SHAKESPEARE depicted the trials of a "slacker" generation in Henry IV Part I, in which King Henry broods upon the "riot and dishonor" that "stain the brow" of his son, Prince Hal, who is running amok in the taverns of England with the disorderly Falstaff. Hal enjoys his "loose behavior"--drinking, playing pranks on his rotund companion and robbing the King's exchequer. Thus Shakespeare sets the plot line for several recent films: young sons (and sometimes daughters) of less-than-perfect parents face impending adulthood and a troubled society with resistance or deliberate passivity; success is for others, the aspiring Hotspurs of the world. And if success does come--as it finally does for Hal when he defeats Hotspur in battle and subsequently becomes noble Henry V--it carries a heavy price. Hal must renounce Falstaff and take on the ruthless trappings of patriotic warfare. Success, as the recent films also warn, may exact a price not worth paying.
Two 1991 films--Richard Linklater's Slackers and Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho--pick up the generational theme and, in the case of the latter, even the specific Shakespearean allusion. Two of this year's films--Ben Stiller's Reality Bites and Lasse Hallstrom's What's Eating Gilbert Grape--take the genre further, vividly defining the world of a generation facing an uncertain future in a messed-up nation.
Slacker provides the name, some say, for the generation of Americans also dubbed (through Douglas Couphland's novel) Generation X. Linklater's low-budget method is to follow numerous slackers through Austin, Texas, moving haphazardly from person to person in a string of vignettes. The film's style and minimal plot emphasize separated, unconnected realities. The characters have no history, not even a long-term memory. Yet Linklater, who has since made a study of high school alienation in Dazed and Confused (1993), effectively portrays a group of people he sees as having "active mind[s] and too much time."
Linklater populates his film with unemployed 20-year-olds talking, drifting, wandering. And he offers plenty of portentous symbols for the age: the rock band "The Ultimate Losers," featuring bad, unmelodic music; the man surrounded by televisions--even wearing one--who finds broadcast images more authentic than the real events; the JFK-assassination-theory junkie and the aging anarchist reliving the day Charles Whitman opened fire from the University of Texas clock tower, both seeking meaning in random violence. People dismiss foreign travel as "only bad food and bad water," wait for the apocalypse and sleep a lot; their slogan is "I may live badly, but I don't have to work to do it."
Linklater's disjointed vision offers neither hope nor despair. Families seem irrelevant, except for an opening sequence in which characters report that "some guy ran over his mother." Young children show vitality in the few scenes in which they appear, but their vigor stems from hustling pocket change. And while many of the characters inhabit a world of talk and ideas and books, their key text would have to be Growing Up Absurd.
Van Sant's main character in My Own Private Idaho is the 20-something bisexual, narcoleptic street hustler Mike Waters (the late River Phoenix). Mike wanders through the underworld of Portland, Oregon, defending himself from reality by lapsing into narcoleptic seizures of escape, waking hours later in loneliness. Much of the story centers on Mike's search for his mother--which takes him to his father's bleak trailer home in Idaho--and for a semblance of "normal" family fife, or even memories of such a life. Van Sant relentlessly pins Mike's sordid, slacker reality to his dysfunctional past and leaves his protagonist with nothing more than dreaming images. The '50s family of mom, dad, kids and dog can't be found, and Mike ends the film as he began it--on the open road in Idaho, looking to a hopeful horizon and moving sky and lapsing into another narcoleptic sleep. …