Let me tell you what Melba Toast is packin’ here. All right, we’ve got 411 Positrac outback, 750 double pumper Edelbrock intakes, bored over 30, 11-to-1 pop-up pistons, turbo-jet 390 horsepower. We’re talkin’ some fuckin’ muscle.
— Wooderson (Matthew McConaughey), Dazed and Confused
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.
— Randall “Pink” Floyd (Jason London), Dazed and Confused
Universal Studios packaged the first Dazed and Confused DVD with its other righteously awesome classic high school flick, Fast Times at Ridgemont High. The set was called The Ultimate Party Collection, suggesting that back in 1998, five years after Dazed was in theaters, the studio still saw it as a basic “teen comedy,” source of a great soundtrack, endlessly quotable one-liners, regular rotation on cable channels, and maybe even a TV show. The reality, of course, is somewhat different.
Richard Linklater’s sophomore film makes you nostalgic for a time you never experienced, and probably wouldn’t have liked that much if you had. For those of us raised in the 1980s (the film’s most vocal fans are slackers who were still in grade school during the ’70s), Dazed and Confused came as a revelation, showing us gaudier, looser times. Set during a single day in 1976 in a small Texas town, Linklater’s script follows a dozen or so major characters as they celebrate the last day of high school and the start of another summer.
A batch of juniors are getting ready for their senior years, a couple junior high students can’t wait to become freshmen, and they’ve all got a massive year-end party to attend. With the possible exception of the ritual hazing of incoming freshmen (paddling for the boys, public humiliation for the girls), nothing much of import happens in the movie. Indeed, Linklater is quoted in the booklet that comes with Criterion’s DVD as saying that he never understood why teen flicks of the John Hughes school had to be so “dramatic,” since that wasn’t at all how he remembered things.
The iconic opening shot of Dazed and Confused shows an orange GTO slowly cruising the high school parking lot, under Aerosmith’s “Sweet Emotion.” It’s taking its sweet time, just circling the lot, no hurry. The film’s conclusion is similarly escapist, with a group driving off into the sunrise to get Aerosmith tickets, “the top priority of the summer.”
The students comprise a cross-clique sampling of types — brains, jocks, stoners, and cool girls. They’re aware of social boundaries but don’t enforce them so assiduously as teens do in the post-Heathers high school movie. The charismatic quarterback hero, Pink (Jason London), hangs with the jocks like Benny (Cole Hauser) and Don (Sasha Jenson), but also plays poker with the newspaper staff brains Mike (Anthony Rapp), Tony (Adam Goldberg), and Cynthia (Marissa Ribisi), and pals around with barely sentient stoners like Slater (Rory Cochrane) and Wooderson (Matthew McConaughey). They’re a vibrant, fascinating group, even when they’re doing nothing.
The bicentennial affords a visual motif: American flags are everywhere, especially prominent in the scene where lonely freshman Mitch (Wiley Wiggins) is about to be pounced on by a squad of upper classmen wielding wooden paddles; the flag flaps ironically in the night sky while he trudges off to his fate. But for the most part, the year seems incidental, reflecting Linklater’s stated desire (also noted in the Criterion booklet) to drop into this moment, record it, and depart without judgment. And deliver an awesome soundtrack — mostly crotch-rocker party anthems from Foghat and Aerosmith, but with less radio-friendly tunes like the Runaways’ “Cherry Bomb” and Dylan’s “Hurricane” providing texture.
While it doesn’t play up the film’s party-hearty aspect as much as the Universal package, Criterion’s Dazed and Confused also doesn’t turn too scholarly. The DVD comes with the company’s usual to-the-max packaging, with the booklet of essays (mostly chatty raves from fans like Chuck Klosterman), hours of extras (interviews, deleted scenes, auditions), even a small poster. The DVD appreciates the film itself, without trying too hard to analyze or understand it, thank god. The deleted scenes show how Linklater pared away the script’s darker elements, especially one disturbing scene where Benny goes on a racist tirade. Seen here, it seems purposeless, its excision a wise choice. This is a pretty sunny film, all told, and doesn’t need such shadows.
The Criterion edition presents Linklater and his cast at their shaggy, ragamuffin best, improvising their way through a script that he wanted to be just the “framework.” As he says in the ebullient and inspiring notes handed out to the cast (included in the booklet), “If the final movie is 100% word-for-word what’s in this script, it will be a massive underachievement.” After seeing the preparation and input that Linklater demanded from his actors, it’s clear they all took his words to heart.
It helps that Dazed and Confused is a film that practically demands repeat viewings. Like the similarly serious comedy Risky Business, Dazed can be viewed as either a perfectly serviceable party flick or a cinematic milestone.