Dazed and Confused (1993)

Dir. Richard Linklater. Starring Jason London, Rory Cochrane, Matthew McConaughey

Deadwood, the Joe Rudi of Peak TV, takes the murder of Wild Bill Hickok more or less as its starting point. It’s a great place to start your TV show, especially if you’re a viewer who has never heard of Will Bill, knows he’s being played by recognizable quantity Keith Carradine, and expects that he’ll keep kicking throughout the show’s run. How serendipitous for Deadwood that Hickok was murdered in the summer of 1876, less than a month after the national Centennial. The Centennial provides a special light on the events in Deadwood that would be lacking if it were even one year earlier or later; it is a symbol of what’s old in the country (old-school white male supremacy coupled with inveterate backroom intriguing) combined with what is new (South Dakota! the Wild West! a gold rush! expanding frontiers!) to lend a perfect double-vision which gives the viewer eyes in the front and back of his/her head. Dazed and Confused, set in the late spring of 1976, a month and change before the national Bicentennial, lends that double-vision to viewers who could, presumably, reach back and remember 1976. What is old is still old (the need to prove to the other kids that you can get it up), and what is new is new (you can prove you can get it up using a variety of technological and social techniques that would have befuddled weed-toking George Washington himself).

There is nothing to do in whatever Texas town Dazed and Confused is set in. This seems to be true for just about everyone – they are tremendously bored, and whatever the kids get into is just a distraction from the fact that there’s not much going on. This truth is addressed a couple of times in the film, but only obliquely. Mike (Adam Goldberg) makes some comment about wanting to get out of town to become an ACLU lawyer (before “circling back” and dramatically, brilliantly announcing all he wants to do is dance). The fortunately named Randall “Pink” Floyd (London) has this pearl of wisdom:

Pink: All I’m saying is, that if I ever start referring to these as ‘the best years of my life’ to remind me to kill myself.

He’s right, and for the star quarterback of a team with Texas state championship aspirations, that’s no small thing to say. (Dawson, who, while also a football player, doesn’t have the looks or attitude or skill to be half as feted as Pink, tries to echo the sentiment but falls short.) Doubtless there are hundreds of men, from children to old folks, who would be just fine calling a glorious senior season the best times of their life. But Pink has the right idea; there are few things sadder than a person who peaked in high school, and true to form, his friend who’s done just that seems indifferent to the fact.

Wooderson (McConaughey), if we’re talking about people who are important to the film’s plot, can’t rank higher than fifth or sixth. Here’s my very official top 10:

  1. Pink – everything revolves around him, because he speaks everyone else’s language as fluently as his own.
  2. Mitch (Wiley Wiggins) – the most tight focus of the masculine hazing ritual, and given a wide berth to act much older than he is.
  3. Don (Sasha Jenson) – got to be pretty high up on the list of total scenes appeared in.
  4. Slater (Cochrane) – totally ubiquitous, interacts with everyone.
  5. Jodi (Michelle Burke) – connection to feminine hazing ritual important, but so is her link to #1 and #2 on the list.
  6. Wooderson – all right all right all right.
  7. Mike – the standard bearer for the smart set.
  8. Pickford (Shawn Andrews) – this is a fundamentally different (and markedly worse) movie if it’s a house party, and Pickford’s around enough anyway to make waves.
  9. Tony (Anthony Rapp – I know, I know!)
  10. Sabrina (Christin Hinojosa) – She and Tony are the only gentle elements of the film, the only foundation on a face full of acne.

Honorable mentions: Cynthia (Marissa Ribisi), Benny (Cole Hauser), O’Bannion (Ben Affleck), Darla (Parker Posey), Michelle (Milla Jovovich)

Anyway, while Wooderson isn’t a key element to the plot, what makes Wooderson matter is that he’s really playing the Ghost of Students Yet to Come. It could not be clearer that any high school guy at the party, or at the Emporium, is about this close to devolving to Wooderson’s level. The most memorable bit of dialogue in the film is a Marx Brothers-in-movies-but-Woody-Allen-in-real-life-worthy one-liner.

Wooderson: That’s what I like about these high school girls. I get older: they stay the same age.

He is, by any reasonable standard, creepy, and somehow it’s a charm that even works on smart people. Not only does Pink see him as a fundamentally cool guy, but Cynthia has a brain in her head and can also recognize that Wooderson is a good-lookin’ guy even if there’s not much under the veneer. (Like horoscopes, each social group in Dazed and Confused is vaguely recognizable to all viewers, but some groups are more recognizable than others. The Mike-Tony-Cynthia trio is my horoscope, and I’ll accept being that square.) Wooderson should be a warning siren to every one of the much younger people at the party at the moon tower, but instead he’s a demigod, too laid-back and sexy for teenagers, who worship the apathetic and attractive, to dismiss. Because Wooderson has no shame and he is surrounded by a group of people for whom conformation is essential – remember, the first half of this movie is about a hazing ritual that the adults of the town seem to be totally okay with – he is magic. The timer on Wooderson’s brand of cool is going to go off any day now, but for the moment, he is still as ripe as ever. No wonder he fascinates just about everyone, from Mitch to Rory to Pink to Cynthia. Even Mike and Tony, who can see through the facade and recognize a guy in his twenties who is so lame that he hangs out with seventeen-year-olds, have a visceral reaction without Wooderson even trying to get one. Mike and Tony have to try to get the kind of attention that Wooderson just piles up in bunches. Everyone else in this movie falls into a type; Wooderson is a symbol. Dazed and Confused is about creating a mood, a sensibility, and no one does it better in the film than McConaughey does.

One of the film’s little games centers on Pink, who is expected by his football coach to sign a pledge stating that he won’t do anything over the summer which would jeopardize the goal of a state title: in other words, Coach means smoking weed, drinking, etc. Everyone else on the team has signed and broken the promise by roughly 9:00 p.m. that same day. Only Pink refuses to go along with it; maybe he paid attention while they were teaching The Crucible or the Declaration of Independence, but something about signing his name to a document that he has no intention of being led by feels funny to him. In fact, it’s so distasteful that he is seriously considering giving up the football team, a consideration that earns him a tongue-lashing from Benny, who seems to be perfectly fine living out the conceit of “Glory Days” in 1996. The film very nearly – so nearly that I was actually mad – falls into the trap of having Pink decide not to play football so that he can be like, an individual, man. Dazed and Confused leaves it hanging; Pink knows that his coach needs him more than he needs his coach, and lets him know it while keeping his options open. It’s a far superior ending, one that refuses to let its type turn into an outright trope.

What’s amazing is that at the end of the night, as it’s turned into early morning on May 29th, sees virtually everyone satisfied. Virtually no one is unhappy; everyone has landed safely; histrionics have faded, God’s in his heaven, and all’s right with the high schoolers. (The only exception is O’Bannion, who, in his ecstasy of beating the dickens out of 14-year-olds, has paint dumped on him; he’s pretty cheesed off, but disappears for good after that lone incident.) Linklater, in the same way that no one calls Wooderson a loser and Pink refuses to be an out-and-out stereotype, lets the audience make the judgment call for itself. Obviously, the empty road that Wooderson and company are driving down leads to nowhere, but everyone’s smiling and laughing anyway. Why worry?

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