Monday, July 29, 2013

#336: Dazed and Confused

(Richard Linklater, 1993)

Dazed and Confused is one of the unusual pop culture artifacts that is both nostalgic and, with the passage of time, itself a piece of nostalgia. Richard Linklater wrote the film in his mid-thirties as an ode to his high school experience in the 1970s, but upon its release the film was embraced by teenagers who identified with the bell-bottoms, long hair, and pot culture in a time when kids were desperate to reject their 80s upbringing. It subsequently became a defining work of the 1990s - no movie other than perhaps Clueless represents my generation of teenagers more effectively, a feat that seems totally ironic considering its dedication to its setting. (Note, too, that Clueless is based on Jane Austen's "Emma" - and what says more about the post-modern 90s than that?)

This achievement is less surprising when you consider how honest and loyally crafted Dazed and Confused is. Though he clearly has the cynical, destructive 80s in mind (most obviously when Marissa Ribisi theorizes that the 80s will be amazing - a clear knowing wink), Linklater never succumbs to the sort of saccharine nostalgia for innocence that George Lucas's American Graffiti is beholden to with regards to the pre-Vietnam War era. Likewise, his ability to shuttle between social strata and lend them all the same level of attention to detail and dignity is remarkable, even more so when considering how rarely this has actually been achieved. Adam Goldberg's nerd and Sasha Jenson's meathead are crafted with equal care for their intelligence and relative sophistication. It would seem unlikely that anyone who sees Dazed and Confused would be unable to recognize at least part of themselves in one or more of these vivid characters.

I've seen Dazed and Confused more times than I can count, but this most recent viewing was the first in years. I was struck by how impressed I was with the filmmaking, particularly from a storytelling perspective. Despite including multiple storylines, Linklater managed to structure the film seamlessly, giving everyone their moments without bumps in the film's momentum. The characters are well-established both through dialog and direction. Framing and establishing shots are carefully selected to hammer home each world with which Linklater is concerned. But there's also a quirkiness that emphasizes Linklater's personal connection to and love for his characters. Linklater is not often mentioned as an influence on Wes Anderson, another Texas director - though less often linked to the state, but the connection came to mind frequently while watching Dazed and Confused.

Linklater's work can often be dismissed as slight and undeserving of serious reflection, even if his movies are almost without fail intellectually stimulating. I think a big part of this is his unambitious scale; with very few exceptions, Linklater mainly focuses on average, thoroughly human characters doing average, thoroughly human things. His core masterpieces, the two Before films (I have yet to see the third), hardly concern themselves with any characters beyond the two leads, while even conventional story structure falls by the wayside. Though Dazed and Confused is similarly narratively loose, the film's format is recognizable to anyone who has seen compressed-time coming-of-age films, and this can make it seem a lot less revolutionary and a lot more specific to its time and place (both in setting and release). Hopefully, this won't prevent new generations of movie lovers from discovering the film, because it deserves a place as one of the fine films about adolescence, even after its nostalgic appeal has faded.

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