Dazed and Confused (1993) [revisited]

Directed by Richard Linklater

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There is actually more ‘plot’ than I remember in Dazed and Confused.  It’s a loose story set on the last day of school in 1976, following an ensemble cast of characters as they just try to have a good time.  And though the biggest plot point has to do with a party being snuffed out and a new one emerging in the woods, there is a lot going on with each character.  They are all embarking on their own, tiny quest, and they are seamlessly woven together.

The bookends of the film have to do with Pink (Jason London), a football player refusing to sign a pledge to abstain from drugs and alcohol for the following season.  He loathes the idea on principle whereas others who don’t take it seriously nevertheless sign the piece of paper just to get it out of the way.  Pink fights against the system and mocks this set of restrictions, and yet in between we see a long list of rules created and enforced by these teenagers themselves.

They are a fascinating ecosystem of coiled angst, hormones and inhumane confidence.  It’s a giant ball of energy that sustains itself and within the context of this film exists outside of any other noticeable demographic.  We only see a small handful of parents and teachers, we’re not introduced to any other school, and our perspective is limited to incoming seniors and a few incoming freshman.  Even those who are about to graduate are left onscreen, as if they’ve so quickly and willingly left behind all these traditions to which the others so strongly adhere.

And it’s that dynamic between rules confronted and rules enforced that I find so fascinating.  A huge part of this film has to do with a rather medieval paddling tradition in which the incoming seniors assault the incoming freshman.  It’s strange and uncomfortable but somehow feels right, at least as the most visible example of hazing.

The paddlers, led by Ben Affleck’s O’Bannion, hunt down their prey and break a few rules to do so.  Mitch (Wiley Wiggins), the most prominent incoming freshman, submits willingly to his punishment knowing it’ll happen eventually, and after that he’s been accepted into the group.  Just like that.

The rest of Mitch’s storyline has him bearing witness to the goings-on of the incoming seniors, their traditions, mannerisms and other simple behaviors.  You can see him taking it all in like a startled computer, processing it and then reinforcing the same ideals, sometimes in a matter of minutes.  It’s not hard to see him three years down the line leading the same charge and enforcing the same values.

Other characters experience the same pushes and pulls of coming of age stories, developing affections for someone from afar and making their movie.  Then you have one of the more comical characters, Mike (Adam Goldberg) getting into hot water with his casual snark, feeling humiliated and then talking through his rationale for getting into a fight (theorizing that because of the ‘protect the herd’ mentality there will only be 1-2 punches thrown), so that he can properly put the incident behind him.  It’s a good microcosm for the sense of ritual within the film as a whole, using an event to identify and even create an inflection point within one’s own life.  The idea is always that before you were this person and afterwards you’re a different person.

I suppose high school is a series of these inflection points, some invisible and others bombastic.  We become of age to get our license and then to buy cigarettes and vote.  Then we graduate and we’re gone.  In other cases as meet people who provoke change within us, whether an individual or a collective.  It’s some sort of slaughterhouse in which enters you the child and out of which exits you the adult.

That all of this is there onscreen is all the more astounding when on the surface it just feels like a hangout film, which it is.  It’s also a Richard Linklater film, and he has demonstrated in subsequent films too a keen observational eye towards how people behave and how they change.

This film, in fact, is a good example of a framework he has repeated several times, one that encourages both nostalgia and a degree of omniscience behind the camera.  The film is set 17 years before it was released (when Linklater himself would’ve been around 16) and calls attention time and again to this moment in history.  One teacher alludes to serving in Vietnam, another subtly, futilely reminds her departing class that the nation was founded on people seeking tax breaks, and one character theorizes that the 80’s will be “radical.”

Linklater can make a film about the present through the lens of the past.  He notices how people speak, what they believe and talk about, and by making it so hyper-specific to the time (while also affectionately undercutting some of what they say and surmise) he calls attention to the same types of conversations happening today, or at any time.  The moment in history is specific but the age group is universal, we all pass through these same rituals and conversations.

He did a similar thing in the Before trilogy, following Jesse and Celine who were (and continue to be) perpetually a decade or so younger than Linklater himself.  Each film comments on the characters’ outlook on life and on themselves and how that changes every nine years.  Being about a decade older allows him to reflect on that moment in his own life the way these characters have yet to do, and that combination of immediacy and introspection, well it all works pretty well.  Imagine writing a story now about yourself ten years ago versus writing that same story in actuality ten years ago.  It’d be a different story.

Then he did the same thing with Boyhood and again something similar to Dazed and Confused with Everybody Wants Some!!  His films feel realistic and immediate but so too bathed in nostalgia, something more like a memory in which so much of the conflict is washed away with time.  This, like those other films, is a fond recollection of the group and time as a whole.  There were fights and grievances, but recalled from far enough away those things don’t amount to much beyond set dressing.

Up Next: Destroyer (2018), Steve Jobs (2015), Up in the Air (2009)

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