The Hangout Film, the American Dream, and the Pursuit of Straight Chilling

Why the joy of comfortable stasis is our national quest.
Dazed And Confused hangout film
Gramercy Pictures
By  · Published on July 2nd, 2017

To celebrate America, we took a look at how cinema has explored the American dream. This entry celebrates hangout films. For more, click here.

Hangout films are the Sunday mornings you want to live in forever. They’re warm tea and Canadian bacon and sunrise and paperbacks. As he is wont to do, cinephile Quentin Tarantino articulated one of the genre’s first definitions: that the hangout film’s primary attraction, before narrative or technical merit, is falling in love with its characters. “A hangout movie is one that you watch over and over again, just to spend time with them,” wrote Larissa MacFarquhar in a 2003 profile on the filmmaker.

Rio Bravo, which ranks among Tarantino’s top three favorite films (alongside Taxi Driver and Blow Out) is a hangout film, if a lonely one. So is Richard Linklater’s Slacker, which Roger Ebert described as “a movie with an appeal almost impossible to describe, although the method…is as clear as day.” Tarantino hopes that Jackie Brown has become one, that in returning to the film, “you’re drinking white wine with Jackie, and drinking screwdrivers with Ordell, and taking bong hits with Melanie and Louis.”

Hangout movies have other identifying traits, but first and foremost these are films you can break bread with, that take their time to introduce themselves and endear you, that radiate tonal levity, a gentile spirit, and a laid-back pace.

The prototypical American Dream promises that if you work hard enough your labor will bring you some kind of happiness and satisfaction, that by the sweat of your brow you can buy a plot of land and raise rabbits — a Steinbeckian eden where you own the crops you bring up and where “if [you] want a little whiskey [you] can sell a few eggs or something.” It’s Tracy Flick’s ambition in Election, it’s self-made men like Charles Foster Kane, it’s American Tale‘s land of milk and honey, a promise, often broken, but enduring.

This is the popular pitch, but as with most things the American Dream has permutations. I want to suggest that the hangout movie offers an alternative and equally valid flavor of the Dream: a warm, familiar, uncomplicated, and comfortable stillness. This is a happiness and satisfaction worth pursuing: a genre you can make a home in.

Musically, song interludes in hangout movies are laced with a casual sublimity that is nothing short of aspirational. Where more plot-focused films position their soundtracks as auditory scene painting, hangout movies carve out a space in their runtime to sit with music. To grind to a halt and boomer-kitchen-dance to Marvin Gaye (never change Big Chill-brand Jeff Goldblum). These are episodes of bliss: whether it’s belting along to “Tiny Dancer” in the Almost Famous tour bus, grooving to “Rapper’s Delight” with the boys of Everybody Wants Some!!, or reveling in the Reality Bites convenience store rendition of “My Sharona.”

It’s a liberating vision: that there’s time to pause and access a purely joyful moment. In regards to more ambient tunes, TIFF’s resident hangout film scholar, Chandler Levack, puts it well: the hangout movie “soundtrack reflects its character’s tastes and aesthetics,” be it a nostalgia piece like American Graffiti or a generational portrait like Can’t Hardly Wait (“which may offer the only perfect use of Smash Mouth”).

Relatedly, hangout movies are fundamentally ensemble pieces. While there may be one character that anchors the film (like Everybody Wants Some!!‘s Jake, or The Newton Boys‘ Willis), “the other characters are a prism through which their story arc is refracted in all directions,” Levack writes. Each as eclectic and resonant as a hangout film soundtrack. Levack notes that ideally these movies feature multiple protagonists, soundboards against which the film can wax thematic: your Singles, your Wet Hot American Summer, your What We Do in the Shadows.

Hangout movies articulate a communal warmth I find particularly enticing. The seductive world of Goodfellas capitalizes on this to great effect, tempting us with the sprezzatura and good company that made young Henry Hill “always [want] to be a gangster.” It’s a coziness carved out of downtime in the company of others; a gentle alternative to the loneliness of the traditional American Dream’s individualism.

The way time operates in hangout movies is notable in that it moves slowly but fluidly, like drifting down a river in an inner tube with a cold six pack. Hangout movies tend to run long. As with real life, getting to know and fall for fictional characters takes time. For this reason, detractors are quick to dismiss hangout movies as cumbersome or directionless. There is nary a game of baseball in supposed baseball film Everybody Wants Some!! until two thirds of the way through, which pays lip service to a linear timeline with a non-threatening countdown to the first day of class. In hangout movies, scenes languish in quippy dialogue and diner booths.

Vignettes play out without any narrative causality, the kind of anti-plot primacy shit that would spin Aristotle in his grave like a wind turbine. In this way, recounting the “plot” of hangout movies to friends can feel like describing the hazy events of a day: I met up with some friends, chilled, went to a bar, played pool, and thought about my future. That description works for about half the hangout film repertoire, and I don’t mean that in a bad way.

Hangout films make time for their ensemble to talk, to wander through conversations like an art gallery full of cheap beer and water beds. Hangout candidates like Metropolitan, Deathproof, The Trip, and Kicking and Screaming are rife with shit-shooting and pontificating: with ephemeral treatises on disk jockey lap dance pranks, the best way to execute a Michael Caine impression, and the inconvenience of being nostalgic for conversations you had yesterday. The stasis of hangout films is the stasis of napping in a hammock, or using that bath bomb you’ve been saving; it’s a humble and utterly desirable lack of urgency, of taking genuine comfort and pleasure in the stillness of in-between moments.

More often than not, characters in hangout films are all meandering leisurely towards the same thing: a better understanding of their place in the world. When conflict does take place amidst the chilling, it tends to take the shape of growing pains. Be it Jesse and Celine’s worry in Before Sunset that they’ve missed out on a lifetime they should have spent together, Waking Life‘s shift of consciousness, or Dazed and Confused‘s soft observation that those with bravado are often the most troubled (yes, those are all Linklater films — the man’s a hangout movie auteur who helped chart the tonal boundaries of the genre). All to say, what distinguishes the striving of a hangout film, the ache for a sense of terra firma, is that it rarely finds closure. Instead, the tension is allowed to hang in the air and vibrate long after the credits roll.

And for this reason, in spite of all the privilege that comes with having the space and ability to hang out, ruminate and chill, as an American Dream, what the hangout film puts down is a quiet, less menacing, promise: that there’s a happiness in presence as opposed to conflict. That figuring out your shit is not a race. That it isn’t always comfortable. And perhaps most importantly, that feeling out your place in the world isn’t something you have to do alone. That’s a dream worth pursuing.

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Based in the Pacific North West, Meg enjoys long scrambles on cliff faces and cozying up with a good piece of 1960s eurotrash. As a senior contributor at FSR, Meg's objective is to spread the good word about the best of sleaze, genre, and practical effects.