“When I was making it, I was horrified, because I was reliving my past point by point. I’d be on the set and I’d look around, and I would be back in 1976, a freshman in high school again. And those weren’t necessarily good memories. I was revisiting sorrows and horrors. I was making it from a distance, so it perhaps came out more positive than negative, but it’s not all fun and games.” —Richard Linklater on Dazed And Confused
Richard Linklater’s Dazed And Confused tanked badly when it hit theaters in 1993. Blame any number of factors: a nascent distributor (Gramercy Pictures) that had the backing of a major studio (Universal), but not the resources; an episodic structure that culminates in nothing of life-changing consequence; and ironically, a no-name cast that was actually chockablock with future movie stars like Ben Affleck and Matthew McConaughey (plus Renée Zellweger as an extra). It was revived as a cult favorite on video—and later, as a succession of psychedelic Universal DVD “special editions” that were special only for their power to shake down fans again and again. (Criterion eventually came to the rescue on that front.) Dazed And Confused had become a stoner classic, the centerpiece of a dorm-room rotation that would later include the likes of Friday, The Big Lebowski, Half Baked, and Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle.
It’s easy to see why getting baked to Dazed And Confused might be appealing, beyond the second-hand smoke from joints that circulate freely through bedrooms, muscle cars, recreation halls, and open-air parties—a utopia regulated about as strictly as the gas station where a boyish incoming high-school freshman can walk off with a sixer. There’s the classic-rock soundtrack, a K-Tel compilation of mid-’70s hits from the likes of pre-shitty Aerosmith, Alice Cooper, ZZ Top, and Foghat, all evoking pangs of nostalgia even in those who were born well after 1976. There’s a stoner icon in Slater (Rory Cochrane), who offers up a soliloquy on George Washington’s vast fields of weed (“he knew it’d be a great cash crop for the Southern states”) and his wife Martha greeting him with a “big fat bowl” every night. And above all, Linklater imports some of the episodic looseness of his breakthrough film Slacker, allowing viewers to drift in and out of scenes casually, without any hard demands on their attention. It’s a sweet, smoky haze of a movie.
Yet as funny and pleasurable as it is, Dazed And Confused isn’t like Cheech and Chong, Harold and Kumar, or any of the straight-up pot comedies with premium re-watch value. Amid all those good vibes, there’s a melancholy tone that’s been curiously denied as the film’s cult following has amassed. Though no artist can dictate or control how their work will be received, Linklater’s film is about painful rites of passage: the ritual hazing of freshmen; the quarterback who moves effortlessly between cliques, wrestling with a decision that will turn his teammates against him; the nerd who starts a fight and loses, badly, rather than resign himself to being “an ineffectual nothing.” In every case, these are kids who feel penned in by tradition and expectation, whether they’re warily submitting to the business end of a shop-crafted paddle or forced to sign a bullshit clean-livin’ commitment statement in order to lead that championship season.
Then again, one of the vicarious joys of watching Dazed And Confused is seeing how much freedom its characters have to roam. In our age of surveillance cameras, GPS trackers, and strictly enforced anti-smoking and carding ordinances, it’s unthinkable for teenagers to wander off the grid or buy some beer while the convenience-store clerk looks the other way. Dazed And Confused’s few shows of parental authority—the parents who suspend their vacation when a keg deliveryman shows up at their house, or the coaches who try to curb their players’ hard-partying summer—mostly prove futile, a hassle more than a restriction. For dusk ’til dawn, the town is theirs to prowl: the drive-thru, the pool hall, the Moon Tower, and, for a time, the 50-yard line of the football stadium. At one point, Adam Goldberg and Anthony Rapp, as the film’s “Woodward and Bernstein” wiseacres, even muse about the adult community’s odd indifference to teenage shenanigans:
But when the rumbling bass of Aerosmith’s “Sweet Emotion” under the opening credits kick into a slow-motion shot of an orange GTO convertible as it rounds the high-school parking lot, that first wave of nostalgia hits hard. On the last day of school in small-town Texas in 1976, the future seniors wander casually in and out of class while middle-school boys while away the last few minutes playing paper football and talking about girls with huge knockers. Though the incoming freshman can expect some abuse—sometimes accompanied by genuine hostility, courtesy of Parker Posey as a queen-bee type and a hilariously belligerent Ben Affleck as a two-year senior—the only troubled characters in Dazed And Confused are the heads of each class: Randall “Pink” Floyd (Jason London), the good-natured quarterback who doesn’t want to be pigeonholed as a jock and told not to run with the wrong crowd, and Mitch Kramer (Wiley Wiggins), in many ways his heir apparent, an 8th-grade star pitcher whose awkward transition comes with extra pressure (and extra beatings).
Linklater doesn’t inflate any of these conflicts to a big dramatic crisis—he isn’t making a TV movie where some kid winds up dead and there’s some sobering message for us to process in the end. He’s not even making American Graffiti, the film’s most obvious (and by and large inferior) predecessor, which ends its early-’60s reminiscence with ominous portents of the Vietnam War. Dazed And Confused is just one night in the life that ends with nothing more or less consequential than Pink and his buddies peeling off to score some Aerosmith tickets. (Side note: How less-than-wonderful to live in a time where these same kids would have dispersed to a computer and hit the “refresh” button at Ticketmaster.com over and over until some Ticketmaster-associated broker offered them upper-deck seats at five times face value. Let’s see Linklater lay down “Slow Ride” over that scene.) He punctuates some particularly vivid moments in slow motion—think Pink on the field, or another middle-schooler, Sabrina, going through the car wash—but the film never gets out of line. (Oddly, Linklater’s sour SubUrbia errs by doing precisely the opposite, though that’s mostly the doing of writer Eric Bogosian.)
As Linklater says in the quote above, shooting Dazed And Confused from a distance of 17 years made it “come out more positive than negative,” but he finds a bittersweet note between those two poles. At key points in the film, characters voice their frustration with the times: Pink says, “If I ever start referring to these as the best years of my life, remind me to kill myself,” and at the Moon Tower, another kid (Marissa Ribisi, Giovanni’s twin sister) offers the “every other decade” theory, claiming, “The ’50s were boring, the ’60s rocked, the ’70s obviously suck… Maybe the ’80s will be radical.” One line is bitter, the other ironic, but Linklater, through the benefit of perspective, suggests the possibility that all teenagers in every era think they have it bad, but they may well look back with fondness over the good times they had and took for granted. Nostalgia can be a tricky enterprise: It frames the past in a golden hue, deceptive in the way it minimizes the pain, and precious in the way it allows great memories to bubble to the surface. It’s possible that Pink, 20 or 30 years later, will start referring to these as the best years of his life, and not be remotely inclined to kill himself.
Many of Linklater’s best films—Slacker, Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, Waking Life—have the quality of a reverie, powered more by the flow of ideas and little moments out of time than any devotion to plot points. The many indelible touches in Dazed And Confused are owed to the vividness of Linklater’s memories or some minor detail in the performances: The listing of Gilligan’s Island episodes on a blackboard, which feels like the birth of a particular strain of cultural discussion; the emphatic curl of McConaughey’s right arm when he completes the sentence, “That’s what I love about these high-school girls…”; the brief glimmers of confidence that cross Wiggins’ face on the few occasions when he isn’t totally exasperated; the beautiful overhead shot of the Moon Tower (cue Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Tuesday’s Gone”) when the keg is cashed and the night is over. This is the summer of ’76 the way Linklater remembers it. How others have received it, more on the sweet side of bittersweet, is out of his control.
February 9: Observe And Report
March 1: Dead Alive
March 15: Cabin Boy