This post in honor of Richard Linklater’s impending Oscar win for Boyhood, much deserved for his commitment to cinema over the past twenty years.
Dazed and Confused is a vigorously imperfect film, by which I mean it dives head first into its imperfections and renders them successes. On many levels, its imperfections are precisely its point. It essentially lacks a narrative, and above all, it has no real three dimensional characters – normally, these two things, especially the latter, are a killer for any ensemble film, but young writer-director Richard Linklater, in what was something of his big league coming out party as a shining star in the early ’90s American independent film explosion, knows his characters too well to miss the point. His film doesn’t bring us into the minds of his teenage characters by commenting on what they do, but by becoming them, expressing who they are as a film in itself. It’s a slacker of a film for slacker characters, and in doing so it reveals more about the mid-’90s slacker film craze than any more formal “commentary” ever could have.
For, and here is the beauty of Linklater’s refusal to commit to a narrative of progress or an arc: Dazed and Confused is a character study in the truest sense of the word, not a work, like most proclaimed character studies, about someone learning or overcoming or moving forward through a plot. Such works are story-driven tales of narrative, with the narrative imparting a message onto the characters who inhabit this narrative; the characters in this kind of story serve not as subjects but objects, tools for understanding the plot or the larger philosophical question at play in the screenwriter’s mind. These are not character-based films, but works that use character to achieve other purposes.
Linklater rejects this trend: we continually expect that his characters will learn something or advance as people, but his day-in-the-life storytelling is not interested in what these characters will become or what will make them change. It is interested in the much more noble, and less common, goal: exploring who they are, now, in the present, not necessarily in transition to a future identity, but simply as they exist on their own terms. We’ve been lulled into a sort of false reality of change presented by cinematic demands for individualist narrative, and in this realm, a film that simply sits and watches as its characters run in circles and never go anywhere seems like a product of bad writing. Yet it is instead truthful, honest writing, and writing that subverts the very idea of filmic storytelling to the core, writing that tries to explore identity rather than change it, and writing that is honestly interested in these teens as characters rather than in using them to advance a plot.
Why doesn’t the movie coalesce into a conventional narrative form? Because the lives of teenagers often don’t. Instead, they run around aimlessly, stand still, make inroads toward the future, take steps back, and generally malaise around in a certain stew of human inactivity. The crass and crude acts which dot the film expose a hidden depth and stagnancy in these characters’ lives, forming the basis of social relationships handed down over time. The characters must comply with them for they have no other code of life structure to govern themselves by, but they hide a certain loneliness and sadness, a sense of not trying to move forward because they are afraid of what forward momentum in their life might mean for them.
The characters in this film, of which they are many, are filled with complication, but they don’t reveal it because they don’t know it. It only seeps in toward the end and we come to realize that Linklater’s film has been doing to us what teenager’s do to themselves – hiding itself from us, reducing itself to its characters’ masquerade. Just as they are afraid of the future, so too is Linklater’s film, so it tries everything in its path to capture the milieu of teenage life in the present (exactly as teenagers do) whilst avoiding the complications of the future that could threaten its existence. It is a film that is busy distracting itself from narrative, busy latching on to any tangent in the moment it can, so that it can avoid ever thinking about the future. Yet in avoiding it, it reveals that it is thinking about the future, and it is afraid of it, and this is the most humbling, human gesture of all, creating a film that is never less than organic and alive with suggestion.
Dazed and Confused captures the conflicted emotions of teenage life with a keen, purposefully confused eye: excitement at having graduated and feeling ready to conquer the world, anxiety at having graduated and (having to) feel ready to conquer the world, and the unmistakable need to consume a whole lot of beer to forget, or maybe to reveal more truthfully. There’s a profoundly bittersweet nature to the whole affair, and like most teenagers, it couches its anxiety, dread, and insight in the tried-and-true regions of joking, drinking, and general aimlessness. The end result is a work where the texture of the film itself is a certain character, a feeling of remorse carefully hidden away that defines the identities of Linklater’s tapestry of human characters than any one person (the individual characters, incidentally, are better left un-discussed, for they exist not as individuals but as moods in a milieu of the teenage experience).
Linklater also hides another secret, not one of art mimicking life (as his film undoubtedly does) but life mimicking art. When the film opens we are treated only to kids acting crassly for seemingly no reason, forcing younger kids to enact rituals of pain and humiliation in an endless chain of seniors desecrating freshman. As the film goes on, we see teenagers on the eve of adulthood celebrate their last day of school before the summer with drinking and engaging in reckless activity. Dazed and Confused aims to be the ultimate “one last party” movie, exactly as so many dozens of films had been before. However, there’s a tacit air of artificial superficiality to the whole affair, from this opening to the ensuing conclusion, and in the way Linklater layers the film in a non-judicious expression of teenage tropes and hyper-saturated ’70s rawk ‘n’ roll. All of which, in the final analysis, serves to expose a certain falsity in the truth of high school cinema, a certain reflection that high school movies of today can only ever quote other high school movies, and that Dazed and Confused must always be false.
And, in the most subtle of terms, it exposes that high school films have invaded the way high schoolers define their identity, changing the nature of reality, and bestowing in Dazed and Confused a certain truth even in its quest for falsity, a certain realization that teenagers act in fake ways because their conception of teenage life is defined in part by teenage films. Not that the film judges them for quoting movies even when they don’t know it – Linklater understands these teenagers, and he drives for something harder than sympathy. He aims for empathy and understanding, dancing with buttery nostalgia only to cut through it with hard-won realizations about the state of that nostalgia for teenage days. The end result is an oddly specific film for both teenagers of the early ’90s and adults who were teenagers in the ’70s, and in being so particular and specific, it becomes universal.
The film walks a fine tightrope here, one of many it ably tackles. It’s a work of character without character development, a film that finds depth in a cheerful refusal to dive below the surface, and a film that manages to respect and embody nostalgia while still rubbing its nose at nostalgia with a playful, rambunctious anarchism that recalls teenage days. It is not, twenty years later, Linklater’s finest film, but it is a great, spirited work of youthful cinema, both wise beyond its years and adult without ever growing tired and complicit with the boredom of respectability and maturity.
It is also, rather elegantly and perhaps unexpectedly, the perfect film for its time period, recalling the weird decade that was American cinema in the ’90s as a mash-up of recent past decades with its own identity found precisely in this rejiggering of this past. On one hand, Dazed and Confused is a beacon of the coming collective American ’90s obsession with a false, iconic memory of the 1970s as it manifested in ’70s pop culture (for this reason, Linklater hones in on an artificially enhanced vision of what the ’70s was that more ably recalls the memory of the ’70s than the actual time period). Simultaneously, it also recalls the 1980s glut of zippy teen films but does it with a distinctly ’90s slacker, scrappily independent spirit that recalls a combination of ’70s realist grime and ’80s pop-culture sheen. In doing so, it reflects how the American 1990s was very much a decade of redoing and redefining the previous decades of modern American life, sometimes at the expense of its own identity as a decade.
Yet, for all of its copy-and-paste recollection of past films, and perhaps because it takes all of these memories and combines them in a distinctly ’90s way, it feels wholly of its time, a work that comments less on the ’70s than on the teenage experience in the ’90s, a decade that sometimes seemed forever stuck in the past and not sure of where to go in the future. In this regard, it has more to say about ’90s cinema (similarly stuck in the past and not sure of what to do with the future, making the decade itself a teenager of sorts) than most any film from the same time period, and it does all of this while almost never formally making a reference to cinema at all. Ladies and gentlemen, Richard Linklater, so confident in the medium at such a young age that he can do anything he wants with it, whilst making it look like he’s doing nothing at all.
Thus is his real achievement: a film that is not an individualized narrative of build-up, climax, and catharsis but a full spectrum of tempos and tones, grace notes and thorny slivers, a film constructed with an eye for difference and a hetereogeneity of voices. Dazed and Confused revels in the alterity of its moments, each a scruffy anecdote, an incomplete statement, rather than a tendentious exclamation point. It doesn’t ordain its own artistic importance, and it refuses to underline its majesty, instead treating us to a democratic hamlet of intentionally low-wattage delights that effuse every aura of society and refuse to consecrate any one as the de facto center.