Dazed and Confused is Richard Linklater’s 1993 film doing for 1976 what George Lucas’s American Graffiti (1973) did for 1962. That is, it looks back fondly at a group of teenagers on the cusp of adult life on their last day/night of high school, while also observing how long ago it now all was, and in more than plain old years.
Like Lucas’s gang, Linklater’s crew are a mixed crowd of jocks and nerds, lookers and plain-Janes and Johns, sensitive souls and bozos, cool kids and the terminally awkward, kids whose best days are to come and those whose lives have already peaked.
The style builds on the loose, superficially disorganised approach of Slacker, Linklater’s film of three years earlier, which followed one person then another. Here it’s as if Slacker had watched Robert Altman and taken to heart that overlapping, collage, multi-stranded approach and then tried to go one better.
Linklater sets his film in 1976, the Last Year of Rock, before punk split the genre and rap arrived to announce a new era. Aerosmith, Deep Purple, Alice Cooper, Peter Frampton and Black Sabbath all feature on the wall-to-wall soundtrack, much as music of an earlier era had in American Graffiti. The world is still white and male, or it is on movie screens. 1976 is the Bicentenary of the USA and also the moment when the ever-increasing wealth of the average person, the post-War consensus, was about to stall, before going into reverse. From the vantage point of 1993, when Linklater made his film, very few people had realised that 1976 was probably Peak USA. As with Lucas’s 1962, the year before Kennedy was assassinated, this is a watershed.
“Driving around, mostly,” is how one of Linklater’s characters responds when asked what she’s been doing all night. And this is part of the genius of the film. It looks like it’s nothing more than excitable teenagers driving around, doing a lot of talking, getting involved in initiation rituals, making out, drinking, smoking weed, all that stuff. Nothing momentous happens. See Slacker, or Linklater’s debut feature, 1988’s It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books, for where this was coming from.
The cast of unknowns alone make it worth a watch. Jason London is as close as you could come to the star of this film, as Pink (his surname is Floyd, so it figures), the cool, inclusive, socially adept, good looking dude, a football player who also likes to party. London is also such an easy and obviously charismatic presence that it’s a mystery why he didn’t become a star (though he’s never stopped working, at a prodigious level). Compare some of the other unknowns in the cast – Matthew McConaughey, Milla Jovovich, Parker Posey, Ben Affleck.
Jovovich is essentially the slightly drippy girlfriend who plays the guitar and doesn’t figure much, but the other three are more interesting. They’re as near as the film gets to proper villains – over-invested in the high school’s hazing rituals, nasty bullies for the most part. In McConaughey’s case, as Wooderson, he’s the older guy whose high school days were as good as it’s ever going to get.
The cast list insists Renée Zellweger is in it too, as Girl in Blue Truck. Further investigation required.
Linklater is a poet of the mundane. He weaves a spell with everyday ingredients, chat mostly. Think of his Before trilogy (Before Sunrise, Sunset and Midnight) – two people talking. Or his sci-fi film, A Scanner Darkly, which turned a story by Philip K Dick (source writer of Total Recall) into a series of scenes in which people either sat around talking or drove around talking.
Some things in Dazed and Confused now seem odd. Jason O Smith as the token black guy. When Linklater returned to this era and subject matter in his 2016 university movie Everybody Wants Some!!, J Quinton Johnson played the same function, so maybe a recreation of the movie ethos of the 1970s might be more Linklater’s interest than the period itself.
By the end, as it introduces its stars in a montage of end credits with photos, there’s the sudden realisation that we’ve got to know a lot of people, and really quite well. The scale of Linklater’s achievement is suddenly apparent. Beneath the surface, while his characters have been packing more weed into a bong or chasing down a brewski, Linklater has been incredibly busy. It’s all going on here at the same time as nothing appears to be going on.
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© Steve Morrissey 2021