Aerosmith. A car your dad bragged about owning in the ’70s. Dudes with long hair. Bell-bottom jeans. And pot. So much pot. That’s our introduction to Richard Linklater’s cult-classic reflection of Austin in the summer of ’76. The dreamy mix of lethargic, cinema verité-style interactions. The fanciful, idealized versions of a past that is often met with conflicting sentiments of romanticism and criticism. That is Dazed and Confused.
The film takes place on the last day of school for the students of Lee High. It’s a time when the older kids ritualistically get ready for their senior year by violently hazing wide-eyed, soon-to-be-freshmen. Those junior-high grads burst with excitement — for better or for worse — at the prospect of finally joining this otherworldly cosmos also known as the American High School scene. “School’s Out” by Alice Cooper plays as students joyously race down the hallways in anticipation of what will hopefully be a sex-drugs-and-rock-and-roll-filled summer. And anyone who’s experienced that last-day-of-school rush can agree: as far as the sensation of nostalgia goes, this moment always takes first prize.
In Dazed and Confused, Linklater feeds on audiences’ desire for that nostalgia by presenting a romanticized version of the past. But, at the same time, he subverts the common theme to emphasize the importance of change. Indeed, his characters indulge in the tropes of the ’70s, yet when you look closer, there’s more to the film than meets the eye. And at the end of Dazed and Confused, you’ll inevitably come away with a sense that, more important than a penchant for the past, there is a commitment to moving forward.
American media has long capitalized on audiences’ infatuation with nostalgia. Coming-of-age films like Stand by Me (1986) and The Sandlot (also released in 1993 just six months ahead of Dazed and Confused) captivate us because we miss the simpler, more adventurous years of our childhoods. Linklater grips onto the unique emotional experience that accompanies such longing in Dazed and Confused, and the result offers insight into nostalgia’s role in our society, with all of its problems and its positives alike.
What ultimately makes Dazed and Confused so rich with nostalgia is the fact that, at its core, it is a film about an affirmation of traditional values. Although the film begins with the filtering out of the “old,” via the inevitable seasonal cycle of high school, it also begins with the matriculation of the “new,” with the incoming freshmen bound to repeat the same mistakes and successes as their predecessors. We see this in the hazing rituals: senior boys beat freshman boys with paddles; senior girls humiliate freshman girls with pacifiers and condiments.
The dreamy and idealized atmosphere of the film might indicate that, in some sense, there isn’t really anything wrong with what is being portrayed. The bad accompanies the good; every little newcomer has to pay his or her dues. And, from one perspective, this is problematic: perhaps Linklater should have offered more of a critique of this callous behavior. But, on the other hand, it’s important to be honest about the past, for better or for worse. Sugarcoating doesn’t do anyone any good.
What’s more, although Dazed and Confused might cement these problematic perspectives at times, Linklater makes sure to end the film by boldly stating that, yes, there is hope in the future. We can argue that the reason this film in particular captures our need for nostalgia has to do with it being a high school film. High school is the last time in our lives when we don’t have a clear conception of the world, and — still — anything is possible. That is likely why it is often coined “the best years of our lives.” So, through this trip down memory lane, we can capture that wistful, heartwarming glance back at the past, while simultaneously looking toward the future.
The title of the film itself, adapted from a Led Zeppelin song that came out a couple of years before Dazed and Confused is set, offers additional insight into this strange, liminal state: to be “dazed and confused” is to exist in a dreamlike mode with no concept of what’s around you. This offers some insight into the hazing process depicted, too. The rising seniors know that their time of being dazed and confused will be up when the year is over — their years in nirvana will soon reach their end. And so, the jaded torture the innocent.
Mitch Kramer (Wiley Wiggins), an incoming freshman, is an unlikely candidate for the “cool kid,” to say the least. He’s small, shy, and quiet. He’s nothing like Randall “Pink” Floyd (Jason London), the handsome, charismatic star quarterback, or even O’Bannion (Ben Affleck), the commanding school bully. But his admiration of the older kids indicates that he would like to be. These are our high school “stars,” and, as far as the world of Dazed and Confused is concerned, Mitch doesn’t have a spot anywhere near that crowd; he’s probably better suited with the resident “nerds,” Mike (Adam Goldberg), Tony (Anthony Rapp), and Cynthia (Marissa Ribisi).
But, at the end of the film, Mitch comes home in the early morning still buzzed from the shenanigans of the night before, and he lies in bed listening to “Slow Ride” by Foghat with his over-ear headphones. He smiles. He’s made it. The future is his, and he already has fond memories to look back on. And he’s not Randall, and he’s not O’Bannion. He’s Mitch.
While we have a penchant for nostalgia, looking to the past can be a good thing, but sticking to it can’t possibly be. We have no choice but to move forward. This is exemplified best in the iconic character of Wooderson (Matthew McConaughey), a much older guy who still hangs around with the high school kids. High school was obviously his heyday, but he sticks out like a sore thumb, and when he hits on young girls, it’s creepy.
Linklater went on to make another nostalgia period piece more than two decades years later with the 1980s-set college baseball film Everybody Wants Some!!, which largely delivers the same message in a different time period: the film’s hero, Jake (Blake Jenner), spends the entirety of the film feeding into stereotypes of the time and attempting desperately to fit in. But ultimately he realizes, like Mitch, that he needs to make his own way in the world.
I think it’s safe to say, then, that Linklater is absolutely an advocate for all things Aerosmith and big-hair. But he’s also an advocate for breaking the mold and not clinging too fiercely onto the past.