For a brief moment think back to those evenings, before the rise of on-demand services, when you used to spend time hopping across television stations to find something worth viewing.
One such evening in the late 1990’s I had the good fortune to stumble across a cinematic gem and quickly became absorbed within its atmosphere, aided by its evocative portrayal of the music, clothes and style surrounding its characters’ lives. That film was Richard Linklater’s 1993 masterpiece Dazed and Confused.
I later found out that Linklater already had a cult classic under his belt in the form of Slackers and would go on, after the success of Dazed and Confused, to consistently hover around and within the mainstream of American film-making. Anyone who has had the pleasure of experiencing Dazed and Confused, won’t be surprised at his ongoing success.
The film is set on May 28, 1976, in the run up to the American bicentennial celebrations. The exact scene at which I arrived when tuning in that evening depicted the characters exiting a bowling alley and pool hall (my research now reveals the address of said building as 6610 N Lamar Blvd in Austin, Texas). At around that point of the film the song ‘Hurricane’, taken from Bob Dylan’s contemporaneous 1976 album Desire, faded into the soundtrack from within the building in question. If truth be told, the fact that I was a Dylan fan, whose father had just bought him that album a few weeks earlier (thanks Dad!) was what made me pause long enough to take a closer look.
As the scene unfolded I became curious as to what was going on. It was one of those magical moments when a piece of cinema catches your attention and immediately absorbs you to the extent that you forget everything else that is going on.
With the benefit of hindsight I can see that that absorption was aided by the sheer wealth of young acting talent that was on board within Linklater’s production. Indeed there’s a good chance that even people who have seen the film previously won’t appreciate this until they make a point of looking back at the cast from a modern vantage point.
As I begin to list the actors involved you’ll see what I mean: Matthew McConaughy, Ben Affleck, Milla Jovovich, Adam Goldberg, Parker Posey, Joey Lauren Adams…the list goes on. That’s only naming those actors that casual film fans will immediately recognize.
There are however also some stunning performances given in this film by what is now lesser known screen talent. To my mind the performances by Jason London, Sasha Jenson, Michelle Burke, Willey Wiggins, and Deena Martin are notable within the work.
As strong as the individual performances are the key strength of the film comes from Linklater organizing that collective pool of talent in such a way as to give the viewer an authentic slice of these Texan teenagers’ experience of their last day of school in the mid 1970s.
A scene that sticks in my mind from the film sees a young, liberal, female teacher calling out to the class running out her door, “…okay guys, one more thing, this summer when you’re being inundated with all this American bicentennial Fourth Of July brouhaha, don’t forget what you’re celebrating, and that’s the fact that a bunch of slave-owning, aristocratic, white males didn’t want to pay their taxes….”. Her comments are succeeded by a mass escape of students rattling through the school to the soundtrack of Alice Cooper’s School’s Out.
The few short minutes of that scene instantly allows the viewer to vicariously experience the thrill of those pupils’ last day of school before their long summer break.
Watching the shots within the film of 1970s all-American automobiles cruising around during the beautiful hazy day of high summer in Austin, one can practically smell the freshly cut grass of the high school football pitches, and baked asphalt.
Likewise as dusk approaches, in the film’s later scenes, the still summer evening left in the wake of the day is accompanied by a floating soundtrack of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Tuesday’s gone and Nazareth’s Love Hurts. The film’s official soundtrack which I purchased and listened to repeatedly after viewing, is instantly evocative of the film (albeit lacking the aforementioned Dylan track as well as Aerosmith’s Sweet Emotion used to smooth effect in the memorable opening sequence of the film).
There are specific lines of dialogue that stick with me to this day. The first, which I’ve already cited, is the teacher’s closing comments shouted in a rising cadence to her pupils scrambling for the school’s exit.
That extract from the script, and its reference to the Bicentennial celebration (we see signs of celebration throughout the film, including a large banner at the back of the neighborhood baseball park, celebrating America’s birthday) places the viewer immediately within this period of post-Watergate America, as does the character of Cynthia Dunn when she asks of her friends, “which one of you had the theory about how President Ford’s old football head injuries is affecting the economy?”
There is an unusual and pervasive expectation from the characters that the 80s will prove their salvation from the contemporary social plight that ‘their’ America finds itself in (the aforementioned Cynthia suggests that “maybe the 80s will be like radical or something. I figure we’ll be in our 20s and it can’t get worse”). Jason London’s central character Randall “Pink” Floyd markedly mutters, “all I’m saying is that if I ever start referring to these as the best years of my life — remind me to kill myself”. There is a certain poignancy in the viewer looking back at those aspirations of youth knowing that what in fact awaited them was in popular parlance, “the decade of greed”.
What is remarkable about these lines from a modern perspective is not the fact that the teenagers are dissatisfied with their plight, but rather that they retain an expectation that things will go on to improve for them. It is worth noting that the film itself is set less than 10 years on from the so-called ‘summer of love’ in 1967.
If one measures that gap of 9 years, between that and the setting of 1976 it’s clear that for the characters it isn’t that long ago since people close to them truly held aspirations of a utopian and peaceful ideal society.
When viewed through the lens of the time in which the film was actually made, in 1993, there was in hindsight a parallel mood of optimism in the West. The cold war was perceived as having ended with the West adjudged the victor, Francis Fukuyama had declared the ‘end of history’, and we were still a few years away from that decade’s own Presidential fall from grace with the Lewinsky story and impeachment proceedings.
Perhaps its just my own perception but optimism for the future seems to be in shorter supply at present than the period presented within the film, or indeed at the time in which the film was released.
I realize that we have now passed the 20 year anniversary of this work. I remain of the view that this is a key piece of cinematic achievement as well as a work of societal record. Linklater’s achievement should be perceived outside its present day listings within magazine and newspaper articles entitled “10 funniest movies of the 1990s”.
This is a key work of cinema, nostalgia fueled perhaps, but immediately immersive, beautifully shot, skillfully acted and poignant in its own way.
Please watch, please enjoy, and take it easy on the beer kegs at those summer parties.
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