before our first rehearsal."

John Delony, who plays the coffee-addled conspiracy junkie, remembered, "They handed out a little sticker to people they thought looked interesting. It said, If you want to be in an interesting movie, show up at this audition. Rick asked me, 'Could you just improvise a bit?' I said, 'About what?' And he said, 'Um, UFOs?' It had been a passion of mine, and I'd had remarkable experiences, and I started rattling it off."

"I'd say a third [of the scenes] are as written, more or less; another third rewritten extensively in rehearsals; another third we just totally went there with that actor," noted Linklater. "It became all about something that they brought."

They began filming in the summer of 1989, though at the time it wasn't called Slacker, a term that wasn't in use then, but later, because of the film, it gave name to the entire generation. “That wasn’t our original name of the film," Linklater said. "[I]t just kind of came up during production. We started calling each other slackers - it was kind of a joke at first - we didn’t think it was the right name and then eventually it seemed like the ONLY name for the film. In fact, more people know the term now than have ever seen the movie... and they use it in a negative way.”

Linklater recalled at the time he and his cohorts never thought the film would ever be seen outside of their circle, "[I]t was just fun to make it. It was like this summer art project -- get a group of creative people in a room together and ‘Let’s do this!'"

Once the film was completed, Linklater got a run at (the recently deceased) Dobie Theater near the campus. At first people came mostly to see their friends and their city on screen, but then it started to pick up a bit of a buzz, pro and con.

"People were like, 'Everyone's so poorly dressed. We have a beautiful city here. Why is it all the ugly shit?' It was not the Chamber of Commerce piece," recalled Linklater. "And yet, people did recognize it as indicative of a certain mind-set -- a certain tolerant attitude. I got a note from Ann Richards, the governor, saying how much she liked [it]."

"I thought, 'If we can get this thing on video, and sell it in the back of Film Threat magazine for $39.99, we'll eventually make our money back in five or six years,'" said cinematographer Daniel. "We'd been rejected by Sundance the first time, and after being rejected at just about every major and minor film festival in the U.S. and Europe for a year, it got accepted to the 1990 Seattle Film Festival. It kind of broke there."

It then did get accepted at Sundance, Orion Pictures then picked it up for theatrical distribution, and eventually it earned "a respectable $1.3 million at the box office. Although it wasn’t wildly successful even in art theaters, it did become THE film to see among the hip cognoscenti,” noted Louis Black, editor of the Austin Chronicle weekly.

But beyond just being a motion picture, it's that its cultural impact continues to be felt. People still consider Austin "a cultural oasis," in part due to the association with Slacker, and it remains a snapshot for the coming of age of its generation. "That summer of 1990, there had been a Time article on 20-somethings," said Linklater, and a year later, Douglas Copeland's book Generation X came out and the two of them wound up becoming friends and spokespeople for their generation. “Filmmakers make bad spokespeople for generations or politics. You might intersect with something in the air for one moment in time, but it’s not gonna last, because filmmakers’ agendas are always film," Linklater said.

Linklater received Independent Spirit Award nominations in both Best Director and Best First Feature categories, and the film was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize in 1991 at the Sundance Film Festival.


Let's just start with this: Being a slacker isn't the same as being a lazy-good-for-nothing, no matter what President Bill Clinton might have said.

"I was depicting people [in Slacker] who were outside of the mainstream, who were sort of the underground. I didn't see that as a negative," Linklater has had to point out. "You look historically and these people are always portrayed negatively: beatniks, hippies, they're ridiculed. Anyone who's doing their own thing."

"Daydreaming is a productive activity," said Linklater. "Where do you get your ideas from? If you’re working all day, that kind of kills a lot. It’s also about visualizing your ideal world, both the kind of world you live in and also who you want to hang around with and what you want to spend your time doing, what are your ideal physical circumstances."

"That’s what our society never responds to, or never let’s you argue," he said in another interview. "It’s like you have to accept the consumer culture - Coke or Pepsi, Democrat or Republican... whatever the game is. But if you step outside and say ‘Neither,’ that’s what they don’t want. No one can ever believe it. The question really is ‘What to buy?’ not ‘Whether to buy or not?’ Because as soon as you go ‘Whether to buy or not?’ you can go ‘I can live without all that stuff. I can live in my little cheap apartment and let me work two shifts a week as a waiter and support myself, and let me not buy a new car, not buy new clothes, not go out to eat every night, and then I can spend all my time reading, watching movies, or playing my guitar, or writing, or whatever someone might truly feel better doing with their time.’ I don’t think society really wants people doing that. It doesn’t seem productive.”

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," wrote Linklater in his companion book to the movie. "[M]illions of intelligent, creative people who just don’t buy into their preordained traditional roles in society. They maybe haven’t found out what they want to do yet, but they know what they don’t want.”

Now once upon a time, there was this thing called "the System," "the Establishment," or "the Man," and from within which small numbers of discontented and nonconforming types could "drop out" or "tune out" and eventually find themselves aligned with something called the "counter-culture." This "counter-culture" wasn't so much seen at first to be threatening to "the Establishment," maybe a few handfuls of folks scattered about the globe, and usually not very organized (in fact, they generally disdained organizations). Even by mid 20th-century they were just tiny pockets of "bohemians" existing out on the fringe - scoffed at, yet tolerated for the most part in large urban areas. Sometimes they threatened "the System" with their ideas and lifestyles, but more often than not, they functioned as (I hate to use this term, but...) "test marketing," where new ideas, concepts, and lifestyles could be tried out and slowly make their way into the mainstream, generally confounding the status quo, but making the world a better place, or at least a more enjoyable place thanks to their music, art, and values.

"Establishment" types were called "the squares" - those who toiled away at their "lives of quiet desperation" addicted to their "conspicuous consumption" of goods. But by the late 50's, more people began to question the social restrictions of the Eisenhower years... and then toss in the sexual revolution, the televised Vietnam folly, and that rock 'n' roll music. It started to look like "the Establishment" was in trouble and revolution was "In the Air." But if not actually becoming one, it seemed if you could simply strike the pose of a "Rebel Without a Cause" you could both titillate and terrify the masses. More and more "squares" now suddenly wanted to be "cool" too. But how could they without actually "dropping out?" And if everyone was "cool," might no one then be "cool?"

Now whereas the beatniks were mostly ridiculed by the media, by the late 60's Madison Avenue had realized tying corporate products to this "counter-culture" actually boosted sales of those products. People could feel like they were outsiders while still standing inside. How wonderful was that? And thus the "flower power generation" could be repackaged as the "Pepsi Generation". A wholesale rejection of "the Man" could be stymied by simply tweaking the public into actualizing their dissatisfaction with "the System" by purchasing "cool" products that no longer made you feel "square." And of course, you need to keep working to buy those products and you have to watch television to know which products to buy, as what is "cool" only lasts for moments before it is deemed "uncool." "Cool" suddenly became synonymous (or confused, depending on your POV) with "popular."

You didn't need to be hip to be a hippie, you just needed the right clothes and the right soda pop. And so all that was once "cool" and "counter-culture" was now co-opted, and all that messy anti-establishment and anti-capitalist content had been stripped away - though leaving just enough to convince people they were being non-conformist while completely buying into the tenants of "the Establishment." After all, a "sneaker revolution" could make you look like a revolutionary and thus feel like a free-thinker, all the while delivering radical profits for investors thanks to being manufactured by children in slave labor conditions in repressive countries. So masterful did they become in stripping content from form, that any voice outside "the System" that seemed even a bit threatening to the status quo, could be sanitized and made part of "the System" in no time at all. It can even go the other way - Mickey Mouse can thus lay claim to such meaningless credentials as being "underground" and having "street cred." We then reach a point where there is little or no incongruity when Laura Bush, wife of ex-President George W. Bush, can be called a "closet Rastafarian" by her daughter because Mama enjoys listening to Bob Marley, once considered a worldwide cultural icon associated with resistance to the policies of people like her husband's.

Today, there is no time left to think or ponder. We teach our kids how to take tests, not how to think. And if they spend too much time daydreaming, we've got a cabinet filled with drugs to put them back on track. We need our "energy drinks" because we fear not being productive enough. And being a "slacker" can be reduced merely to a fashion choice which you can "channel."

And let's just end with this. Sundance Festival founder Robert Redford once said, "I never learned as much in the classroom as I did staring out a window and imagining things."


The Austin American-Statesman called it "the sacred slacker habitat and cafe," one patron remembered it as "a vital part of the cultural infrastructure," and, in Nancy Higgins' documentary on the Cafe Les Amis, another patron says it was the place "where all the defective toys hung out." Higgins worked there as a waitress for a time and began working on her film in 2000, three years after the cafe closed its doors. It was open from 1970 to 1997. In its place, as you might guess, is now a Starbucks. Former manager Newman Stribling says in the film, "The thing that was at the core of it was invisible, ineffable and ephemeral."

Besides being immortalized in Higgins' documentary, and the reason for my writing about it here, is that it is featured in Slacker, as the location of the Smurf philosophizing scene.

In addition to its hot coffee, cheap wine, no hassle policy for hours of table occupancy, it was known for its beans & rice dish. "Generations of semi-successful musicians, struggling artists, and would-be writers budgeted their lives around the bowl of beans and rice (with cheese, if you paid extra)," wrote former patron Scott McLemee.

Now, to be technical, apparently there is a difference between "rice & beans" and "beans & rice." "Beans & rice" is when you cook and/or serve the two mixed together, and "rice & beans" is when they're cooked and/or served separately. Got it?

According to Beans: More than 200 Delicious, Wholesome Recipes from Around the World, by Aliza Green, "there are over 200 sorts of beans, over 50 sorts of peas, perhaps 40 sorts of fava and cowpeas, and quite a few more unusual legumes that are only now coming back into vogue," and have been a dietary staple for humans for over 12,000 years.

Rice is native to both West Africa and Southeast Asia and its cultivation goes back at least to 3000 BC. So you figure people have been putting the two together for a long, long time and in many, many places. And yet, according to Rice and Beans: A Unique Dish in a Hundred Places, by Richard Wilk & Livia Barbosa, "in every place people insist that Rice and Beans is a local invention, deeply rooted in a particular history and culture."

If you'd like to read up on the health benefits of black beans, this site is well-filled.

I got to Austin not long after Les Amis closed, so I can't tell you if this is exactly what it tasted like. I called a friend who used to frequent the place to ask for specifics from his memory bank to which I received generalities - "rice, beans, lots of cheese, and whatever other stuff." Damn, slacker. I thought my version tasted mighty fine. So, as always - cook, watch, eat & enjoy!

Les Amis Cafe Black Beans & Brown Rice
adapted from a loosely written recipe found here
Serves 4
Click for Printer-Friendly Version

1 1/2 cups dry Black Turtle Beans OR 2 15-oz. cans Black Beans
2 teaspoons Olive oil
2 1/2 teaspoons Garlic, minced
3 ounces Yellow onion, thinly sliced
1 cup Long grain brown rice
3 cups Monterey Jack cheese, finely shredded

Sour cream (they recommend Daisy brand, if you can find it)
Sliced jalapenos
Chopped fresh tomatoes
Chopped red onions
Cholulu (or your favorite) brand hot pepper sauce

If using dry turtle beans: First pick through and remove debris & rocks. Wash, but do not soak. (MY NOTE: My understanding is that soaking is the best method to reduce flatulence from your post-bean eating experience, but I suppose it added to the, um, the flavor of Les Amis.) Put beans in pot and add cold water to a level of 2 inches over the beans and bring to a very slow boil. Do not cover. Continue adding water, little by little, to maintain liquid at 1-2 inches above beans. According to the original author of the recipe: "It may take hours."

If using canned beans, begin here: Sauté garlic and onion in olive oil for about 5 minutes, until translucent. Then add both cans of beans and their liquid. Boil, then simmer until ready to serve.

(If using dry turtle beans: When beans are almost cooked, add sautéed garlic & onion to the pot and continue to simmer.)

For rice: Rinse rice in cold water, then add 1 1/2 cups cold water to rice. Cover tightly and cook 45 minutes or until water is absorbed. Remove cover and fluff.

To serve: Put equal amounts of rice in a bowl, top with beans. Then add whichever condiments you want on it (except sour cream), then a generous handful of cheese, "which has been slightly compressed from squeezing." Stick in oven to melt cheese. Top with sour cream, if using, and enjoy.

Interview with Richard Linklater (6-parts) @ YouTube
Twenty-Something: Proceeding with Caution, Time Magazine (July 16, 1990)
Richard Linklater, Senses of Cinema, Issue 27
Slack Where We Started, by Marjorie Baumgarten @ Austin Chronicle
Slack to the Future: Slacker @ 20, by Marc Savlov @ Austin Chronicle
Slacker: 15 Years Later, by Brian Rafferty @ Salon
Slacker, Criterion DVD Page (includes several articles)
The Austin Film Society

Slacker - Criterion Collection DVD (includes 10-minute teaser of Viva Les Amis! documentary)
Viva Les Amis! Documentary DVD
Slacker (the Book), by Richard Linklater
Spike Mike Reloaded, by John Pierson
Chainsaws, Slackers, and Spy Kids: Thirty Years of Filmmaking in Austin, Texas, by Alison Macor
Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture, by Douglas Coupland
Rice and Beans: A Unique Dish in a Hundred Places, by Richard Wilk & Livia Barbosa

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