Saturday, June 17, 2006
Let me tell you what Melba Toast is packin' right here.
Midway through Dazed and Confused, brainy redhead Cynthia (Marisa Ribisi) remarks that "I'd like to stop thinking of the present, like right now, as some minor insignificant preamble to something else." Richard Linklater's second film affirms this sentiment. The film is about those unfortunate souls who had to undergo the interminable "preparatory" experience of high school during that brief moment in the mid-1970's when cultural turmoil gave way to nondescript, "What comes next?" ennui. It's true that the film's structure resembles American Graffiti, but it's deeper and better than the earlier film. Lucas' main aim was to speak to his audience's sense of nostalgia. But Linklater sidesteps nostalgia and That 70's Show-type cliches to emerge with a funny, perceptive look at the in-between years.
Dazed and Confused takes places over the first day and night of summer in a small Texas town in 1976. The film earnes the much-abused moniker "Altmanesque" as it follows stoners, jocks, nerds, freshmen, and cheerleaders through the evening's exploits. But one of the best things about Dazed and Confused is that its characters are not segregated by the simplest terms or the most convenient definitions (thank you, Anthony Michael Hall). In fact, this provides the central conflict of the film, as babyfaced quarterback Randall "Pink" Floyd (Jason London) must decide whether to sign a form pledging to abstain from drugs or illegal activity, turn his back on his more free-spirited buddies, and commit to his team. The conflict serves as a subtly effective metaphor for the sociopolitical climate of the time; for Pink, to sign the form would be to take part in the hypocritical, empty values system of mainstream culture, one based on competition and aggression. Linklater takes sly jabs at the system later, with both small touches (the little leaguers chanting "Good game") to broader ones like the freshman hazing rituals, where otherwise nonviolent seniors hurt and degrade the underclassman simply because it's tradition. A sociopathic lunkhead like O'Bannion (Ben Affleck) may just be a logical byproduct of such conventions, which is why his eventual comeuppance feels so liberating.
But I'm starting to sound like Mike (Adam Goldberg) and Tony (Anthony Rapp), Cynthia's two best friends, who spend most of the night spouting conspiracy theories and overanalyzing the behavior of their peers. Because Dazed and Confused is, first and foremost, a movie that coasts on the high of pure experience. Witness Wooderson (Matthew McConaughey) strutting like a king across a pool hall in slow motion, set to Dylan's "Hurricane" - it's one of those awe-inspiring moments where we witness the power of cinema to fully capture not only the images but the total experience of an instant in time. Dazed and Confused is filled with such moments, as though they were being filmed straight through the eyes of characters like wide-eyed freshmen Mitch (Wiley Wiggins) and Sabrina (Christin Hinojosa) or Slater (Rory Cochrane), the goofily likeable pothead who spouts an elaborate conspiracy theory involving marajuana, aliens, and George and Martha Washington. Think about it, man.
It'd be a huge mistake to dismiss Dazed and Confused as simple teen fodder, filled as it is with so many priceless moments that reflect the experience of coming of age in the middle of nowhere. It's the rare comedy that can demonstrate so much love for its characters without becoming soft and patronizing. Even Wooderson, the creepy guy in his twenties who has a thing for high school girls, is given enough humanity to deliver the film's mantra - "Just keep livin', man. L-I-V-I-N." It's an attitude that pulses through every frame of Dazed and Confused. The film opens with a car coasting along to Aerosmith's "Sweet Emotion" and closes with Pink and his buddies, driving along to Foghat's immortal "Slow Ride." We don't know where they've been in the beginning, and we don't know where they're headed in the end (well, to get Aerosmith tickets, actually, but you know, after that). In any case, what's important is that they enjoy the ride.
Sidenote: when I watched this film with my mom in middle school, she informed me that "You just can't get pot like that anymore." Truth or nostalgia? You decide.