Dazed and Confused: “It’s About the Vibe”

The Daily — Nov 17, 2020
Sasha Jenson, Matthew McConaughey, Jason London, and Wiley Wiggins in Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused (1993)

Tomorrow evening, Richard Linklater will meet up with author and entertainment journalist Melissa Maerz on Zoom for a conversation that will officially launch her new book, Alright, Alright, Alright: The Oral History of Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused. Set on the last day of high school in 1976, Dazed and Confused (1993) tracks clusters of teens as they aimlessly wander through their unnamed, bleakly suburban town in Texas and on into the night. Maerz tells the Austin Chronicle’s Richard Whitaker that a fan of the movie once told her that Dazed “was exactly my high school experience but the music was different, and the cars were different, and the clothes were different.” In short, says Maerz, "It’s not about the details, it’s about the vibe.”

But it is, in fact, also about the details. Linklater famously fought against marketing the movie with a yellow smiley face because the fad was too 1974, and already fading by 1976. “Somebody told me a story about a Time magazine in the background of a classroom scene,” Maerz tells Andrew Dansby in the Houston Chronicle. “The date on the magazine was correct, but he didn’t think it would have reached that classroom by that date. That gives a sense about how much the detail of time means to him.”

It’s the specificity that gives Dazed its verisimilitude, which in turn, makes the film universally relatable. In 2006, Kent Jones wrote in the essay accompanying our release that Dazed is “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.” Further into his piece, Jones wonders, “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.”

Dazed was Linklater’s third feature after It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books (1988) and his era-defining breakthrough, Slacker (1990), and his first made with studio money. It was not an enjoyable experience. Maerz interviewed more than 150 people for her book, and she tells Dansby that “all these actors talk about it as the best summer of their life, making this movie. The one person who didn’t feel that way was the guy who made the movie. He’s not nostalgic for this time at all. But it was his ‘Welcome to Hollywood’ movie.” Linklater kept a journal throughout the production, and the day before Dazed opened, six pages of rage and fury appeared in the Austin Chronicle. “He named names,” recalled filmmaker and author John Pierson in the Chronicle in 2011, “including interfering film executives at Universal Pictures and uncooperative members of Led Zeppelin . . . The fax lines were burning.”

Universal marketed Dazed as a fizzy teen comedy at a time when even John Hughes had moved on. It flopped but eventually found its audience on VHS. One draw was surely the cast, which featured Parker Posey, Ben Affleck, Jason London, Milla Jovovich, Joey Lauren Adams, Renée Zellweger, Rory Cochrane, Wiley Wiggins, and of course, Matthew McConaughey as the inexplicably likable creep, David Wooderson, now in his early twenties but still hanging with the high schoolers.

Vanity Fair is running an excerpt from Maerz’s book that focuses on the day that McConaughey delivered the second-most famous quote from the movie after the one that gives the book its title: “That’s what I love about these high school girls, man. I get older, they stay the same age.” As Anthony Rapp tells Maerz, that line is “funny, but it’s really fucked up.” McConaughey himself says that “if we’re gonna sit here and do any kind of psychoanalysis or objective judgment, if you’re gonna try to break Wooderson down, you’re already in a different narrative than he is. The everyday world, the manners and social graces, and the way life is supposed to go on and men are supposed to evolve—yeah, he doesn’t fit in that. He’s on his own frequency. He is living in ignorance.”

What’s remarkable about the then-unknown McConaughey’s breakthrough performance is that his father died during the production. The day after the funeral, he showed up on set, ready to shoot that scene. “The minute those words came out of his mouth, I swear to God, he immediately took us all,” recalls production assistant Valerie Dekeyser. Casting director Don Phillips turned to producer Jim Jacks and said, “This is a movie star.” First assistant director John Cameron was bowled over as well: “He was just a guy, right? Just another one of the cast, and one of the lesser-known people. We had people who had already established a reputation, even in their youth, and Matthew just came in and blew everybody away. And it really elevated the film. It made it something, to me, beyond just funny. He brought a sense of sadness.”

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