“Dazed and Confused” at 20 Years Old

I hadn’t seen Dazed and Confused in five years or so before attending its 20th anniversary screening at the New York Film Festival on Thursday. But from the moment that the smoky opening tones of Aerosmith’s “Sweet Emotion” filled the theater, I realized why Richard Linklater’s film will never get old or dated: because it always has been. Dazed is about being old; its perspective is of one looking back at adolescence with sepia-tinted glasses. The film will continue to be appreciated because its subject is nostalgia, the one feeling that never goes away.

I fell in love with the movie when I was 16 years old, right between the ages of Pink (Jason London) and Mitch (Wiley Wiggins), the film’s dual protagonists. I deeply identified with both of them, although, if I’m being honest, there was a little Slater in me, too. I could give you a few specific comparisons between my high school experience and the events of the film, but is there any need? The appeal of Dazed is in its universality: if you were a teenage boy in America, you probably spent your nights driving around in the suburbs, experimenting with drugs, and fumbling about with girls. When I watch the film now, my nostalgia is not just for the film itself but also for my teenaged self that identified so deeply with it.

 

But the film’s appeal lies not just in its re-creation of details. Dazed also captured the dual nature of being a teenager: the feeling of vague but persistent oppression, combined with a nagging thought that this was as free as you would ever be. Or as one character put it: “If I ever start referring to these as the best years of my life, remind me to kill myself.” The characters in Dazed seem simultaneously young and old at once, looking back at their high school selves and laughing about how young and innocent they once were. Which, of course, is exactly what Linklater, who based on the film on his own upbringing in Austin, was doing.

This earned wisdom remains a rarity among American movies about teenagers. Most high school movies paint adolescence as a series of high-stake dramas – as if a single break-up, fight, or bad grade could determine the rest of their lives, but Dazed makes these choices seem lovingly, mercifully inconsequential. Will Pink (Jason London) play football next? Will he and his team win the state championship? Will Mitch (Wiley Wiggins) continue to see that older chick? Will Mike’s (Adam Goldberg) life be demonstrably better for having punched Clint at the moon tower? These questions seem a bit like background to the film, as do all other questions except, “Where are we going to party tonight?”

But the “party” is also a profound thing. The film hints at larger issues, and its themes and the complexity of its perspective seem particularly relevant to the era it was created in. Looking back at adolescence – as the film does – is to idealize adolescence, which reflects a turn-of-the-millenium culture with a deep and persistent fetish for youth. You know what I mean. Every advertisement seems targeted towards horny teenagers; our blockbuster movies are all about superheroes, which are essentially proxy teenagers, none of whom have children or adult responsibilities; even our politicians consistently use a “think of the children” rhetorical framework to raise money and push their agendas. We could blame much of this on marketing to the lowest common denominator, but I also wonder if this fixation on the youth that permeates our entire culture is a symptom of a nation that continuously lives in the moment and refuses to address its more systemic, long-term flaws. By setting its story in the summer of America’s bicentennial, Dazed invites a comparison between its excitable, irresponsible youths and the forces that drive our nation’s future.

But a first-time viewer of Dazed and Confused is unlikely to notice these themes mostly because the movie is so entertaining, so funny, and so filled with rich, indelible performances by a young, mostly inexperienced cast. The wall-to-wall great performances even turn the film’s flaws – a certain narrative sloppiness – into positives. Many of a film’s problems recede from your vision if you always enjoy the characters onscreen. Given the deep, deep understanding by both the filmmaker and his characters of the profound joy of nostalgia, it’s likely that we always will.

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