Dazed and Confused: beyond nostalgia?

In this and the final section, I consider two films that offer a rather different perspective on these questions about retrospect and nostalgia. Both are directed by Richard Linklater, and both are set in the past, some decades before they were made. Dazed and Confused, released in 1993, is set in 1976; while Everybody Wants Some!!, released in 2016, is set in 1980. Linklater has made a very diverse range of films, from documentaries and experimental computer animations through to mainstream Hollywood movies such as School of Rock (2003) and the remake of The Bad News Bears (2005). However, much of his work reflects a continuing concern with the passing of time. This is perhaps most apparent in Boyhood (2014), a story of growing up filmed over a ten-year period; and in the trilogy about an evolving twenty-year relationship, Before Sunrise (1995), Before Sunset (2004) and Before Midnight (2013). It is also apparent in a different way in his films that use digital animation to reflect on the relations between screen time and real time, Waking Life (2001) and A Scanner Darkly (2006), and in the two films I’m considering here. Both Dazed and Confused and Everybody Wants Some!! are set at points of transition in young people’s lives – the former on the last day of high school, the latter during the first days before the start of the college term. Both of them are to some extent autobiographical: like his characters, Linklater was at school in Austin, Texas in the 1970s, and at Sam Houston State University playing baseball in the early 1980s. Both films view earlier decades from the perspective of the present: there are elements of affection and irony in their view of the past, but in my view both largely avoid the dangers of mere nostalgia.

Linklater’s breakthrough film, his second feature Slacker (1990), is structured in a unique and apparently arbitrary way. Set in his home town of Austin, it features an ensemble cast of mostly young, socially marginalized characters, but it never stays with any of them for more than a couple of minutes at a time: in each scene, the film picks up a new character and follows them to a different scene, and never returns. On first viewing, the narrative of Dazed and Confused, also set in Austin, might appear similarly arbitrary and meandering, and even chaotic. There is a large ensemble cast (more than twenty younger characters have significant speaking roles), and the narrative constantly cuts between several overlapping storylines. As in Slacker, there is a great deal of talk, much of it in the form of rapid-paced banter; and the film is replete with passing detail that seems to bear little relation to character development or plot.

However, on repeated viewings, it becomes clear that – as in American Graffiti – there are four main narrative strands. The first, with which the film effectively begins, is to do with end-of-year ‘hazing’ rituals inflicted by the high school seniors on the incoming freshmen: the older boys beat the younger ones with specially-made paddles, while the older girls humiliate the younger ones by covering them with mustard, ketchup, eggs and breakfast cereal, and forcing them to propose to the older boys. One running strand here is the attempt of a group of middle-school boys to evade their punishment, and inflict revenge on the biggest bully, O’Bannion; although two of the seniors also take a couple of freshmen under their wing. The second storyline concerns the organization of a party: Pickford’s plan to hold a party at his house while his parents are away is discovered by his father, and the cast later reconvene at an out-of-town location. The third concerns the school football team, and specifically the coach’s requirement that the team members sign a pledge to abstain from drugs and alcohol: one of them, Randall ‘Pink’ Floyd, is in doubt about whether he wants to do this, and eventually decides that he will not. Finally, the fourth storyline features a group of three school ‘intellectuals’, Tony, Mike and Cynthia. They provide critical commentary on the events, while simultaneously seeking to overcome their marginal position and engage in what one of them calls ‘some good old worthwhile visceral experience’ – specifically in the form of sex, drunkenness and violence.

As in American Graffiti, these stories are interwoven as the characters drive (often somewhat aimlessly) from one setting to another. They are also linked through the use of music, to announce new scenes or to provide continuity across them, or to stitch together montage sequences. Surrounding these are scenes that (as the ‘intellectuals’ themselves would put it) offer comic or quasi-anthropological reflections on youth behaviour and the social mores of the time. Just in the opening few minutes, we find the students making bongs in the woodwork shop while their teacher sleeps; a stoner character reflects on a legendary one-hour drum solo by Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham; Tony, one of the ‘intellectuals’, relates a dream in which he found himself having sex with a woman with the head of Abraham Lincoln; and three of the girls retreat to the bathroom to engage in a debate about feminist perspectives on Gilligan’s Island. There are also various romantic subplots, which reach various forms of fulfillment in the closing scenes. This is a crowded narrative, not so much about individuals (as in American Graffiti), but about a generation.

There is undoubtedly an affectionate irony about the film’s period setting, although this is rarely exaggerated or played merely for laughs. The fashion styles of the time – flared and ultra-baggy high-waisted trousers, short shorts, flyaway collars, big hair – are precisely observed. The camera offers loving close-ups of pinball and bar football machines, and the soundtrack contains a range of definitive songs of the era. Yet the movie does not flinch from showing young people’s less attractive or endearing qualities. The ‘hazing’ storyline is essentially about the imposition of age-based hierarchies, and some of the punishment that is inflicted is brutal. Nevertheless, drug-taking, alcohol, causal sex and other forms of risky behaviour pass with very little comment, let alone moral disapproval. There is no punishment or come-uppance, and the adult characters (teachers and parents) are mostly ineffectual or held up for ridicule.

In many respects, Dazed and Confused is a self-conscious ‘youth movie’, which makes explicit links with previous examples of the genre. Indeed, the film was apparently sold to Universal as ‘an updated American Graffiti’. As in that earlier film, the events are set on the final day of school; much of the action takes place in cars, as the characters cruise around from one location to the next; the four main narratives are similarly interwoven; and there is a central social event (the party or the high-school graduation ball). The older character who hangs around with high-schoolers, Wooderson, is to some extent a re-play of Milner; while the three ‘intellectuals’ serve a similar function to Curt, as somewhat ambivalent outsiders. The critic Mary Harrod goes so far as to argue that Dazed and Confused is a pastiche of American Graffiti – a film that, as we have seen, was itself accused of pastiche. She argues that this is manifested, not just in explicit echoes but also in shared themes – for example to do with the instability of memory, or the characters’ desire for immediate experience.

However, I would argue that Linklater’s film provides a more sardonic, if not entirely cynical, take on this cinematic legacy. It replays some of the tropes and scenes of American Graffiti, but with a sarcastic edge. For example, when one of the freshmen is sent to obtain alcohol, his claim to be eighteen years old (despite looking much younger) is blithely accepted by the salesman. Just as Curt hopes to work for President Kennedy, Mike wants to go to law school and become a civil rights lawyer – although an uncomfortable encounter with the unsavoury people he would be seeking to defend gives him cause for doubt about this.

Beyond the period detail, there is little that might be described as fond nostalgia here. There is not much sweetness and innocence, except perhaps in the characters of the incoming freshmen; and many of the characters are made to suffer forms of humiliation, including O’Bannion, the bully. As Pink puts it towards the end of the film, ‘if I ever start referring to these as the best years of my life, remind me to kill myself’ – suggesting that he doesn’t want nostalgia to cloud his memories. His friend Dawson is more equivocal: ‘I just want to look back and say I did the best when I was stuck in that place, I had as much fun as I could when I was stuck in that place…’ Shortly afterwards, they are stopped by the police, and Pink is harangued by his sadistic football coach, clearly pointing to the limitations that are placed on their freedom.

The three ‘intellectuals’ provide a kind of sociological running commentary on events throughout: they describe the hazing rituals as instances of a ‘herd mentality’, for example, and criticize the ‘neo-McCarthyism’ of the football coach’s pledge. Nevertheless, they are clearly uncomfortable with their position as partial outsiders. In one scene, they debate the view of youth that is implicitly at stake in all this:

Cynthia: Do you ever feel like everything we do and everything we’ve been taught is just to service the future?

Tony: Yeah, I know. It’s like it’s all preparation…

Cynthia: Right, but what are we preparing ourselves for?

Mike: Death!

Tony: Life of the party…

Mike: It’s true.

Cynthia: But that’s valid – if we’re all going to die anyway, shouldn’t we be enjoying ourselves now? You know, I’d like to quit thinking of the present as like, right now, as some minor, insignificant preamble to something else…

Cynthia’s argument reinforces Mike’s claim that what the group needs is some ‘visceral experience’; although the outcomes of their attempt to find some are uneven. Mike provokes a fight with another boy whom he describes as a ‘dominant male monkey motherfucker’, hoping that he will be able to land one good punch and then escape when others intervene – although in fact he is soundly beaten. Cynthia, meanwhile, implausibly ends up with the older Wooderson, who is revealed as having a taste for high-school redheads. While the ‘intellectuals’ do provide a kind of self-aware meta-commentary, therefore, their perspective is not necessarily privileged.

Nevertheless, Cynthia’s comments do provide some indication of Linklater’s intentions here. Like American Graffiti, the film is about a moment of transition; but it’s not clear what the characters are transitioning towards. The very ending of the film, as four of them drive down an empty highway to the accompaniment of Foghat’s ‘Slow Ride’, suggests that their destination is open and undecided. Even Pink, who eventually refuses to sign the coach’s pledge, leaves the door partly open: he is willing to play football next year, but only if he can do so on his own terms. In general, the characters don’t progress, or make big meaningful decisions, or even learn very much. Unlike American Graffiti, the film does not provide any moral lessons about their eventual fate; and indeed, for the most part, the characters show very little concern about their own futures. In terms of the sociology of childhood, the characters are ‘beings’, not ‘becomings’: the concern is with their immediate experience in the here-and-now, not with where it might take them in the future. In this sense, as Lesley Speed has argued, the film might be seen as a critique, not only of nostalgia for youth, but also of adult-centred ‘coming of age’ narratives.

Like the other films I have considered here, Dazed and Confused says as much about the time in which it was made as it does about the time in which it is set. Again, we might see this in terms of decades. In a later scene, Cynthia offers one, slightly tongue-in-cheek suggestion about this: ‘I’m working on this “every other decade” theory. Okay, the fifties were boring, the sixties rocked. The seventies, oh my god, they obviously suck. So maybe the eighties are going to be radical. I figure we’ll be in our twenties, and hey, it can’t get any worse.’ From the perspective of the nineties, when the film was made, one suspects that such a theory might not hold up (the eighties were, by most estimations, far from radical); although Dazed and Confused does display a kind of resistance to authority, a level of cynicism (and even nihilism), and a grunge-y aesthetic that seems to speak more of the 1990s than the 1970s. Either way, Cynthia’s comment clearly places the film and its characters at a particular period in time, and provokes wider speculation, not so much about individual change, but about historical and generational change.


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