Dazed and Confused: 20 Years On

Movies and Books

It’s a definitive moment of 90s cinema, the era of Gen X slacker flicks: Six high schoolers sprawled on the 50 yard line of their empty football field, gazing at the ink-blue canvas of a pre-dawn sky and trading hard-hitting stoner thoughts on the meaning of life.

“If I start referring to these as the best years of my life,” says Pink, the star quarterback and alpha dog of the school, “remind me to kill myself.”

“You just gotta keep on livin’, man,” comes the now iconic response from Wooderson, the twentysomething womanizer with greasy hair and a faint mustache. “L-I-V-I-N.”

Such existential ramblings, at once satirical and deeply profound, transformed Richard Linklater’s 1993 low-budget comedy, Dazed and Confused, into a coming-of-age cult classic.

It follows a group of students on the last day of school in 1976. What happens? Not much, other than what usually happens–underage drinking, unsupervised parties, first kisses, pseudo-hazing rituals, and a whole lot of soul searching. By the time dawn breaks, Linklater has given us a hearty throwback to the 70s, a soundtrack full of classic rock anthems, and a pair of future superstars: Matthew McConaughey and Ben Affleck.

But Dazed and Confused is more than just an authentic portrayal of the rebellious and indulgent 70s youth culture. It is an impressionist painting of the adolescent mind, expressing the timeless struggle to escape mediocrity and find purpose, to discard the future and embrace the now. Its characters are as familiar to us millenials as they were to Gen Xers upon its initial release 22 years ago. They are reckless yet empathetic, lazy yet passionate. They are, for the lack of a more apt phrase, dazed and confused–as we are now.

“I’d like to quit thinking of the present as some minor, insignificant preamble to something else,” says Cynthia the redhead scene-stealer, in what could be a mantra for the youth movement.

With seamless transitions from one vignette to the next, Linklater’s understated direction captures the immaturities of youth with an observant, compassionate eye. The weakness of the script, marked by one-dimensional characters and incoherent plotlines, actually adds to the haziness of adolescence and the realism of the filmmaking. The absence of plot twists keeps viewers fixated on the characters’ hilarious and deceptively deep dialogue, giving us an unfiltered look into the teenage soul at a moment in time.

Unlike two other seminal high school movies, Amy Heckerling’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High and John Hughes’ The Breakfast Club, Dazed and Confused skirts pivotal occasions like pregnancy and graduation, focusing instead on the mundane events and conversations we’re most likely to forget. Like those of Heckerling and Hughes, Linklater’s high schoolers are flawed and privileged, irresponsible and irreverent. But rather than showing how they are capable of change, he brings forth their redeeming qualities: self-awareness and loyalty. They’re slackers and thinkers who could not care less about societal progress but would do anything for their friends.

To Linklater, adolescence is the accumulation of fleeting moments that we take for granted–silent drives around town, trivial gossip and aimless musings about life. Over the years, those moments dissolve into the abyss, leaving behind just a shadow of the frustration and optimism we felt in those painfully beautiful years.

The combination of quotable one-liners, quirky characters and nostalgia for the 70s gave Dazed and Confused its lasting legacy and ageless appeal. We remember Wooderson’s pick up line (“Alright, alright, alright.”), Slater’s Martha Washington monologue (“She a hip, hip, hip lady, man!”), and Mitch’s freshman initiation beating. We remember the bell-bottoms and denim overalls, the Aerosmith opener and the Foghat closer.

But more sharply, we remember the sense of familiarity that envelops us when as we consume each scene, mentally flicking through instances in which we’ve said a similar thing or felt a similar way.

Dazed and Confused isn’t inventive or inspiring. It’s not supposed to be. It’s a fond reflection on the American youth culture and how little it has changed in four decades. It reminds us that even as the world becomes unrecognizable, we can still find parts of ourselves in relics from the past. 

Advertisements

Lonely and Alone

Musings/Rants

“If you meet a loner, no matter what they tell you, it’s not because they enjoy solitude. It’s because they have tried to blend into the world before, and people continue to disappoint them.” – Jodi Picoult, My Sister’s Keeper

Parts of that quote are always lingering in the back of my mind, but I never could remember the whole thing. So I cheated and searched it up on Google. As a life-long introvert, I know exactly what she’s talking about, and if I let myself I’ll always agree with her. It sounds so good. It makes me sound so good, like I’m this quirky social misfit who’s just too hipster, too smart, and too mature for the crowd she’s unfortunately stuck with. But I don’t think that’s how it works. It’s true that loners like me don’t enjoy solitude, but it’s not because the rest of the world keeps disappointing us. It’s because we’re too afraid to disappoint the rest of the world.

It’s difficult to explain this to socially adept people, but to hermits like us the world is a stage upon which we’re always terrified to fuck up, and because of this fear we always do fuck up. You see, for everyone else it’s so simple: you plan one thing, you practice, you execute. Most of the time that plan becomes reality. You think of something in your head, you decide it accomplishes what you’re trying to accomplish, and you say it out loud. The effect on your audience is instantaneous – they’ll laugh or cry or cheer or boo at your command. You’re the puppet master when you open your mouth.

It’s different for us. In our heads we can come up with the wittiest jokes and the most eloquent arguments, but in front of other people we sound like dyslexic four-year-olds reading a poem for the first time (sorry if that was an offensive analogy). I’m not even talking about expectation vs. reality in the philosophical, existential sense. I’m talking about simple mind-mouth coordination here, the ability to coherently translate into speech what we’re thinking. That’s why we live in our heads all the time. Because it’s the reality we want to be stuck with, even if it meant never being quite present in the reality we’re actually stuck with.

So we retreat into ourselves. We develop what we’re good at to avoid stepping out of our comfort zones. We find solace in the alternate universes we’ve built for paranoid minds. And we’re always in denial: “alone but not lonely,” “company is overrated,” “everyone is so fucking phony anyway,” “I’m happy this way.” Pretty much the, “people continue to disappoint them” point that Jodi Picoult was making. I’ll just speak for myself here: I’m a coward. Maybe the reason I’m an introvert and so many aren’t is that I just can’t handle humiliation. Maybe it’s that I’ve experienced that particular sensation way too many times when I was younger and couldn’t string together the simplest of sentences in the English language. Maybe I’m not happy being alone but it’s sure as hell a lot sweeter than stepping right into that feeling again.

We’re just tired of trying, even though we haven’t even tried all that hard. Hope always feels so small in comparison to failure. When you want to try just one more time, you can’t help but remember what happened the last time you tried – that frustration of failing to say what you’ve planned to say, the subsequent disappointment of knowing you’ve failed to make the most of yet another opportunity. And eventually you start wondering what the fuck is the damn point. That life of always having someone to drink with, shop with, walk with, talk to is just not meant for you. You will have people around, people you really care about, but most of the time you’ll be alone and you damn well better accept it.

That was a much longer post than what I usually put out, but this is a topic that’s very personal to me. I’m not depressed, and I am proud of the way my life has turned out. Being an introvert has many perks, like being just a bit more perceptive, introspective, and sardonic than others, but it’s really not a pop culture joke. Sometimes it’s refreshing and relieving, but it’s not fun being a social hermit. I just wanted to clear some misunderstandings about…us, I guess. If aloofness is how we project ourselves then it’s just a defense mechanism. We want to belong, trust me. It’s just that much harder when you’re trying to hide your nerves all the time.