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A History of Slackers in Movies

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Sep 05, 2011 | 8:37am EDT

Ah, Labor Day. The United States' celebration of hard work and dedication. The idea of betterment, both of oneself and of society. The idea that there is something valuable to work for. That this world is worth your determination.

But some of the greatest men and women in cinema... well, they had a different mentality. The mentality that there is no inherent value to labor... trying... caring. The mentality that it's better to stand idly by and watch things happen, perhaps with a sardonic comment here and there, than to actually contribute to the happenings. The mentality that nothing is worth doing anything for, and that despite the apparent lack of answers, you've got all of them. The mentality of the slacker.

This Labor Day, Hollywood.com is celebrating this triumphant mindset by listing ten of the greatest slacker films America has enjoyed over the past twenty-five years.

The '70s

Animal House

Animal House1978 brought us one of the first film's of the genre. Animal House is iconic as a movie not just about slackers, but about college, about drinking, about property destruction... this film certainly has its place in the sun. It was one of the earlier movies to not only not demonize, but to actually celebrate the ideas of debauchery, laziness and rejection of all things otherwise.

The faculty, ambitious students, and the military were all villainized in this light of slacker appreciation. And the heroes didn't even turn it around in the end. When faced with the penalty of expulsion, they didn't say, "All right, guys. It's time to pass this final test so we can stay in school," like so many films prior and since have done. Instead, they just ruined a parade. They stayed true to their slacker roots, proving that fat, drunk and stupid is a pretty viable way to go through life.

Breaking Away

The next year gifted America with a film even truer to slacker cinema. Not necessarily in its characters (these guys weren't nearly the lowlifes that the Delta House residents were), but in the style of the movie. Breaking Away actually embodied the slacker mentality. The film drifted by, sort of tossing vigor and ambition out the window. Meanwhile, its four stars swam around in ravines, rode bikes from time to time, pretended to be Italian... they didn't have a lot going on, and they preferred it that way. And, as is kind of a recurring theme in slacker movies, they were in some way connected to a pretty shlubby cop.

The '80s

Fast Times at Ridgemont High

Arguably, the movie that started it off for the sexually-charged, ethically-drained high school comedy. Although Fast Times at Ridgemont High had its share of respectable characters, the most iconic figure attached to the film is Jeff Spicoli, played memorably by Sean Penn. Jeff Spicoli was an interesting case of slacker—it almost seemed as if he didn't have a choice. He wasn't actively trying to piss off Mr. Hand, was he? Did he actually realize that ordering a pizza to class was inappropriate? Did he have any idea that hitting yourself with a shoe was idiotic behavior? Was Spicoli at all aware of anything he was doing?

Perhaps not. But he didn't start out that way... there was a lot of slacking required to reach that definitive point of mindlessness.

Ferris Bueller's Day Off

Ferris BuellerThe most glorified slacker in all of cinema: Ferris Bueller. Sure, Animal House made Delta House a band of misfit heroes... Bueller made its title character a living god.

Ferris was indestructable. He was loved by sportos, motorheads, geeks, sluts, bloods, wastoids, dweebies, dickheads (I really couldn't resist). He could do anything and get away with it. And everything he did do was definitively slacker. First and foremost, the entire plot revolves around cutting school for a day. Ferris delivers a series of more or less meaningless speeches to his audience at the beginning of the film. He quotes John Lennon, admonishes the study of subjects (European socialism) that do not directly apply to him... Ferris' world is Ferris-centric. And that is quite slackerific.

The '90s (The Slackerest Decade of All)

Almost Anything by Richard Linklater

Director Richard Linklater has been credited with the term "slacker" for his 1991 film (three guesses) Slacker. This movie, in the wayward spirit of Breaking Away and other loose narratives of the past, chronicled a day in a sleepy Texas suburb, taking a look at various do-nothing outcasts in the town. However, Linklater's affection for this society was not limited to this movie. His far more popular Dazed and Confused took a look at a Texan high school, in the vein of Ridgemont High, but with some amplified sincerity. Dazed and Confused is most memorable for depicting what becomes of slackers in the form of Matthew McConaughey's character.

Finally, 1996's SubUrbia, took back to the theme and planted a group of slackers beside a convenience store, reacting to the return of a former classmate, now a successful rock musican. The film is summed up somberly in its final lines, delivered by the convenience store clerk: "You people are so stupid. What's wrong with you? Throw it all away, huh? You throw it all away."

Clerks.

Convenience stores are clearly rife with slacker mentality. Kevin Smith, a big fan of Linklater, began his film career in 1994 with Clerks, which depicted a memorable cast of slackers. The depressed, ambitionless Dante, a convenience store clerk, felt the world had nothing to offer him, and vice versa. The indignant Randal, clerk of the partnered video store, was actively rejecting anything thrown his way. Then there was a band of misfits who hung out around the stores, led by delinquent drug dealers Jay and Silent Bob. Smith's film was definitively slacker not only in its characters, but in its mood. It never left the convenience store/parking lot setting, never promised anything to Dante or Randal, never even promised much to its audience... it meant to honestly chronicle a day in an increasingly empty life. Very slacktastic.

Reality Bites

Reality BitesAlso in 1994 was the feature directorial debut of another big name: Ben StillerReality Bites is undoubtably as Gen-X as a movie can get. Its characters were straight out of college with no idea what to do. It was a perfect illustration of the times: brought up as dreamers, these people were now forced to make something of themselves. But they had no clue how to do that. Sure, the movie relied pretty heavily on a somewhat sappy love story between Winona Ryder and Ethan Hawke... but it was still an amazing depiction of the 1990s clueless, directionless and glad-to-be-that-way (even if a little terrified) slacker.

The Big Lebowski

The king of the slackers... although he'd reject any title suggesting monarchy. Or responsibility. Or sobriety. This film is a phenomenon, possibly the last true cult classic. The Big Lebowski depicted a much older slacker than films past. He was not in high school, college, early twenties... this was a man who had made his life, a long life, out of slacking. He wasn't "once a man of promise who had fallen from grace." No. This was him. Naturally. A man who wore a robe and jelly-slippers to all occasions. A man whose White Russian intake bordered on lethal. A man whose diction didn't call envy... The Dude. And, although the film itself had sort of an energetic, intricate plot, it maintained the mood of zen. Because its hero slacked with the best of them.

Go

This is one of the more forgotten of the '90s slacker films. Perhaps it is because its slackers were more an extreme variant: ecstasy-popping, gun-carrying degenerates who leave their friends as collateral with drug dealers (the film actually isn't nearly as dark as it sounds). Go, however, was a pretty adept account of late '90s youth. Its characters were more interested in partying than working, protecting their friends, or anything in the vein of self-respect. Although it may not have made as large an imprint on audiences, it did have a lot to say about the slacker underworld: it's a pretty lowly place.

Slacker Films of the 2000s

After the turn of the millenium, slacker films sort of dissipated. Sure, there are still movies about do-nothing lowlifes, but the mentality has changed. Now, slackers redeem themselves with respectable success stories (Old School), or actually work hard to preserve what they believe in (Accepted), or, really, don't embody the mindset of slacking as much as that of stupidity, drug abuse and hedonism (anything with Seth Rogen... no offense intended, his movies are still entertaining). Of course, there are still installments in the genre that pay homage to slacking the way their forefathers did (Cheats and Out Cold to name a couple), but it seems as though this generation has taken to sticking it to society in a completely different way. Does The Social Network ring a bell?

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