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“What did things look like back then?”
We always begin with the visible when we describe past experience. It’s safe ground, easily indexable and quantifiable. Yet we never stay there for long. “The trees were green, the sky was blue, there was a path that led to the ocean . . .” With the metaphorical employment of the verb to lead, the safety of the visible gives way to the excitement of the nonindexable and antiquantifiable. It is no longer just a matter of how things looked but of how it felt to move among these trees, under this sky, down this path on this day.
“Perhaps the immobility of the things that surround us is forced upon them by our conviction that they are themselves and not anything else, by the immobility of our conception of them.” Here is a perfect elucidation (from Proust, of course) of the pitfalls of historical filmmaking. There have been many movies, some perfectly good and some absolutely awful, that have gotten stuck in the “look” of the period they’re covering. The historical researcher, the production designer, and the art director are allowed free rein, and you wind up with a movie that starts and stops with each new shot—and completely fails to address the question of what it felt like to be alive at that time. The right drapes and dishes will always retain the immobility with which they are imagined and remain nothing more than judicious choices if the filmmakers pay no attention to how the characters around them move. Near the beginning of Goodfellas, for instance, the car and the suits look right, but it’s the cut to a close-up of one car rising as its shock absorbers are relieved of the burden of the fat gangster in the backseat that jolts us to attention, and the period depicted in the movie to life.
When I heard that Richard Linklater was making a movie about the seventies, I was a little dubious. There had already been so many awful re-creations of something called “the seventies,” inventories of beanbag chairs and Farrah Fawcett-Majors posters. Still, I liked Slacker (1991), and I had read a story about the Dazed and Confused shoot in the New York Times that seemed encouraging, particularly the part about Linklater’s disagreements with his professional crew (always a good sign). But my doubts remained: I had grown up in the seventies, and I was Linklater’s age. Proustian recovery was already built into our shared generational mentality, and we were unforgiving with artists who got it wrong.
From the first shot—a pumpkin-colored GTO pulling into a high school parking lot in slow motion, curving in perfect time with the chorus of “Sweet Emotion”—my reservations fell away. Why? Hadn’t we seen hundreds, if not thousands, of such moments, the shotgun marriage of the right song and the right period gewgaw, setting the “correct” mood? This was something else, though. Linklater has always been devoted to the little things, the tiny details that gradually accumulate and make up the big picture. He has never been one to start off with a bang. With this supposedly unassuming opener, he had found the perfect link between sound and image. All teenagers are self-conscious, and correct self-presentation is always an adolescent priority. In the seventies, when the car radio and tape deck were so important and the Walkman did not yet exist, the coupling of movement and sound afforded by riding around was crucial. The right car, the right song, the right way of pulling into a parking lot. This little groove, this swerve into the movie (and into 1976), felt absolutely right to me. It spoke of effortlessness, nonchalance, relaxation—but it also carried that crucial overtone of aggression that seemed to color everything in those days. This balance between the tough and the dreamy, which continues in the montage that follows, with Rory Cochrane’s insistent hand gestures as he and his friends get stoned behind the school, and with the overhead shot of a recumbent Parker Posey aimlessly poking Michelle Burke in the leg with her foot, is maintained throughout the movie. And much to my astonishment in 1993, when the film came out, it develops into the central plot conflict: Jason London’s football star has twenty-four hours to decide whether he’ll sign a loyalty oath and stay true to his team or throw in his lot with the dreamers. In other words, Dazed and Confused was all of a piece, each part expressive of the whole, which spoke of a conflict that anyone who grew up during that particular moment knew all too well.
It is the last day of school in 1976, somewhere in Texas. We pass through a day and a night with a group of teenagers who are given, or who have acquired, full license to bash, bust, and assault anyone and everyone (adults, freshmen, one another, themselves), and to dream via abstract conversations or bullshitting over joints and beers, riding in cars or lying on the grass. Within the unity of time, the narrative ambles freely from one set piece to the next—the final gusts of halfhearted activity in the last hours of school, the hazing rituals for the incoming freshmen, the preparations for a keg party, a baseball game, an official dance, riding around, the party itself, the morning after. Linklater’s best films have severely limited time frames, which allow him to cultivate the randomness of experience and the potential of unrelated incidents to shape consciousness as they accrue: a couple falling in love during a day and a night in Vienna (Before Sunrise, 1995), one whole night’s worth of dreaming (Waking Life, 2001), and in this case, a wholly accurate—accurately funny, accurately painful, accurately moving—portrait of life as it was lived by people of a particular age and a particular class at a particular moment in time. Robin Wood has categorized Dazed and Confused as Linklater’s horror movie, and while I understand that this was meant as a compliment, I think he got it wrong. For those of us who came of age in the American seventies, this film seems less horrifying than revivifying, or perhaps reanimating—a time gone by, with all its complexities and contradictions, gently nudged back to life.
I never went through the kind of official hazing rituals depicted in the movie, but the vehement enthusiasm with which they’re meted out and their protocols are observed—butt paddling for freshman boys, an assortment of horrors for the girls—seem all too familiar. Every type here, from Matthew McConaughey’s soft womanizer to Adam Goldberg’s tortured intellectual to Parker Posey’s militant senior to Ben Affleck’s embarrassingly belligerent punisher, is on the money, as are their assorted reactions to one another. Self-presentation is a balancing act, and the characters are always susceptible to caring too much or too little about their own behavior. It’s with Affleck’s unimaginative bumbler that Dazed and Confused comes closest to Wood’s assessment; he takes the task of punishing freshmen so seriously that he is finally abandoned and publicly betrayed by his fellow punishers.
The film is made up of a succession of small visions, observed and executed with apparent ease but thought through with such exquisite care and attention that the experience becomes overwhelming. Did Linklater instruct his actors in the correct way of leaning against a wall? Probably not, but then it’s the fact that doing nothing occupies the center rather than the periphery of the movie that gives such moments their verisimilitude—and Linklater has a keen, poetic memory for exactly how we did nothing. I’ve leaned against the same wall that McConaughey, London, and Wiley Wiggins lean against; I’ve danced the same slow dance and clung to my partner just as desperately; and I’ve overworked a personal move just like Wiggins’s wrinkling of his face, grabbing the bridge of his nose with thumb and forefinger, and shaking his head in confusion/disgust/amazement/bewilderment. In the arena of the social world, such fallback gestures were all-important as masks, exchanges of solidarity, and signals of uniqueness. The only detail in the movie that has never rung true for me is the left-wing teacher counseling her uninterested students not to fall for the bicentennial fever awaiting them in the summer. This kind of willful collapse of formality between adults and teenagers, at least in my experience, didn’t hit until a few years later.
Dazed and Confused was marketed as a teen comedy by the clueless Universal offshoot Gramercy Pictures, when it should have been pitched to those of us in our thirties, who had passed through this odd, floating moment in history when all decisive gestures seemed strange and suspect. One year later, Olivier Assayas would make Wood’s “horror movie” with Cold Water, which gave us the hair-raising anxiety of the seventies. Linklater was after something else. He has always made inactivity and dreaming into a cause, and his film’s final image—London, liberated from a football hero’s future, cruising to nowhere with his fucked-up friends to the loping rhythm of “Slow Ride,” by Foghat—looks right into the heart of the passing of time and sees a limitless future devoted to reflection, free of responsibility and drive. It’s just as bracing as the end of Waking Life, when Wiggins’s character floats away from existence itself. Linklater’s slow fade to black on the receding road is a gesture of solidarity with dreams and their dreamers and a salute to lethargy itself, recalling the Herman Melville of Typee: “There was nothing to be done; a circumstance that happily suited our disinclination to do anything.”
Kent Jones is the author of Physical Evidence: Selected Film Criticism, a volume of his writings, and the director of the 2007 documentary Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows. He also wrote and directed 2010’s A Letter to Elia with Martin Scorsese. This piece originally appeared in the Criterion Collection’s 2006 DVD release of Dazed and Confused.