1993’s Dazed and Confused, the third full-length feature from writer/director Richard Linklater, has come to be revered as a true classic of coming-of-age cinema. An unapologetically subjective love-letter to the director’s own formative experiences (presented through the rose-tinted prism that’s to be expected of such personal reminiscences), its popularity endures thanks to subject matters of universal breadth: of youth, of innocence, of change, of the choice of whether to grow up – casting aside the safety of the familiar - or to remain, to stagnate.
And, no matter to what extent the unspooling of time has blunted you since your youth, anything can take you right back: an album, a place, a person, a film, a smell, a phrase, whatever form that bookmark of a time and place takes, it evokes surges of forgotten feelings and slideshows of repressed memories of a tumultuous, exciting, character-moulding period in your life – one that was all-too-quickly cuckolded by the inexorable drudgery of adulthood.
For most, the trigger’s music. Dazed and Confused, exquisitely bookended by the colossal, windswept harmonies of Aerosmith’s Sweet Emotion and the expansive crunch of Foghat’s Slow Ride, uses music to chart a single day in the lives of a ragtag ensemble of high-school kids in 1976’s Austin, Texas. It’s the last day of school before the summer break, and there’s a tangible, almost melancholic sense that life, for all of them, is about to change.
Linklater’s script tells two autobiographical stories simultaneously: first, we meet Randall ‘Pink’ Floyd, star quarterback of the school football team who, next year, will be a senior whose sporting acumen could be his springboard on to greater things. Only, Pink finds himself tired of the conformation - the rigorous control he’s endured - to ensure the success of his team. His coach’s insistence that all players sign a pledge promising they won’t indulge in drugs or alcohol over the summer is the final straw – he wants to have a good time with his friends, free, for one summer at least, of the prematurely-tightened shackles of responsibility.
Mitch, because his sister is a popular senior, is singled out for special treatment, particularly by vindictive, senior year-repeating jock Fred O’Bannion (a young, ultra-douchebaggy Ben Affleck).
The second narrative through-line is soon-to-be freshman Mitch Kramer. Tradition dictates that, on this day of the year, students coming up from junior high are subjected to humiliating initiation rituals at the hands of the seniors, who’ve been waiting for their chance to inflict the same pains that they themselves experienced three years previously. For the girls, the attacks are psychological, yet freshman boys are given brutal ‘licks’ across the arse with wooden paddles, and Mitch, because his sister is a popular senior, is singled out for special treatment, particularly by vindictive, senior year-repeating jock Fred O’Bannion (a young, ultra-douchebaggy Ben Affleck).
Mitch bravely takes his licks, in doing so ingratiating himself with Pink, who invites him along for an edifying night in the company of his friends, as they vow to celebrate the final day of school in any way they can. Pink’s journey through the loose narrative is one of his emergent individuality, while Mitch’s is one of the profound firsts: that first beer, first joint, first kiss, the first proper juvenile mischief.
From the opening shot of a bright orange 1970 Pontiac GTO sweeping into frame we’re transported to a pocket of a time and space that’s clearly personal to Linklater. The music is, obviously, a huge part of this temporal contextualisation, and Dazed and Confused undoubtedly enjoys one of the most rousing soundtracks in movie history: Alice Cooper, Deep Purple, Ted Nugent, Bob Dylan, Black Sabbath and ZZ Top all combine to create the patchwork backdrop onto which these unsure little lives we are briefly and enviously privy to play out.
Yet it’s also the clothes, the language, the cars and the attitudes that form the holistic Polaroid of a fleeting time that’s long gone. For instance, opinions on drink driving have clearly changed in the years since 1976 (with nary a copper in sight until the end of the film, despite the array of screeching muscle cars stuffed with howling, beer-guzzling teens), while the community’s blithe acceptance of the practice of paddling young teenagers is conspicuous in comparison to what would, in today’s society, be construed as some fairly alarming physical abuse.
Dazed and Confused undoubtedly enjoys one of the most rousing soundtracks in movie history: Alice Cooper, Deep Purple, Ted Nugent, Bob Dylan, Black Sabbath and ZZ Top
The consequence-free notions of sex and drugs and the ‘kids will be kids’ attitudes are also seductively refreshing in their naivety, made all the more so by the knowledge - that only we, the viewers carry with us - of their unfortunate and inevitable transience. Indeed, the film quickly became a pin-up for the refer-toking counterculture, largely due to the perennially-baked Slater (the long-haired, conspiracy-spouting comic relief), yet Dazed and Confused’s drug taking is only ever circumstantial: it’s an affectation of the disaffectedness of youth, not the reason for it, and there’s something pleasantly quaint and benign about the whole business.
Like the similarly subjective work of George Lucas’ American Graffiti, John Hughes’ The Breakfast Club or Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous, Dazed and Confused’s identity is inextricably intertwined with the time in which it is set, yet the fact the film endures owes more to the disarmingly timeless nature of the characters and relationships it portrays.
The eddies that form in the artificial social structure of high school - the various cliques - are held together in the film by Pink, who gregariously flits between them, acting as our guide through the gamut of competing tribes. This arrangement hasn’t really changed: there are still ‘popular’ kids, ‘hard’ kids and ‘geeky’ kids, and at the Moonlight Tower party at the film’s end we see them all come together, however implausibly, in the sort of shared, communal experience that becomes less and less frequent with the sad advancement of the years.
Matthew McConaughey’s ageing, louche lothario Wooderson, who enjoys the film’s famous, standout line, “That’s what I love about these high school girls, man. I get older, and they stay the same age. Yes they do.”
There are myriad memorable characters whose plights weave together in the film, from the over-analytical Mike (The Sopranos’ Adam Goldberg, “I’m trying to be honest about being a misanthrope”), the overcompensating jock Benny O’Donnell, to the king of the piece: Matthew McConaughey’s ageing, louche lothario Wooderson, who enjoys the film’s famous, standout line, “That’s what I love about these high school girls, man. I get older, and they stay the same age. Yes they do.”
And Dazed and Confused is endlessly quotable – not like the rehearsed, pop-culture affectations of Tarantino (who does count Dazed and Confused as one of his favourite films), but in a more earnest and indirect sense; all lines sound like they’ve probably, in reality, been said.
And this is why the film is held in such high regard: its poignancy is implied, never stilted; its characters are flawed, but real; and it makes you wistful for simpler times, not through telling you that youth is perfect – far from it - but by telling you that it is mainly rubbish, and that’s what makes it great.
The characters here are just as frustrated with the limitations of their existences as we were. Or, as Pink drolly and succinctly puts it, “All I’m saying is that if I ever start referring to these as the best years of my life – remind me to kill myself.” And who, when they were young, didn’t say something depressingly similar?
Linklater has yet to produce a better film than Dazed and Confused, which continues to be an ageless story that we all, in our own way, are a part of. It doesn’t attempt to make any definite points, and this is exactly the point.
All it asks is that we take stock, re-evaluate our priorities, and head out with our loser friends to buy Aerosmith tickets.
Here's Matthew McConaughey reprising his role in the video for this cracking new tune by Butch Walker
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