All Right All Right All Right: 25 Years Of 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,” says Randy ‘Pink’ Floyd, towards the end of Dazed And Confused, the joyfully plotless 1993 film directed by Richard Linklater. It could be argued that Dazed And Confused doesn’t have anything so elementary as a “main character” but if it does, Floyd is him. A fully mature adult who has watched the previous hour and a half of the film might suspect his director is laughing at him a little cruelly here. It is the last day of school, 1976, in suburban Austin, Texas, and for the last few hours Floyd has driven around with his friends, smoked weed, chugged beer, had his football skills eulogised by the town elders, been fawned over by various girls, acted as mentor to a younger version of himself, partied and stolen an illicit kiss in the woods and destroy several strangers’ mailboxes. In five years, it will be 1981, Ronald Reagan will be in the White House and Randy will probably have binned his bellbottoms, cut his flowing dark locks and be in a significantly more sensible job than he’d imagined. You bet he’s going to be referring to these as the best years of his life. 

Dazed And Confused is a film that sometimes feels like it’s been made specifically for me: someone, in other words, who is entranced by 70s culture, has a preference for languid, character-based storytelling, and – while not a fan of musicals – is a huge fan of films that are very nearly musicals. It’s full of great 70s cars, great 70s fashion, and each of the great 70s songs on its soundtrack frame a scene. I have seen Dazed And Confused well over fifty times and feel like I know many of its characters better than some real life friends. Floyd is perhaps an extra reason why it hits home on a personal level. Unlike him, I was not a significant character at my school: I spent my last couple of years there mostly mentally, and often physically, absent. I was decent at football, but not close to being best player in the school. But like Floyd I was athletic and had one limb in each of three sharply contrasting social camps: The Sporty Kids, The Reprobates and The Nerds, never quite fully sure where I belonged. It was good training for my adulthood, where I feel most comfortable on the edge of things, never quite fully part of a tribe, and it seems entirely possible that Floyd went on to a similar destiny. 

Of course, another major difference between me and Floyd is that my adolescence took place in Nottinghamshire, UK, and it was about Doc Martens, Ford Fiestas and Technotronic, as opposed to cuban heels, muscle cars and Led Zeppelin. But I feel like I had a few nights – maybe one night in particular – like the Dazed And Confused characters are having. I think many of us feel that we did. But memory has scrambled the details of the night somewhat, perhaps liberally thrown in a few incidents from another wild, memorable night, misremembered a few incidents as more dramatic than they were. There are very few occasions when Dazed And Confused doesn’t seem realistic but it might ultimately be a film less about an actual night, and more about the way a memorable night manifests itself in our mind, several years on. 

The measuring of time – a theme also common to Linklater’s almost-as-brilliant film Boyhood, which was shot over the course of 11 years, allowing the actors to age naturally in accordance with the narrative’s time frame – was always a hugely interesting aspect of Dazed And Confused. As time has marched on, it has become an even more interesting aspect. On September 24th, it will be precisely 25 years since the film’s original cinematic release. To put that into perspective: that’s eight whole years more than the space of time between the year when the film was released and the year it was looking back on. If a similar film was made now, the year it would be looking back on would be 2001. 2001! 2001 only happened the other day, right? With time, the film has gained a triple nostalgia: nostalgia for the period it was recreating, and nostalgia for a very slightly grunge era slant to its perspective on the mid-70s, and – emerging from these two other nostalgias – an extra nostalgia for eras when fashion and music reinvented themselves much more frequently and dramatically than they do now. The world that the teenagers of Dazed and Confused live in is entrenched in classic rock. Classic rock already feels mature, well established. But seven years earlier, classic rock hadn’t quite even been invented. Seven years before that, The Beatles weren’t quite even properly The Beatles. Look at now, by contrast: seven years ago, it was 2011, which I still often refer to as “last year”, and when I was wearing the same shirt and shoes I’m wearing today. I realise that my view of this is dictated by my own particular time of life, and a vast amount has changed in the technological universe – in the way humans communicate with one another, particularly – since 2011. But to watch Dazed and Confused now is a lesson about how much more visibly we once wore the changes in our culture. I watched the film for the first time – on VHS, loaned to me by my mate Matt, the Milla Jovovich to my Joey Lauren Adams – about a year after its original release, in 1994, and the mid-70s seemed *miles* away. Fascinatingly, mysteriously so. After I watched it, I hit the secondhand shops in Nottingham and Sheffield hard. I have never been knowingly underflared since.

What will probably strike you first of all about Dazed, on a debut viewing, is just how many household names made their debut appearance on the big screen here. Parker Posey (“Wipe that face off your head, bitch!”) and Ben Affleck play the film’s two most unpleasant bullies, subjecting freshmen to humiliating hazing rituals with cricket bats, eggs and flour. Most famously, Matthew McConaughey did his first ever bit of proper acting here, playing Wooderson, a former football star far too old – 25? 28? … 30? – to be hanging out with the rest of the crowd in the film, in possession of a hairstyle just a bit too troubling to be cool. “That’s what I love about these high school girls, man,” says Wooderson, in the film’s most quoted snippet of dialogue. “I keep getting older, they stay the same age.” The outright creepiness of Wooderson’s statement somehow comes across softer in the universe Linklater has created, where nothing is quite genuinely threatening. Similarly, when the man whose mailbox that Randy and his friends have destroyed shoots his gun at their car, there is no sense that one of the bullets could injure or kill somebody. It is as if a spell has been cast over the whole film, drenching it in a light mist of innocence, so even its darkest moments don’t seem truly dark. As a result, when you watch it, you feel as invincible as a sixteen year-old out after midnight for the first time.

As much and possibly more than many of my favourite books, Dazed And Confused might be responsible for teaching me that you can still tell a very good story without a lot of significant events occurring or any major changes taking place by the end of it and that a story can be written in such a way that the reader doesn’t necessarily get the most out of it on the first telling. It’s a movie that never encourages us to hurry, full of the mild drama of real life, oddly quiet in some ways for all its relentless partying. Like that other finely matured 1990s hangout film, The Big Lebowski, Dazed is full of lines that become funnier or more resonant with each viewing, many of which feature the word “man” (which, incidentally, is said a total of 223 times in the film’s duration): “Don’t write a cheque with your mouth that your butt can’t cash.” “You just got to keep living man, L-I-V-I-N.” “I only came here to do two things, man: kick some ass and drink some beer. Looks like we’re almost all out of beer.” 

Characters evolve, too, as the viewings pile up. For my first eight or so watches of Dazed I believed that Wooderson was the film’s most finely drawn character, but now I’d give the prize to Mike, a stressed out nerd played by Adam Goldberg, later to be better known for his portrayal of Mellish in Saving Private Ryan and Chandler’s crazy roommate Eddie in Friends. I was no Mike when I was at school but as an adult I can’t think of another moment in any film that I relate to more than the conversation he has with his friends Tony and Cynthia – adult teenagers, like him, prone to overanalysis and political theorising – in Cynthia’s car as they listen to ‘Low Rider’ by War. After confessing the burden of the expectations he places on his own future and his doubts about it, they ask him what he’d prefer to do. “I wanna DANCE!” he announces. He walks around like his long limbs are a burden to him, apparently in constant confusion about where to put them, and gets more tightly wound as the film goes on, as if some giant invisible hand is twisting him anticlockwise, getting ready to unleash him anticlockwise and see how far he goes. In the film’s pivotal scene, he is involved at a fight at a place called the Moontower, where a spontaneous party involving beer kegs and dancing has taken place. Who took the kegs there? Where is the music coming from? What are these idyllic municipal areas of woodland that we can occupy with our friends, drink, snog, fight and puke in, without being questioned by authority, and where can the rest of us find them? I have only asked these questions with time. Something else has only become clear to me about Mike’s fight, in which his opponent is one the film’s rare shorthairs: a petrolhead called Clint who Mike describes as “a super dominant male in a 50s greaser uniform”. Clint in fact looks quite a bit like a buff, groomed version of Mike, and could be seen as a sliding doors version of him. Is he ultimately having a fight with himself?

Have I seen Dazed And Confused too many times? Some might argue so, but I don’t think “too many” is a thing, when it comes to this film. Admittedly, though, there have been times when my own historical reality has blurred with that of Dazed’s. Mitch Kramer, the freshman who Randy Floyd takes under his wing, has extremely similar hair and facial features to an unusually young-looking kid called Graham who was on the same BTEC course as me in 1993, and sometimes the two coalesce in my mind. I now sometimes remember Graham as having had a habit of touching the bridge of his nose, but he didn’t – although, during the course of Dazed And Confused, Mitch touches the bridge of his a total of 42 times. Randy’s lilac shirt is a very “last day of school” shirt, and I sometimes can get lulled into believing that I wore the exact same shirt at a disco at the last day of school in 1990, when in fact it was an inferior – though fairly similar – shirt. Ultimately this should be seen as a compliment to Linklater for alchemising a very specific collection of teenage experiences in a very specific era into something that can speak on a universal level to a wide and varied group of people from different places who have once been teenagers themselves. 

In 2016, Linklater made what he called a “spiritual sequel” to Dazed And Confused, Everybody Wants Some, set four years later, in 1980, and concerning a few days in the lives of a group of college baseball players. I like it a lot, but it’s a much more male film, which speaks much more directly to a sporting crowd – a crowd which, from firsthand experience, understands the competitive culture around sport that can turn young men into dickheads – and, although its characters become less unpleasant with time, and there are many echoes of Dazed in their humour and body language, it doesn’t have the earlier film’s warmth and softness. There’s not the same the sense of young folk looking out for each other. It’s not the same safe and comforting place to go back and hang out. Ultimately you get the sense that Linklater has more affection for the time and place and people of his earlier film. It is also as if these new, callow actors – many of them on screen for the first time – have sensed his affection, the defining importance of the story he’s telling, and club together to perform out of their skin. Even the bit players give the performance of a lifetime. Take Benny, for example, a football colleague of Floyd’s. He is not one of the film’s more significant characters but the moment at the closing party where he stands up, realises he’s going to puke, then sits down again is, for me, as great as anything Brando did in On The Waterfront. It’s all these little touches that make this one evening so enduring. At the film’s conclusion, with sun fully up, the last survivors of May 28th, 1976 – Floyd, Wooderson, Floyd’s girlfriend Simone and his stoner friend Slater – head off to Houston to pick up some tickets for an Aerosmith gig. There’s surely going to be a point in the next couple of hours when even they have to crash – a point when everyone will finally be asleep, and it will all be over. But you don’t need to worry. The play button is just there, and you can hit it, and once again, an orange Pontiac GTO with 1970 plates will pull into a school parking lot to the elastic, pregnant opening chords of ‘Sweet Emotion’. The seemingly impossible is true: this soft, wild, perfectly observed night really can go on forever. 

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5 thoughts on “All Right All Right All Right: 25 Years Of Dazed And Confused

  1. Tom, I am so with you on this. I have had a very strong relationship with this film for years. I think a big part of me likes to think my teenage years were like this…. And to a certain extent they were (if much more British). The scene at the stadium at the end has a melancholy that could really bring you down….. Man.

  2. I also own this film and have watched it many times. Richard Linklater is one of my favorite directors ("School Of Rock" also being a keeper). Dazed and Confused is a classic at this point, and I loved your analysis. You managed to quote most of the best lines from the film, so I now feel a close kinship with you 😉 I was born in 1970, so the time period of the film is a little off from my experience, but close enough to still resonate (I have an older bother who was listening to Sweet, Kiss, and Thin Lizzy in the 70's, so those bands still hold a nostalgic place in my heart – well, maybe not Kiss). It is interesting (and impressive) how Linklater managed to capture the Zeitgeist of that transition to adulthood regardless of the setting (I was in California, whereas your were in Nottinghamshire). I also appreciated your taking note of the way that rock music has stopped evolving per decade (or at least, seriously slowed). I personally believe this has something to do with the politics of corporate control of the music industry… they now seem to act as gatekeepers to ensure nothing truly good gets out there 😛 Fortunately, their having no taste also means some good ones can slip through just out of their failure to identify them as such. Anyway, thank you for taking the time to acknowledge the depth and resonance of this (perhaps underrated) piece of film history.

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