Dazed and Confused

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I was nine when Dazed & Confused came out in theatres in 1993, and -8 during the summer of 1976, when the film is set. I saw it for the first time a few days ago, in 2014, making it 21 years old, which kind of blows my mind. Imagine how removed 1966 seems from 1945. Or 1895—the year often called the birth of cinema—from 1916, which was already the second year of the First World War. It’s common to say that time is speeding up and that as a species we do more in a year now than we did ever before, and perhaps on a technological level that’s true, but the cultural distance from 1993 to today doesn’t seem as great as the distance from 1993 to 1976. I don’t feel a gap. Perhaps that’s because I lived it. Or maybe Richard Linklater films just age well.

Dazed and Confused was a period piece when it came out. It’s a double period piece now: the 1970s seen from the 1990s. Yet because of the internet and the easy availability of movies and music from the past century, it’s possible that the 1970s are closer to us in the 2010s than they were in the 1990s. Part of the appeal (and the budget) of Dazed and Confused is its soundtrack, which plays almost continually through the film like an accompanying radio station. It’s good music. More than that, it’s familiar music. In 1966, music from 1945 was ancient. Today, anyone can listen to Led Zeppelin (not actually featured in Dazed and Confused thanks to Jimmy Page) because it’s as easy as logging into Spotify, buying songs on iTunes, opening an internet radio stream or torrenting a Led Zeppelin discography. What’s truly quaint about Dazed and Confused is how well its soundtrack sold on CD.

The film takes place in a small American town over a single day, the last day of school, and follows a bunch of mostly students as they prepare for a party that due to a premature beer keg delivery doesn’t actually happen and then spend their evening improvising a good time instead. Some of the characters are finishing high school, others are just starting. One has already graduated but still likes high school girls because, as he says, “I get older, they stay the same age,” which might just be why we enjoy high school movies so much too.

Like his characters, Linklater also improvised. He ended up cutting a lot of the dialogue between the somewhat-main character Randall “Pink” Floyd and his buddy Kevin Pickford because the actors didn’t get along, shifting the heft of the film’s football field climax onto another relationship entirely. It’s not the typical kind of improvisation we associate with films, bare bones scripts and actors filling in the details on the fly, but it’s decidedly cinematic, a construction of a film from what are merely filmed parts. Along with Linklater’s use of real events from his own childhood—which resulted in a money-grubbing lawsuit against him by several of his former classmates—it lends the film a sense of organic beauty not unlike that of a vegetable. It may not be perfectly structured, but neither is a cauliflower.

Period pieces and high school movies almost always traffic in nostalgia, but whether or not Dazed and Confused is nostalgic remains a valid question. The characters certainly don’t believe they’re living the best days of their lives. They experience violence, hazing, fear, boredom, uncertainty. But what if they are? That makes them even more tragic: because their high school experience isn’t perfect and because they don’t realize they’re on the verge of a slow, steady decline. In many ways, much like flesh and blood people, they’re indifferent to the importance of this day, hour, moment in their lives. Nobody lives knowing that this is the best night of our lives while also accepting the inevitable consequence that nothing will ever be better. Maybe getting drunk and climbing up an old tower to see a nighttime view of your hometown will be as good as it gets, but you won’t know until you die, and when you’re dead you won’t know anything anymore. So you plan a party, and when that plan gets wrecked, you do the best you can for as long as you can, knowing that it’s good to have friends and that wherever you fall asleep, the sun will come up tomorrow and there’ll be another day to live through. When one character does think too much about how the present will affect him, he gets punched in the face. Now fry like bacon, you little freshman piggies.

I was lukewarm on Richard Linklater for a while, but I’m definitely warming up. I’m looking forward to seeing Boyhood.

P.S. This was supposed to play over the film’s credits:

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