Today is the 42nd anniversary not of an event, but of a depiction. Richard Linklater’s classic film Dazed and Confused, which came out in 1993, depicted one day in the life of an Austin, Texas high school. That day, as clearly identified in the first scene of the movie, was May 28, 1976, the last day of school.
I’ve loved Dazed and Confused since it came out and I’ve probably seen it over 50 times, and I always watch it again every year around the end of May. Today it’s a cult classic, known for having launched the careers of Matthew McConnaghey, Ben Affleck, Anthony Rapp, Adam Goldberg, Marisa Ribisi, Parker Posey, Milla Jovovich and others. It also attempted to be an honest, unvarnished look at the real lives of high school kids in the 70s, warts and all. Unlike many people, I don’t think Dazed and Confused is about drugs, though there are a lot of drugs consumed in the movie. That’s just the way the 70s were. Dazed and Confused isn’t really about much at all–it has no plot and the character arcs are subtle at best–but it’s still an amazingly cool and honest movie.
The famous “Gilligan’s Island” debate from Dazed and Confused shows how pop-culture obsessed teens were in the 1970s. (They still are).
What’s even more amazing is that the movie itself is 25 years old this year. I remember when it came out in 1993, and it’s hard to believe it was a quarter of a century ago. For those of you who remember the early 1990s, and perhaps even the 1970s in real life (which I do, although I was very young), here’s a statement that will blow your mind, man.
Today in 2018, the original release of Dazed and Confused is farther back in the past (25 years) from the present than the time frame of the movie was from the date of its original release (17 years).
This scene toward the end of Dazed and Confused is arguably the highlight of Matthew McConaghey’s deeply creepy performance…which probably made him a star.
For all its pop-culture references and groovy drug-soaked hazing, Dazed and Confused is a surprisingly melancholy film. The subtext of its characters’ aimless wanderings around Austin in 1976 is a cipher for the way young people’s lives have felt, increasingly since the 1970s: somewhat aimless and without much of a point. The middle 1970s were the end of the decades-long economic boom in American society that followed the end of World War II. With factories shuttering and jobs lost overseas, a dispiriting foreign policy adventure in Vietnam, the cynicism of Watergate and the very beginnings–through the energy crisis–of a global reckoning with climate change, the 1970s were not a very fun time to be young. And it’s only gotten worse since then.
Even looking at how the world has changed since 1993, when the film came out, deepens the sense of melancholy. There was plenty wrong in American society (and the world) 25 years ago, but it seems to pale in comparison with our problems now. I don’t think a Dazed and Confused can be made in the future about the experiences of young people today. At least it wouldn’t resonate the same way.
Cruising…but where to? Even the characters in Dazed and Confused don’t seem to know.
Dazed and Confused is something of a double artifact. Clearly it intends to be a document of certain lives in the 1970s, and what it was like to grow up in that time. But the way it was assimilated culturally in the 1990s, and how it’s resonated since then, speaks also to the time it was made. It really is a kind of double flashback, and a fascinating one.