[Note: this post was inspired by my brother’s recent post about the music of Dazed and Confused and by the fact that the Professor has not seen this film! Check out my brother’s post and join me in mocking our editor, host and master.]
Man, it’s the same bullshit they tried to pull in my day. If it ain’t that piece of paper, there’s some other choice they’re gonna try and make for you. You gotta do what Randall “Pink” Floyd wants to do, man. Let me tell you this, the older you do get the more rules they’re gonna try to get you to follow. You just gotta keep on livin’ man, L-I-V-I-N.”
Recently my brother wrote about the impact of Dazed and Confused on his life. Or, to put it more accurately, he wrote about the extent to which this movie reflects his experience as a high school student and, thanks to that reflection, how it serves still as a powerful reminder of the process and meaning of adolescence in small town America. (How’s that for a movie poster blurb?)
The inspiration for this is the fact that this movie is now 20 years old, a detail brought to my attention by that devil’s news aggregator, the Huffington Post where one blogger writes truly that the movie would not be possible today but confusingly adds “when I first saw Dazed and Confused around the time of its initial release, the characters in the movie felt like they might as well had been living 100 years ago”. For my brother and I (and I suspect for more viewers), this later statement is utter nonsense, but the former is gospel. And this is why I feel compelled to write something about this film.
For those of you who don’t know it, Dazed and Confused (1993; directed by Richard Linklater (Before Sunrise, Slackers) follows several groups of high school students on the last day of school in 1976. Some rising seniors (featuring a savage Ben Affleck, Gigli) haze groups of rising freshmen; geeks fret about their place in the world and lack of ‘experience’; athletes worry about drug use and dedication; everyone worries about how they define themselves; and Matthew McConnaughey (Reign of Fire!) performs a career-making role as an older creep who likes high school girls because while he gets older they “stay the same age”. It being the 1970s, there’s a bit of beer drinking and reefer smoking.
Kyle: George [Washington] toked weed, man?
Slater: Absolutely George toked weed, are you kiddin’ me, man? He grew fields of that stuff, man, that’s what I’m talkin’ about. Fields.
Kyle: He grew that shit up Mount Vernon, man.
The plot of the movie centers around a party that almost doesn’t happen; how and whether people go to the party; and the little that occurs once they get there (a kiss, an abortive fist-fight, some star-cum-navel gazing). To put it simply, the plot is secondary and inconsequential. The movie is atmospheric—it strives to recreate the feeling of languor and purposelessness that attends adolescence with the background static of anxiety about growing up; it echoes and caricatures cliques and self-conscious social identification, and it attempts to do this with a nostalgic ’70s sheen.
What both the HuffPo blogger and my brother mention about this movie is its music. For my brother, the 1970s themed soundtrack is revelatory. To be honest, I never really cared for the type of crotch-rock the movie fetishizes. While the film was not commercially successful, everyone I knew watched it in the mid-90s. Even those of us who acted too cool to like it (e.g. Me) quoted it regularly. Part of its commercial failure, I think, is that it was marketed as a party film. Similarly marketed films that feature partying but try too hard to make commentary (e.g., PCU, 1994) tried too hard and were annoying. Dazed and Confused doesn’t seem to try to say anything.
It is a pseudo-zen truism that you can see something by looking away from it or accomplish something by doing nothing at all. Part of the success of Linklater’s better films (or at least better sequences) is that he shows but doesn’t tell. The dialogue veers from eminently quotable to entirely forgettable; the performances range from perfect (McConnaughey) to tolerable (Jason London as football star Randall Floyd) to cringingly amateurish (Wiley Wiggins as freshman Mitch Kramer). The film’s verisimilitude lies not in the fidelity or credibility of any of the characters but in the likeness of their interactions and the believability of the world they inhabit.
Wooderson: Say, man, you got a joint?
Mitch: No, not on me, man.
Wooderson: It’d be a lot cooler if you did
The reason that I reject the notion above that the world depicted in Dazed and Confused seemed generations earlier than its contemporary context is that, at least in retrospect and in my experience, its world was true to life (and truer than what I see now). My brother and I grew up in a small town where people wandered from house to house looking for a party or something to do; where most of what we did consisted of talking about what we were doing or were going to do or had done; and where, like in the movie, there was no real plot and there were no solid characters, there were just people ambling about changing and falling into brief scenes where we moved from being extras to having speaking roles in other peoples’ lives.
What makes me write about this film is that it has gained power for me because the world of 1993 is actually now closer to 1976 in relative time (20 is bigger than 17) and in technological time. Sure, the music and cars of 1976 and 1993 are different, but in Dazed and Confused there are no computers; there are no cell phones; there is none of the clustered, cluttered and overwrought noise that defines modern life. The characters don’t play video games, watch TV, film videos of themselves or worry about terrorism. They hang out, do some drugs and the lucky ones get to kiss a girl (or a boy. Or get to fight).
The world is less cluttered and the film that reflects it is simpler as well. Modern mainstream films are over-filled with color, action and words. Films must be easily classifiable by genre; they must have stars to be commercially viable; they immediately move into plot using conversation, relationships, and character as mere exposition for the action to come. So, the film is not only a reflection of simpler times but also an artifact from and testament to them.
Mike: It’s what everybody in this car needs is some good ol’ worthwhile visceral experience.
As I grow older, I grow more romantic for such an image of our past (one that through nostalgia and selectivity never truly existed). As a father, I grow wistful as well because these are challenges I know how to face. The film’s emphasis on living and being in the moment while experiencing it rather than recording it is a powerful antidote to the vicarious mediation of technology on our daily lives (and the constant processing and memorializing of them).
The world is much different now from what it was both in 1976 and 1993; Dazed and Confused retains and gains power not just because it is an understated film but because it had the serendipity to appear before significant historical and cultural changes. It is a nostalgic record of who we thought we were and what we no longer can be.
And the soundtrack rocks if you like that kind of thing. If you haven’t seen Dazed and Confused you should. If you have, well, maybe you should just turn your smartphone off and drive around town aimlessly for a while. You know, just for old times.