Monday, August 26, 2013

How to be a Slacker in Downtown 81 (Twin Film Reviews) by Alison Ross

Lately I have become obsessed with two films that fascinatingly document time and place. One of these films I saw when it first came out, and one I only recently saw, due to its belated release. One concerns a city during its cultural apex that I inhabited during the time of filming, and the other concerns a city during its own cultural apex (in a slightly earlier era) that I began to visit during a time of transition ten years later.

Both cities have now fully transformed into less-intriguing-but-still-interesting places, but happily, we can "visit" these cities during their more dilapidated yet much cooler incarnations via these films: Slacker and Downtown 81.

Slacker's Austin, Texas, and Downtown 81's NYC are iconic cities; Austin is less globally well-known, of course, than NYC, but domestically is cherished for its live music scene, funky aesthetic that can best be described as "cowboy bohemian," and reputation as a progressive oasis in a stubborn GOP stronghold. NYC, naturally, is internationally iconic, which needs no real elaboration except to say that at one time it was a much more colorful, if more dangerous, destination. Such is the price of "cool," I suppose.

As far as the films are concerned, both feature eclectic eccentric characters and are stream of consciousness in style; both feature acting that is mostly raw but endearingly real; both celebrate a more surrealistic lifestyle - that is, eschewing a soul-stifling generic office existence for a philosophical way of being; both revel in their scrappy, grafitti-strewn environs; both were made on shoestring budgets.

Where the films principally diverge is that one (Downtown 81) is an attempt to capture artists like Jean Michel Basquiat and pioneering hip-hoppers and other musicians on the verge of greater renown, whereas Slacker's characters are obstinately anonymous oddballs who wouldn't know fame if it slapped them in the cerebellum. And of course, while there are many other divergences in the films, another major one is that Downtown 81 predated Slacker by a decade; it celebrates the late 70s and early 80s of NYC, whereas Slacker's Austin glories in the late 80s and early 90s as that city's peak.



Richard Linklater's stunning debut film, Slacker, stream of consciously flows as fluidly as the Colorado River that bisects Austin, and is an encapsulation of an idiosyncratic bohemian utopia on the threshold of gentrification and homogenization. Austin, in other words, eventually capitalized on and ultimately razed the very things that made the city such a coveted place to live.

The ironic thrust of Slacker is this: The movie is an audacious statement about being yourself, and not getting sucked into the machine, and yet Austin became almost an emblematic corporate machine. The characters in Slacker are educated and intelligent to the point of pretentiousness at times, which is also the point: To expose the counterintuitive definition of "slacker" - i.e., not an apathetic lazy ass, but someone who lives on the margins of external society, and retreats instead internally - one who doesn't want to participate in the "every commodity of what you produce is a piece of your own death" work world ethos. Slackers don't so much scoff at work as they scoff at the death-by-corporate-treadmill. 

There are touches of surrealism in Slacker (Twin Peak-esque coffee shop characters, including an hilariously harrowing autistic woman), blending with quotidian mundanity (a couple arguing in bed, mischievous children, cafe conversations about school, relationships, etc.). But its real beauty lies in the garrulous eccentrics from all ages and walks of life who meander philosophically through their day just as Slacker meanders through Austin, catching glimpses of their lives but not lingering unnecessarily, so that we never get to know one person very well, but by the end have the perfect portrait of a city's more off-the-wall inhabitants.

Slacker's unfortunate paradox is that it celebrated the eccentricities of a cozy college town, but also unwittingly became part of why the town could not sustain its ubiquitous weird and metamorphosed into something less quirky. Austin has retained an undercurrent of funkiness, to be sure, but it will never be as homegrown-offbeat as it was in the 80s and early 90s. I mourn for those days and relive them every time I watch Slacker.

Slacker work scene at YouTube



D81 is less cinematically aware and accomplished than Slacker but follows a similar stream of consciousnessness and makes one ache for the halcyon days of the magical grime of 1980s era NYC.

NYC, like Austin, was at the time on the cusp of corporate crystalization. Before this took place, the Lower East Side was populated with vagabond eccentrics and artist-rebels who risked brutal muggings in order to live cheaply and live their vision.

Unlike Slacker, D81 has a plot, albeit a flimsy one. And anyway, the plot is subjugated to the unkempt visual milieu of 1980s Lower East Side NYC: tag-laden subways, graffiti-scribbled structures, ruins of buildings resembling blitzkrieg-era London...and yet the area is frantic and manic with artistic life. Filmmakers such as Amos Poe and no wave musicians such as DNA, Suicide, and James Chance, plus Kid Creole and the Cocunuts, are featured in the film, and even Blondie makes a kitschy cameo.

The "plot" of D81 is based on artist Jean-Michel Basquiat's real life circumstances at the time: centless and homeless, he attempts to sell his paintings as a way to make income, and tries to pick up girls in clubs in order to have a place to sleep. At one point in the film, Basquiat even sells a painting for a considerable amount of money, but he has nowhere to deposit the check.

Fortunately, fairy godmother Debbie Harry swoops in to rescue him financially. Basquiat, who later met with great fame in the art world but was virtually unknown at the time of filming, floats ethereally through Downtown 81, encountering street artists and taking in punk and rap performances along the way, and musing about existence in a charmingly unorthodox way.

In fact, D81 is like one of Basquiat's pieces: a crudely drawn, gritty city forming the backdrop of a tattered canvas, while sundry artsy creatures populate the foreground. NYC's once-upon-a-time bleak but beatific beauty was never so starkly realized as in Downtown 81.

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