Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
It's easy to compare and contrast Richard Linklater's comic ode to teen angst and hormones in the mid-seventies with George Lucas' equally affectionate look at the teen traumas of 1962. One film looks back ten years and the other closer to twenty, but teen culture had changed so radically in both cases that the initial shock is like looking at an alien civilization.
The acknowledged master of the free-form spaced-out youth drama, Linklater had success with Slacker and Before Sunrise, with Dazed and Confused positioned in the middle. Lucas overpowered a lukewarm studio attitude toward his American Grafitti with killer previews, but Universal didn't remember that episode when it came time to promote Linklater's film. Released when youth comedies were passé, Dazed and Confused was saddled with a lame ad campaign and dumped on the market. That's a shame, because it's a remarkably accomplished ensemble creation, and Linklater has perfect pitch when it comes to eliciting natural behaviors from his all-unknown cast ... many of which quickly became "knowns."
It's Graduation Day in a Texas suburb, 1976, and we watch the incoming seniors put the incoming freshmen through hazing rituals before the nights festivities begin ... a search for the wildest party and the best time. The boys are all fast cars and aggression while the girls debate their lot in life but still squirm into the tightest jeans they can force over their bodies. Pot abounds and beer flows like water, along with random acts of pointless vandalism and other misplaced expressions of angst. It all ends at a midnight bash at the Moon tower, an all night kegger. There are intellectual loners like Mike, Tony and Cynthia (Adam Goldberg, Anthony Rapp and Marissa Ribisi) girl - clique beauties and a pack of mad paddlers chasing freshman with corporal punishment in mind. Generous seniors invite freshmen Mitch Kramer (Wiley Wiggins) and Sabrina Davis (Christin Hinojosa) for an early entreé into the cool world of High School insanity. But quarterback Randall "Pink" Floyd (Jason London) is rebelling against the pressure of his coaches and peers to sign a no-alcohol no-drugs pledge; to the horror of his varsity pals, he's considering quitting football altogether.
Dazed and Confused drops us unprepared into the wild world of 1976, a community where the high school kids are allowed to run free like crazed animals. Some original prints are said to have been amended with a disclaimer about drug use. This is obviously an elite class of trendy slackers in the corpus studentus -- those with little or no parental supervision and at least some money to spend. And there is hardly an unattractive male in sight or a girl who wouldn't qualify as a model. Many of the kids smoke pot and one local seller (Rory Cochrane) is perpetually high. They're all into beer. The issue of sex is up in the air -- obviously some are doing it but the bragging and innuendo is so thick that we can tell that talk is substituting for the real thing.
The almost total absence of parents and the law in this town is frightening. The seniors' terror-hazing of the freshmen is icky-humiliating for the girls, who hope that their participation will induct them into the upper strata of the social system. For the boys it's downright dangerous, especially with the near-sociopath O'Bannion (Ben Affleck) hefting his paddle like Jack The Freshman Slayer. I thought even minor drug raps in Texas were severe but was obviously mistaken, as these kids cruise around stoned & toking, or drunk & open-container-ing with total impunity. Reckless driving is a starting point as the kids try out their stunt talents smashing mailboxes with trash cans, or throwing bowling balls from moving cars.
Writer-director Linklater was quick to point out that he had no intention of doing what Universal wanted: Remaking American Graffiti with nudity. Lucas' 1962 story is a fantasy that collapses a lot of semi-apocryphal folk tales into one magical night. The characters all chart neat story arcs and the film wraps up as a nostalgic fable. Linklater is a definite non-linear, no-imposed-morals screenwriter. Everything in his teens' lives just happens, and nothing is resolved.
More importantly, Dazed and Confused expresses a post-Watergate sea change in teen attitudes. The teens in Graffiti exist in Lucas' pre-Dallas '63 Camelot. Many have solid dreams for the future, and those that don't appear to have faith in something. Even the misguided "believe" in cars or Sandra Dee hairstyles or the dream of a hot date. In Dazed and Confused the kids have few illusions and, like the title says, are fully aware of how ignorant they are -- and don't care. They think of their decade in relation to ones before and after. Almost none talk about professional goals; they're too busy rejecting the lousy plans their parents, teachers and coaches have made for them. The only reality they know is the get-high, go cruisin' summer night lifestyle.
Linklater has assembled a fun group of teen actors assaying interesting types (as opposed to stereotypes). All tend to be a little too articulate about their personal dilemmas but Linklater wisely reserves the philosophical discussions to the liberal arts nerds and the rebellious feminist theorists. The kids in the nerd car debate issues as do other Linklater characters, charmingly in the case of Before Sunrise and obnoxiously as in Waking Life. The girls' room argument to end all arguments is about the implications of Gilligan's Island as a male fantasy, with debate points that Quentin Tarantino only wished he'd thought of.
Linklater's second great talent is eliciting spot-on natural performances. With zero experience, local boy Wiley Wiggins is both adorable and expressive as the freshman having a wild night, avoiding the hazing paddles and hangin' with the big guys. Ben Affleck is (I'm amazed to say) wonderful as a belligerent goon waxing enthusiastic in his illusions of power. Fans adore Matthew McConaughey's older car nut; to me he seemed a bit too much like a graft from Graffiti. Adam Goldberg is amusingly neurotic, especially his late-night need to assert his masculinity against bully Nicky Katt.
Some of the girls seem simply too old, experienced, beautiful and calculating (Parker Posey, in particular) but I'm assured by those closer to Texas culture that they're accurate creations. Look closely and you'll see Milla Jovovitch (The Fifth Element) as a silent beauty -- that's what I mean by the girls being a bit too attractive. Most of the kids are likeable and some are too cute for words, like freshman girl Christin Hinojosa. The implied leading man Jason London is put on the spot by his coaches' demands for an ethics pledge he doesn't believe in. Linklater isn't interested in developing the dilemma to the point of suggesting a solution to the problem.
Linklater did wisely drop an entirely unnecessary theme. A teacher makes a last-minute remark about the lack of perfection in our nation's Founding Fathers. Later on we get glimpses of a pair of statues that have been painted with the faces of the rock group Kiss. In cut scenes, included on the disc, we find out that in a longer cut the statues have been looted from the front of a bank. The reason the cops detain the kids on the football field at the end is because the statues are in the trunk of their car. It's just the kind of symbolic detail that Linklater avoids elsewhere in the movie.
Criterion's fat 2-disc presentation of Dazed and Confused will delight the cult that has grown up behind the movie. The enhanced transfer licensed from Universal is exceptionally good, with a 5.1 track that highlights all the hits that send 70s fanatics swooning -- Aerosmith, the works.
The main extra is a 50-minute docu first shown on AMC cable (bleeped here and there, I hope) that combines new interviews, behind the scenes footage and an outdoor screening/cast reunion from 2003. Other video extras are more on-set interviews, BTS footage, and tons of audition and reunion footage, and a long list of deleted scenes. The fat booklet has essays about the film and its music, plus a large section of pre-shoot Linklater correspondence to his actors to get them into his 'creative space.' His detailed character sketches for the various teens make amusing reading in themselves.
Linklater's commentary gives us a chance to hear this intelligent director without interruption; he's very entertaining.
An insert is an original film poster, a design different from the lousy one I remember in the newspaper ads. The package sleeve, fold out double disc holder and booklet are designed like a high school yearbook and loose leaf binder filled with graffiti and doodling. It's perhaps appropriate but doesn't make anything easy to read!
The original trailer only stresses the "kids going nuts" aspect of the film.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Dazed and Confused rates:
Supplements: Commentary by Linklater; Making Dazed documentary by Kahane Corn; 72-page book featuring new essays by Kent Jones, Jim DeRogatis, and Chuck Klosterman, plus character profiles, and memories of the film from cast and crew. Original film poster designed by Frank Kozik; On-set interviews and behind-the-scenes footage; Footage from the 10-year anniversary celebration; Audition footage; Deleted Scenes; Trailer
Packaging: Folding disc case and book in heavy card box
Reviewed: June 18, 2006
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson