Smells Like Teen Spirit: ‘Dazed and Confused’ at 25
“In 1762, Rousseau argued that puberty had such fundamental emotional and mental effects that it represented ‘a second birth.'”—Jon Savage, Teenage: The Prehistory of Youth Culture
“Maybe I’m an undramatic guy, but I remember a complete lack of anything big going on in high school.”— Richard Linklater
“Hey, watch the leather, man!”—Wooderson
What do you remember about your high school years? Is it the big stuff — scoring the winning touchdown, your valedictorian speech, getting pantsed in front of the girls’ volleyball team? Or maybe it’s the smaller, somewhat more fleeting moments, like the time you and your buddies were cruising around in your car, chomping on burgers and spending half of your Friday night looking for a rumored beer bust, some dude in your Geometry class had casually mentioned it but fuck if you guys knew the address … shit, is it on Hostetter Road? Holifer Avenue? Or the night you hooked up with the third hottest person in your class at a random house party, the one whose breath smelled of Miller High Life and cloves, then they sorta winked at you on Monday but never really talked to you after that? The huge deals, the touchstones that earmarked you as a winner or pegged you as a loser — you can probably recall the details like a info-stream data download, courtesy of enough Facebook prompts and nostalgic pagings through old yearbooks.
But those more intimate and personal things, the hang-outs that simply made up the bulk of your junior and senior years? You probably can’t remember the exact dates. But you almost assuredly remember how those moments felt.
Dazed and Confused gets this. No one in this movie wins the big game or dies in some horrible tragedy that makes the student body rethink their priorities. Nobody spends a day in detention and bonds over hating their parents. No life lessons are learned, unless you count the fact that, should you not have a joint on you, it’d be a lot cooler if you did. A bully does get his comeuppance, but he probably goes back to terrorizing incoming freshman the next day. A fistfight happens, but it’s not so soul-crushing for the beta male whose ass is kicked that he can’t join his buddies for after-hours pancakes. The jocks, stoners, freaks, geeks, psychos, mean girls and other cliques circa ’76 may have major shit happen to them after we leave them. But for the single, 24-hour dawn-to-dawn period we follow them, it’s basically last-day-of-school business as usual.
And that’s why Richard Linklater’s 1993 ensemble comedy, officially a quarter-century old today, still feels like one of the single most spot-on movies ever made about the lazy, hazy days of American youth. It takes place in an age of muscle cars, Frampton Comes Alive and feathered hair. But appropriate for the moment it hit theaters, this was a movie that perpetually smells like teen spirit, in the exact same way that your sense memory of being a teen does. (That, along with a healthy odor of Acapulco Gold.) We keep getting older, but this movie stays the same age no many how years pass.
Coming off his 1990 debut feature Slacker, a free-flowing tour of the old, weird Austin that became an unlikely indie success story, the 30-year-old writer-director was continually asked what he wanted to do next. He’d been mulling the idea of what he dubbed “a teenage rock and roll spree,” which doesn’t quite do justice to the experimental concept he had in mind. The original idea was that you’d see a hand push in an 8-track of some classic rock opus — Linklater’s choice du jour was ZZ Top’s 1975 album Fandango — and then the rest of the movie would follow two Seventies teenagers as they drove around, looking for stuff to do. Some folks would exit the vehicle, others would join, but you, the viewer, would never leave the car. It was, in other words, the exact kind of thing you’d expect from a guy who just scored with a scrappy 16mm film that was nothing but oddball tangents and conversations.
The producers Jim Jacks and Sean Daniel, however, were thinking more along the lines of an American Graffitti updated for the bongs-and-bell-bottoms era, and convinced Linklater to pitch Universal something more along those lines. (The filmmaker describes this “pitch” in a making-of doc as simply talking about a few of the characters and the overall vibe. No sense of “story” was really laid out.) A young cast of virtual unknowns, or serious “knowns-to-be” as history would prove, were assembled and given loose instructions about using the script as a starting point for finding their characters. They were also handed personally curated mixtapes, all featuring the music of the times but individually selected for each actor as a guide for who these kids were. Matthew McConaughey’s overage Casanova, for example, was a Ted Nugent man. Adam Goldberg’s journalism-nerd Mike was more of an E.L.O. fan.
So the Nineties kids got a crash course in Seventies lifestyles. Linklater mined what he called “the greatest hits of my junior and senior year” while battling for every inch of storytelling turf and every extra shot with his corporate overlords at Universal. The word party may have been used as a verb during production by its young and hungry ensemble. A two-hour-and-45-minute cut was whittled down and eventually released to indifference, since no one except critics and a select few folks would realize what they had. Linklater took his lumps and moved on, though he’d hear tall tales of sold-out midnight screenings in theaters clouded with dope smoke. Cable and home-video would eventually spread the gospel. Some cast members became stars. Some lines became quotables. The film became a cult classic. It’s now recognized as simply a classic.
And what makes Dazed and Confused feel timeless as opposed to a time capsule — a sort of That ’70s Show: The Movie, which is how some misbegotten DVD editions have marketed the film — is the way it nails not so much a moment in history as a moment in your history. You do not need to have been a senior in high school in 1976, or even to have been born that year, to recognize the aimlessness, the recklessness, the impatience, the agony and the ecstasy of being a teenager in Anytown, U.S.A., that gives this movie its lifeblood. Linklater may have made an extremely specific movie that used his own formative experiences, from drunken parties to adult-sanctioned paddling rituals — an actual annual hazing he went through as a freshman — but he also made a universal one (pun unintended) about the art of the hang-out. On the Criterion DVD’s commentary track, the director talks about people telling him that D&C was exactly what their high-school experience was like. Where’d you grow up, he’d ask? New York City, they replied — hardly a burg in the Lone Star state. They might have said Seattle, or San Jose, or South Beach, and they’d still be identifying what keeps this movie feeling so keyed in to the collective Teenage Wasteland.
It’s a good bet you probably knew a Randall “Pink” Floyd, even if he wasn’t as handsome as Jason London or was forced to choose between sticking to his guns or selling out — the closest thing Dazed has to a plot. You might have ran with a Slater, even if he wasn’t Rory Cochrane’s High Times posterboy. You could have been one of the three uncool kids, what writer John Spong called the movie’s “geek chorus.” Every school had a Darla and an O’Bannion, probably as gleeful as Parker Posey and Ben Affleck’s alpha tormentors; every campus was haunted by a Wooderson, probably as sleazy, charming and walking-crotch salacious as Matthew McConaughey. (Of all the performances here, the Texcentric actor’s is the one that stands out as the most supernova turn — never mind the McConaughassaince, here’s the sex pistol with the tight pants and porntastic ‘stache.)
There was undoubtedly a point in your youth where you felt like Randall did, standing on the football field listening to how adulthood just means more people telling you what to do, as the camera glides around him, time slowing to standstill. You definitely had a moment like the final image, beautifully shot as if from a teen’s perspective, of the open road laid out before you, the horizon so far in the distance, a world of possibilities in front of you. It’s why, despite all of the Seventies cars and tunes and ‘dos, Dazed and Confused never feels kitsch and rarely feels like a period piece; the song remains the same, only the soundtracks and t-shirts change. And it’s why 25 years later — eight years more than the span between the movie’s bicentennial last day of class and its grunge-era release date — this rambling, day-in-the-life story still feels endlessly rewatchable, revisitable, renewable. In terms of specifics, being an adolescent in 2018 is vastly different than it was in ’76, or ’93. In terms of fundamentals, nothing’s different than when Linklater or you or I were growing up. You still gotta just keep livin’. L-I-V-I-N.’