Being a teenager is being a performer, nearly around the clock. Alone in their rooms, teens put on a little show for themselves, picking the music and the mood as they get in some valuable self-absorption time. In public, in a group, teenagers turn themselves up to maximum volume. Maybe it’s just a mating ritual—part of the biological imperative to preen and posture—that has teens trying to impress each other with dumb jokes and unprovoked aggression. Or maybe the journey to adulthood demands a few years where immature minds in overgrown bodies play at being grown-ups, while largely free of the responsibilities that keep actual adults from spending their days drinking, screwing, and goofing off.
In 1991, writer-director Richard Linklater had a cult hit with Slacker. The film drew a lot of word-of-mouth buzz from cinephiles because of its unusual structure, which had Linklater following individual characters around Austin, Texas until they crossed paths with somebody else, who would then become the camera’s focus for a few minutes until that person met another character, and so on. The characters in Slacker were also performers of a kind: mostly amateur philosophers, hustlers, and conspiracy theorists who’d corner other people and deliver a spiel. Slacker is mostly monologue-driven, documenting a community populated by eccentric loners. But Linklater’s follow-up film—1993’s retro high-school comedy Dazed And Confused—tackles teenagers, who tend to gather in tribes, so they can show off for each other.
Linklater got Universal’s now-defunct boutique division Gramercy Pictures to back Dazed And Confused based on the attention he’d gotten for Slacker (which, like Douglas Coupland’s novel Generation X, gave the mainstream media a name to hang on an emerging generation of young people), and based on a pitch that made his movie sound like it was going to be a fun, youth-friendly romp. And it is a fun, youth-friendly romp—just not in the way the producers might have originally envisioned.
Unlike Slacker, Dazed And Confused does have some semblance of a plot, following different groups of rising seniors and rising freshman on the last day of school in a small Texas town in 1976. While the freshmen are trying to avoid getting paddled and/or humiliated by the seniors—who haze the new kids in keeping with longstanding traditions—the seniors are trying to find a new place to party after their original location gets shut down by nosy parents, and the high school’s star quarterback Randall “Pink” Floyd (played by Jason London) is considering whether he’ll sign an “I promise to abstain from drugs and alcohol” pledge for his coach. Linklater follows each of these storylines through to the end, though ultimately he’s less interested in the narrative of Dazed And Confused than he is in getting 1976 right, getting Texas right, and getting adolescence right.
In fact, while Dazed And Confused is ostensibly a movie about conversations (as so many of Linklater’s films are), a lot of what Linklater is trying to capture about teendom, he gets across just in the way he arranges and photographs his cast. The gist of the film is contained in these 10 pictures:
Here, Lee High School’s premier stoner Ron Slater (Rory Cochrane) is advising a classmate on how to construct an airtight bong. A lot of Dazed And Confused deals with teen culture as one of the last great bastions of the oral tradition, with older kids passing on hard-earned wisdom to younger kids, and everyone sharing funny, gross, or heavy stories they heard about from a friend of a friend. But even more than the dialogue between Slater and his protégé—which also shores up Dazed And Confused’s vision of mid-1970s high school as openly pot-friendly—what’s important about this scene is the way these two kids are sitting on the workbench in wood-shop, elevated a little above their peers. It’s the last day of school, and the teachers seem to have all but vanished from Lee, letting the students make themselves comfortable. Slater has taken full advantage, giving himself a little stage from which to pontificate.
Because the world of Dazed And Confused is largely devoid of adults, the film initially gives the impression that these teens are completely unsupervised. But it’s more that the grown-ups have ceded their authority: to older siblings, to the popular kids, and to the football coaches (whom even the local cops feel obliged to call when a player gets in trouble). Occasionally, Linklater lets the audience know somebody is watching, if only from a distance. In the above scene, one of the younger assistant coaches tries to act like he’s one of the boys, razzing them knowingly while the head coach looks on in the background, clearly having just told his underling to walk over there and talk some sense into Pink.
Linklater has described Dazed And Confused as “sort of the greatest hits” of his high-school life, and while part of him identifies with Pink (because Linklater was also a jock who was comfortable moving between cliques) and part of him identifies with Wiley Wiggins’ Mitch Kramer (because he too was once a rising freshman who was initiated into the rituals of partying), the most Linklater-like Dazed And Confused group is the trio of Mike (Adam Goldberg), Tony (Anthony Rapp), and Cynthia (Marissa Ribisi), the school’s resident intellectuals. “We imagined ourselves as the town’s intelligentsia,” Linklater admits on the commentary track to the Criterion Blu-ray of Dazed And Confused; and while Mike, Tony, and Cynthia aren’t in any way the movie’s main characters, they do serve as its chorus, commenting on the barbaric high-school rites of passage, while also enjoying some of the fruits of it all.
In the scene above, Mike and Tony have positioned themselves just outside the staging area for the senior girls’ hazing of the freshmen, so they can criticize the process while still, in a way, taking part. The pose in this shot is common to Dazed And Confused: two people turned toward each other, acting as though they’re so absorbed in their deep conversation that they don’t notice the person who’s standing next to them. But Mike and Tony definitely know she’s there. They aren’t snubbing her; they’re subtly trying to impress her with how cool they are.
One of the most famous images in Dazed And Confused is of Matthew McConaughey’s David Wooderson—a Lee grad who still lives in town and hangs out with high-schoolers—standing outside the pool hall The Emporium, looking like a stud while he checks out the new talent. Linklater says a lot of the Wooderson scenes are meant to be taken subjectively, as Mitch’s perspective on the cool older crowd he falls into. Here, Wooderson, Pink, and Don Dawson (Sasha Jenson) shoot the shit while Mitch stands just a little apart from them, so he can observe the whole show. Wooderson is clearly the best of this bunch, because he looks the most natural, and the most still in his pose. Even when other people come by and invite Wooderson to join them, he calmly answers, “I’m here, man.” Here’s a man who doesn’t need to move.
Linklater has admitted he didn’t do as good of a job building out the world of Dazed And Confused’s girls as he did with the boys. The Blu-ray features a few deleted scenes of the girls together that would’ve made it clearer that they had their own lives and community outside of their relationships with the boys. As it stands, Dazed And Confused relies on the experiences of Christin Hinojosa’s Sabrina Davis to provide a portal into that world. Like Mitch, Sabrina gets her hazing over with early, and is rewarded by getting to hang out with the rising senior ladies, who spend a lot of their time talking about sex—and this after a hazing ritual that had Sabrina forced to suck on a pacifier and offer herself to Tony, while being called a “prick-tease” by her tormenter (Parker Posey). Like Mitch, Sabrina is a little removed from her group of mentors. But her eyes and ears are wide-open.
While Mitch and Sabrina have been fast-tracked to the cool crowd—where the seniors confess that high school sucks, and that they can’t wait to get to the nonstop orgy they expect college will be—their former peers are stuck at a junior-high dance, swaying back and forth to slow songs and talking about how they’re looking forward to high school. But Mitch and Sabrina are still young and awkward, no matter their present company. In the scene above, the two of them compare notes on their evening so far, and both are unconvincingly playing down all they’ve done and seen. Their coolness is undercut by their body language, which is all misplaced arms and forced tics.
The shot above comes at the end of a short scene in which Cole Hauser’s Benny O’Donnell tries to stand up and go refill his cup during the beer-bust at “the moontower,” then realizes with some surprise and dismay that he’s too drunk. Dazed And Confused is unusually on-point when it comes to making intoxication look convincing onscreen. It isn’t just about slurred speech; it’s about trying very hard to act sober, and also about the unforced giddiness of a good buzz, and the warm vibe that turns casual acquaintances into compadres.
But there are a couple of points to make about this picture. Firstly, note that the arm steadying Benny belongs to Melvin Spivey (Jason O. Smith), Benny’s black teammate, who is clearly a part of this larger community, but not an integral part, given how little screen-time he gets. (Melvin’s two big scenes in Dazed And Confused come when he saves Mitch from a second paddling by Ben Affleck’s sadistic Fred O’Bannion, and then later when he asks Mitch if he’s “gonna be fuckin’ that later?” referring to the sophomore girl who’s taken a liking to the kid.) Secondly, while Dazed And Confused is one of the rare high-school movies that acknowledges the fluidity of cliques—which so many other teensploitation films presume to be impenetrably rigid—there are still hierarchies at play here. Benny is close enough to Pink to call him out for his selfishness in hesitating to sign the abstention pledge, but not close enough to be invited to “the joint subcommittee” that convenes on the football field after the moontower party breaks up.
While Pink can move freely between the jocks, the geeks, and the stoners, it isn’t as easy for Mike and Tony. Even when they try to sound hip, asking classmates if they’re having a smoked or liquid lunch, they step on their own cool, nerdily adding, “Smoked, right?” Then when they reluctantly decide to go to the big party, Mike inadvertently crosses a badass named Clint, who pushes Mike around after Mike makes a wisecrack about smelling reefer. Clint probably immediately forgets about the dweeb he shoved, but Mike stews through the whole party, regarding “that Clint fucker” as the symbol for everything wrong with the high-school caste system. In the picture above, Mike’s getting ready to vent his frustration by taking a swing at Clint, and then getting his ass kicked. The composition tells the story: Clint is in focus, surrounded by his buddies, not giving a second thought to the insignificant blur headed his way.
One of teenagers’ great gifts is the way they can mythologize a moment within minutes of it happening—or even while it’s happening. On the same afternoon a gun-toting parent chases O’Bannion off a freshman’s property, he’s ruefully boasting to his friends that he “got a shotgun pulled on my ass,” making himself into the put-upon hero of a world gone topsy-turvy. Meanwhile, Mitch and Sabrina are carried along on a wave from one adventure to another, living through a night they’re likely going to remember forever. They get rowdy, they get drunk, and they even find romance with some of the older kids.
Yet what makes the above shot of Tony and Sabrina holding hands outside her house so heartbreaking is that even though everything looks perfect—a cool early morning, a warm touch, a soft glow—how long will it be before Sabrina realizes that she’s risking her newly acquired cachet by dating a nerd? Chances are, she starts to figure it out seconds earlier, when Tony awkwardly says, “Sure is nice to pile on some pancakes and syrup after a heavy night of beer-drinking, huh?”
On the Criterion commentary track, Linklater talks about how most of the Hollywood teen movies he’s seen have failed to tell his own story, saying that there’s far more truth in edgier teen movies like Over The Edge and if… than there is in something like Sixteen Candles. With Dazed And Confused, he says, he “wanted to capture the essential boredom” of high-school life, which may be why he squabbled so much with his producers, who didn’t see much box-office potential in a film about adolescent ennui. A skeptical Universal barely opened Dazed And Confused, but Linklater’s dogged adherence to his vision for the movie paid off in the long run, as the movie became a huge hit on home video.
That’s because so much of Dazed And Confused should be familiar to anyone who’s ever been an American teenager, no matter the era. For all Linklater’s attention to how high-schoolers interact—and how they sometimes cruelly cut each other out, or fail to understand the larger meaning of what they’re going through—he sends the audience out on an up note, with the seniors driving off to get Aerosmith tickets, and a still-buzzed Mitch settling back onto his bed, to reflect on how much has changed in his life in less than 24 hours. Because he’s a teenager, Mitch feels this moment more intensely than someone older might. Here he is, master of his small niche in a small town, doing as Wooderson would want him to: L-I-V-I-N.
Our Movie Of The Week discussion of Dazed And Confused continues tomorrow with a staff Forum looking at the film’s take on Texas, the 1970s, and high school. Then on Thursday, Mike D’Angelo has some thoughts on the Dazed And Confused stars who didn’t go on to tremendous fame—and what they might have done with their careers.