If you look at Facebook right now, you may notice that many of your friends — hordes, perhaps even swarms of them — are making the pilgrimage to Austin, Texas, where for the past 26 years, musicians, filmmakers, artists, and general influencers have coalesced and commingled at the South by Southwest conference (SXSW), which officially starts today.
Like Coachella, its unrelated and music-centric peer in Palm Springs, SXSW's celebration of music has morphed to include film, sound, and visual art, growing from its humble beginnings into a cultural force. It now provides an international launching pad for creators such as Veruca Salt, the late Amy Winehouse, Franz Ferdinand, and Bon Iver, while also giving its host city some trendy street cred.
Before we dive into Austin, SXSW, and all the cultural happenings happening there over the next week, however, let's turn our eye back to the era in which SXSW really came of age: the 1990s.
That decade—currently being replayed on runways (the color blocking in the most mens collections are reminiscent of the era), on the red carpet (Helen Hunt wearing H&M to the Oscars is very Sharon Stone rocking The Gap to the same event in 1996), in museums (New York's New Museum has a current exhibit dedicated to 1993), and even in political discourse (after exhausting the "2012 as 1994" meme during last year's budget crisis, pundits are now using the government shutdown of 1995 as a touchstone for today's sequestration debate.)
As romantic as the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia may make it all seem, the early 1990s were very much an interstitial period. The world was emerging into a freshly post-Cold War period; George H.W. Bush's presidency was clearly just a vestigial blip left over from the Reagan administration, and economic worries were at their highest point of the entire decade, a fact that provided fuel for one of the era's biggest shows, Roseanne. And the AIDS crisis, already weighing on the world, had not yet reached its peak. A new era was more than likely: It was inevitable, but it was still unknown, unformed and very possibly bleak.
The early '90s were brief and dark, but effective enough to give us nearly a decade of culture: from grunge and Angela Chase to Melrose Place, where even up to the late 1990s faux-blond women refused to cover their gritty roots. And while the entire country struggled and fretted, no one suffered the existential crises of the early 1990s more than a new breed of human, Generation X, a group first earnestly explored in a film whose name would become synonymous with the baby boomers' progeny, Slacker.
In that 1990 film, Richard Linklater, more recently the director of the Before Sunrise series, Scanner Darkly and Fast Food Nation, gave the then-up-and-coming Generation X a face, or rather faces, for the movie glides from character to character, with a wistful Austin providing a backdrop for a cabal of seemingly aimless wanderers.
Slacker and the two other influential indies that would soon follow — Dazed and Confused and SubUrbia — paint Austin as a sprawling oasis of regret and complacency, but these movies were actually instrumental in helped fuel the Austin renaissance sparked by SXSW. Austin's ability to channel Generation X's collective angst proved so powerful that its aura touched Houston, the setting for another seminal movie of that period and sensibility, Reality Bites.
So, before SXSW catapults a whole new generation of artists into the limelight, let's pause — slack, perhaps — to review a trio of movies that spoke for a generation, NSFW language and all.
How do you sell Madonna's pap smear in a pre-eBay world? That's what a Lennon-sunglass-wearing pusher played by Butthole Surfers drummer Teresa Taylor would like to know. Her problem is far less pressing than the alienation, marginalization and general woe felt by the other characters who populate Linklater's 1990* classic that would define an entire generation. (The movie was originally released in Austin in 1990 but didn't spread to the rest of the country until 1991.)
DAZED AND CONFUSED (1993):
Linklater's next project after Slacker, Dazed and Confused abided by the two-decade rule and used the 90s' 70s-era nostalgia as it followed a group of teenagers on the last day of school in 1976, the nation's 200th birthday. As the country reflected on two centuries, characters played by the likes of Milla Jovovich, Parker Posey and a then-unknown Matthew McConaughey looked back on their own young, fictional lives, while in the real world, Generation Xers were trying to find a reason to feel groovy. School's out, sure, but now what?
First produced as a play in 1994, and in fact based on writer Eric Bogosian's 80s-era experiences in Massachusetts, the 1996 adaptation of SubUrbia tackled the universal and timeless matters of listlessness, xenophobia, excess and self-defeat, all within the confines of a (for some) inescapable convenience store parking lot. Not since the star-studded 1971 big screen version of The Last Picture Show has a Texas-based movie so effortlessly captured the nation's overarching uncertainty, discomfort and general sense of capriciousness.