Friday, February 07, 2020

Dazed and Confused (1993)

USA, 102 minutes
Director / writer: Richard Linklater
Photography: Lee Daniel
Music: Classic rock classics (nonstop)
Editor: Sandra Adair
Cast: Jason London, Wiley Wiggins, Shawn Andrews, Rory Cochrane, Sasha Jenson, Matthew McConaughey, Marissa Ribisi, Ben Affleck, Parker Posey, Joey Lauren Adams, Milla Jovovich, Adam Goldberg, Anthony Rapp, Renee Zellweger

My DVD copy of Dazed and Confused is packaged with Animal House and Fast Times at Ridgemont High so apparently at some point it took on epic proportions as a teen comedy (when the only teen comedy it should be aligned with is American Graffiti—that's a recommendation for a double feature). There's more evidence for the stature of this movie in Quentin Tarantino's including it on his last two ballots in the Sight & Sound poll. As a jukebox musical soundtrack movie it is practically heroic but that's more in terms of the ambitious licensing work—something like 15% of the budget went to securing the rights to the music here, even though Led Zeppelin remained implacable and never yielded the title song. Yet amiable as it is, warm with scattered laughs, Dazed and Confused has always seemed to me more funny-strange than funny-haha.

The first time I saw it, for example, I was not just struck but dumbfounded by the accuracy and fine points of the '70s period detail: girls using pliers to zip up tight jeans, those sphere-like chairs with speakers built in ("egg chairs," per google search), the look and feel of keggers in the woods, the ubiquity of weed. All this amazing detail is the only thing I took away from it then. I was prone to saying things like it was the first time I'd seen my youth ripped off by a movie. And that's not far wrong—Dazed and Confused is formally about the classes of '76 to '79, only a few years past my time. But, on the other hand, the hazing behavior on display here—senior boys terrorizing freshmen boys with a bizarre spanking ritual, and senior girls doing something like it with freshmen girls—is like nothing I ever saw, experienced, or even heard of. I wrote it off as Texas. Now I'm more inclined to take it some kind of flights of fancy by director and writer Richard Linklater, who has produced an impressive body of work. (But it could still be Texas.)

Soundtrack movies, especially when they're as relentless and full of familiar songs as Dazed and Confused, can take on some of the qualities of music itself—easier and more tempting to look at over and over. Within the mosaic of songs different high points may occur with different viewings. My last time through I was thrilled to hear Alice Cooper's "School's Out" (more perfect period detail as all decade that was the song to herald the coming of summer), War's "Low Rider" (which also reminded me again how underrated War is when they were actually one of the best acts of the '70s), Dr. John's "Right Place Wrong Time," the Runaways' "Cherry Bomb," and Seals & Crofts's "Summer Breeze." Five songs to hype me up in a movie I've seen a few times is pretty impressive. It might even be five or so songs every time, but not the same ones? (I know Foghat's long "Slow Ride" often leaps out.)

Also, Dazed and Confused no longer seems as eerily accurate. As just one example, the stoner burnout dude here, Slater (Rory Cochrane), is not quite right, though I remember the type and know they existed (in my high school he was a fellow called "Pud," class of '74, real name lost to memory now). Cochrane has the basics right but feels slightly phony. In fact, much about this movie feels phony (such as that spanking), though somehow it doesn't much detract from its charms. Ben Affleck as the sadistic football lineman O'Bannion or Parker Posey as Darla, his counterpart in the high school social structure, are basically just vamping it up and going over the top on a regular basis. The movie is packed with stars in their early days, by the way, including Affleck, Posey, Matthew McConaughey, Joey Lauren Adams, and Milla Jovovich.

Another strange thing about Dazed and Confused is the way it manages to feature no one and everyone. The movie it most resembles is American Graffiti, certainly in terms of tracking a group of kids staying up all night partying after school ends at the beginning of summer (see also last year's Booksmart—that's a recommendation for a triple feature). But at least American Graffiti specifically focused on four kids (Booksmart on two). Here it's harder to make out who counts. One main character might be the vaguely rebellious quarterback Randall "Pink" Floyd (Jason London). Or it might be Mitch Kramer (Wiley Wiggins), a vulnerable but resilient freshman, who in a weird combination is both effeminate and coolly masculine. This out-of-focus aimlessness, a kind of studied art film trait like something from Fellini or Cassavetes, is seen even more intensely in an earlier Linklater project, Slacker.

Cochrane, Affleck, Posey, and McConaughey are load-bearing pillars in this movie too but closer to decoration. They are plainly intended only as types. Yet they have some of the best (and strangest) lines here. "Wipe that face off your head, bitch," says Darla as she hazes the freshmen girls. Was that improv? A goof? McConaughey was already feeling around for his Nic Cage-lite bits. His Wooderson is a few years out of high school, greasy, confident, and a little sickening. "That's what I love about these high school girls, man," he says. "I get older, they stay the same age. Yes, they do." And when Slater climbs to the top of a tower for a view of the town, his thoughts run along these lines: "Imagine how many people out there right now are fuckin', man. Just goin' at it."

It all adds up to kind of a weird movie but unquestionably some sort of classic at this point. I'm just not sure what type. It's 100% teen comedy yet somehow manages to never be what you expect.

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