Revisited: Dazed And Confused
The greatest teen movie of the '90s was set in the '70s, and turns 21 this year. Haven't seen it yet? "It'd be a lot cooler if you did."
The memory I most associate with Dazed And Confused happened during my own small town, high school party. An older guy asked me if I had any weed. When I replied in the negative, he squinted, then drawled, “It’d be a lot cooler if you did.”
Dazed And Confused turns 21 this year. A 21-year-old today stands a very good chance of not knowing what the hell Dazed And Confused even is — unless, of course, they’re a keen marijuana enthusiast, tie-dye T-shirt devotee, or Ben Affleck completist. For those who came late to Richard Linklater’s idyllic-yet-tormented depiction of late-‘70s teenagehood, the film remains the best teen movie of the ‘90s not set in the ‘90s, and a masterclass in not-quite linear, deliberately limited storytelling.
Drinking beer, smoking weed, trying to get laid
It’s May 28, 1976 — the last day of school at Lee High School (home of the ‘Fighting Rebels’) — and we follow the ensemble cast as they eulogise the year by cruising the suburbs of Austin, Texas, drinking beer, smoking weed and trying to get laid. Y’know, the good stuff.
The film is centred on the parallel stories of Randy ‘Pink’ Floyd, football quarterback and most popular guy in school (Jason London), and Mitch, an awkward long-haired freshman (Wiley Wiggins, doing Joseph Gordon-Levitt before JGL was a thing). Mitch is trying to avoid being ‘paddled’ by Randy and his fellow seniors (literally, paddled. On the butt. Which is American and weird.). Their stories intersect with those of their friends and classmates: the jocks, the trio of geeks, the girls, the stoners, the other freshmen.
The ensemble cast is full of recognisable bit characters, each who leave memorable impressions. Stealing every scene he’s in is moutachioed creep, Wooderson (Matthew McConaughey). Then there’s O’Bannion (Ben Affleck), the over-enthusiastic spanker of freshmen who’s being held back a year. Affleck’s terrific — imposing and impetuous, the perfect frustrated bully. Few movie lines will ever top Nicky Katt’s Clint spitting “I only came here to do two things, man: kick some ass and drink some beer… Looks like we’re almost out of beer.” And, for those who may have forgotten, Darla (Parker Posey) remains one of the most terrifying characters ever.
While it’s generally considered a stoner movie (it had the classic tag line of “See it with a bud!”), Dazed And Confused is also a quintessential teen movie. It covers everything you need in a film when you’re young: Cars! Drugs! Underage boozing! Small town frustration! Letterbox smashing! Parties! KISS! Creepy sexualisation of high school girls by Matthew McConaughey!
But of all the hit-or-miss alternative signpost movies of the ‘90s beloved by 20 to 30-something stoners everywhere — Singles (1992), Empire Records (1995), Friday (1995), Slacker (1991), Clerks (1994), Half Baked (1998) — Dazed And Confused sums up the frustration of adolescence better than most (and definitely better than anything that involved Freddie Prinze, Jr.).
It avoids the mawkishness of a more renowned ‘state of a generation’ film like Reality Bites (1994), where sentimentality and flippancy attempt to represent generational angst, and instead examines how the normal raft of teen fears and doubts are dependant on peer acceptance and a veneer of confidence. It doesn’t matter if you’re the jock or the nerd, you’re pretty much facing the same problems.
The perfect coming-of-age story, in one night
Nerdy Mitch’s story is the film’s heart. He goes through the terror of being chased out of school by paddle-wielding seniors, gets cornered at his baseball game later that night (leading to one of the greatest pairings of music to action you’ll ever see), and is eventually consoled with some wise words from Randy and invited to hang out with the guys.
Suddenly, Mitch is out the front of the Emporium (the coolest pool hall in Texas), sporting a cool button-up, meeting sophomore girls, going on beer runs, smoking joints and smashing letterboxes (which deeply horrified my father, a proud letterbox owner). He buys a sixer, and his strut back into the pool hall is the stuff of teenage dreams. Later at the Moon Tower (the beer bust party), our boozy hero even hooks up with the sophomore girl he’s been eyeing. It’s a classic coming-of-age ending: overcoming those ever-present, almost universal, teenage doubts and fears.
Randy, meanwhile, is struggling with being self-aware, small-town expectations, and everyone telling him what to do. His crusade involves not signing an anti-drug/booze pledge letter for his football coach, who tells him he’s in need of a “real attitude adjustment” (what 17-year-old isn’t?), and rebellious posturing (as he tells his friend Benny, “If I do come play next year, I want it to be on my terms, not theirs.”).
These stories — not to mention the general vibe of our cynical geek trio — tackle ’90s problems in the guise of ‘70s moments: apathy, not having ideological crusades like their forebears, and angsting about the idea of selling out, man.
The soundtrack to end all soundtracks
You could’t go to a party in the mid-‘90s without spying the official Dazed And Confused soundtrack CD in the vicinity. Linklater spent a bunch of money (reportedly one-sixth of the total budget) on song rights, and it pays off more than the second Slash solo in ‘November Rain’.
Highlights are everywhere. The classic opening with Aerosmith’s ‘Sweet Emotion’ pulsing underneath as Pickford’s orange 1970 Pontiac GTO swings into the school; Alice Cooper’s ‘School’s Out’ when the final bell rings and ‘No More Mr Nice Guy’ during the senior paddle-whack slo-mo; War’s ‘Lowrider’ playing as our heroes cruise the suburban streets; Nazareth’s ‘Love Hurts’ at the Year 8 dance; Sabbath’s ‘Paranoid’ for Hershfelder’s paddling. And, dick he may be, but Ted Nugent’s ‘Stranglehold’ is still fuckin’ badass.
There’s also Dylan’s ‘Hurricane’ as Wooderson swaggers into the Emporium, the post-party lament of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s ‘Tuesday’s Gone’, and two instances where Foghat’s ‘Slow Ride’ rears its head to coincide with Mitch’s beer-buying success AND his iconic sitting-on-the-bed, slipping-on-the-headphones dawn haze, while the other guys head off to Houston to buy Aerosmith tickets.
Is Slater the best movie stoner ever?
The answer is yes.
“The most fascinating relationship is that of yourself to your previous self.”
It’s weird how much Dazed And Confused informs the way we think of the ‘70s. But the long hair, the sweet cars, the drugs and the rock ‘n’ roll aren’t just there to show us how the ’70s were; rather, they show us how we recall our own past.
Speaking to Dazed & Confused magazine years after the film’s release, Linklater said, “The most fascinating relationship is that of yourself to your previous self.” In basing elements of the story on his own experiences growing up in Texas, Linklater essentially captured a moving snapshot of one hazily remembered evening, full of personal details that help the film from sliding into pastiche, like a movie version of That ‘70s Show.
An actual 21-year-old these days might be confused as hell by Dazed And Confused. Luckily, my youngest brother is 21 and had never seen the film, so I made him watch it, while I sat nearby, threatening him with a paddle. Unfortunately, he’s bigger than me, so after he beat me up, he watched it.
The film had him nodding at the similarities between Linklater’s depiction of teenagehood in 1976, and his own (even if he was appalled at the drunk-and-drugged driving.) As Cynthia (Marissa Ribisi) muses: “The ’50s were boring, the ’60s rocked, the ’70s obviously suck… Maybe the ’80s will be radical.” Teenagers will always feel stuck in their time, if not their place in society.
Matthew McConaughey is the best
But the greatest part of Dazed And Confused, a movie about the beginning and end of high school? The guy who’s looking back at it: Wooderson (Matthew McConaughey).
Is he creepy? Yes. Is he kinda sad? Hell yes. But still, he’s amazing. Sanguine about the passing of time and clearly still missing his high school days, he enjoys being the older guy who’s “working for the city, keeping some change in his pocket”. When he’s not sorting out Aerosmith tickets, he’s dropping pearls of wisdom that define not only what our man ‘Pink’ should be doing, but really, the movie’s entire ‘90s-bedecked, individual-freedom, anti-authoritarian, fuck-the-man ethos.
True to form, Wooderson’s final address seems as appropriate a place to end our reminiscence as any. Like he says, you can’t spend all your time wallowing in times gone by. Nostalgia is nice, but it’s not real. You’ve just gotta keep livin’, man. L-I-V-I-N.
Coincidentally, there’s a screening of Dazed And Confused at Sydney’s Golden Age Cinema this Saturday February 1. Head here for details.
Jaymz is a New York-based writer (originally from Melbourne, and the former Editor of triple j magazine), super-yacht enthusiast, hi-tech jewel thief and Bengal tiger trainer. He enjoys wearing monocles, finely spiced rum, constructing pillow forts, and zip-lining from Hong Kong skyscrapers. You can find him on twitter via @jaymzclements