Richard Linklater's Guide to Austin, Texas


Five out of Richard Linklater's first seven features were shot primarily in Austin; the first, "It's Impossible To Learn To Plow By Reading Books," begins there, and the only one to omit it entirely is "Before Sunrise" (though Ethan Hawke's Jesse is from Texas). Begin with "Slacker": shot in 1989, unleashed into the festival circuit system in 1990 and released nationally in 1991, at the time generally understood as a fond portrait of a place whose economy could sustain an entertaining but determinedly non-producing class. To some extent, that's accurate, but the fact that the second scene is a fatal hit-and-run signals the film's darker undercurrents.

There are echoes of violence throughout: the girl who famously offers to sell a Madonna pap smear first tells a long, lunatic story about a clearly mentally ill guy speeding down the freeway firing a gun inside his car while the cops pursue, the old anarchist who fumes about missing Austin's "finest hour" (i.e., Charles Whitman climbing to the top of the University of Texas at Austin campus tower and killing 17 people in 1966). Other kooks are more harmless, notably twin conspiracy theorists — one ranting about the moon landing, another about the JFK assassination — who latch onto people who just want to be left alone (walking down the street and in a used bookstore respectively). An ultra-social place is one where entering a public area means surrendering the right to not be bothered, which keeps life from getting boring but can be exhausting.

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Austin's general city-wide narrative stems the not inaccurate idea that it's served from the '60s on as an in-state refuge for hippies and other types who didn't fit into their section of an otherwise red state. "Slacker"'s Austin undercuts grounds for self-congratulation about its inclusiveness, portraying a largely jittery, agitated group of people whose cultural ineffectuality leads to stifled anarchist and crankish impulses. There's a moment when a character walking down the street runs straight into a Ron Paul rolling billboard on a truck. It's not commented upon, and it didn't need to be: though the trucks were specifically tied to his failed 1988 presidential campaign on the Libertarian ticket, Paul re-entered congressional politics in 1997 and was slowly discovered by the rest of the country during the 2008 and 2012 campaign. For anyone from the area, this gave the universal feeling of bemusement at watching all of America finally catch up with a local eccentric long taken for granted.

"Slacker" posits that any kind of cohesive liberal counter-culture spread out over a reasonably large city is going to include fringe libertarian conspiracists — an oddly specific but accurate insight. Another person Linklater gave screen time (twice!) was Alex Jones, who appears with the bullhorn usually reserved for broadcasting dire messages about black helicopters hovering over Texas and the United Nations' sinister one-world plans. Jones is now generally widely chastised every time he opens his mouth (this week — an unremarkable one by his standards — he doubted we'd ever be able to be completely certain the government didn't create the tornado that struck Oklahoma), but he used to say these things all the time, and in 1999 the readers of the city's alt-weekly "The Austin Chronicle" tied him with then-liberal Shannon Burke for best talk show host in the city. His outlandish claims went from FM to AM radio, but he remained part of the atmosphere, someone adding to the local color. (It's worth noting that this week Linklater noted on a Reddit AMA thread that he's comfortable considering himself a Libertarian, and that Jones "is a friend. Super smart, and a really nice, polite guy.")

1993's "Dazed And Confused" was shot in and around Austin's outskirts, simulating (per Linklater this year) "a small town, let's say in East Texas — the kind of town you have to actually drive 70 miles to get Aerosmith tickets." Randall "Pink" Floyd (Jason London) is acutely aware that no matter how much glory he racks up in rural 1976 Texas, it'll mean nothing ("if I ever start referring to these as the best years of my life, remind me to kill myself"). 1997's "SubUrbia" returned to these outskirts with a markedly different goal: to plausibly simulate generic interchangeable suburbia.

For those, like me, raised in Austin's peripheral suburbs rather than its marketable cultural/physical center, these films may have been intended to depict a more generic area, but they can't help but being specific. The "Moon Tower" in "Dazed" looks down on the twinkling lights of university and government-centric downtowns, twin complementary zones. "SubUrbia" delves further into sprawling south Austin, but its opening montage's strip mall hells of conformity include Vietnamese restaurants and other signs of non-big-box life. In 1997, that may not have been such a big deal, but now and going forward (as anyone who's driven through a small town with no pre-existing identity can attest) any cluster of people with any non-corporate presence is a minor miracle.

If a movie can't help being a documentary of the place where it was made, "Dazed" and "SubUrbia" definitely fulfill this task despite their creator's stated intent to situate the film in a specifically non-Austin space. The non-explicitly bohemian spaces didn't conform to what the city could've been (a gigantic artists' colony) but the spaces that were supposed to replicate East Texas outskirts and non-descript nowhere still retain the minimal character of not being possible to confuse for someplace else exactly visually identical.