Perfect Movies: Dazed and Confused

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Nostalgia is a powerful force: the sentimental longing for a past connected to personal and positive memories is the kind of feeling that, when brought up in conversation, makes older people unbearable to younger generations; meanwhile, those who have gained a certain experience in life know that the callous youth that reject their nostalgic sentiments will one day look back on their past and remember a time when music was better, people treated each other with dignity and respect, and life was an endless party. In other words, youth.

Nostalgia also inoculates us from the terrifying realities of adulthood: my own generation, now reaching the profitable demographic that will pay through the nose for their own childhoods back, are experiencing a heavy commercialization of the 1980s and 1990s where we too now look back with a fondness that’s been experienced by every other generation when they reach mature adulthood.

As much as we fetishize the past, with its Ghostbusters and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Saturday morning cartoons and grunge music and MTV and other general corporate products that have made us a valuable demographic to appeal to, we’re also a postmodern generation that loves the media products that we grew up on and largely shaped our youthful fondness for such things.

But there was very little in our youthful decades that were organic or not associated heavily with media- and consumer-created products; we may remember and even wistfully look back on a time before cell phones, internet 2.0, and social media, but we were also the most technologically advanced generation in the 20th century and never more than a phone call (or, if your household had a computer, e-mail or instant message) away from each other.

Meanwhile, our parents, the Baby Boomers, were the first post-WWII generation that experienced nearly everything for the first time: television, pop music, space travel, youth culture: they invented and created the very things that my generation grew up to enjoy and profit from (well, up to a point: there was the unfortunate first and now second decade of the 21st century that has thoroughly screwed my generation over well into our adulthoods). Meanwhile, the upcoming generations behind mine ((the Millennials (technically I’m lumped into this group, but I prefer Gen Y or the Oregon Trail Generation) and Gen Z)) couldn’t care less about my now rapidly ageing generation’s take on the end of the 20th century and the last good period it seemed America had.

They have lived in a world that has only been horrifying in every way, and for that have grown stronger (or at least more adaptive) than mine was ever prepared to be in this new age: we were supposed to be the next Masters of the Universe, and instead we have become the rapidly ageing Silent Generation whose careers, upward economic mobility, and general sense of self has fallen apart in the new century, seemingly never to recover.

But there was an an interceding generation between mine and my parents, the ones that created the culture that I spent my adolescence in: Generation X. They were the children of early Boomers, people born between 1958 and 1970,  who came of age in the 1970s and early 1980s. They would be the ones that started alternative and grunge music and be considered maybe the first truly postmodern generation. They were stuck between a post-counterculture America and a rapidly growing conservative movement; as a result, members of this generation became either the (now staid) “slackers” of the 1990s or else early “yuppies” of the 1980s. It was a mixed-up time to be born, one where America was in flux and whose values were largely thrown up in the air and scattered to the winds, only for Gen X to try to sort out how it would all work out in the future.

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Dazed and Confused was the product of Gen X nostalgic for their own adolescence: set in 1976 and following the adventures of a various group of teenagers on the last day and night of school, Richard Linklater’s love letter to his–and his generation’s–adolescence remains a potent source of nostalgia for viewers that never even experienced the time and place he details in his ode to the 70s. I think that what he tapped into in this film is one that’s universal to anybody who experiences a strong feeling of nostalgia for their youth (which is to say, everybody): where the world seemed untethered by responsibility and there was only the unbound, unknown future ahead of them.

And maybe it taps into something even deeper to following generations in America: of a time when the actual future they have found themselves in are now envious of not being a part of. I’m certainly somewhat jealous that I wasn’t a part of my parents’ generation, where the rest of the 20th century would be a succession of incredible success, innovation, and relative surety in the world. I feel the same when I watch the kids in Dazed and Confused: kids that don’t realize how good they have it at the moment and how great their lives are going to be.

Maybe I even feel nostalgic about youth in general, and how beautiful and great everybody is when they are young, but at the time of experiencing it have no idea how powerful and perfect that moment in their lives really are. That may be the primal draw of nostalgia in all of us: knowing only in hindsight how we would love to be that young and beautiful and healthy again–and finally appreciate it this time around.

Dazed and Confused: A Perfect Movie

What makes Dazed and Confused a perfect movie? Maybe it has to do with youth and how the film captures not only the feeling of being alive and young but how the film itself is imbued with the spirit of youth. A stellar period piece that gets the look and feel of 1976 down to a T, it’s also a flowing depiction of a past that hasn’t existed by the time of its release for decades; now 40 years plus past the film’s setting, perhaps it is even more potent in its effect than ever. But let’s not dwell on its nostalgic power and instead focus on the film itself.

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It’s a film that celebrates youth: the insecurities, drifting social castes, one’s place in it, and the weirdly communal feeling that comes with everyone sharing the commonality of being young. Between scenes of hazing by the Senior men and women of the high school of the incoming Freshman (the boys receiving harsh corporal punishment while the girls are denigrated by their upper-class female compatriots) to the shared bonding of driving around aimlessly with friends in a small town looking for something to do, to the communal party at the moon tower that dominates the second act of the film, there’s a meditative gaze that falls upon all of this action–more like a glossy documentary of American high school life in the late 20th century than a film. Even the characters’ laid-back attitudes and short-sleeve shirts translates the warm air and open, loose atmosphere that embodies every shot.

The assembled characters are all winners (even if they’re losers): from the too-cool pot smoking football stars who question the micro-authority regime they rebel against (in the form of a sort of morality clause they have to sign to play the next season) to the nerdy, philosophical outcasts that have never found their place among the cool crowd but drive around anyway hoping to find a place or a party, to the young freshman who finds himself hanging out with the coolest people he’d ever met so far in life (said football stars and their stoner friends), everybody is afforded a dignity and story line that fits their characters perfectly and helps further round out this world we’re viewing.

The star of the film is Wiley Wiggins as the young Mitch Kramer, who’s adopted by the cool older kids as he joins them on one magical, transformative night on the last day of school where he experiences pot, beer, making out with a girl, and a big unruly party. All the while, everyone else involved–from the potheads to the jocks to the tough guys to the geeks–are given their own due, and the massive canvass Linklater paints is one that depicts the triumphs and downfalls of being young.

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Of course, all of these elements would be useless if the film itself wasn’t an incredible treat to watch: the pacing, cinematography, soundtrack (which is stellar), and performances all capture exactly what Linklater set out to do: by making the viewer feel like they’re actually witnessing the last day of school for a group of high school kids in a small town in Texas, following their hesitations and bravado, until it all ends up pulling together at a big party in the woods. It’s a masterful piece of film that preserves in time like amber this believable world of stoners driving around and looking for action; football players planning on scoring Aerosmith tickets the next morning and partying hard into the endless night; young kids adopted by their older schoolmates to show them the larger world; and the sweet taste of youth where a person felt that they may be terrified of the future but are also convinced that they are invincible, and that every step is a step forward and upward.

There’s no real plot in this film, and that’s what gives Dazed and Confused its ultimate power: to somehow capture what reality feels like: plotless, aimless, and ultimately a mixture of both the good and bad. Maybe that’s what makes it such a perfect film to me: that it feels like how reality felt like when I was younger. Skin-tight blue jeans over fit bodies, energy to spare, a thirst for new experiences that were waiting just around the corner, aimless car rides, flirting with new girls, illicit parties held in private spaces, navigating the loosely defined social hierarchy the young naturally create among each other, the excitement of just making out with someone new, and listening to great music with people that may be your best friends–if not forever, then at least for just that moment in time.

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It builds a world so detailed, defined, thoroughly (yet familiar to anybody who lives the American adolescent experience) that you can lose yourself in it and not want to ever leave. But that’s the power of nostalgia: being able to fall into a reverie of the past: a perfect past that overlooks any of the drama and unpleasantness that it most likely engendered. Dazed and Confused is a burnished look at this past: enormously pleasant to watch and never letting slip the awful realities that came with it.

From the bright opening as students excitedly prepare for their evening’s plans during the last few hours of the last day of class of the school year to the bleary-eyed morning after where our protagonist stumbles home and smiles blissfully as he listens to “Slow Ride” by Foghat on gigantic headphones while lying in  bed after an unforgettable night, it’s a glimpse of how being young in America feels–maybe not a realistic depiction of it, but absolutely infused with how it felt inside.

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That’s what Dazed and Confused accomplishes masterfully: capturing a precious, envious moment in time in youth, where all of those things and more are part of the excitement of life and that tomorrow may never come–and even if it did, who cares? It’s endlessly rewatchable and so detailed you’d swear it was filmed in 1976 instead of 1992. Released in 1993, it garnered critical acclaim but was not a box office hit; only when released on the home video market did it gain an audience and has since become an American classic.

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Whether young or old, there’s a resonance and feeling this movie captures about youth, the past, and the nostalgic feelings that come with looking back on the past. It’s a unique movie that captures a moment in time in life that few films ever have. Because of this, to me, it’s a perfect movie, and one I’ll always watch to eagerly dive into this moment in time that performed, directed, and captured the excitement and insecurities of youth over and over again.

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Categories: American culture, culture, film, Uncategorized

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

1 reply

  1. Yeah, just a great movie. Nice review.

    Like

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