Sure, the '70s sucked. There was an aura of uncertainty, a sort of communal hangover after the bedlam of the previous decade, and many were praying that the upcoming era of the '80s would improve on our sorry social lot. Into the midst of all this meandering and malaise came the Bicentennial, a chance for America to celebrate its jaded, jingoistic joys. Those of us who lived through the era saw our teenage years tempered by the perplexing public and private unease in the air. We were supposed to be happy, living in such a great country with such an insightful history. Instead, we were unstuck in time, not quite the happy hippies of a generation before, and growing ever closer to the cold capitalists that would mire us in materialism for decades to come. All of which makes Richard Linklater's 1993 opus Dazed and Confused a true testament. Not only did this talented filmmaker add his own unique take on interpersonal interaction into the Me Decade mix, he captured the '70s scene in startling accurate detail. The result is a cinematic scrapbook to a time and place, a visceral visual experience that recaptures and reclaims the period for those of us lucky (or unlucky) enough to have lived through it once.
It's the last day of school, May 28, 1976. It's the moment all juniors wait for, and the time all eighth graders dread. When the final bell rings, the hazing will begin, as the upperclassmen prepare their plebes for the upcoming year. Paddles in hand (for the boys) and cases of condiments at the ready (for the girls) we witness several members of the Class of '77 preparing to pounce on their prey. Among them are football players Randall "Pink" Floyd, Benny O'Donnell, Don Dawson and "returning" senior Fred O'Bannion. Naturally, our dudes all have popular gal girlfriends, each with perky, suggestive names like Jodi, Shavonne, and Simone. Circling around the outside are Pink's stoner buddies, Ron Slater and Kevin Pickford, and observing it all are the school's cynical intellectuals, dour dreamers like Mike Newhouse, Tony Olson and the ripe redhead Cynthia Dunn. When Jodi asks Pink and the boys to take it easy on her little brother Mitch, the request starts a chain reaction that leads to unbridled bullying, cancelled parties, hanging out at the local arcade, and heading out to the Moon Tower for an impromptu beer blast. With older stud David Wooderson wandering through the crowd, trying to recapture his high school days, it's a time for reflection and relaxation. Adulthood seems a million years away, and any thoughts of the future just leave one Dazed and Confused.
Dazed and Confused is a perfect movie. It flawlessly captures the spirit of the '70s while arguing for a clear universality in the high school experience. It is a film that expertly illustrates that clichéd concept called 'coming of age' while wrapping the usual elements in the era's cultural make-up within the typical teen dynamic of sex, drugs and rock and roll, to further encapsulate the adolescent art of maturation. Perhaps writer/director Richard Linklater said it best when he commented about wanting the movie to feel "like a camera had just dropped down in the middle" of this specific day at a typical Texas high school. Though several of the then unknown cast have gone on to become big names in Hollywood (Mila Jovovich, Ben Affleck, Matthew McCanaughey) and the Indie scene (Parker Posey, Joey Lauren Adams), they instantly meld into the various members of the socially segregated student body, becoming a microcosm of everything that both the decade and its denizens represent. It is truly rare when modern actors can capture the vibe of a bygone time period. It's a miracle when they completely lose themselves in the illusion. Perhaps the main reason Dazed and Confused feels so idyllic and illustrative is because it never once strikes a false note. What we see on the screen is America circa 1976, in all its bong hitting, beer drinking and butt paddling reality.
One of the masterful things Linklater does is translate personality types into actual characters. It's a cosmic given that every high school has stoners, jocks, dweebs, dorks and sarcastic academics. Instead of making his company a collection of mere archetypes, the director digs deep and finds a way to transform characteristics into full fledged motion picture personalities. While his heroes - Randall "Pink" Floyd and Mitch Kramer - are completely lost within the title tenets battle for self-actualization, the rest of the gang is in the grips of their own undeniable, defining moments. All throughout this masterful film, Linklater lets his actors shade and color their otherwise obvious types. Take Ben Affleck's almost unrecognizable turn as perpetual senior O'Bannion. Here is a brutish bully, an unhappy and arrogant young man who is obviously taking his frustrations with the world out on the young eighth graders heading for high school. Yet instead of keeping him just a crude cardboard cut out of the local loser, the butt of every private joke in town, Linklater enlivens the clod, giving him a sensitive center that suggests a vulnerability and a recognition of his notorious failure. Something similar happens in McCanaughey's star-making appearance as Wooderson. With a slick, smarmy moustache and a taste for jail bait, this crude cruiser could be the '70s answer to a sexual predator, a pedophile whose lustful appetites run far too young for the average audience. But because he's portrayed as so vacant and carefree, simply 'l-i-v-i-n' his life the way he wants, we excuse his need for underage affection.
Though some may quibble over their exactitude, Dazed does get its details right. They may not match up perfectly with the year or the locale in which Linklater is working, but it's the little things, the fashions and the philosophies that make this movie so incredibly insightful. During the Bicentennial, America was trying to recover from a series of social wounds. The '60s had ended with a whimper and the bang of several assassins' guns. We had lost Vietnam and the last President to preside over it had resigned in cover-up laced disgrace. 1976 was supposed to be the year where we tossed all that aside and celebrated 200 year of Independence. Yet those of us who were growing up under the endless red, white and blue of the year were jaded by the less than stellar state of the Union. All throughout Dazed, Linklater hints at this adolescent malaise. Though far from making a political film, the director at least lets this aura of uncertainty come in and cloud his perpetually partying teens, making their hedonist grab for pleasure all the more understandable. Many may wonder why there is so much pot smoking and drinking during the 20 plus hours of the film's internal narrative. The answer is quite obvious. Aside from the far laxer social standards of the time, kids were trying to escape. They wanted the freedom of the '60s without the dreary indebtedness that the '70s was expecting. Anything to simply dull the pain…and the promise of the future.
All of which makes Dazed and Confused a clear cinematic snapshot, like the image from a Poloraid Land camera developing right before our very eyes. Using music in the way it was always meant to be - i.e. the soundtrack to our lives - and peppering the dialogue with personal insights and memories, Linklater ends up with much more than a movie here. Unlike other period pieces which attempt authenticity and strive to sustain the ambience of an era, this filmmaker taps directly into his adolescent past and puts every viable moment up on the screen to be enjoyed and experienced. While there was much more to the 1970s than beer blasts, high school sports, freshman hazing and cruising for companionship at the local fast food restaurant, for many of us, that's the gist of the decade. The years between 1969 and 1980 were a kind of holding pattern in the communal consciousness. We dabbled in environmentalism and finally uncovered the corrupt truth about our political leaders. We watched music turn from magic, to metal, to mierda as disco spelled the temporary end of the head-banging boogie and popular culture traded fashion for fad as we made pets out of rocks and ascertained our many moods via emotionally responsive jewelry.
While some might consider it nothing more than a camp comedy as nostalgia, Dazed and Confused is so much more than that. Like Slacker before it, Linklater has delivered another stellar study guide to a certain time, a defining canvas of a definite place. Its ability to ring true universally is its greatest gift. It allows anyone not privy to the past to relive it, over and over again, through the joys of motion picture perfection. Decades from now, critics will claim this movie as one of the best ever made. It's not hard to see why. Richard Linklater did something very few are capable of. He resurrected an entire time frame without the benefit of a big budget or name casting. Instead, he did what most of us do with our most important memories - he never let them die. He used his love of film and fused his recollections to the reality of life in 1993. The result is indeed a masterpiece, a movie that transcends its tricks to become the ultimate adolescent statement. Like American Graffiti before it, Dazed and Confused is not just a movie about idle youth. It's actually a look at that insane crusade called growing up. Witty, wicked, and just a little bit wise, this primer from the past can teach us a lot about today. Three decades ago, kids ran free in the unbridled desire to stay young. Now, they are micromanaged into adulthood. Honestly, which seems more irresponsible?
Ever since the release of the company's completist version of Linklater's Slacker, fans have hoped that Criterion would tackle this oft-maligned title. When Universal released what it called the "Flashback" addition DVD back in 2004, it seemed like Dazed would never get the proper preservationist treatment. Well, those of us who've waited can now rejoice - Dazed and Confused has received the full blown Criterion Collection revamp and the new look is fantastic. Remastered in a simply sensational 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer, the image here is near reference quality. The colors are luminescent and the contrasts create dozens of discernible details. Gone are any hints of grain or muddiness from previous releases, and the whole print has a newly minted feel to it. Proving they are the industry standard when it comes to the technical treatment of film, Criterion definitely does it again.
On the sound side, Criterion keeps up the stellar work by delivering a selection of pure sonic bliss. Offered in either a professional Dolby Digital Stereo mix, or an even better DTS 5.1 track, this is one amazing aural experience. The '70s rock really revs up the speakers, and Linklater always makes sure that his dialogue is easily discernible. We get some nice spatial ambiance in the multi-channel track (especially in the Moon Tower party and Emporium arcade scenes) and the overall quality is unbelievably pristine. As remarkable as it is to look at, Dazed and Confused is even more amazing in its decibel dimensions.
Here is where Criterion typically shines, and the glare is so bright off this package of supplemental material that you'll find yourself diving into the bonus features over and over again. First up is a full length audio commentary (recorded just four months ago) by director Linklater, and like the track on Slacker, this discussion is dynamite. Simultaneously speaking as director, fan, participant and proud papa, Linklater lays it all on the line during his conversation. He discusses his battles with Universal, his displeasure with how the film was finally marketed, the numerous problems he faced in realizing his vision and how happy he is with the overall look and feel of the film. Overflowing with opinions and insights, this is the way every commentary track should be. Linklater sets a standard here that few filmmakers can follow. Equally impressive on the first disc of this two DVD set is the collection of deleted scenes. Some are mere extensions of original sequences. Others play like unnecessary character shading. But three really stand out, and warrant attention as background to the main storyline. In one, we see one of our most hateful hazers show off a decidedly racist side to his persona. In another, two of our prominent gal pals share hilarious stories about their mothers. Finally, an entire subplot about the stealing of statues from a local bank is exposed, showing that some of the hi-jinx enjoyed at the time were not as innocent as we once thought.
Disc Two continues to uncover more amazing material. Kahane Corn, an onset presence making a documentary on the movie, finally delivers her fun 50 minute overview entitled Making "Dazed" and it is outstanding. Using updated interviews with the cast and crew (including Big Ben and Mighty Matthew) Corn concentrates on the cosmic happenstance that seemed to surround the movie. While each participant discusses how they came to be involved, we sense powers outside the filmmaking community conspiring to allow Linklater to make the movie he wanted. Rapturous and loaded with humorous insights, this is a landmark look at an equally important film. The DVD follows this up with almost 25 minutes of audition tapes. We see many of the cast trying out for their parts, and it's interesting to see how many of them "got it" from the first reading.
Continuing on, Criterion takes 40 minutes of on-set "character" Q&As, another 45 minutes of cast conversations, and an additional 35 minutes of behind the scenes footage and folds them into something called a "fiesta". Under the Beer Blast at the Moon Tower menu option, you can watch nearly two hours in the history of Dazed and Confused as segments play in random order. It's an incredible multimedia experience, turning the added content into a kind of celebration of the mind. Add in the clever packaging (reminiscent of the pop art notebooks of the era) and a 72 page insert (fashioned after a yearbook) that covers the movie's production, essays by Kent Jones, Jim DeRogatis and Chuck Klosterman and more memories from the cast and crew, you have got one of the most complete packages this digital standard bearer has ever created. It is truly exceptional in all aspects - technical and contextual.
Easily earning the highest recommendation this critic can grant, the Criterion Collection version of Dazed and Confused is clearly a member of the DVD Talk Collector's Series. But not just for the wealth of added content created by the company. No, the main selling point here is the movie itself. Much more than the superficial teen romps that passed for generational insight during the 1980s, Richard Linklater has crafted the definitive adolescent allegory. Illustrating how music makes our experiences more ethereal and touching on almost every issue inherent in the high school of eras past (and present), this drunken, drugged out comedy is a benchmark in the way young adulthood is illustrated and explained in the modern motion picture. Without gimmicks, it achieves a greatness that few films can ever hope to emulate. Yes, the '70s had their miserable and mediocre moments. Certainly, there was as much bad as there was good in the era. But Linklater is not concentrating on said schisms. Instead, he wanted to rejoice in the notion of personal growth and the formation of individual philosophy. And he managed it magnificently. Without a doubt, Dazed and Confused is a great film.
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