Please Note: The images used here are promotional stills and are not taken from the Blu-ray edition under review.
From Ang Lee's urbane but serious-minded portrait of the 1970s, The Ice Storm, to Richard Linklater's openly comic and lovingly mocking take on the same, Dazed & Confused. Linklater trades the chilly climes of Connecticut for the warmer skies of Texas, and he keeps the movie almost entirely focused on teenagers, but the theme is essentially the same: small towns confine us in roles we feel we can't escape whether we want the part they offer or not, and true freedom comes from shirking the expected for the desired.
Interestingly enough, both films take place over a life-changing holiday weekend. This time, rather than Thanksgiving, it's a kegger to celebrate the start of summer and the changing of the guard from one senior class to another. Intruding on the situation are the youngsters leaving junior high for the hallowed halls of high school. It's a less stringent young/old dynamic, but it still works. Plus, given the lowered ages of all involved, on top of the fact that this is a comedy, the hopeful, carefree tone that would likely come in The Ice Storm only after the final credits is ever-present in Dazed & Confused. Some of the teenagers are already pod people, they just don't know it yet.
I posited at the end of my Ang Lee review that there was something of all of us in his characters, and that is doubly true for Dazed & Confused. High school is society in microcosm, with the same pecking order and the same personalities that we find in all walks of life. For myself, I like to think I was a cross between the Wiley Wiggins character and one of the kids in Adam Goldberg's crew. I was precocious and funny and able to get away with a lot that my peers couldn't (and often hung with an older crowd), but I was also too smart for my own good. Where I went to high school in the Mojave Desert, we had DPs, a.k.a. Desert Parties. They were no more organized than the big to-do in the movie. Someone would pick a location in the desert, bring a keg, maybe start a bonfire, and then everyone would drive out and park their cars and wait for the cops to chase them away. I maybe lasted five minutes at one DP in my entire high school career. I wasn't willing to jump in and engage. The people were stupid, the party was stupid, I was so out of there!
Once the cops broke up the party, a lot of driving around looking for something else to do followed. Cruising is its own American tradition, also celebrated in George Lucas' American Graffiti, which actually adds some credence to the theory of smart girl Cynthia (Marissa Ribisi) in Dazed & Confused. She suggests there is an alternating decade pendulum: one decade sucks, the next rules. Though Lucas' film was set in 1962, it was a period of transition. The kids riding up and down those streets didn't know what they were in for, they were still trying to shake off the post-war oppression that had settled in America's streets in the 1950s. (The British streets, as well. Listen sometime to the Who's Pete Townshend talk about the lingering aftershocks of WWII that he was rebelling against, and you'll find one of the most cogent explanations of where the Kitchen Sink filmmaking movement came from.) Coincidentally, American Graffiti was made in 1973, the year Rick Moody was wrestling with in The Ice Storm. Linklater places Dazed & Confused in 1976, when the U.S. was celebrating its birthday, an empty moment in time for many, with Nixon being traded for Ford and Vietnam still a fresh sting. Even with the "let's get drunk and party" throughline in the movie, there are still hints of politics in Dazed & Confused (and even more on the cutting room floor, as the deleted scenes reveal). The character Kaye (Christine Harnos), the one who sees "Gilligan's Island" as a fascist male pornographic fantasy and who seems to carry a dark cloud with her wherever she goes, is Christina Ricci's Ice Storm character all grown up. Not to mention that the teacher's reminder that the Bicentennial is as much a glorification of a blood-stained history of greed as it is a patriotic marker sounds like an echo of Ricci's Thanksgiving prayer in Ang Lee's picture.
Really, what we see here in the hazing of younger students and the search for substance-induced oblivion is a trade-off for the parlor games of the older generation. If in The Ice Storm the adults are trying to act like kids, it appears that they've punted the dysfunction down to the younger folks. As the sun rises on empty kegs, a few find themselves in the arms of another and at least one character (Randy "Pink" Floyd, as played by then It-kid Jason London) finds the opportunity to stand up for himself, but most just wake up hungover, still waiting for that something to happen that will make the 1970s and their own lives have some kind of meaning.
I know, I know. This is all making rather serious work out of what is essentially supposed to be light and fun. It's the nature of this kind of story, it inspires this sort of maudlin, po-faced nostalgia in writers. I think most creative types recycle their adolescence even on into their later years. The mid-life crisis is just a chance to buy those old tales a brand new set of clothes to try to make them look young, and being a senior citizen means you can make the beleaguered anecdotes more wistful and far, far dirtier than they ever were. My guess is we have to make it mean something greater as an excuse to keep the whole charade going, and a lot of these theories about Dazed & Confused are really just confined to the four walls of my head. It wouldn't surprise me if Richard Linklater laughed and cried "Bullshit!" if he ever had an opportunity to read this.
Once you drop all the palaver, Dazed & Confused is an insanely funny movie. Its plotless nature makes it endlessly watchable. You could put it on repeat and just let the disc run, and I doubt you'd grow tired of it. It's not necessarily one scene after another of nonstop guffaws, but it's a comedy of behavior, and you're just watching these teens go about their business. What people do in their everyday lives can be pretty amusing. The few times that there is an actual punchline, such as Adam Goldberg insisting he only wants to dance, those are the only moments where Dazed & Confused loses some of its humor alongside some of its truth.
Like The Ice Storm, Dazed & Confused was a flashpoint of talent. Though a lot of folks we expected to be stars from this faded, Adam Goldberg, Matthew McConaughey, Cole Hauser, Joey Lauren Adams, Milla Jovovich, Nicky Katt, and Ben Affleck went on to enjoy longer careers. Rory Cochran surfaced again years later on television as part of the CSI blight, and I only realized today that Christine Harnos was Anthony Edwards' ex-wife on ER, the one I always thought he was crazy to let get away. And, of course, Parker Posey. When she cried out, "Lick me! All of you!" I responded with a yearning "Yes, please." The best choice Linklater made for the movie was letting these young actors loose to be themselves. While there was obviously a plan and overall scheme to how the pieces would fit together, there is an atmosphere of freedom that makes me suspect that within the delineated points, the director let the actors move however they felt comfortable. Though the movie wasn't shot in a cinema verite style, it has the natural happenstance of an on-the-street production.
It's funny that Dazed & Confused has become a cable perennial. You can see it on E! and I think Comedy Central quite often. The language has been toned down, made safe for the bullshit pact that television networks allegedly have with the public at large. It doesn't have the same resonance when the movie is altered so as not to offend. They should also change the ending so that Pink signs the morality contract for his football coach. Just as the kids in both Dazed & Confused and The Ice Storm have been let down by an older generation that has sold the ideals of the 1960s down the river, so too do these versions feel like Linklater has defanged his own rebellion. I don't really think that's true or feel betrayed or anything like that, I just stumbled upon the observation as I struggled for an ending to this essay. Call it my last stand, my own standing up to the coach, even though I know I will go on and next time I happen by Ben Affleck winding up with his wooden paddle on basic cable, I'll probably stop and watch until at least the next commercial break.
Sometimes that's the nature of things, and you have to just keep livin'. L-I-V-I-N.
I haven't seen the earlier Blu-Ray edition of Dazed & Confused that Universal released a mere two months ago, though it received generally high marks from our reviewer who did. It's kind of crazy that two versions would come out this close to each other, but one assumes Criterion didn't want to let their superior packaging get trumped by the studio.
On its own, the 1080p transfer (MPEG-4 AVC encoded) included here is pretty great, boosting the image enough to justify dumping your standard-definition version and trading up. The earlier review is correct in that there is a certain nostalgic look to the cinematography that needs to be preserved, and while the picture might not be as punchy or sharp as we might expect from shinier product, that is to be expected and even encouraged in this case. Overall resolution is excellent with nice, warm colors and solid blacks and no indication of any forced enhancement. Overall, the material looks fantastic, and while it may not be the disc to show off your BD player to friends who have yet to be convinced, it should make any fan of Linklater's film happy.
Criterion gives the disc a DTS-HD audio track, mixed in 5.1, and it's excellent. While there isn't a ton of moving around in the soundtrack, dialogue has appropriate oomph and the mix shines where it really needs to: the music. Linklater's carefully chosen song cues get the full aural red carpeting here. The speakers fill with the vintage rock songs, bolstering the movie's party atmosphere and immersing the viewer in that aspect of the experience. Actually, to really hear how nicely the music is handled, pay attention to when it's used as a live-sourced material, like when it's played on a car radio during a conversation, and you'll notice some great balance.
English Closed Captioning is also available.
Smartly, Criterion has chosen to keep all of the extras from their SD release of Dazed & Confused, including the awesome package design. The Blu-Ray comes in a cardboard case with a die-cut outer slipcover. It also has the fat interior booklet with articles by Kent Jones, Jim DeRogatis, and Chuck Klosterman and the folded poster replicating the advertisement for the movie's premiere, which was designed by rock-poster artist Frank Kozick.
Bonus features are as follows:
* Audio commentary by Richard Linklater, detailing the challenges of a rather large independent production and the inspiration for the movie.
* Making "Dazed", a fifty-minute documentary by Kahane Corn that compiles lots of on-set footage with more recent interviews (around 2006, the time of the original Criterion release) and gives a sense of the magic that came together to make this movie happen.
* Rare on-set interviews and behind-the-scenes footage: an extensive collection of material, totaling nearly two hours altogether, including both a collection of actor interviews where they play "themselves" and another set where they answer as their characters (taken from early rehearsals). There is also more standard behind-the-scenes footage.
* Footage from the ten-year anniversary celebration: Just as it sounds, a short glimpse at the reunion party.
* Audition footage: 24 minutes of 12 actors trying out for their parts.
* Deleted Scenes: 17 clips, 26 minutes. These are all fun trims, and if you like the characters, you will like seeing some of the bits with them that didn't make the final cut. A few are meatier than others, and as noted in the main review, add some deeper layers that maybe were a little heavier than the film required.
* Original theatrical trailer.
The extras are presented in high-definition.
Highly Recommended. Richard Linklater's Dazed & Confused captures a particular time and place, and it did so at another particularly apropos time in that same place's history. The American 1970s was a place where hope was in lower supply than cynicism, where aimlessness was the order of the day and the soundtrack went right along with the attitude. If you think about it, this was also the zeitgeist of the American 1990s, and so when Dazed & Confused came out in 1993, it was kind of right on the money. It's funny, a little heartbreaking, and a genuine blast to watch from start to finish. Its young cast of both familiar and forgotten faces is hard to match in any ensemble from the last twenty years; on top of that, another twenty won't dull the movie's considerable charisma. Criterion's Blu-Ray is an impressive upgrade, even if it keeps the same basic package as their old edition, and when it comes time to buy Dazed and Confused, this is definitely the way you want to go.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent projects include the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat; Archer Coe and the Thousand Natural Shocks, a loopy crime tale drawn by Dan Christensen; and the horror miniseries Madame Frankenstein, a collaboration with Megan Levens. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.