Dazed and Confused (1993): A Mild Dystopia

Written and directed by: Richard Linklater

Dazed_and_Confused_(1993)_posterI was drawn to Dazed and Confused for two reasons. Firstly, in TV drama Rectified, teenager Jared shows his much older half-brother Daniel the film in order to catch Daniel up on the movies he has missed while in prison. Secondly, the film was directed by Richard Linklater, and I’ve enjoyed what I’ve seen of his works so far. Modern film viewers may see Dazed and Confused as a predecessor to teenage-drinking comedies like SuperBad. Indeed, the film can be appreciated on that level; it’s a chance to watch kids revelling in their bad decisions, laugh at low-brow humour and at times, sympathize with them when they are faced with bullying.

However, as someone who spent high school thinking beer was a disgusting concoction that you learned to like somewhere in the distance of adulthood, and that getting drunk was something people only did if when really down on their luck, needless to say, I struggled to relate to films like SuperBad. To me they aren’t comic representations of a universal experience, but depictions of a group of kids I was dis-included from and may not have wanted to have been part of anyway.

Dazed and Confused, however, is fundamentally different from SuperBad. Unlike the 2007 film, it doesn’t consistently follow a small group of protagonists, and doesn’t have much of a plot arc. Dazed and Confused therefore does not encourage viewers to identify with its characters to the same degree that SuperBad does and therefore, has the potential to appeal to a broader audience (that is if much of that audience is not alienated by slightly-experimental, loosely-plotted cinema).

Another key difference between Dazed and Confused and SuperBad, is that the former is a period piece: filmed in the 90s but set in the 1976. Hippy-culture is still a force in the Dazed and Confused universe. The boy characters’ don free-flowing-hair , and sex and drugs are still (unsurprisingly) in vogue. Absent, however, from the world of these high-schoolers is any sort of hippy-politics. Dazed and Confused thus envisions a world of teenage counterculture, but without counter-cultural idealism: quite the opposite in fact as the school’s seniors participate in a ritualized campaign of bullying against freshman. 12th grade boys chase their freshman counterparts with spanking paddles, while the girls participate in an insult-and-degradation-routine that is most disturbing in that involves a degree of willing participation from its 9th grade victims.

So what makes Dazed and Confused an arguable classic, and not just some other teens-getting-drunk comedy? I would argue its success lies in that it depicts a veritable dystopia. I call it a dystopia, and not just a film in which some bad things happen, as Dazed and Confused, depicts a suburban-teenage world of-itself, with its own dystopian set of laws. Yes there are adults in the film, but they operate on its periphery, seemingly powerless to infringe on tyrannical, teenage sovereignty and the culture of hazing it produces.

Dazed and Confused can also be said to depict a cohesive, dystopian world because none of its characters are able to articulate just how absurd the ways of their world are (much as a fish would theoretically be unable to identify what water is). The film’s (sort of) “nerdy” friend group features two guys, Mike and Tony (Adam Goldberg and Anthony Rapp) who operate awkwardly within the logic of the Dazed and Confused world. When, as part of a hazing ritual, 9th grader Sabrina (Christina Hinjosa) is told to propose to Tony and promise she’ll do anything he wants, Tony half heartedly participates, before telling Sabrina he thinks the whole thing is silly. Tony, and Mike later appear, trying to fitting in at a high school party. They don’t quite cut it, but much like the characters in SuperBad, their nerdiness only goes as far as struggling to fit in with mainstream culture, rather than living outside of it. Mike and Tony are not bullies; they are seemingly idealistic figures, yet they are unable to seriously-question or escape the basic rituals of the Dazed and Confused universe.

Sabrina, like Mike and Tony, shows a degree of resistance to the dystopia’s culture. She is never seen getting drunk, and in a brief exchange with fellow beleaguered freshman Mitch (Wiley Wiggins), comments on the absurdity of what they are going through. On the other hand, Sabrina’s most striking feature is her quietness, and she is introduced to the plot as willing (as far as we know) victim of the 12th-grade-girls’ hazing ritual. Like Tony and Mike, she is unable to think or exist fully outside the parameters of the dystopia she lives within.

There are numerous other examples of characters in the film failing to deconstruct its universe. Mitch’s older sister Jody (Michelle Burke), knowing full well he will be beaten by 12th graders, warns his attackers in advance that they should be gentle with him. Apparently telling a teacher that your brother is being bullied, you know, the common sense approach, isn’t an option in the world of Dazed and Confused (again, in this dystopia, teenagers are sovereign). Mitch’s bullies, meanwhile are lead by football player Randall “Pink” Floyd (Jason London) who refuses on principle to sign a form saying he won’t take drugs during football season (as meaningless as such a signature would be), explaining that in principle he can’t give in to such McCarthyism. Again, the logic of Dazed and Confused is expressed: 70s hippyism is present just enough for the character to rail against McCarthyism, yet not enough for the character to see the evident cruelty of his beating up on those smaller than him.

In other moments, the film’s title feels like an apt description for the film’s universe:the characters behave absurdly, as if in a daze. The film is largely devoid of the kind of intellectual conversation seen in Linklater’s other works (eg the “Before” trilogy). The closest a character comes to articulating something interesting is a rant by Slater (Rory Cochrane), the film’s leading stoner, about George Washington. The rant unsurprisingly is a conspiracy theory about the historical importance of weed. In a film in which all the characters are in a daze; unable to see moral logic outside the rules of their universe, such a rant is well placed.

But perhaps no scene represents dazedness better than when the film’s main female antagonist, Michelle (Milla Jovovich) very-drunkenly threatens Sabrina. Her cruelty is absurd, and her dazed-delivery is equally absurd too match.

Dazed and Confused is an enduring work for a number of reasons. Viewers can play spot the star looking for young versions of Matthew McConaughey, Parker Posey, Ben Affleck and Renée Zellwegger. Other viewers may appreciate the film as yet another party comedy. Perhaps I’m alone in seeing the film as dystopian. That’s the impression I get when one of the story’s victims, Mitch, ends the film with a smile on his face after an early-morning return home. Nevertheless, the ingredients are certainly there for viewing the film as a scathing imaginary of 1970s high school life. Dazed and Confused is not a traditional film, but it is not slow or confusing either, meaning viewers with a range of perspectives and tastes will continue to appreciate it.

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