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. 

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Inside Spirited Away

Daily Prompts, Movies and Books

My favorite movie is Spirited Away, Miyazaki’s 2001 animated masterpiece. Here’s a brief summary for those who have never seen the movie: ten-year-old Chihiro and her parents are driving to their new home when they get lost and wander through an old tunnel into this beautiful, deserted town that, at first glance, appears very normal. They stumble upon this traditional outdoor eatery with a plethora of the most orgasmic fucking food you can imagine. I’m just gonna show you this gif instead of describing it:

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Anyway, being the fat asses that we all would be, Chihiro’s parents sit their fat asses down and start shoving everything they can into their drooling mouths. Not long after, they transform into pigs. To save them and return home, Chihiro ventures into this wondrous and scary world of spirits and witches and talking animals. My words do not and can never do justice to this movie: it’s 120 minutes of magical, visceral epiphany.

Spirited Away has become synonymous with my childhood, but the sad thing is that even if I do have the pleasure of entering Chihiro’s world, I probably wouldn’t last a day. I’d do exactly what Chihiro’s parents did and spend the rest of my life as a pig, because I doubt anyone would love me enough to go through all the shit Chihiro did to turn me back into a human being. But if I do manage to control my insatiable appetite, I’d just follow Chihiro everywhere – from Yubaba’s glorious bathhouse for the spirits to Kamaji’s boiler room to that eery water train. I want to watch her navigate through the labyrinth of Miyazaki’s imagination with her childlike curiosity and courage. Chihiro represents an era of my life so long gone that I doubt I can still recognize as mine. Watching Spirited Away, no matter at what age, always reminds me of the thrill and optimism I felt as a kid. Chihiro reminds me of the girl I was ten years ago, innocent and reckless and selfless. I could never be that girl again…I’m not even sure I really want to, but I miss her. And I miss being a stupid kid with stupid dreams.

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Movie Preview: If I Stay

Movies and Books

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So apparently in less than a month, there will be an influx of distraught, self-proclaimed If I Stay fans who have never read the book. That is a honestly a horrifying prospect.

I read Gayle Forman’s If I Stay a little over four years ago, which is around a year after its release. So I remember the days when the book only had like 200 reviews on Amazon. Now it’s up to like 1500, I believe. I admit it does suck a little to feel not as hipster anymore. Anyway, I can still clearly recall that one sad, sad night in which those malevolent 200 pages knifed me to death, ripping my heart out of my fucking ribcage and tearing it into bloody meat balls. That actually sounds fucking delicious. But seriously, I was niagara-falling the entire two hours that I spent curled up under my blanket flipping through those damned pages with my shaking hands. Goddammit.

I don’t think I need to explain further the psychological trauma that book inflicted on my fragile psyche. The plot itself is simple enough. Seventeen year old Mia is a prodigious cello player with a bright future at Juilliard, chill as fuck parents, an adorable kid brother called Teddy, and a sexy, rock star boyfriend, Adam. Then one cold winter morning, fate decides to sink its rotten, grotesque teeth into her beautiful life by dropping a stupid, fat pickup truck into an already treacherous icy road on which Mia and her family were driving to see some relatives (it’s been four years since I last read the book, so I’m not 100% sure if the last part is entirely accurate). So fate and the stupid truck kill Mia’s parents and her little brother, leaving her with a bunch of broken limbs and in a coma. She immediately gets into some sort of out-of-body state in which her spirit leaves her unconscious body and experiences all the chaos occurring in the ER around her. She eventually realizes that she has a choice live or die; staying means Adam and music and a future, leaving means reunion with her parents and brother.

Since the movie hasn’t been released yet, I can only judge what’s to come in the two-minute trailer. The casting is by no means awful, and I do think Chloe Moretz’s acting is strong enough to carry the film (btw, since when did the girl become so hot?? Remember her in Hugo?). But there’s something about the trailer that seems just so chick flick to me. I don’t mean no disrespect to chick flicks at all, but If I Stay is NOT a fucking chick flick. It’s about a girl grappling with the void left by her family’s death, torn between a irretrievable past filled with joy and love and a bleak future filled with loss and uncertainty. I don’t know if the movie can capture the poignant contrast between the happy flashbacks and the agonizing present. The turmoil in Mia’s narration just can’t be conveyed through freaking voice over. And here’s the thing that bugs me the most: Adam’s presence is in no way the only reason for Mia to stay and live. He is in no way the only silver lining in a life without her parents and brother. Her love for music has the far greater influence, and I have horrible feeling that it’s going to get tragically overshadowed by the trendier, more relatable theme of teenage love.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not discouraging anyone from watching the movie. In fact, I’m going to watch it as soon as it comes out. I just wanted to point out some of the most glaring flaws in recent movie adaptations of best-selling YA novels. The profound, complicated themes too often get buried under more typical, tangible ones. Images can’t replace words; they can only simplify and dramatize. One can only cram a limited portion of the original material into an 120 minute motion picture, and it’s much more convenient to translate the most recognizable themes onto film. So rather ironically, watching a movie can never produce the same startling, visceral experience as reading a book for the first time. And reading something as insightful and poignant as If I Stay AFTER watching a dramatically simplified movie version of it is like…I don’t know, watching the replay of the World Cup final after you already knew that your favorite team got crushed. I apologize for that awful analogy, but you get my point. Read the damn book before you watch the movie. It’s an experience you don’t want to throw away.