Well, whatever, nevermind

It’s twenty years this week since Kurt Cobain died and our next screening is Hal Hartley’s “Amateur” from the same year, so we’re looking back to the American indie scene of the mid 1990’s.

If the 80s were all about aspiration and greed, the post-Reagan years were characterised by grunge music and “slacker” movies – themes for intelligent, educated youth who had lost faith in the traditional American dream and were marching to the beat of a different drummer.

But really, the Slacker theme was nothing new – you can see it in characters like Marlon Brando’s leather-jacketed anti-hero Johnny in “The Wild One” from the 50s. Famous line:

“What you rebelling against, Johnny?”

“- What have you got?”

Then there’s James Dean and all those disaffected kids in Rebel without a Cause, and the college drop outs in “American Graffiti” – there have always been these clever, antsy but directionless characters in literature and films who have too many choices and can’t quite work out what to do with their lives. But suddenly in the 90s it did seem like a cultural choice: spending the best years of your life slacking as something to be celebrated rather than embarrassed about.

Slacker films include Reality Bites, cult favourites Clerks and The Big Lebowski, Singles, Before Sunrise, Dazed & Confused, and of course, the eponymous “Slacker” – the last three all directed by the man who practically shaped the Slacker movie with his bare hands, Richard Linklater. (He also made School of Rock, which is Slacker for kids)

images-3The slacker plot is usually one where nothing much happens; it’s about the polar opposite to the action movie. There’s lots of talking though!

I’m living in this world. I’m what, a slacker? A “twentysomething”? I’m in the margins. I’m not building a wall but making a brick. Okay, here I am, a tired inheritor of the Me generation, floating from school to street to bookstore to movie theater with a certain uncertainty. I’m in that white space where consumer terror meets irony and pessimism, where Scooby Doo and Dr. Faustus hold equal sway over the mind, where the Butthole Surfers provide the background volume, where we choose what is not obvious over what is easy. It goes on…like TV channel-cruising, no plot, no tragic flaws, no resolution, just mastering the moment, pushing forward, full of sound and fury, full of life signifying everything on any given day…”
Richard Linklater, Slacker

Ethan Hawke was probably (and arguably still is) the God of Slack, while Matt Dillon gets honourable mention.

There may not have been a serious contender for a female counterpart until two decades later with Lena Dunham’s debut “Tiny Furniture”, and Greta Gershwig in last year’s “Frances Ha” (though maybe Catherine Keener comes close in Nicole Holofcener’s underrated “Walking & Talking”) – but there are some interestingly aimless female roles in French cinema – Beatrice Dalle in Betty Blue, Sandrine Bonnard in Vagabond, a whole pantheon of Eric Rohmer heroines. It’s probably no accident that the closest European analogy is the flaneur, and that Richard Linklater’s most enduring success has been the French / American relationship charted in the Before Sunrise series.

images-1And what do you know, the French / American thing crops up in Hal Hartley’s “Amateur” starring Isabelle Huppert, who first came to fame with the French slacker/flaneur classic “The Lacemaker”.

Like Jim Jarmusch, Hal Hartley’s films are quirky, stylish and peopled by offbeat characters but don’t totally fit into the slacker mould. Nevertheless, there’s that feeling of wandering, of aimlessness and the characters not quite knowing who they are or what they want but having lots of conversations about the meaning of life…they are funny too. There are some laugh out loud moments in most of these films, particularly “Amateur”. And some great indie music. And possibly a bit of existential tussling.

“There’s no such thing as adventure. There’s no such thing as romance. There’s only trouble and desire.”
Hal Hartley

What do you think? Is he right? Alison will be writing more about Hal Hartley and”Amateur” in the next couple of weeks, but come and check it out – it’s time to revisit those naughty, nihilistic 90s.


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