Criterion Files #336: ‘Dazed and Confused’ Wipes That Face Off Your Head, Bitch

By  · Published on June 15th, 2011

When I write this column, I typically don’t get the opportunity to write about movies from my teen years. I, like many, came into a cinephilic love for art and foreign cinema during college, and in that process grew to appreciate The Criterion Collection. Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused (1993), however, is a movie that’s followed me through various changes in my life for (I’m just now realizing as I write this) about half of my time thus far spent on Earth.

I remember spending one Friday evening during my Freshman year of high school at home, frustrated with the increasingly apparent limits on my social (and literal) mobility having not yet reached the legal driving age, and expressing to a friend on AIM (yup.) my desire to have a memorable high school experience like the one presented in Dazed and Confused, which I was then viewing for the first time, heavily censored and on basic cable. I had not yet realized or understood then that the film was about characters similarly frustrated with the limitations and the boredom of enduring suburban life in a small Texas town until the perceived liberation of college.

During my senior year of high school, Dazed and Confused became a social ritual, and could have been an instruction manual for how to really experience one’s senior year had we not already known full well that several of the film’s initiation rituals were stuck full well in the film’s nostalgic/fantasy town where teachers, parents, and law enforcement only exercised selective authority and had a limited presence (it’s ever more surprising to me that the only cops we see are those patrolling the high school football stadium in the wee dark hours of the morning). Nonetheless, I have fond memories of watching the film at 3am amongst friends huddled on a couch long after the buzz of graduating high school and drinking countless cheap beers had worn off, and watching it yet again (this time alone, like the first time I had watched it, but in a state of reflective anticipation rather than post-pubescent frustration) at the end of that same summer, the night before I would finally move out of the house and into a college dorm.

I don’t recall having watched the film since until seeing it last week, for the first time in eight years, at an outdoor park screening in Austin, the city where the film was made, which gave me an opportunity to think back on the film and my relationship with it.

“If I ever start thinking about these as the best years of my life, please remind me to kill myself.”

When it comes to semiautobiographical nostalgia pieces, it’s often intriguing to try to figure out where the author of the work fits in. The template of films in which young characters interact in a 24-hour time period is frequently used for this type of filmmaking. We’ve seen it in the obvious framework that Dazed and Confused follows: George Lucas’s American Graffiti (1973). It’s become pop culture “common sense” that the “Lucas character” in his fictionalized recollection of his early 60s teen youth is Richard Dreyfuss’s starry-eyed backseat dreamer. Several examples that followed Dazed had even clearer author-character associations. Jon Favreau basically played himself as the center of his social scene in Swingers (1996), and writers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg had been working on a screenplay about their high school experience since actually being in high school, a work that later saw their younger on-screen avatars realized by Jonah Hill and Michael Cera in Superbad (2007).

With Dazed and Confused, however, the author-character association is a bit more difficult to pin down. The obvious choice is Randall “Pink” Floyd (Jason London), whose refusal to sign a summer “no drinking” policy for playing football makes up the film’s through-line “conflict” (if it can even be called that), a plot point whose autobiographical substance is further informed by the fact that Linklater himself played high school football. However, there’s an equally compelling argument to be made that compulsively nose-bridge-touching incoming freshman Mitch Kramer (Wiley Wiggins) is also the director’s alter ego as he provides the eyes through which we are introduced to the 70s high school experience, and he’s the only character who fully comes-of-age in the film’s single-earth-rotation timeframe.

I for one attest that both Floyd and Kramer provide characterizations of the author at different points in his adolescent experience. It is in this regard that Linklater, in contrast to other writers/directors who made similar films, accomplishes something of a double semiautobiographical nostalgia piece with Dazed and Confused, portraying his fictionalized memories of the beginning-to-end spectrum of the high school experience within the same narrative.

The 70s According to Kurt Cobain

1993 is an odd year to make a nostalgia piece that takes place in the 70s. Sure, with the (re)emergence of big-collared shirts, bell-bottoms, and granny glasses alongside moving image pop culture from Boogie Nights (1997) to That ’70s Show, recycling the 1970s eventually became a lucrative venture in the 90s (just as the 80s have been in the past decade). But in the early 90s, this was not the case. In fact, the emergence of grunge music/culture/style was something of a political and aesthetic reaction to the failures of the late-60s counterculture that became realized in the 70s.

Grunge kids were somewhat politically active and at least rhetorically frustrated with the establishment, but their reactionary nature was far less optimistic or hopeful and rarely viewed productive social change as a realistic goal. If the counterculture was dead, then, in reflection on Reagan-era superficiality, grunge was its angry wake. That in the 70s flower power was most evident in advertisements for soda is exactly the point. Generation X could only react with disgust and irony at the naivety in the futile efforts of generations past. Cobain’s death was not so much grunge’s end as it was its inevitable summation.

So while Dazed and Confused is something of an anomaly, it’s also a generational hybrid. While the film has been celebrated for its accurate depiction of the decade’s iconography in cars, haircuts, and clothing, an aesthetic perhaps best represented in unmistakably “70s-looking” characters like Matthew McConaughey’s memorable portrayal of everybody’s favorite statutory rapist Wooderson, there also exist characters like Rory Cochrane’s stoner comic relief Slater who – with his loose-fitting t-shirt on his skinny frame, long headbang-ready hair, and newsboy cap – could exist comfortably in either decade.

Dazed and Confused is also an important entry in the 1980s-early 90s independent film movement. While it’s certainly not the only era in which such a film could’ve been made – the era in which the film takes place, after all, was the era that brought forth American Graffiti, New Hollywood, and some of the best of later work by pioneer John Cassavetes – Dazed and Confused, and the point in which it was released during Linklater’s career, is situated in a time when the emerging voices of those outside the studio system first began to enjoy popular success. Besides being directed by an indie darling, in the casting of Adam Goldberg, Nicky Katt, Ben Affleck, Parker Posey, Milla Jovovich, and Joey Lauren Adams, the film presented the debut of talents that would later continue in both small-scale and big-scale American filmmaking. Furthermore, in the years shortly subsequent to the release of this film, a Kevin Smith movie (Mallrats, which starred Jason London’s brother Jeremy, and featured Dazed costars Affleck and Adams) was funded by a minor studio (Gramercy), a Quentin Tarantino film grossed over $100 million (Pulp Fiction) and became a major competitor at the Oscars against big studio Oscar bait (Forrest Gump), and the Coen Bros. made their first (relatively) big budget studio jump (The Hudsucker Proxy).

The following years and well into this past decade found the boundary between studio and independent becoming continually blurry, and indie pioneers, for better or worse, would become take the helm of big studio hits. But Dazed and Confused (whose massive home video success rather than theatrical success helps retain the film’s cult edge and indie credibility) represents a simpler time. Not the 70s, but the early 1990s, when those who became big Hollywood stars and filmmakers were simply a modest ensemble of burgeoning talent trying to get a funny little stoner comedy about a small-town high school off the ground.


Have a bitchin’ summer, everybody. Go buy some Aerosmith tickets.

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