By pure coincidence, I ended up seeing Dazed and Confused on the same day I re-watched George Lucas’ American Graffiti making for a particularly interesting double feature of American films about the last day of school an exact 20 years apart from each other. Both films consider, in part, the aimless ennui that seems to exists in that period during and immediately after high school but whereas American Graffiti uses that potential aimlessness as a springboard for other issues Dazed and Confused is really just about that aimlessness. The appearance of the title on screen with no preamble and preceding no cast of characters (that does not come until the end) is a key indication of the film to come – come spend a hundred minutes as we watch in excess of a dozen main characters (most of them high school juniors heading into their years as seniors) amble about on the last day of school before the Summer holidays.
The halls of the school are filled with students walking around with little to do and no pace to do it. That’s the film in a sense. “It’s only a teenage wastleland.” No time at school is as indicative of the barrenness the word waseteland suggests as the last days of school when there’s little to do. Stakes are not very high, although they might feel so to the teenaged characters. The biggest hurdles are things like Pink the jock with the heart of gold refusing to sign a form from his coach abstaining from drugs, or soon-to-be-freshman Mitch avoiding a bit of perverse hazing from the high school seniors. Like the best of ensemble outings, though, Dazed and Confused is less concerned with what its dozen or so main characters are up to and more with how they exist in relation to each other. Linklater is part anthropologist, part writer/director as his foremost interest seems to be simply observing what these restless children are up to.
The life of the highschooler on film has always fascinated me because of how removed from own not-North-American it is. Shades of British colonialism means my highschool is more faint inklings of An Education and the rigidity of Hogwarts, sans magic than something from John Waters. Not that Dazed and Confused is from the John Waters book of school days either. In fact, considering that I knew nothing of the film before seeing it, although the opening shots of the school halls suggest a film about school life the film is not one I’d categorise as one about highschool life. But, then, no highschool film is really *just* about school. “Is this all there is?” is the unasked question every teen seems to have on their lips. Senior bully O’Bannion probably thinks it is, which explains his terrifying trouncing of the highschool freshmen. Pink’s refusal to conform to the “man” and accept his coach’s dictum to stay away from his hoodlum friends in order to stay on the team reads like a moment that would be climatic in another teen-movie, but here it feels like Pink grasping at straws for anything, something, to hold on. He feels he’s doing something laudable by standing up to his coach’s no drugs policy, but Linklater shoots it as if it’s something of little significance. Which it probably is.
“If I ever start referring to these as the best years of my life, remind me to kill myself.”
There’s a fatalism in that line that directly cuts across any notion of charm or romance in highschool life. And in destroying that romance, Linklater is destroying the confines of typical narrative. Destroy is probably too strong a word. This is no Carax-like excursion on being an anti-narrative, but the plotless way the film meanders is unusual and notable for how unformed it is. Things happen, characters interact but there is no real indication of forward thrust – and deliberately so. But this does not make Dazed and Confused an unformed film. The way its characters own restlessness and latent uneasiness is manifested in the visuals is one of its best technical aspects. Lee Daniels, cinematography, is a constant collaborator with Linklater holds to Linklater’s anthropological notions shooting the students like animals in a natural habitat.
And it’s a decision that ultimately prevents the film from become a melodrama or a tragedy. The observational mode of it all only increases the irony of the situations that abound. The potential profundity of what happens to the characters after is incidental when offset by the silly triviality of their now. Matthew McConaughey as David Wooderson would be a tragic character or a lecherous villain in another film, but here he’s only a bumbling fool.
Of course, because I am me AND because I know that no film – especially one so meticulously constructed (for all its restlessness) exists with no reason behind it I have to consider not just how Dazed and Confused makes me feels but what it means. It seems most probable that through the haze of the cannabis smoke and alcohol Linklater is showing us a world of cinematic high school students that’s brazenly not romanticised. Here is a film about high school students which asks us not to revel in the “what-ifs” of teenage life s a fairytale but a warped, bizarre, troublesome and wandering rough but rewarding gem. Here is where I’d say Dazed and Confused is all better for that (arguable) realis but I’m not altogether ready to say no to the romanticism of high-school on film. Neither am I altogether certain that it’s the seedy genuineness of the prickly characters that makes Dazed and Confused work; at least, not that alone. But I’ll only end up going around in circles, like the characters, if I begin wondering too heavily on the whys of its meanings. Whatever its intentions, it works. Agitated and tousled, rough and still very appealing.
(Consider the disjointedness of the film a tribute to Linklater’s own narrative amblings. Maybe.)