I’ve never been able to stomach American Graffiti. I wasn’t into the music of the late 50s/early 60s, and something about the period—at least as it exists in American pop mythology—feels utterly false. For me, Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused fills any void that not liking American Graffiti might have left in my heart. I seem always to be discovering directors’ works in a kind of retroactive progression. I saw School of Rock as a kid (which is a terrific movie), and only today did I finally sit down and watch Dazed and Confused, came out ten years earlier than School. In Dazed and Confused, Linklater creates a rich world inhabited almost exclusively with teenagers, all of them celebrating the last day of school.
It’s 1976 (although the movie was shot in the early 90s, which makes it a mirror of American Graffiti in some ways) and, like American Graffiti, it deals with the anxieties young people feel about their lives. But instead of the looming but distant threat of Vietnam, the kids in Dazed and Confused find themselves looking back at both the war and Watergate and wondering if there’s any point in listening to authority. That’s one of the main character’s beefs with his football coach, who’s asked all the returning teammates to sign a pledge that they won’t drink or do drugs or have sex over the summer; the coaches don’t want to jeopardize the team’s chances of a winning season. It’s hard not to be cynical when those in charge want to keep you from having a good time purely for their own benefit.
There’s often something special about movies that take place all in one 24-hour-period. Somehow, they feel endless, yet there’s a feeling of melancholy when they do end, all too soon. Sixteen Candles has it; much of Valley Girl is set during one day and night; even Halloween captures this mood, although in horror movies this is more common than not. Indeed, Dazed and Confused taps into that ephemeral mood and, because the characters in the movie feel so well-drawn, it holds out attention. We may not remember the 70s—many of us weren’t born—but we can identify with their experience just the same.
What’s maybe most striking to me is the cruelty present within the movie. Perhaps because the film is set in a smallish town (in Texas), there’s a more present feeling of ownership that motivates rising seniors to throw their weight around and motivates freshman to sit there and take it. I never experienced anything like that, but I suppose I was lucky. Both the boys and girls are subjected to various degrees of pain and humiliation that feels genuinely sadistic, especially in a light-hearted comic film like this. But there may be a darker undercurrent at work here. And when the wretched O’Bannion, played by Ben Affleck, gets his just desserts after mercilessly paddling two of the boys, it’s sweet justice.
With Jason London, Wiley Wiggins, Matthew McConaughey, Sasha Jenson, Adam Goldberg, Anthony Rapp, Marissa Ribisi, Michelle Burke, Parker Posey, Joey Lauren Adams, Milla Jovovich, Jason O. Smith, Shawn Andrews, Christine Harnos, Cole Hauser, Zellweger, and Rory Cochrane.