Home > The Best of the Best > Movies That Rule: Dazed and Confused (1993)

Movies That Rule: Dazed and Confused (1993)

Slater: Are you cool, man?
Mitch: Like how?
Slater [rolls eyes]: Ohhhhkay…
[Pause]
Pink [bemused]: He was just asking if you got high…

It’s the last day of school.  It’s time to think about the future…or just get wasted instead…or both?

Dazed and Confused is a far more entertaining movie than it has any right to be.  Hearing about it from a friend seven years ago, I figured it’d be a slightly more insightful than-average high-school rom-com, but with no interesting conclusion, no boy-gets-girl, nothing.  I was hesitant to give this one a spin to say the least.  And that’s even after he told me: “This movie’s gonna change your life, bro.  It just makes sense.  It’s insane.”

Yeah, Dazed has minimal plot, and even with a couple of “main” characters, it’s a hodgepodge affair, a slice-of-life movie that switches quickly between scenes involving revolving combinations of its characters.  So why’s it so compelling, so brilliant and ‘insane,’ and in many ways, underrated?

My sort of existential answer: it just is.  Like many of the characters in the film itself, Dazed is scarily matter-of-fact–romantic, funny enough when it needs to be and understated and observant the rest of the time.

This pic, arguably director Richard Linklater’s finest achievement, does nothing in particular except explore the emotional crises of people of a certain age, using a host of vignettes to make a bigger point–one which, I think, centers on how differently we interpret our adolescent years the more we age.  Don’t approach Dazed expecting anything more.  Take it as it comes, ponder it afterward.  Then watch it again.

Foremost, this is a most unconventional picture because its characters actually talk like teenagers, not 27-year old soap opera stars playing 17-year olds in a hopeless Porky‘s-rehash.  The movie effectively transports us back to those carefree days of beer parties, summer romances and wasting time sitting by the pool, always harboring a buzz.  And then it surprisingly does something more.

Linklater’s not content to just show us what parties in the ‘70s might have looked like in Kodachrome pictures.  We become a part of the action.  Even though Dazed takes place in 1976, in the careful way it plays off teenage nostalgia, it is a surprisingly timeless piece of work.


On the surface, the pic’s about a group of high-school juniors trying, not always successfully, to live life to the fullest in Austin, TX on the last day of school. The movie begins with Aerosmith‘s “Sweet Emotion” on the soundtrack, the rolling of a fat doob and footage of a few kids buying and smoking weed in the school parking lot, high-fiving and smiling.  Using this as a launching pad, Linklater’s work then moves from one event to another, showing us a series of short clips in the lives of all of its “main” characters.  But, again, something more’s lurking beneath the surface. Don’t cue the Eve 6 just yet kids: no one here’s singing “Here’s to the Night.”

At the center of Dazed is Randall ‘Pink’ Floyd (Jason London), a very good quarterback going through an end-of-high-school dilemma–whether or not to keep playing football his senior year.  The coach is making the players sign a lame-ass pledge that says they will not engage in “illegal activities” (e.g. drinking and drugs) during season.  Considering that everyone in the high school is pretty much blazed 24/7, this is a tough sacrifice.

Pink’s buddies on the football team tell him to just sign the damn pledge and get trashed anyway.  They‘ll all be doing the same thing behind the coach‘s back anyway.  His stoner comrades, like Ron Slater (Rory Cochrane), tell him to forget the whole thing and spend his senior year partying.

As Pink faces these ‘harrowing’ problems, kids like Mitch (Wiley Wiggins) who’re about to enter high school go through identity crises of their own.  They’re subjected to utterly ludicrous but hilarious hazing rituals that are, thankfully, not sugar-coated.  We watch equally amused and horrified as the younger guys are paddled by the toughest jocks, and the younger girls are publicly demeaned in a parking lot by the senior chicks.

And to top things off, the huge party another stoner, Pickford (Shawn Andrews), planned for the last day of school is called-off at the last minute when his parents see a deliveryman unloading a dozen kegs in the driveway.

Later, Linklater follows three honors students (Adam Goldberg, Anthony Rapp, Marisa Ribisi) cruising around and looking for a party, who’re deciding one year before graduation to slow down on the studying and start looking for some “worthwhile visceral experience.”  Their journey will begin, they think, by going to Pickford’s party, but they only find out it’s been canceled when they get there and his dad answers the door.  Being hopelessly uncool, they’d never gotten the message it was called off.


The canceled party, what was supposed to be the cornerstone of the long night ahead, ends up spurring a lot of soul-searching.  With nowhere to go but in circles, all of the kids–geeks, stoners, greasers, punks and jocks–find themselves at the mercy of an endless spring night.  They buy six-packs, smoke pot, play pool, trade rumors, smoke more pot and cruise around looking for the next best thing.  Some football players ride with a bunch of cases in the trunk of their car, handing beer out to underage girls and chasing incoming freshman guys (who snuck away from the junior high dance at the town’s Rec Center) with their decorated handmade paddles.

All of the film’s characters eventually meet up with one another, at least in passing, some sharing stronger friendships than others.  Pink is friends with the jocks, the stoners and the geeks, and thus gets the most screen time.  He has a girlfriend and digs on another cute earthy chick, but neither partnership is all that valuable to him–kind of like many high school flings we sort-of, kind-of remember five years post-grad.

And Pink’s friends hassle him about not signing the pledge sheet his coach gave him, but only one, Benny (Cole Hauser) takes major offense to his indecision, actually taking the time to speak with him in the front seat of an El Camino during a late-night get together.  Pink and Benny argue, but never share another scene after their disagreement.  The last we see of Hauser’s character is a shot of him drunk, barely able to stand up from his lawn chair.  He’ll likely forget most of the earlier exchange.  Their camaraderie is unexamined, and seems sort of cursory–kind of like many high school friendships.

Likewise, the conversations between Pickford, Slater and Pink are mostly about drugs and the better shit supposedly going on later that night.  Everyone hangs out at the Emporium, the town’s pool hall, leaves to get stoned in Pickford’s car, returns to play pool and repeats this pattern over and over.  On one burn run, Pink, Mitch and a couple of guys get themselves into a hilarious series of predicaments that include bowling balls, trashcans, mailboxes and a handgun.  It’s definitely the highlight of the long night.


But even as this night chugs on, just as the night Ron Howard and Richard Dreyfuss experienced in American Graffiti did, Dazed becomes more and more poignant, and as more drugs are smoked, the characters become increasingly intriguing.  It shares some things in common with Graffiti, the gold-standard when it comes to adolescent comedies.  Dazed has less of a “finished” ending than Graffiti, but it captures the feel of a specific time and place brilliantly, just as George Lucas’s picture did.

It is also different, though: while Dreyfus’s character leaves for college and Howard’s character sticks around to form a more meaningful relationship with his girlfriend, the kids in Dazed finish the night without any tangible direction.  They are on the prowl for meaning, and even as the sun rises, they have not actually decided on clear future paths.  They have only figured out which responsibilities they’d prefer to avoid.

***

Why write about a party movie like Dazed and Confused, someone recently asked me.  Well, first of all, is it really just a party movie?  Even if that’s the case (I don‘t think it is), I guess I talk about it so often because it makes me feel something deep in my gut each time I put it on.  Perhaps, even being a pessimist, I see more in the picture than most.  A talk with an old fraternity brother made me give this picture a couple serious viewings.

“Man, that summer after I graduated, I only stayed home once,” he exclaimed.  “We were fucked up every single night!”  Listening to him, I was also reminded of the wistful Lester Burnham from American Beauty, who spoke of his days flipping burgers as the most glorious time in his life. “All I did was party and get laid,” the character in Sam Mendes’ masterpiece reveals.  My friend, using different words, said about the same thing.

The characters in Dazed, of course, are a different breed than my friend (or Les Burnham) altogether because they‘re in the moment, not a few years past it.  They haven’t reached the times in adulthood when they realize that working the drive-thru, drinking the nights away and always getting laid actually might actually represent everything good about life.  ‘Tis a shame Pink doesn’t get it, I thought, watching the pic a week ago.


Pink, the guy with the ‘heaviest’ personal problem, remains pretty cool about his lack of direction.  He does so even in the final frames.  “If I ever start referring to these as the best years of my life, remind me to kill myself,” the football player muses, not very panicked, minutes from the end.

Slater, stoned and drunk during one outing in Pickford’s Camaro, likewise makes fun of the girls in his own class and talks excitedly of “getting to college,” as if the next four years will actually be more radical than the previous four.  Watching him talk, we laugh at his droning, but we’d probably bet money he’d be equally disappointed with “enlightened” college women (and higher education itself), too.

Still, both characters, one a jock who enjoys his fair share of good times, another, a stoner who enjoys far more grass than Easy Rider’s Captain America and Billy combined, are obsessed with this idea of “something more,” though “something” is never clear.  College football, for instance, is the subject of Pink‘s musings, though he doesn’t see it as a worthwhile goal.  The other jocks, less introspective, though more gung-ho than Pink, are, I guess, living in the moment for football and keg parties.  Guys like Benny actually seem sad, not even dreaming of anything beyond the last high-school football season.

One of the brainiest characters in the picture, Cynthia (Marisa Ribisi), simply says the 1970s are a lost cause and hopes maybe the ‘80s will be “radical.” Even the smart kids, as intelligently as they talk, are hardly driven.  We wonder, after listening to all of these analyses of youth and adulthood, if these characters will always remain so detached.  It’s as if the kids are praying for a life-altering event like another Vietnam War to jolt them from their collective boredom and sweep them into fulfilling lives.

If most of the kids seem confused, there’s one guy who talks as if he has the answers.  And this group’s unreliable oracle comes in the clothes of a 23-year old city worker, decked out in pink bell-bottomed corduroys, a cigarette always in his mouth, a brew always in hand.  A former football star, his life is spent in neutral.  At an age where he should be at least considering growing up, he has few goals and works a boring job for menial wages.  He’s considering college, but enjoys getting high and avoiding responsibility way more.  He tries desperately to sound like he’s seen it all before even if his ambitions never moved beyond scoring touchdowns on the old high school gridiron.


“If it’s not that piece of paper, it’s gonna be some other decision they’re gonna try to make for you,” David Wooderson (Matthew McConaughey) tells Pink near the final frames, trying to sound enlightened.  “The older you get, the more rules they’re gonna try to push on you.  You gotta do what Randall ‘Pink’ Floyd wants to do. You just gotta keep on livin’, man.  L-I-V-I-N.”

This 23-year old who tells Pink to keep “livin’,” is at once the most interesting and most depressing character in Dazed.  You all know who he is, though.  In the last fifteen years, Wooderson’s become something of an inexplicable cult hero in everyday adolescent life.  Even those who haven’t viewed Dazed will remember his immortal quote:

“That’s what I love about those high school girls, man.  I get older, they stay the same age.”

Yet the days when he was a great running-back for the high school football team will scarily never be matched again, and the only cure for his loneliness is behaving as he does–by dating girls barely old enough to drive.  And watching the high-school juniors in Dazed, we sense some of them will be Wooderson clones in just five years time.  They’ll bask in athletic glory as long as possible until they wake up one day, 26-years old, and realize they’ve gone nowhere.  They’ll be obsolete, and kids will make jokes about them as one of the geeks does about Wooderson: “You know when he graduated, we were, like, three, right?”

***

Apart from it’s wonderfully developed characters, Dazed is wholly authentic because it chooses to avoid a contrived storyline altogether and focus exclusively on tone.  If the picture deals with some adolescent rites of passage briefly, it’s only because it’d rather focus more on what it feels like to be 17-years old.  Linklater captures that angst, the fear that no one takes you seriously and the kid’s attempts at sounding enlightened even without much ‘life experience.’ And thankfully, the movie doesn’t end at Prom.


In high school, when I first viewed the pic, I thought Linklater’s characters seemed to know a whole lot.  I’d heard all these conversations before back then, at parties, by the pool, sitting on someone’s back porch, etc.  The characters’ words sounded like they were lifted directly from 1000 dialogues I’d had with my best friends.  “Livin’” was practically a tagline for kids graduating from high school in 2005 (as I’m sure it was in 2004 and 2003 and 2002 and so on).

But these days, with a few more years under my belt, Dazed doesn‘t give off the same vibe.  The kids in the movie don’t seem to know as much as they once did.   That’s not to say that Linklater’s film is less relevant to those who‘ve graduated, but that the film actually evolves with the viewer.  Anymore, the kids in the picture just seem bored and searching for meaning, but not enlightened.  Wooderson, at one time a hero to us high-schoolers, is now kind of a relic.  I can now only sympathize with the characters’ uncertainties rather than identify with them.

And I imagine that, in ten years, my take on Dazed will be different than it is right now.

My favorite character in Dazed, Slater, is proof that Linklater “gets” what it‘s like to be young, mad and directionless.  One conversation in particular sticks out, one where he adamantly describes the way George Washington intended for marijuana to be a cash crop for the southern states during the American Revolution.

Slater, smoking a joint, muses:

And so he grew fields of it, man. But, behind every good man is a woman, and that woman was Martha Washington, man.  And everyday when he’d come home, she’d have a big fat bowl just waiting for him, man.  She was a hip, hip lady, man.

We laugh at not only his words, but also that he takes this topic so seriously.  His sincerity in this scene, fueled by the herb, is scarily true-to-life, so we smile with recognition.  And I say “scarily true to life” because everyone has one friend like this, who spouts these ridiculous ideas and somehow get even the most straight-edged people to agree with his theories.


Linklater makes Slater absolutely hysterical and completely crazy the whole way through, but there is no punch line, no standard payoff, to his most of his bantering.  For a minute or two, the camera sticks right with him, just as if an outsider who came into this conversation mid-way through wouldn’t want to leave.  When Slater’s finished talking, the camera moves on, his thoughts just a momentary stopping point.  Slater hasn’t covered any ground, or gotten any closer to getting his shit together.  But Linklater empathizes.

Diverse as they are in subject, what all of Linklater’s films have in common is that sincere empathy for the brutally confused, but frequently idealistic lives of lost young adults.

His first movie, Slacker (1991), a brilliant portrait of Austin, TX in the early-1990s, captures the bizarre 18-to-25 period of disenchantment perfectly, too.  In the picture, loonies, stoners and burned-out ex-cons alike drift around the city without much direction, and the focus rapidly shifts from one story to another, never returning to the same person more than once.  The camera itself appears curious, breaking off from one group and joining up with another, taking the baton from one line of dialogue and running to the next conversational stopping point.

Suburbia (1996), while not a great movie, still captures Slacker‘s spirit, using a rockstar’s return to his old hometown to show how the kids stuck there have no escape, and worse, have little desire to leave.  Still drinking 40s behind the local mini-mart, they resent the success of their former friend, but do nothing to make their own lives better, repeating the same conversations over and over, staying out all night, perhaps looking for a glimmer of truth in each daybreak.

And Before Sunrise (1995), one of my favorite movies, shows two college kids coming to grips with themselves and their relationship over one night in Vienna through tender, intelligent conversation.  These two 20-somethings, who meet on a train, work through a roundabout rationalization of their youth, their parents’ expectations and their eventual love for one another.

In Sunrise, the characters seem to think they have a chance together even though we, the audience, know they don’t.  They promise each other at the end to meet in Vienna six months after their long night together, but watching Ethan Hawke’s train depart, it’s clear whatever they had will be lost, their dreams of being together totally impossible.  Watching Before Sunset, the 2004 sequel, the audience observes saddened as the former lovers come to grips not with the love they once shared, but with their unhappiness as dreary adults.

And it’s in Before Sunset‘s characters’ unhappiness that we realize the full scope of Linklater’s abilities as a filmmaker.  The adults in Before Sunset used to be like some of the kids in Dazed and Confused and became the angst-ridden college students like those in Before Sunrise.  It’s as though Linklater, in his remarkable wisdom, saw the future of all of Dazed‘s characters in some of his later pictures.  Whether Pink played football in college, or guys like Benny became city laborers or Cynthia went on to manage a hedge fund, perhaps they were all destined for somewhat unfulfilling lives.  They’d probably even start to view their high school years with more optimism in their late-30s.


While Linklater has always created phenomenal three-dimensional characters, he focuses meticulously on time and setting in his films, too.  It’s especially noticeable in Slacker, which was actually filmed in Austin and catches a great deal of the local color.  Before Sunrise, made in Vienna, also captures the setting in a very unique way by introducing us to local coffee shops, crummy bars and some lesser-explored areas of the city.

Then consider Linklater’s attention to detail in smaller scenes in Dazed and Confused.  In one scene, Pink and his friends sit in the bed of a pickup truck in the fading hours of daylight drinking beer, and in the background, the sign for the movie theatre has only one title: Family Plot, Hitchcock’s last film.  It premiered in 1976.  No one talks about the movie–the title simply sits there on an Austin multiplex’s marquee, background to another funny, unserious conversation.  But having that sign as a background to the conversation makes the kids’ world seem more true-to-life.


And look at the way Linklater captures the baseball uniforms of the time, the football coaches’ goofy wardrobes, the hairstyles, the specific layout of the Top-Notch Burger drive-in, the way the grocery store clerk simply asks the incoming freshman Mitch “You’re 18, right?” when he buys beer.  Everything is done perfectly, but not in a loud manner.  If someone said this movie was made in the 1976, I may not argue the point.

The director seems completely attuned to the fact that not everyone in the ‘70s dressed like Travolta in Saturday Night Fever.  Kids wear T-shirts and jeans to school and dress up a little bit (not loudly) to go out at night.  Only the stoners never change their clothes between the classes they skipped and parties they somehow got a ride to.  And face it–which stoners ever changed clothing after school to go drink and smoke weed three hours later?

Even the soundtrack in Dazed is so tossed-off that it feels carefully chosen, as if Linklater’s playlist mirrors a 1970s AM radio broadcast.

The music in, say, American Graffiti was fundamental to the overall tone, if only because of the significance of listening to the radio, not because “Come Go With Me” had any major cultural import.

Likewise, in Dazed, the tunes are mostly background music, never really telling us what’s going on.  We hear “Low Rider” and “Show Me The Way” and “Livin’ in the U.S.A.” The music is there to give a goosebumps-inducing sense of time and place, just like the music in George Lucas’s pic had us feeling that we were living alongside of 1962‘s graduating class in some anonymous Southern California suburb.

And it makes sense that the songs Linklater chose, cuts that were once so popular on the radio in the early- and mid-1970s, are now strangely forgotten.  Songs like “Rock & Roll Hoochie-Koo” and “Fox on the Run,“ while enormous hits at the time, would scarcely be remembered if it weren’t for this movie.

If there’s a great scene featuring music of the time, the one with Bob Dylan’s “Hurricane” is one of the finest.  Mitch, Pink and Wooderson enter the pool hall when nothing much is happening.  We heard Dylan’s scratchy voice faintly when the guys are outside, but as they enter the Emporium, and cigarette smoke billows out the door, the scene comes alive as the song‘s chorus explodes.

Trite as it may sound on the page, scenes like this are essential to Dazed and Confused.

***

Since plot is absent, the movie ends at its natural stopping point–when everyone simply gets tired at 6 AM after a nightlong party and goes to bed, “Tuesday‘s Gone“ playing in the background.  A few stragglers, Pink, Slater and Wooderson included, end up on the 50-yard line of their school’s football field smoking a joint, debating their existences.  Don, Pink’s close friend, simply says that he wants to look back on his years in high school and say “I did it the best I could when I was stuck in this place.”


I guess I couldn’t have said it better myself–and it’s that line that sticks with me after my most recent viewing of Dazed.  Even as we look back, we gotta keep trucking forward, telling ourselves that, however our high school experience turned out, through those days and nights of drinking and conversation and shitty jobs and JV sports, we did it the best we could.  Those small moments as clueless 17-year olds are forever engrained in our memories.  The world seems wide open then, and that’s rightly enough to scare anyone a year from graduation.

As Wooderson’s SS crests a hill in the final moments of the movie, as four characters go to buy Aerosmith tickets in Houston, we’re left with the impression we’ve just had the best, longest night of our lives.  Like I said, we didn’t just watch it–we lived it.

As for the characters in Linklater’s picture, I dunno.  They’re repeating the same cycle over and over I guess, taking one more uncertain step into the future, hoping that the open highway between Austin and Houston might offer the answers they’re looking for.  It likely won‘t, but whatever the case, I’d give anything to be riding shotgun in Wooderson’s car.  There’s nothing like being 17 and being totally lost, I realize now, seven years later.  You can only hang on to that terrifying excitement for so long before the responsibilities of adulthood gobble you up.

  1. the panda
    January 29, 2013 at 10:36 pm

    A really nice piece. It’s a fantastic movie, one I watch every now and then, dropping in on it like you’d catch up with a high school buddy.

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