Dazed and Confused (1993): Linklater’s First Masterpiece

Richard Linklater’s follow-up to “Slacker,” Dazed and Confused, was also generationally specific, the tale of one eventful night in May 1976 (the last day of high school), contained within otherwise uneventful lives of suburban teenagers.

With a larger budget ($6 million), it displayed Slacker’s distinctive vision but with a more accomplished visual style. Linklater’s wish was to make a film about diverse characters that are not connected except by the movement of the narrative itself.

The movie deftly juggles a dozen characters, nearly as many locations, and a historically-specific soundtrack (Foghat, Peter Frampton, Aerosmith). Linklater’s off-handed style is deceptive–each of his films is a product of lengthy planning. Like Slacker, which was shot over a couple of months after extensive research and interviews, Dazed and Confused took years to make.

With Dazed and Confused (the title comes from an early Led Zeppelin anthem), Linklater was determined not to make a movie that was imitative of American Graffiti. Like Lucas, he goes back to his youth, though he’s free of nostalgia, aware that it can function as escapism from the present. The early 1980s were an era of dark cultural plague–1950s nostalgia–reflected in such films as American Graffiti, Grease and TV shows like Happy Days. But for Linklater, “there’s something unproductive about nostalgia, about thinking backwards instead of forwards.

Set in 1976, when American youths were stranded between 1960s political activism and 1980s materialism, the kids lack causes to fight for, nor much of personal ambition. Waiting for something to happen, they endlessly ask, “Hey man, what’s happening” to which the answer is always the same, “Nothin’ man, nothin.'” This repeated pattern gives the film a familiar but uncomfortable feel.

In American Graffiti, Lucas gave the movie a geographical center (Mel’s Drive-In), a mythic hero (Wolfman Jack), a special look (red and blue neon), and a layer of dreams. In contrast, Linklater sets his movie nowhere in particular–Suburbia–, which, in fact, became the title of a later movie. Dazed and Confused, which can happen in every high school, is an acute period film about a time most people would rather forget, as Pink says: “If I ever start calling these the best years of my life, remind me to kill myself.” For his cast, Linklater interviewed youngsters who were barely born in 1976. But they all told him, “We all hang out in the 7-Eleven parking lot, and when the cops come, we go to this place called the turnaround under a freeway and then we go back to the 7-Eleven.” This reaffirmed Linklater’s feeling that “times haven’t changed, it’s a loop.”

Linklater measures artistic success by how closely a film matches his initial design. By that count, Dazed and Confused was a success. “I was trying to recreate the feeling and texture of the time I grew up. There are scenes in the movie that are 100 percent of what I had in mind, from the music to the atmosphere.” Like his characters, Linklater was forced to participate in that singular ritual, “a greaser day.” He recalled: “My school was having a 1950s day. My uncle was helping me put my hair back in a grease ducktail and he was saying ‘You know, you kids think the fifties were really cool, but let me tell you, they sucked.'”

Like Slacker, Dazed and Confused has a large ensemble, no dramatic plot, and great music. Thematically selected tracks–from Nazareth, Aerosmith, Peter Frampton, Kiss, Ted Nugent and Led Zeppelin–drive the narrative forward. Alice Cooper’s end-of-year anthem, “School’s Out,” blares over a shot of blue-gray aluminum lockers being flung open, their contents pitched into the air. Linklater’s camera follows the kids through a day and an all-nighter as they get stoned and drive around looking for a party–or other ways to kill time and mark their rite of passage. He lavishes detail and insight on the eight-track, dope-smoking, bell-bottomed, Pontiac GTO generation.

What unifies the episodic Slacker and Dazed and Confused is their near-documentary feel about mundane reality. However, based on different formal designs, their styles diverge. “Slacker was about the internal pace of the scene itself, the rhythm came from the characters’ speech patterns. Dazed and Confused was all in the editing. The music was very upfront and everything else fell into place behind that.” Slacker was not a genre film, but Dazed and Confused was with standard types (the nerd, the jock, the stoner) and typical situations.

Both Slacker and Dazed and Confused are shaped by a foreboding sense that something is basically wrong for youngsters coming of age today. The movie is about rites of passage that celebrate aimlessness, thematic concerns that Linklater shares with Greg Araki, though their sensibilities are different. Some critics misinterpreted Slacker as propagating nihilism–but Linklater insisted he was trying “to show a way out.” In this respect, Dazed and Confused is more “upbeat” than Slacker.

Linklater is aware that his characters are flawed, but he also knows that in time they’ll learn. “I’m interested in people who are still forming, still deciding what kind of person they’re going to be,” he said. “Of all the characters in Dazed and Confused, there’s maybe five or six who could end up in Slacker. Right now, they’re intuitively smart, but they need to read the great books, see the great movies.”

Linklater doesn’t structure his movies tightly: Dazed and Confused is a collective portrait casually organized as a series of interlaced tales–pranks, hazing–taking pace on the last day of school. He accentuates the spontaneous elements in anecdotes and passing moments: A pothead’s way of using his hands when he talks, a phrase rising out of youth jargon, a touch of poetry. The teenagers bash mailboxes with garbage cans, smoke dope and spend a lot of time talking about getting laid. The main goal is humiliating other people while avoiding humiliation. Since feminism has not yet taken hold, the girls engage in hazing rituals with younger girls–covering them with sugar or ketchup, getting them to propose to the boys on their knees.

In 1976, America was 200 years old, an event memorialized in Dazed and Confused by the fantasy of pothead Slater (Rory Cochrane), who’s convinced that George Washington cultivated weed as a southern cash crop. In a gesture of mock revolution, the handsome football player, Pink (Jason London) refuses to sign a demeaning document that calls for players to abjure drugs and alcohol. Other signs of spirit are shown by the two self-conscious nerds who reject the norm of mediocrity and try to escape. Articulate, these boys feel like freaks, and they’re heading out; everyone else is trapped.

The high schoolers go through changes, but without dramatic punctuation. The personal stories aren’t overdramatized, because Linklater keeps everything on the same level: Keg parties, scuffles, dope-smoking. Most movies are made by adult filmmakers who don’t realize that youngsters don’t perceive their lives as a series of rites-of-passage; they’re too busy being dazed and confused. Linklater feel too much affection for his characters to classify them as types, and yet, they’re immediately recognizable: the star quarterback (Ben Affleck), the bully who hazes freshmen (Rory Cochrane), the doper (Matthew McConaughey), the graduate who still hangs around high school, the red-headed brain who falls for the hood, a junior who wants to become a lawyer and join the ACLU except he can’t stand the people he’s supposed to help; a footballer who can’t resist dispensing headlocks to the less fortunate.

One of the film’s surprises is how close these kids seem to contemporary teenagers. The fashions are back in style and the tribal rituals are essentially the same. Set a few years earlier or later, the mood would have been altered. These students live in the era of lowered expectations, caught between the rebellious 1960s and the greedy 1980s. They’re in a limbo, but they seem to accept their fate, waiting for a new era to define them.


Jason London as Randall “Pink” Floyd

Wiley Wiggins as Mitch Kramer

Rory Cochrane as Ron Slater

Matthew McConaughey as David Wooderson

Sasha Jenson as Don Dawson

Michelle Burke as Jodi Kramer

Christine Harnos as Kaye Faulkner

Adam Goldberg as Mike Newhouse

Anthony Rapp as Tony Olson

Marissa Ribisi as Cynthia Dunn

Catherine Avril Morris as Julie Simms

Shawn Andrews as Kevin Pickford

Cole Hauser as Benny O’Donnell

Milla Jovovich as Michelle Burroughs

Joey Lauren Adams as Simone Kerr

Christin Hinojosa as Sabrina Davis

Ben Affleck as Fred O’Bannion

Parker Posey as Darla Marks

Deena Martin as Shavonne Wright

Nicky Katt as Clint Bruno

Esteban Powell as Carl Burnett

Jason O. Smith as Melvin Spivey

Mark Vandermeulen as Tommy Houston

Renée Zellweger as Nesi White


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