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Nowhere Man: 'Slacker' At 30 And The Evolution Of The Conspiracy Theorist
Daniel Broadley , June 12th, 2020 11:39

Richard Linklater's hangout classic Slacker turns 30 this year, and with it, the real-life parallels grow more curious. Conspiracy theorists often are those hiding in plain sight, finds Daniel Broadley

There is something about Slacker’s appeal which is hard to pin down. The IMDb page describes Richard Linklater’s 1990 sophomore feature as an “independent comedy-drama,” but that hardly does the film justice. It is the quintessential film depicting 90s youth culture; its lack of plot and direction laid out a blueprint for the disillusionment of Generation X, and by disregarding conventional structure in favour of character and dialogue, it allowed the filmmaker to shine a spotlight on one resident of Austin, Texas, after another. The camera smoothly follows characters down the street before switching focus to those they pass, panning from one location to another in seamless transitions. From sparsely furnished flats to Austin’s hip cafes and bars, apathy rises from every cup of free-refill coffee and half-smoked cigarette, before settling under a sea of battered Converse trainers. The characters – whether they be a retired anarchist or the proud acquirer of Madonna’s pap smear – are all subject to some form of social or political exclusion, creating an environment ripe for conspiracy theories to run amok amongst those unacknowledged by mainstream society.

Shot on a budget of just a few thousand dollars and on 16 mm film stock, Slacker premiered at Austin’s Dobie Theatre in 1990, before going on to make waves at the Sundance Film Festival the following year. It would foreshadow Linklater’s signature directorial style, in which dialogue-driven stories turn the mundane everyday into something beautiful or fascinating, typified in the Before trilogy and Boyhood, both of which were shot over a number of years using the same respective casts. But none of Linklater’s other films would ever quite so extremely abandon traditional structure – still, let’s not forget he directed School of Rock – in favour of character and dialogue. With Slacker, almost every character has their own idea as to who shot JFK, when we really landed on the moon, and how to harness the psychic power of the televised image.

It’s hard to think of any other film where conspiracy theories are so explicitly rampant. But what was once reserved for those on the fringes of society, from part-time stoners to street corner activists, is now much more mainstream – and dangerous. Mums are being radicalised on WhatsApp, 5G conspiracy theorists are destroying phone masts and harassing innocent engineers, and people across the US and UK are violently resisting COVID-19 lockdowns. One convincing overarching reason for the persistence of conspiracies is that humans are very good at recognising patterns, but that sometimes, “We see meaning and significance when it isn't really there,” explains Prof Chris French, a psychologist at Goldsmith’s, University of London, in a BBC article.But if that’s all there is to it, why and when did conspiracy theories become so dangerous?

The conspiracies in Slacker are relatively harmless compared to the likes of modern-day theorists Alex Jones or David Icke (both of whom have been banned from Facebook and YouTube, with Jones featuring in Linklater’s Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly as a surreal version of himself, shouting through a megaphone about government surveillance and the systems which control our lives). In fact, they’re even quite comical. Take the character early in Slacker simply and aptly credited as ‘Been on The Moon Since the 50s’. After hearing a passing stranger talk about a missing friend, he uninvitedly follows him and proceeds to talk about everything from CIA lobotomies to NASA kidnapping children. He does so with as little social awareness as an excitable child, but the energy of Hunter S. Thompson on speed, his passion giving the impression that he really does know what’s going on beyond the borders of Austin, Texas. His eponymous conspiracy theory is easily explained: “Anti-gravity technology. We stole it from the Nazis after the end of World War II. It's perfectly obvious.” It’s not too difficult to imagine that today, he would have his own YouTube channel, explaining why we shouldn’t vaccinate our children because it causes autism, whilst advertising nutrient supplements for sponsorship.

The enthusiasm for conspiracies continues with the JFK assassination aficionado we meet in the library (where there’s even a small shelf labelled ‘Conspiracy’). As a young woman browses books to kill time before meeting her boyfriend at the cinema, she quickly becomes the recipient of the film’s most overt conspiracy theorist’s ramblings. He tells her that he’s been “keeping up with JFK assassination theories”, as if it was a cool hobby you’d try to impress someone. Before long, he’s recommending books on the subject like a cinephile would films to their friends, and boasts that he’s even working on his own book. “The waitress in the Warren Report went on record as saying that Oswald didn’t like his eggs,” he says, with a knowing nod. His subject makes a polite and swift get-away. Where would this person fit in today? Would he still be innocently browsing the shelves of public libraries, hopelessly impressing girls with his niche knowledge? Or would he be whipped up into a violent frenzy through years of disinformation via Fox News and Breitbart?

These two characters have one major thing in common, typified by none other than Richard Linklater’s own character in the film’s opening. He catches a cab from a bus station and, throughout the journey, talks about his dreams with the driver and muses on the potential for different realms of reality, created with every decision we make. As he does so, the driver looks on completely disinterested, ignoring every word he says. Similarly, our JFK enthusiast and ‘Moon Since the 50s’ uninvitedly ramble on about their theories to brick walls, giving the viewer the impression that passionately believing in conspiracies is mostly a self-indulgent exercise of the imagination, and not a shared mass collective truth. There’s even one instance where an activist is speaking to two passersby about the campaign to free Nelson Mandela, but the moment he starts talking about tax dollars propping up the monopoly on the gun lobby, they lose interest and walk away.

Now, however, there are an endless amount of online platforms encouraging conspiracy theorists to share their ideas instantly with the whole world, creating networks and the ability to organise and, in some cases, mobilise. It only takes a quick search on Facebook to find countless pages set up to protest the pandemic lockdowns, many of which have become a breeding ground for conspiracies and misinformation. Mix that with the politically polarised and post-truth world we find ourselves in, and it becomes increasingly easier to selectively believe whatever supports views we already hold to be true. We may recognise patterns when they are not really there, but now those who imagine them do so in a way which creates easy stories and scapegoats for those brushed aside, unconsidered by society, who need a vent for their anger and frustration – and so are taken much more seriously. In an interview with VICE, Richard Linklater said he liked Alex Jones’ energy in his films, but that he was “kind of a joke.” That joke now hosts InfoWars, a far-right conspiracy and fake news outlet, and recently appeared at a rally in, really, Austin, Texas against the COVID-19 lockdowns, eerily echoing his characters in Linklater’s films as he shouts from a megaphone: “We have been attacked by biological weapons.”

I reached out to a prominent 5G conspiracy theorist, Mark Steele, on Facebook to get his thoughts on why conspiracies are now more mainstream. Amongst a barrage of screenshots of charts and graphs, he said: “Might be that experts like me know it's a weapon. And only dummies in the mainstream don’t.” His theories have been widely reported on, and have therefore reached a wider audience. One MailOnline article about his spat with Gateshead Council regarding unfounded accusations of them secretly testing 5G was shared 4,700 times, and counting.

Conspiracy theorists thrive on attention. Viewed in 2020, Slacker harks back to a time before social media began to divide us, when conspiracy theories could be treated with the carefree and tender touch of rolling a joint whilst talking about everything but nothing over a cup of black filter coffee. But the inhabitants of Slacker simply didn’t engage with them in a serious, or harmful way. Where social media and fake news have added fuel to conspiracy theorists’ fire, we can take a leaf out of Slacker’s book and not engage with them. By doing so, we take away their oxygen.