Keith: Few things annoy me more, or temporarily take me out of a movie faster, than bad period production design. (I’m still annoyed that Man On The Moon features a scene set in the late 1970s that features a Ms. Pac-Man machine, for instance.) I was still a toddler in 1976, so I don’t know whether Richard Linklater’s second film gets all the details right, but it feels right, from the cars to the foosball tables to the soundtrack. Linklater drew on his own memories of Texas teendom for the film, so he was able to serve as his own expert witness here. But more importantly, he uses the details to summon up the spirit of the age and what it felt like to be an aimless kid in 1970s Texas. “The ’70s obviously suck,” Cynthia (Marissa Ribisi) says as part of her every-other-decade theory. And though it’s possible to watch Dazed And Confused as a piece of nostalgic escapism, and it certainly works that way, she isn’t necessarily wrong. There’s a sense that these kids missed out on the 1960s, when things were really happening (whether that’s true or not), and now there’s nothing to do but cruise, drink beer, smoke pot, and smash mailboxes. In many ways, the film reflects the national mood: This was post-Watergate and post-Vietnam. America went into its bicentennial year wondering what it stood for and where it was headed. Meanwhile, America’s kids just drove around in circles.
Scott: Dazed And Confused has a conflicted attitude about nostalgia—or maybe it just elicited a conflicted reaction. There’s something so seductive and inviting about visiting this time and place where the music was awesome, the drinking age was 18, and kids could smoke pot and drain kegs all night by the moon tower. And yet Linklater’s specific memories are often painfully specific, as he details brutal hazing rituals and cliquish behavior that left a mark on his psyche—or on his ass. But the allure of 1976 has plainly won out, as the film’s cult status indicates, and it isn’t hard to see why. Dazed And Confused came out more than 20 years ago, and the era it was documenting at the time was another 17 years before that, and the changes that have take place in the culture between those two hunks of time have been so profound that they’ve rendered the world of the film into an alien landscape. Keep in mind: The end of the film, where everyone drives off to buy Aerosmith tickets, didn’t happen in 1993, and it certainly doesn’t happen today. What that means in terms of basic human interaction is something I always think about when revisiting the film, and it makes me pine for that analog time, paddlings and all.
Noel: On the Criterion commentary track, Linklater says one of his long-term goals with Dazed And Confused was to make a movie so evocative of 1976 that as time went by, people wouldn’t even register it as a period piece. (He compares it to watching a movie made in 1953 that’s set in 1943, asking whether anyone can really tell the difference now.) I’m not sure he succeeded, honestly. Dazed And Confused is very much “a look back”—sometimes obviously, as in the scene Keith notes where Cynthia rags on the 1970s and looks forward to the radical 1980s, and sometimes subtly, as in the little throwaway gag in the liquor store where a pregnant woman is smoking and buying booze while getting a lecture on the importance of calcium. But I think it’s good that Dazed And Confused has a sense of perspective, because Linklater is remembering more than just the clothes, the hair, and the music. As Scott mentions, he’s remembering the way the cultural trappings of 1976 helped define the way people related to each other.
Nathan: Watching Dazed And Confused, I experienced a distinct double nostalgia: I was nostalgic for 1976 (I was a month old when the film takes place), but I was also nostalgic for 1993, when the movie came out and I was 17, more or less the age of the seniors. In 1993, it sure felt like we were living through one of those cultural dry spells where everything was shitty and everyone was nihilistic and cynical. In hindsight, however, 1993 feels like a fucking golden age (Nirvana, Quentin Tarantino, kick-ass movies like Dazed And Confused) and 1976, which seemed like a similar wasteland from the vantage point of 1993, feels like an Eden, a utopia of awesome movies, transcendent music, and wide-ranging cultural freedoms. In that respect, Ribisi’s talk about the 1970s sucking reminds me a little of Midnight In Paris, with its ham-fisted but worthy message that every generation falsely thinks a golden age has passed, and that the present and future can’t possibly compare. In the case of our Dazed And Confused nostalgia, however, we are so totally right and on the money.
Genevieve: One of my favorite throwaway moments in Dazed And Confused is near the beginning, as the students sit in Ms. Stroud’s class during the last moments of the school year, listening to her rhapsodize about the 1968 Democratic convention. (“Probably the most bitchin’ time I’ve had in my life.”) Then the bell rings, and as everyone files out, she calls after them to remember during the summer’s bicentennial brouhaha, “Don’t forget what you’re celebrating… the fact that a bunch of slave-owning aristocratic white males didn’t want to pay their taxes.” The students indulge her, barely, and she seems to realize her words mean little to them—they’re just the feeble outer ripples of the late-1960s radicalism that probably barely made it to small-town Texas to begin with. Everyone’s internalized those ideas to some extent, but few feel compelled to engage with them in a meaningful way anymore. (See also: Mike’s realization that his dreams of being an ACLU lawyer might not pan out because he doesn’t really like any of the people he’s been talking about helping.)
Then there’s the way the film’s characters interact with the then-still-novel idea of “women’s lib,” talking about how Gilligan’s Island is a “male pornographic fantasy,” while also indulging the hazing rituals in which a freshman girl is encouraged to make blowjob faces at a senior boy. (Meanwhile, Mike and Tony look on, voicing their disgust and discomfort with the situation, quietly and to themselves.) All these little moments add up to the sense that these characters are at least aware of the more progressive ideals of the late 1960, but are too involved with the simple pleasures and petty trials of mid-1970s high-school life to engage with them on a level beyond idle blather.
Noel: Genevieve, I also recall that after Ms. Stroud says the line about the slave-owning aristocratic white males, one of her students lets out a little “Hell yeah!” whoop. That’s one of my favorite little throwaway moments in the whole film.
Noel: I recently watched Richard Linklater’s film Boyhood, which he shot over the course of a decade, tracking the life of a child from pre-adolescence through freshman year of college. Beyond being a movie about growing up in the 2000s, Boyhood is a movie about Texas. Just as Linklater did in Slacker, Bernie, and The Newton Boys, Boyhood shows the beauty and diversity of the state, rather than just the gun-toting, yee-haw stereotypes. (Though there are guns in Boyhood, too.) The same is true of Dazed And Confused, which isn’t just about 1976, but about 1976 in Texas. The preeminence of football, the mothers with shotguns, the teenagers who wear big belt-buckles and cowboy boots… It’s all specific to Linklater’s memories. Yet I also love that the kids in Dazed And Confused don’t speak with exaggerated drawls. Linklater lets decidedly non-Texan actors like Adam Goldberg and Anthony Rapp just speak the way they speak, which is true to my own memories of growing up in the South. We have all kinds of people down here.
But maybe my Southern-ness is influencing my reaction too much here. For those of you from the Midwest… Did Dazed register overwhelmingly as “Texas” to you? Or maybe just “small town?” At the least, you have to admit it’s refreshing to see a teen movie that isn’t set in a generic California suburbia.
Scott: Dazed And Confused thrives on specific detail, from insights and memories to songs and décor, and that certainly includes the setting, which is overwhelmingly Texas, but not the cartoon South as we’ve seen it in Hollywood and indie movies alike. Noel, you’re right that the inclusion of non-Texans like Goldberg and Rapp actually adds to the authenticity, because even in small-town Texas, not everyone is a native, and not everyone sounds the same. Just compare Jason London’s quarterback here to James “I don’t want your life” Van Der Beek’s turn in Varsity Blues: Who are you buying as the real deal? I doubt Linklater was thinking much about accents when he cast the movie. He’s from Texas, and has always shown a natural sense of place.
Keith: There’s an interesting conflict here between national and local culture, too. There is no character more Texas than McConaughey’s Wooderson (well, maybe Hank and Peggy Hill) but he spends the film sporting a shirt featuring the face of with Motor City Madman Ted Nugent. The soundtrack is rock ’n’ roll from almost everywhere but Texas, including Boston’s Aerosmith. A couple of decades before, this region would have been a lot more isolated. The generation coming up is being pulled into the ways of the rest of the country.
Noel: Keith, you mention the soundtrack being largely un-Texas-y, but don’t forget ZZ Top. Apparently, in an early conception of this project, Linklater wanted it all to take place in one car, while teenagers drove around listening to ZZ Top’s Fandango! I think I would’ve liked that movie.
Rites of passage
Scott: The locus of much of the pain—and some of the pleasure—in Dazed And Confused comes from the various rites of passage that take place on this transitional day when 8th graders get indoctrinated into high-school life, and the seniors hazing them are looking at the end of the line. Linklater chooses three different moments to slow down time and let the impact register: When Mitch hurls his final strikeout, deflated by the agonies that await him outside the metaphorical outfield fence; when Sabrina gets the gunk hosed off her in the car wash, and is reborn as a high-schooler with brighter prospects ahead; and when Randall “Pink” Floyd stands at the 50-yard line, trying to get some perspective on a time in his life that he hopes not to consider his best. This last example is especially striking because Randall should be the happiest boy in school: He’s the star quarterback and a member (and unifier) of every clique, able to travel from one social circle to the next smoothly, without a trace of the awkwardness and lack of confidence that cripples so many other teenagers. What all three are feeling, however, is good old-fashioned peer pressure, the need to submit themselves to rituals, pacts, and cliques they’d probably rather do without. There can be something exhilarating about being included—witness Mitch, casually (but triumphantly) telling his junior-high pals about the “sixer” he bought for his new upperclassmen buddies—but Linklater mostly associates these rites of passages with pain, often delivered by seniors who are partly motivated by their memories of being on the receiving end.
Keith: I like how the film delineates the experiences of boys and girls. Mitch and Sabrina have roughly parallel experiences over the course of the film, but their details diverge wildly. Mitch gets paddled, painfully. Sabrina gets humiliated, publicly. Both also have several tormentors who invite them into the in-group, and one who takes it too far. (I don’t think I’d ever noticed before how Ben Affleck’s Fred O’Bannion is pretty much kicked out of the movie after his own humiliation. He’s lost whatever power he had.) Each of their initiation experiences gets them to the same place, but they follow different paths to get there.
Genevieve: And then there are those characters who take part in these rites of passage without actually passing on to the next stage of life. I’m thinking specifically of O’Bannion, whose nastiness can’t obscure how tragic he is, taking part in the hazing the second year in a row after he flunks his senior year. While terrifying to the eighth-graders, he’s a bit of a joke to the about-to-be-seniors—and also eventually to his would-be victims, who get their revenge. The ridiculousness of the whole paddling thing becomes more apparent when it’s divorced from its significance, such as it is; O’Bannion’s time has passed, and now he’s just a sad dude taking way too much pleasure in whacking other dudes’ butts.
On the more charming side of things is Wooderson, and his iconic line about why he loves these high-school girls, man. The big, transitional moments of teenagerdom are far behind Wooderson, but he keeps hanging around the periphery of that cycle, insinuating himself in the festivities out of nostalgia, boredom, or both. In fact, Wooderson has sort of become a rite of passage himself, a mistake to be made by generations of high-school girls in need of their first experience with a charming creep. (Sorry, Cynthia.)
Keith: You don’t think they’re going to be TLA, Genevieve? Shocking.
Noel: Here’s something else about those rituals: The adults in town do nothing to intervene and shut them down. Nobody from the junior high shoos away the seniors who roll up in a pickup truck and announce over a PA their intention to wallop some freshman meat. Instead, the teacher in Mitch’s class just chuckles and shares a useless life-lesson from his stint in Vietnam.
Nathan: Re-watching the film, I was struck by how the seniors contextualize the seemingly mindless abuse the incoming freshmen endure. It’s stupid, assaultive bullshit, to be sure, but the seniors are able to rationalize it to some extent as a rite of passage, as part of the natural cycle of high-school life, and as something the bullied freshmen will be able to participate in themselves as seniors, this time as the abusers. But there are also those seniors who try to put a human, kind face on the hazing, to let the freshmen know, explicitly and implicitly, that high school is not an entirely cruel place, just an overwhelmingly mean one. It’s cruel and sadistic, but not completely illogical.
Genevieve: Dazed And Confused is stacked with enough now-familiar faces to populate several Where Are They Now slideshows, which makes it all the more remarkable that the movie represents the first major film role, or damn close to it, for so many of its cast members. McConaughey and Affleck are most notable, given the subsequent trajectory of their careers, but there’s also something magical about the plucked-from-obscurity presence of 16-year-old Wiley Wiggins, who was cast while walking down the street in Austin. Or Parker Posey’s already-well-honed lunacy. Or Rory Cochrane’s odd stoner magnetism. Or the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shot of Renée Zellweger in the back of a pickup truck. (Fun fact: Vince Vaughn was almost on that list as well, but he lost the O’Bannion role to Affleck, and the Benny role to Cole Hauser.) We’ve touched on this a bit already, but there’s a hodgepodgeness to this cast that adds to the authenticity of its high-school setting; a few future movie stars and a supermodel aside, most of the Dazed And Confused cast don’t have that polished Hollywood look that strains the verisimilitude of so many high-school movies. The acting sometimes reflects that lack of polish, but it’s all part and parcel of the film’s loose, scrappy charm.
Keith: Zellweger plays a high-school girl who walks in front of Wooderson in the same scene where he delivers his most famous line. Here’s another fun fact: They worked together a couple of years earlier, on a film that was eventually released as Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation, after they both became famous. If there’s a lesson, I guess it’s this: Even the best young actors have to work. Sometimes in Dazed And Confused, sometimes in a little-loved Texas Chain Saw Massacre sequel. And luck has a lot to do with the opportunities they’re handed. That said, let’s tip the hat to casting director Don Phillips, whose IMDB page reveals him as the discoverer and facilitator of young talent across several decades. Not only did he put this cast together, he did the same for Fast Times At Ridgemont High, another film packed with future stars. His other credits include Animal House and Dog Day Afternoon. Clearly he had a knack for matching promising talent with material designed to showcase it.
Noel: I think of Dazed And Confused as being like Richard Linklater’s Nashville: an ensemble piece following multiple largely “unimportant” storylines, adding up to a larger picture of a place and a time. The difference is that where Robert Altman had established stars in his cast, Linklater had a bunch of nobodies, of widely varying acting ability. But it works for the film he wanted to make, which jumps back and forth from the overt movie-ness of a 1970s teen comedy to something more like a documentary.
Two more interesting tidbits about the casting: 1) Linklater has said that one reason he cast unknowns is because show business as a whole was going through a teen-star dry spell, and that if he made Dazed today, he’d be forced to feature a bunch of Disney Channel kids. 2) Just as Nashville’s final shape was influenced by Altman’s capricious affection for some actors over others (which is what led to Robert DoQui being cut out of the film almost entirely, because he reportedly pissed Altman off), Dazed And Confused may have been affected somewhat by behind-the-scenes feuding between Jason London and Shawn Andrews. The latter is barely in the movie, even though he’s supposed to be one of Pink’s best friends.
Scott: Mixing actors of varying skill seems like a bad idea, because it can make a movie seem lumpy: A cast of all non-professionals or all professionals at least establishes a certain degree of consistency, and keeps the disparities between performers at a minimum. But Dazed And Confused has been built to accommodate such disparities. Take Wiley Wiggins’ Mitch, for example. No one would argue that Wiggins could go toe-to-toe with McConaughey in an act-off, but when they share the screen together, the uncertainty and lack of confidence Wiggins might feel as a performer is indistinguishable from the uncertainty and lack of confidence Mitch feels in Wooderson’s presence. That’s what casting non-professionals can do: let a filmmaker find the exact right people for their roles, and create situations where those people can work within their limitations.
Nathan: Dazed And Confused is damn near canonical at this point. So it’s worth pointing out that the film wasn’t always considered a classic. Though it received good reviews, the film was marketed and advertised as a dumb stoner movie, an exercise in cheap, easy nostalgia. It was sold heavily on MTV, in part based on the participation of Milla Jovovich, who at the time was a potential superstar in the making: an actress/model/singer-songwriter. She was reportedly none too pleased that she barely made it into the finished movie. There was a sense that Dazed And Confused was Linklater’s play for the mainstream, that he was leveraging his indie cred to make a very commercial studio film for a mainstream audience. As is often the case with cult films, the film’s true value and significance wasn’t recognized until much later. So I’ve got two questions for y’all: Is your memory of the film’s halfhearted reception the same as mine? And what do you think represented the turning point in Dazed And Confused becoming the beloved piece of Americana that it is today?
Scott: I saw the film during its initial run, having been a fan of Linklater’s Slacker and on board with anything he was going to do next. But I had to make the pilgrimage from Athens, Georgia to Atlanta to do it, and pre-release buzz, such as it was in those days, didn’t have me remotely prepared for how good the movie turned out to be. Part of the problem was the now-long-defunct Gramercy Pictures, which also botched the release of another era-defining cult movie: The Coens’ The Big Lebowski. At the same time, Dazed And Confused (and The Big Lebowski, for that matter) isn’t the type of movie that audiences are accustomed to seeing, at least not on a mass scale. Its relaxed, plotless, mostly dusk-to-dawn progression requires some adjustment—and it wound up perfectly suiting the viewers who eventually embraced the film on home video, where its episodic, watch-between-bong-hits quality set the right vibe.
Noel: Universal/Gramercy was certain Dazed And Confused was a washout, but it’s a measure of how well it did on home video that other movies and television shows rushed to cash in on it—most obviously That ’70s Show, which is like Dazed And Confused lite.
Nathan: Dazed And Confused is a prime example of what Quentin Tarantino called a “hangout movie”; films filled with characters who are like old friends and conversations that viewers want to experience again and again. It’s worth noting that the film came out around the same time as Pulp Fiction and Kevin Smith’s Clerks and Rose Troche’s Go Fish, films with very different sensibilities and very different creators, but that nonetheless delighted in scene after scene of people shooting the breeze with buddies.
Keith: Dazed And Confused came out when I was in college, which was a high-water mark for my seeing arthouse releases (big ups to the Little Art Theater in Yellow Springs, Ohio) but a low point for me seeing mainstream releases. I somehow missed Slacker, and the the TV spots made Dazed And Confused look pretty unappealing. (The trailer isn’t much better. “Way before Beavis & Butthead.” “See it with a bud.” See for yourself.) But I’m one of the many who discovered it on VHS, and I think part of its appeal is its rewatchability. There isn’t a lot of rising or falling action, just the sustained pleasure of spending time with these kids. But repeated viewings also reveal how wise it is—about what it meant to be a teenager in 1976, but also what it always means to be a teenager.
Our Movie Of The Week discussion of Dazed And Confused began yesterday with Noel Murray’s Keynote, laying out the film’s themes in 10 screenshots. And tomorrow, Mike D’Angelo will wrap up by examining a handful of cast members who didn’t become big stars, but clearly could have.