When is the best time to be alive? Whenever it is, it’s not now. As one of the high schoolers in Richard Linklater’s stunningly truthful Dazed and Confused puts it, “Maybe the 80s will be like radical or something.” The past was radical; the future will be radical, too. Too bad we’re all stuck in the here and now.
Dazed and Confused takes place over the course of one night, beginning on the last day of school and ending the following morning. Over the course of the film we’re introduced to two dozen teens all searching for something, anything, to do. Maybe it’s a party. Maybe it’s weed. Maybe it’s hunting down the new freshman and giving them a good beating. Whatever it is you can bet that at the heart of it — no matter how light-hearted it may appear at first blush — beats a deep yearning to have a real experience. Linklater captures this complicated feeling perfectly here, with a film that begins in the sunny daytime and winds down to a deep, long night of unfulfilled desires, first times, and boozy fights. Linklater’s film isn’t a sad one, by any stretch, but it’s not as blithely happy as the characters appear in the day. The night, as the song goes, is mainly made for saying things that you can’t say tomorrow day.
Dazed and Confused winds up a perfect title. The characters aren’t usually very sure what they want, and even when they seem to be there exists a core of uncertainty and sadness. Ben Affleck, for example — in his first major role — plays a bully named O’Bannion, who mostly gets his kicks out of harassing the new crop of freshman, eighth-graders who have graduated junior high and will be attending the high school in the fall. At first he appears to be king of the castle, in a sense — he’s a total Alpha Male, a dominating force who gets what he wants when he wants it. But as the film goes on, it’s revealed that he flunked out of senior year so bad that he has to retake it, and as one character — our ostensible lead, Pink — says, “He’s kind of a joke.” The freshman dump paint on his head in retaliation for the beatings, and he drives off in a huff, not to be seen again.
Pink, of course, has his own problems. He’s the star quarterback of the football team, but not only is he feeling disenchanted with the whole thing, he’s being forced to sign what amounts to a Morality Clause — a contract stating that he will not engage in any illicit activities, such as smoking pot, or having sex after midnight. Pink chafes at the restrictions, but as we discover it’s not so much because of the principle of the thing — it’s because he’s begun to sour on high school altogether. “If I ever start referring to these as the best years of my life,” he says, “remind me to kill myself.”
Adam Goldberg’s Mike Newhouse might be surprised to hear that. A bit of an outcast who decries any form of social organization, Mike is always ready with an acerbic comment or sly observation, and probably believes that the jocks and cheerleaders are all blithely happy while only he can see the truth of the world. I can imagine that we have all met someone like this. Mike eventually picks a fight with one of the “dominant male monkey motherfuckers” at the school in an attempt to prove this thesis. The fight does not go well for him, but as his friend Cynthia puts it, “After a couple of years no one will even remember.” She’s probably right, but then again, this is a night to remember to many people — including and especially the other center of the movie — Mitch, played by Wiley Wiggins.
Like almost everyone in the film, Wiggins gives a remarkably natural and unaffected performance, lending an essential air of verisimilitude to the film. Along with Pink’s journey to accepting his dissatisfaction in football and high school, Mitch’s night of firsts forms the emotional core of this sprawling narrative. His journey from put-upon freshman to someone with the confidence to buy beer on his own is subtle, and small — but significant. In the end, we don’t so much get the sense that everything has changed for him; rather, things are the same … but a different. It’s only one night, after all.
Throughout, Linklater strikes a difficult balance: the film is at once nostalgic and honest. Nostalgia and honesty are uneasy bedfellows, of course — looking back at the past as though it was, fundamentally, any different than now is an act of willful dishonesty, in some ways. But Linklater gets away with it, in part because of how natural the performances and scriptwriting are, and in part because he turns an unblinking eye to the reality of life in this time. My high school experience was vastly different from the one depicted here, and I’m a Texas native. Despite that, there’s a core of truth to the interactions and behavior of everyone in this movie. Perhaps the best way to put it is that Dazed and Confused captures just how awkward and strange these years of life are, for anyone at any time. I didn’t really want to live in the world Dazed and Confused created, but perhaps that’s because I feel, in some ways, like I already lived there, once. Which is to say, watching Dazed and Confused was an exercise in deja vu.
I own this on on Blu, so I can talk a bit about its packaging and supplements.
First, the packaging is excellent. The slipcase is slightly nonstandard for Criterion, but it works really well. The package also comes with a 72-page booklet on the film, which includes a variety of fascinating essays, archives, and interviews. I especially liked reading the notes Linklater prepared for the cast and crew indicating the feeling they were shooting to create. For example, he emphasizes:
No “Acting” but “being”
No “Design” but “how it was”
No “Costumes” but “what they were wearing”
And also this:
“We will capture life drifting, in its continuous, unpredictable flow – extraordinary people with extraordinary human spirits on an unextraordinary day in an unextraordinary town at an unextraordinary time … In our language of images, we must lose completely the notion of image. Our images must exclude the idea of image. Not beautiful photography, not beautiful images, but necessary photography, necessary images.“
On the disc itself is an audio commentary with Linklater (which I haven’t listened to yet), a documentary on the making of the film (which I have watched — it’s excellent), and lots more. It’s an excellent set and a treasure trove of info for people who like the film.
Overall I thoroughly enjoyed this one. It feels authentic and true, universal but specific (like so many of the films I’ve watched this month). More than that, it seems like the kind of movie that I’ll return to again and again in the future. Highly recommended.
NEXT TIME: Spine #178: My Life as a Dog , Dir. Lasse Hallström