‘Dazed and Confused’ Is Perfectly Sincere

Dazed and Confused is a deep and richly textured film. To many, viewing it for the first time, this may seem like an absurd claim. On the surface, the film seems frivolous, at best a work of formless nostalgia and at worst a romanticization of youthful foolishness and bad choices.

And yet, watch it multiple times, easy to do because of that appearance of triviality, and before too long you’ll feel your perception shifting, folds and layers starting to show where once there seemed to be nothing but shallow surface.

Taken particularly in the context of the early ’90s, the unaffected performances from a variety of actors of different ages is one of the first qualities to note. This is a film that brought a number of Hollywood and Indiewood stars and regulars to wider notice, including Matthew McConaughey, Parker Posey, and Adam Goldberg. Others, such as Jason London, Joey Lauren Adams, and Rory Cochrane, owe some significant measure of their visibility or recognition to Dazed and Confused.

While in one sense this says something about director Richard Linklater’s and casting director Don Phillips’ eye for talent, I think that it says more about the performances, which are uniformly genuine. Notably, it took maybe four or five viewings before I registered that Ben Affleck is in the movie. Playing community joke O’Bannion remains Affleck’s most complete and emotionally raw and honest performance as an actor. The role is thankless, the guy has few obviously redeeming qualities, and yet, the moment where he “gets his” is played and staged in such a direct and unmannered way that it’s difficult not to feel some empathy for the character as he tears out of the Emporium parking lot. In that moment, it seems clear that O’Bannion knows that he is alone, and that makes him as real as the more likable figures that populate the film, but that realization is organic, not forced.

Of course, the actors performances do not happen in a vacuum; they have been assembled into a perfectly paced and pointedly edited narrative.

The pacing is at its most proficient when transitioning from day to night. As the slower, laconic after school period turns to evening, a deliberate montage of lights coming on and cars hitting the road signals the shift to a faster mode of life, with more frequent cuts from one group of friends to another as everyone looks for something, anything, to do. The musical soundtrack also intensifies, with more song changes punctuating scene changes. As the final party ends, and people begin to stumble home, the film returns to a slower, more easygoing pace and rhythm.

Linklater and editor Sandra Adair artfully build the story to create a common social world for the characters to inhabit, setting conversations into sequences that draw out both the differences and connections between characters who occupy different positions in that world. So, for example, the nerdy trio of Mike (Godlberg), Tony (Anthony Rapp) and Cynthia (Marissa Ribisi) maybe among the last to know that the party planned for that night has been canceled, but they are still linked to prince-in-the-making Mitch (Wiley Wiggins) when the movie cuts from Mike exhorting his companions towards seeking out a “visceral experience” to underage Mitch faking his way to buying beer from a convenience store.

This kind of juxtaposition raises the larger point of how Linklater treats his characters, or ensures how they get treated, in the film. Like any movie about American high school students, characters are organized into cliques, but rather than show these as discrete, the boundaries between groups are fluid, in part because there are characters, like Pink (London), who have the cultural capital to travel from jocks, to nerds, to stoners, and are therefore able to create interconnections, but also in part because the film’s characters, whatever their differences, share a common time and space which demands that they find ways to interact. There;s also an awareness that the milieu of high school allows for different ways of being and being recognized as “cool”, a quality that’s not simply owned by certain individuals, but runs through the myriad of ways by which teens perform identity.

The awareness of those performances is also part of how the characters are played, whether striking poses outside of the Emporium or partaking in the hazing rituals that mark the transition from middle school to high school and junior to senior, the youth of the film know that they both are subject to judgment by their peers and have resources to draw on when showing those peers who they are and who they want to be.

This is not to suggest that Dazed and Confused is an ironic, or meta, text. On the contrary, the film is affectionate and caring towards its characters. One of my favorite moments is in the baseball scene right before Mitch finally gets caught and paddled by a group of seniors, including Pink and O’Bannion. Getting ready for his final out on the mound, the movie shifts to slow motion, the seniors jeering as he gets ready to release his pitch, but after the ball blows by the batter, there’s a flash of respect from the older boys, a moment of respect and admiration, however brief, that humanizes even O’Bannion.

This particular scene also encapsulates the complexity of the “hazing”. As Mike and Tony observe, the rituals involved in this particular coming of age process are humiliating, but being hazed is better than not being hazed, a point made in Pink’s recruitment of Mitch and Jodi’s (Michelle Burke) recruitment of Sabrina (Christin Hinojosa).

Like Mike, Tony, and Cynthia, these socially marginal characters are entry points for the audience to navigate the cultural norms of the high school scene in a mid-sized Texas city, c. 1976. The soon-to-be freshman/first year high schoolers, Mitch and Sabrina, are shown to be bored and even repelled by the practices of their youthful elders, but also eager and accepting of the knowledge that they are gaining about how to become proper high school students.

The success of the film in representing the fluidity of identity, social boundaries, and power in youth culture makes it an open-ended text, able to sustain a multiplicity of viewings, viewing modes (casual, formal), and interpretations.

The only substantive different between this recently released Criterion Blu-ray edition of Dazed and Confused and the 2006 DVD is the disc format. The collected extras, ranging from an original poster to audition footage, is the same between the two editions, but as well-curated as one would expect from Criterion.

The Blu-ray image in its greater clarity is, arguably, “colder” than the earlier DVD, but it also gives the film a sense of immediacy or the appearance of period TV, if television in the ’70s were made with the same production values as ’90s feature films. Having written that, if you already own the DVD, which is also made from a high definition digital transfer of the film supervised by Linklater and cinematographer Lee Daniel, I’m not sure that the quality of the viewing experience afforded by the Blu-ray merits replacing the earlier set of discs.

The most interesting extra included with both the DVD and the new Blu-ray is a set of letters and memos from Linklater to cast and crew. In the conclusion to his memo to “the filmmakers”, the director writes, “The greater our possible success, the closer we verge on failure. Success will only come into being when we are totally sincere in our treatment of the material”. By that measure, Dazed and Confused is a perfect work of cinema, perhaps most of all in appearing to be so effortless and inconsequential.

RATING 10 / 10