So, how do you watch a nostalgic film without the benefit of nostalgia?
There’s an abundance of movies that have achieved reference-based popularity. However, despite how prolific these films may be and how we assume that everyone has seen them, many end up escaping us.
For example, I first watched The Lion King in 2012, at the tender age of seventeen, after being confronted for many years with, “I can’t believe you haven’t seen that!” The movies we’ve watched and related to are often our most protected forms of pop culture.
Despite loving director Richard Linklater’s movies, I haven’t seen Dazed and Confused until this week.
The stoner-cult classic takes the last day of a high school and extends it into a long, meandering look at teenage life.
What’s consistent about Linklater is that he takes ordinary, seemingly inconsequential conversations and turns them into memorable moments in his films.
Life isn’t solely built on big defining gestures. Mostly we’re in the process of passing the time, sitting around with our friends and wondering if Martha Washington interacted with aliens or whether or not dreaming about Abraham Lincoln’s head on a female body means anything.
Still, I wish I had some residual teenage angst to relate to this movie.
I could recognize the predominantly white suburban high school experience as my own. The tradition of hazing — a malice that came from boredom — exists between the high and low social stratospheres of Lee High School when ‘Why Can’t We Be Friends?’ plays as a freshman Mitch is mercilessly paddled by the incoming senior boys.
But while I could objectively laugh at Ben Affleck swinging a wooden paddle, I just couldn’t help regretting not having seen this when I myself was 14 and feeling powerless and full of hormonal rage.
I have a certain preconditioned narrative of the Americana high school movie. John Hughes has trained me to expect young lovers crossing social cliques, huge stakes riding on the big school dance/house party/football game, and teenagers undermining their authoritarian upbringing.
However, Dazed and Confused’s plotline is much as its title would suggest. The big end of school party is abruptly and realistically cancelled. No one night, one event can’t always change everything in a teenager’s life.
High school isn’t as marvelous or as terrible as our memories and Hollywood films would have us believe. While most of the movie is a rambling waiting game, it’s precisely those moments of doing nothing with your friends, skipping from drive-ins to field parties with McConaughey that make-up the bulk of high school.
Dazed and Confused also features a stellar soundtrack that situates the film snugly into the 70s. Alice Cooper, The Runaways, Lynyrd Skynyrd, KISS, Black Sabbath …
It’s the kind of popular and recognizable radio music that blares out of your car window as you aimlessly drive around with your friends.
This movie came out in ’93 and looked at a day in the life of teenagers in ’76. For Linklater, it feels like him as a 33-year-old director looking back to the year he was 16. The movie is filled with a soft yearning to grow-up and escape the current situation, all while realizing that they’re doing the best they can.
It’s a smarter look at teenagers who often don’t have stories that portray them realistically, screw-ups and all. It’s not about the big moves, but the small moments.
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