Why It Works: Dazed and Confused
Why It Works is an ongoing column which breaks down some of the most acclaimed films in history and explores what makes them so iconic, groundbreaking, and memorable.
More than twenty years after DAZED AND CONFUSED, Richard Linklater is bringing us EVERYBODY WANTS SOME!! this weekend, the spiritual sequel to the filmmaker's studio debut. With films like BOYHOOD and the BEFORE trilogy, Linklater has continued his reign as the master of quality, entertaining films with little development or story structure. DAZED AND CONFUSED has over twenty characters, a meandering plot, and sends a strong message by refusing to have one, and yet the film stands among the greats in the annals of mid-nineties independent cinema. Here's why it works:
WHY WE LIKE THE CHARACTERS:
As with many high school stories, DAZED AND CONFUSED follows several cliques: the antisocial nerds, the stoners, the dropouts, the bullies, the sorority-esque senior girls, the green freshmen, the jocks, and more. While this keeps most characters from enjoying much development, the variety allows audiences to identify with one group or another. The film is full of perceived stereotypes, but Linklater keeps them from being too stereotypical, as we see in scenes like the nerdy Mike taking revenge against the bully Clint and the seniors befriending freshmen after an afternoon of paddle and kethcup-filled hazing. At the center of all this chaos we have Mitch and Sabrina, the freshmen experiencing their first night out with the older kids. While Mitch is treated as more of a main character, both fill the role of our mythic hero, embarking on a journey into uncharted territory. We've all been in some version of their shoes before, and so watching them naively embrace this strange new world inevitably makes their experience our own.
Mitch definitely feels like a precursor to BOYHOOD's Mason.
WHY WE CARE:
Not only is there not much of a narrative to DAZED AND CONFUSED, but Linklater goes so far as to set up a plot point only to take it away shortly afterward. Much of the first act revolves around a big end-of-year party being thrown at Pickford's house. When Pickford's parents catch on and cancel the party, however, both the characters and audience of the film are left without direction. While we could say this is a metaphor for the teenage years, it doesn't help answer why we want to watch a bunch of kids drive around for two hours. For starters, we see much of the film through Mitch's eyes, who begins the film pursued by O'Bannion and company, the freshman-paddling seniors who have targeted Mitch for the ass cracking of a lifetime. We can't help but want the helpless Mitch to get away unscathed, and so when he doesn't, we're that much more invested as he is shepherded into a new phase of life. Eventually, word gets around about a keg party underneath the moonlight tower, and the characters come together for a version of the party we initially expected. As for the hour or so between Mitch's beating and the party, Linklater gives us memorable scenes of pontificating, coming of age, and all around fun, opening threads along the way to be closed by the end of the film.
Oh, Affleck. Never stop being Affleck.
WHY WE'RE SATISFIED:
For a movie without much of a plot, we have a few key moments that drive DAZED AND CONFUSED home and keep it from feeling like a pointless slice of life film. Both Mitch and Sabrina meet love interests, with Mitch staying out until dawn with his. Upon returning home, Mitch is ambushed by his mother, who lets him off the hook but assures him she'll be watching him more closely from now on. This is another example of Linklater turning an expected plot point on its head- where the obvious move is to ground Mitch but show it was worth it, his mother instead lets him cherish his unforgettable fairytale of an evening. Randall 'Pink' Floyd is one of the other few characters with a trajectory in the film, with a potential football career clashing with his stoner lifestyle. When the police and Coach Conrad catch Pink and his friends smoking on the 50-yard line, Pink has to choose between the hardass coach bullying him into a future and his carefree, unambitious friends. Pink tells the Coach he may play down the road, but he will not sign the drug-free pledge that would allow him on the team the following year. This is one of the major moments in the film when Linklater chooses not to preach or take sides. Between the extreme of Wooderson and Slater, who don't seem to have much of a future, and Coach Conrad, who makes the future look dismal and militant, Pink chooses happiness in the moment with the hope of figuring it out somewhere down the line. As Mitch blasts "Slow Ride" on his headphones and Pink and company speed down the road in search of Aerosmith tickets, the future may be uncertain, but there's no doubt the characters have found a perfect moment in time.
"You cool, man?"
WHY WE REMEMBER:
With more of a focus on realism and intimacy than plot, Richard Linklater feels at times like the Hal Ashby or Robert Altman of Generation X. DAZED AND CONFUSED plays less like a period piece and more like a universal document of teenhood which happens to be set in 1970's Austin, Texas. That said, nostalgia and realism are dangerous territory, as a movie like this can fall flat on its face for someone who doesn't connect on that level. Fortunately, there's more than sentimentality going on here. The production design, costume design, and soundtrack give the film such a genuine 70's feel that I wouldn't be surprised if a new viewer assumed it was actually made in 1976- at least until they began recognizing the cast. Ben Affleck, Matthew McConaughey, Jason London, Rory Cochrane, Adam Goldberg, Anthony Rapp, Cole Hauser, Milla Jovovich, Joey Lauren Adams, Parker Posey, and Nicky Katt would all go on to notable careers (you might even catch Renée Zellweger in the clip below if you don't blink). Above all, Richard Linklater's script and direction take an unapologetic look at adolescence which, while focusing on a specific time and place, results in a film both universal and timeless. All right, all right, all right.
Thoughts? What else worked for you? What didn't? Strike back below!
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