Written and directed
by Richard Linklater.
Cinematography by Lee Daniel.
Starring: Jason London, Wiley
Wiggins, Matthew McConaughey, Parker Posey, Rory Cochrane, Sasha Jenson, Milla Jovovoch,
Adam Goldberg, Marissa Ribisi, Anthony Rapp, Ben Affleck.
Back to screening room
|Dazed and Confused
By Jim Emerson
Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused sets out to be a kind of
American Graffiti for early-'90s slackers. While George Lucas' wistful 1973
comedy was set on the last night of summer in 1962 in a small California town, Linklater's
shaggier, more lackadaisical film takes place on the last day (and night) of school in
1976 in a small Texas town. Both movies make extensive use pop music to evoke their
respective periods. If American Graffiti's signature tune was the Beach Boys'
"All Summer Long," Dazed and Confused's is Alice Cooper's
"School's Out." (The Led Zep title tune isn't in the picture, although
"Rock and Roll" is.) And just as American Graffiti, in its day, touched
off a wave of nostalgia for the music and styles of the late '50s and early '60s (e.g., Happy
Days), and Dazed and Confused displays a similar, almost archeological
interest in the physical and cultural trappings of the mid-'70s -- the days just before
pop music reached its nadir of slickness and decadence with disco, only to be wiped away
by the cleansing scourge of punk.
Actually, you can hear the seeds of both in the movie's
soundtrack, from bland and bloated mid-'70s corporate rock (Peter Frampton's "Do You
Feel Like We Do," Rick Derringer's "Rock & Roll Hootchie Koo") to early
pop-metal (Black Sabbath's "Paranoid," Kiss' "Rock & Roll All
Nite") and snide and sassy proto-punk (the Runaways' "Cherry Bomb"). The
soundtrack also features such '70s hallmarks as Aerosmith, Deep Purple, War, Ted Nugent,
Black Oak Arkansas, Steve Miller, Lynyrd Skynryd, Seals & Crofts, Dr. John, ZZ Top,
Thin Lizzy, Foghat, Nazareth, Sweet and some guy named Bob Dylan. Dazed and Confused
doesn't just re-create the mid-'70s, it actually looks like it could have been shot then.
The movie's tiny budget may have had something to do with its graininess and flat colors,
but, heck, that's exactly the way all those low-budget teen movies looked.
The reason I mention the music and the period
first is that the songs (and, by extension, the time in which the songs were in the air --
on Top 40 stations and "progressive" FM album-oriented rock outlets) act as
characters that comment upon, co-mingle and party with the flesh-and-blood kids on the
screen. (There's virtually nobody over 21 in the picture -- except for Wooderson [Matthew
McConaghey].) Music is never more important to your image and self-esteem than when you're
in high school, and these kids, like those before and after, identify themselves by the
music they listen to. For those of us in the audience, hearing some of these songs again
is like going to a party where you bump into old, forgotten friends... and a few
individuals you would have been happy to have never encountered again in your lifetime.
The 31-year-old Linklater's previous film, Slacker, was a sort of shoestring, stream-of-consciousness
shaggy dog story -- except that it didn't really have a story. The camera simply drifted
from one character, one oblique conversation, to another until the movie was over. The
similarly relaxed narrative drift of Dazed and Confused is pretty much determined
by its limited time frame: 18 hours overlapping the last day of school and the morning
after (aka, the first day of summer vacation). Sure, there are recognizeable characters to
whom we return again and again, but writer-director Linklater doesn't force any big
epiphanies on us, thank you. He just picks up characters and then drops them with a
seemingly artless randomness that's refreshing. It's kind of like a Texas teenage Nashville
crossed with Fast Times at Ridgemont High, with people wandering in and out of
the picture all the time.
One big thing that distinguishes Dazed and Confused
from American Graffiti is Linklater's lack of nostalgia. Although the styles of
the times (skinny-wasted flair swabby jeans, long, straight hair parted in the middle,
etc.) are presented with an almost fetishistic attention to verisimillitude, the movie
isn't saying there was anything particularly wonderful about them -- despite the sad fact
that you can now get bell-bottoms at The Gap. (A friend of mine has a theory that, because
of the clothes and personal grooming modes of the period, nobody has a good picture of
themselves taken during the '70s.) In other words, Dazed and Confused isn't an
ode to a more innocent era seen through the haze of a 17-year distance. The 11-year gulf
between American Graffiti's 1962 and the year of its release, 1973, seems far
greater than the one between the 1976 of Dazed and Confused and 1993. And yet
there are a few crucial differences. As the Dazed and Confused press kit
(ironically) notes, in the year of America's Bicentennial, "Sex is still safe; drugs
aren't dangerous yet, and booze hasn't gotten MADD." Well, at least our attitudes
about sex, drugs and booze were different then -- for better or worse. But to its credit, Dazed
and Confused doesn't make any tsk-tsk value judgements or push the ironies of
hindsight down our throats.
In 1976, while popular music was teetering on the fulcrum
between corporate rock and punk, politically American youth culture was tilting in another
direction, from the rebellion and altruism of the '60s to the mindless conformity and
greed of the Reagan-Bush '80s. The title Dazed and Confused isn't just a
sex-drugs-booze-rock'n'roll reference; it's a fairly apt description of our moral and
political state of mind at the time. As one of the characters says: "If these are the
best years of my life, remind me to kill myself."
Oh yeah, about that "story": It's basically about hanging out and getting buzzed
with a bunch of high school juniors anticipating their senior year and a handful of
graduating junior high eighth graders dreading their freshman year. The senior males have
a tradition of ambushing and hacking the incoming freshmen boys with customized wooden
paddles, while the elder females have devised similarly humiliating initiation rituals for
the freshmen girls, such as making them lay down in the parking lot and squirting them
with condiments, or forcing them to propose marriage to senior boys. Randy
"Pink" Floyd (Jason London), the school's star football quarterback, jeopardizes
his senior season by refusing to sign the equivalent of a loyalty oath: a document,
written by his coach, in which he is supposed to pledge not to indulge in drugs or
alcohol. (Gosh, look how far we've come: Today, companies routinely subject new employees
to drug tests that are most likely unconstitutional -- and hardly anybody makes a fuss
Freshman Mitch Kramer (Wiley Wiggins, who gives
the movie's best and funniest performance), gets a sampling of what the next four years
are going to be like as the little brother of Jodi (Michelle Burke), a "popular"
senior. Other characters include: Mike (Adam Goldberg, a bit over the top), a high school
Richard Lewis who writes for the school paper and is prone to endless neurotic soliloquies
about the meaning of life; Tony (Anthony Rapp), Mike's similarly dorky best friend who
unexpectedly develops an interest in incoming ninth-grader Sabrina (Christina Hinojosa)
when she expresses reservations about subjecting herself to the traditional hazing
rituals; Cynthia (Marissa Rabisi), the intellectual, platonic buddy of Mike and Tony who
suddenly finds herself pursued by Wooderson (the aforementioned McConaughey), a guy who
graduated several years ago but still hangs around to impress young girls with his muscle
car; and, of course, Slater (Rory Cochrane), the school stoner. You went to school with
'em, too: the times may have changed, but high school archetypes are pretty much timeless.
Back to screening room