The Simpsons Decade

Alright, Alright, Alright: Why Dazed and Confused Is More Than Just a Stoner Comedy

Richard Linklater's strange brew of small-town rituals and pop-culture ephemera is a seminal work of 1990s indie cinema.

by | March 7, 2017 | Comments

The job of advertising is to make whatever’s being sold seem far better than it actually is. The marketing team for Dazed & Confused took a different approach. Instead of trying to sell Richard Linklater’s follow-up to Slacker as the grunge era’s American Graffiti — a fizzy little pop concoction about kids driving around, listening to music, and trying to get drunk and laid that also just happened to be great art — the film was sold as a generic stoner comedy solely of interest to the already stoned.

The ads for Dazed & Confused, one of the best movies ever made about young people, posited it as a lowbrow comedy with nothing to offer but wink-wink, nudge-nudge references to pot and sexy young actors in tight denim blazing reefer cigarettes while listening to K-Tel’s Super Hits of the 70s. They took something instantly iconic and special and made it seem vulgar, tacky, and cheap.

Yet within the drunk, stoned, sexed-up misadventures of a group of high schoolers and high schoolers-to-be, Dazed & Confused finds a microcosm of American society. It’s no coincidence that the film takes place in 1976 during the Bicentennial, a high-water mark for mandatory/pointless patriotism.

With great humanity and humor, Dazed & Confused observes the sadistic rituals of a class of graduating seniors (and a super-senior played by Ben Affleck) intent on treating a class of incoming freshmen to the same ritualistic, paddling-heavy abuse they were subjected to. The film depicts a casual culture clash between people deeply indebted to the accepted, traditional way of doing things, no matter how insane, cruel, and arbitrary they might seem, and people who question why we must do what we’ve always done, particularly when it seems insane, cruel, and arbitrary.

The ads posited it as a lowbrow comedy with nothing but wink-wink, nudge-nudge references to pot and sexy young actors in tight denim.

It’s worth noting that even the angsty, conflicted characters here don’t actively rebel against the school and town’s customs. Adam Goldberg‘s Mike Newhouse and Anthony Rapp’s Tony Olson, the two most non-conformist characters in the movie, don’t actually try to keep girls from being actively humiliated or boys from being physically assaulted. Hell, they even play along with these brutal games by flirting with a nymphet forced to propose marriage by one of the senior girls.

Everyone seems content to go along with these strange customs out of some combination of inertia, tradition, and peer pressure, or maybe just because they genuinely believe, as some of us do, that getting humiliated by mean girls or beaten up for no good reason is essential to coming of age in America. And for many of us (myself included), it’s not just a component of coming of age, it’s the whole process in its entirety, so there’s something weirdly cathartic and empowering about being able to laugh at the amount of sadism we happily accept at that age.

There’s a wonderful moment that links the petty savagery of high school to the greater horrors of the outside world when the incoming freshmen appeal to their teacher to help them avoid an almost-certain beating by older teenagers. Rather than taking pity on his students, the teacher licks his chops before lovingly quoting a superior from his time in the military who told his men that some of them would not be coming home from their mission, except in a body bag. There is no reprieve from this pain and pointless punishment, only the opportunity to endure it with dignity and grace.

Aside from the ritualistic cruelty, there are other ubiquitous forces that bring everyone together in the film, like the universal high school desires to get drunk, get high, and get laid — preferably in that order — and, of course, the music. It’s hard to overstate the importance of music in the film, just as it’s difficult to overstate the importance of music in the lives of American teenagers. Like American Graffiti, Dazed & Confused feels like a musical even thought it’s not. Music isn’t just the soundtrack to these kids’ lives: it is their lives. It’s how they define themselves, and it’s also a common language they share; they’re united by Peter Frampton’s talk box and the songs on the radio that everyone knows by heart.

It’s especially remarkable how these characters were able to relate to each other this way, since pop culture was infinitely more difficult to access at the time than it is now. In a throwaway bit of dialogue, stoners discuss in reverential terms an almost assuredly apocryphal tale of an hour-long Jon Bonham solo, an epic feat of musical aggression too intense to be processed on strong acid. It’s a moment that succinctly and amusingly captures the way that myths and fantasies about musicians spread in a pre-internet era as a form of contemporary folklore. If that story were to be passed between a couple of stoners in today’s world, one of them would be able to instantly check their iPhone and discover either that it was bogus or, alternately, that there was a Wikipedia entry for it, a Youtube clip seen millions of times, and at least one podcast devoted to the feat.

Dazed & Confused feels like a musical even thought it’s not.

Similarly, there’s a moment of great prescience when the bored kids spend their final moments in class thinking up the premises of as many episodes of Gilligan’s Island as possible. They’re like an analog version of Wikipedia, acquiring and dispensing pointless yet weirdly addictive information in real time. The collection of this seemingly random, almost impressively inconsequential information conveys how the monoculture of the pre-internet, pre-VCR era bound people together, how watching the same dumb shows and listening to the same inane music connected them to each other and to the past.

But there’s a second component to the Gilligan’s Island discussion that indelibly marks Dazed & Confused as part of the same wave of chatty, self-referential cinema that spawned Reservoir Dogs, Clerks, and Go Fish. The girls don’t just aggressively remember one of the most unforgettably forgettable shows of all time; one of them re-contextualizes this quintessential schlock as a male sexual fantasy in which a group of unimpressive men are left on a desert island with a pair of popular American male sexual fantasies: the glamorous, voluptuous movie star sex bomb in the style of Marilyn Monroe/Jayne Mansfield (that would be Ginger) and the girl-next-door type with a nice ass (Mary Anne).

Dazed & Confused is utterly distinctive, but introducing a cozily familiar pop culture reference — specifically from the 1970s, when both the filmmakers and much of the audience were impressionable kids — and then having characters dissect and deconstruct the secret or hidden meaning of that reference, feels akin to what Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino were doing at the time.

Linklater’s masterpiece flits easily and organically from clique to clique as they celebrate the final day of class and the promise of a fresh summer, and pursue the easy pleasures and sordid delights that have been the cornerstones of American teenaged life since its inception. The stoners (most notably Matthew McConaughey in his star-making performance), jocks, brains, and freaks are all distinct cliques, but there’s a surprising amount of overlap and blurring as they try to figure out, on an hour-by-hour basis, who they are and what they want.

There are times when the older girls “break” and reveal themselves to be nice people, not the instruments of the universe’s unfathomable cruelty they feel obligated to pretend to be. Of the boys, Randall “Pink” Floyd, a promising and popular quarterback played by Jason London, has the toughest time forcing himself to be an abusive creep. He takes incoming freshman Mitch (an adorably doe-like Wiley Wiggins) under his wing and spares him from further ass-paddling. Despite being one of the film’s less charismatic characters, Floyd’s ethical conundrum is central to the film’s conclusion.

Floyd is torn between roles, loyalties, and cliques. He’s part stoner, part rebel, and part jock, but his hard-ass coach wants him to sign a pledge that he will be exactly who his coach, his parents, and his community want him to be, an exemplar of Christian morality who will not drink, use drugs, or have sex out of a desire not to shame his community or football team.

Dazed & Confused is at once bracingly dark and life-affirmingly light.

It’s a completely bogus pledge, of course. There’s no way it could be enforced, unless the coach dispatched detectives to shadow his team’s every move. Yet on a symbolic level, the pledge gives Floyd something clear-cut to rebel against. The pledge is the ultimate symbol of cowardly, nonsensical deference to arbitrary authority. In that respect, it’s just a little too tidy, but the quietly transcendent scenes leading up to it more than excuse its neatness.

Late in the film, bully and horndog Don (Sasha Jenson), one of the least profound characters, dispenses some of the movie’s most casually profound wisdom. Though he’s spent most of the film aggressively chasing sex and violence in the grossest possible way, he speaks profoundly to the existential problem of high school when he says, “All I’m saying is that I want to look back and say that I did the best I could while I was stuck in this place. Had as much fun as I could while I was stuck in this place. Played as hard as I could while I was stuck in this place. Dogged as many girls as I could while I was stuck in this place.”

Don could be any of us, simply doing the best we can while we’re stuck in this place. In his own accidentally incisive way, he gets to the heart of the American experience. Don realizes that high school is just one of a series of systems and institutions in our culture designed to ground people down and reduce them to automatons. Yet he realizes that, even within the brutal nature of our society and its constructs, it’s possible — even imperative — to steal joy and pleasure wherever you can.

Dazed & Confused is at once bracingly dark and life-affirmingly light. It acknowledges that our society and its institutions are often brutal, dehumanizing, cruel, and, perhaps worst of all, seemingly unchangeable. Yet it still finds abundant pleasure, humor, and light in our perhaps doomed quest for freedom and autonomy. We may not attain self-actualization or change the world, but if we’re lucky, we can score some primo Aerosmith tickets and sneak a few doobies into the show for a little attitude-adjusting, if necessary.

And that, friends, renders Dazed & Confused just a little bit better than the generic stoner comedy its cynical marketing made it out to be.

Nathan Rabin if a freelance writer, columnist, the first head writer of The A.V. Club and the author of four books, most recently Weird Al: The Book (with “Weird Al” Yankovic) and You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me.

Follow Nathan on Twitter: @NathanRabin

Tag Cloud

dark 45 cats Schedule streamig BBC One high school Nickelodeon political drama Film supernatural 99% HBO Go golden globes 2021 MTV Esquire Set visit Certified Fresh zombie doctor who Pirates international Countdown cartoon Amazon Emmys trailers TCA dc RT21 LGBTQ E! know your critic movie TruTV robots Alien Election Interview PlayStation chucky Holiday indiana jones true crime south america target spider-man screenings Winners Columbia Pictures ITV sports San Diego Comic-Con A&E Thanksgiving Walt Disney Pictures Best Picture South by Southwest Film Festival mission: impossible 4/20 elevated horror Pet Sematary Universal pirates of the caribbean hispanic archives godzilla revenge ratings Summer dexter Mary Tyler Moore Video Games quibi new zealand Amazon Prime screen actors guild Box Office NBC aapi tv talk HBO Max social media Food Network Best and Worst Comedy Central Classic Film rt labs critics edition ViacomCBS WGN IFC Pop PBS DC Universe australia crossover superhero BET The Walking Dead indie talk show CMT period drama BAFTA twilight SXSW rotten Captain marvel Vudu Grammys YouTube President Avengers PaleyFest satire HFPA women Song of Ice and Fire serial killer Nominations Kids & Family theme song die hard VOD 90s romantic comedy free movies Best Actress 2020 football Disney Christmas Marathons AMC Plus summer TV preview Sci-Fi NYCC Sundance Elton John laika book adaptation new york adaptation The Walt Disney Company TV renewals FXX casting The Purge Paramount Pictures Discovery Channel stoner rom-coms name the review aliens Tumblr live action TCA Awards Martial Arts MSNBC First Look Crackle hollywood scene in color MGM CBS CBS All Access green book black comedy Spectrum Originals NBA Tarantino Winter TV Crunchyroll halloween tv Paramount Plus venice movies Heroines TCA 2017 comic books boxing Lifetime Christmas movies wonder woman IFC Films boxoffice psycho latino marvel comics Travel Channel Chernobyl Spring TV streaming Pacific Islander RT History Paramount Network films strong female leads Comic-Con@Home 2021 a nightmare on elm street Sony Pictures Country Red Carpet 2017 Turner Classic Movies Reality spain medical drama TBS The Academy Broadway Year in Review Hallmark E3 Rocky Showtime Endgame rt labs 007 Focus Features Teen toy story kids legend slasher spider-verse teaser canceled TV shows 24 frames Apple TV Plus Freeform SDCC TCM police drama The CW adventure 21st Century Fox Trailer TLC USA 93rd Oscars Turner IMDb TV Fall TV psychological thriller obi wan DGA APB news Music worst movies foreign italian Hollywood Foreign Press Association debate DC Comics Oscar werewolf halloween Apple USA Network BET Awards SundanceTV mockumentary fresh saw HBO stand-up comedy Syfy Nat Geo nfl Quiz OneApp festivals Infographic Disney streaming service blockbusters sequels Adult Swim comic book movie justice league Disney Plus broadcast Exclusive Video travel WarnerMedia king kong dogs mob 94th Oscars jurassic park interviews Baby Yoda deadpool comic japanese universal monsters kong fast and furious Holidays animated reviews discovery batman anime TV One Image Comics video criterion Disney+ Disney Plus critic resources spinoff Black Mirror crime thriller Masterpiece dramedy video on demand richard e. Grant rt archives christmas movies First Reviews Sneak Peek cults biopic GLAAD Binge Guide concert Cannes facebook Oscars Family TIFF Legendary Arrowverse Writers Guild of America Marvel Studios TNT AMC politics Photos Lionsgate Mary poppins MCU harry potter SXSW 2022 Comedy spanish Comic Book 1990s posters zero dark thirty vampires witnail disaster cars Ellie Kemper historical drama reboot ABC Family 2018 Emmy Nominations olympics TV movies what to watch lord of the rings ABC binge razzies Fargo suspense scary movies unscripted marvel cinematic universe war based on movie nbcuniversal sag awards Best Actor Prime Video Trivia Premiere Dates Super Bowl Star Wars Cosplay game of thrones docudrama blaxploitation Lifetime joker Rom-Com Tags: Comedy Funimation Amazon Prime Video Brie Larson Cartoon Network emmy awards Pride Month DirecTV Mindy Kaling VH1 Instagram Live directors Television Academy Superheroes 20th Century Fox child's play Trophy Talk sequel Hulu Western 2019 feel good CNN breaking bad Apple TV+ dragons scorecard crime drama VICE Film Festival Star Trek GIFs cancelled TV series Mudbound BBC documentaries Drama Opinion kaiju Neflix New York Comic Con vs. TV Academy Awards finale Mary Poppins Returns Shudder blockbuster dreamworks FX on Hulu ID popular Chilling Adventures of Sabrina Netflix Christmas movies new star wars movies Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt 78th Annual Golden Globe Awards YA Awards scary cancelled TV shows comiccon Musicals summer TV docuseries japan independent Mystery Women's History Month YouTube Red Universal Pictures transformers Pixar Starz cinemax Disney Channel cancelled Lucasfilm Marvel Bravo Reality Competition sitcom critics prank FX Creative Arts Emmys Paramount Character Guide art house Tokyo Olympics all-time singing competition crime action-comedy young adult Comics on TV best book comedies Black History Month Hear Us Out Stephen King obituary comic book movies Podcast Tubi james bond ESPN hist telelvision comics Rocketman National Geographic Awards Tour Sundance Now classics Fox Searchlight zombies Ovation Best Director See It Skip It Sundance TV composers black Action Britbox hispanic heritage month summer preview Watching Series Tomatazos king arthur Ghostbusters streaming movies romance jamie lee curtis natural history french festival Polls and Games Calendar Valentine's Day 79th Golden Globes Awards History Musical miniseries sopranos mcc LGBT DC streaming service Wes Anderson anthology Amazon Studios genre worst Acorn TV technology Shondaland spy thriller American Society of Cinematographers cops Horror 2015 Extras Anna Paquin FOX dceu BBC America Toys children's TV rotten movies we love Dark Horse Comics ABC Signature asian-american Pop TV X-Men Fantasy superman YouTube Premium 73rd Emmy Awards TV Land Animation Warner Bros. remakes El Rey stop motion heist movie diversity Television Critics Association 72 Emmy Awards TCA Winter 2020 cancelled television golden globe awards biography royal family parents game show Spike Biopics adenture television science fiction documentary franchise ghosts renewed TV shows 2016 OWN trophy nature Fox News Epix space Marvel Television live event Hallmark Christmas movies thriller canceled CW Seed leaderboard Superheroe series hidden camera cooking mutant toronto Logo Netflix Rock versus A24 spanish language monster movies 71st Emmy Awards The Arrangement slashers Peacock GoT The Witch award winner basketball gangster