Blazed and Bemused

Dazed and Confused did for the 70's what American Graffiti did for the 50's - capture the whimsy of American youthfulness on the crest of adulthood by following a group of high school graduates over the course of a single evening.  While technically the students in Dazed aren't all high school graduates, it is the first day when school lets out and the transitory process of upgrading to a freshmen, or to a senior, is just as indicative of entering a new, more adult, life phase.  Writer/Director Richard Linklater has also just released Everybody Wants Some, which appears to return to the same concept except it follows a group of kids entering their first day of college in the 80's.  Admittedly, I haven't seen this film yet, so, this posting is not going to be a comparison between these three generational films.

What I am interested in discussing, however, is some of the interesting facets of Dazed and Confused that came to mind upon re-watching it last night.

I am a firm believer that when it comes to American cinema, particularly in the analysis thereof, there will be clear distinction between pre 9/11 and post 9/11 movies.  The first clear delineation came to my attention when, after that dreadful day, news began circulating that the Twin Towers were going to be digitally removed from the posters of Spiderman 2.  This was followed by discussion on whether or not to re-title the second Lord of the Rings from something other than The Two Towers.  Political correctness and unnecessarily cautious sensitivity, which may have always been there, was now blanketing our Hollywood media.

Along with this, our world view expanded into the horrors of barbarity across the world.  Our inability to find any solution in addressing it has become internally traumatic.  Post 9/11, there has been a gravity and grit to all of our mainstream entertainment.  Seriousness is now no longer an approach to a movie, but an ingredient.  Our fascination with post-apocalyptic dystopian young adult stories, our re-telling of classic fairy tales and our comic book adaptations have all shown a post 9/11 trend towards darkness - figuratively and literally.  Even Harry Potter, whose early books predated 9/11 and later issues came after, follow this exact same formula.  Indeed, our entertainment is following a similar pattern that occurred in post-WW2 Japan.  It's not a coincidence that their biggest movie franchise features a city-destroying monster.

With this in mind, when I was watching Dazed and Confused last night I couldn't help but realize how much of a time-capsule the film was.  The movie was released in 1993 about an era that preceded it by nearly two decades.  It was, without question, nostalgic, as Linklater himself graduated high school right about time Dazed is set.  But nostalgia alone doesn't account for the whimsy of the movie.  The fact that it was created in a pre 9/11 world does.

There are two dramatic fulcrums in Dazed that propel the film.  One is the initiation of the younger class through various forms of hazing by the older class.  Through our modern PC lens, the hazing is nothing short of abuse.  I cannot fathom this existing in a movie coming out today.  The message in Dazed is that hazing is a way of life, the more you can show it doesn’t bother you, the better.  Should this appear in a modern movie, it is without question in my mind that those doing the hazing would be ostracized and perhaps physically assaulted themselves for their perceived barbarity.  How unusual it is to see a film that doesn’t bat an eye in seeing the act as nothing more than a rite of passage – indeed even a preferable one than being ignored altogether.

The second crux of the movie is centered on a pledge that the football coach has requested his players to sign, declaring that they will refrain from drug use throughout their high school stay.  The star quarterback eventually stands his ground in rebellion in the final moments of the movie by throwing the pledge back in the coach’s face.  This act symbolically represents the character’s maturation by defying authority.  I can’t imagine a modern movie using this as a plot device without delving into the tangential moral and political implications of such a pledge.  In particular, imagine how the coach himself would be treated in a modern setting.  Isn’t it easy to imagine the coach being outed by the students with the full support of the Principal and other administrators, locking arms to demand he show sensitivity by not imposing his anti-drug sentiments on the children?  Moreover, I could easily imagine a reveal in the third act of a star football player who uses marijuana medicinally so that he can actually play, just to hammer a point of how wrong the coach is.  This is all to say that Dazed and Confused uses the coach in a one-dimensional manner – as an authority figure - whereas a modern film couldn’t resist making him a political adversary as well.

Contained within the film itself is the irony that both of these plot machinations stand in opposition to one another without realizing it.  The older kids rebuke the old and backward ways of the parental authority figures, establishing themselves as the true enlightened ones.  Yet, their power and prestige is tied to their position of power over the freshmen, who are forced to act under the same authoritarian oppression that they themselves are rebelling.  Their perceived maturation and enlightenment, indeed the entire lesson of the movie, is illusory.  The characters won’t know this for years to come, when adulthood gives them perspective and wisdom.

It’s in this realization that we find ourselves in the present.  The characters in Dazed are no more adults than they were at the end of the film than at the beginning, though they perceive themselves to be.  9/11 was no less a symbolic demarcation line of maturity for us as well.  And while we take things more seriously, adding grit to our comic book movies and the like, are we really more mature?  Or are we just perpetuating the illusion that the old generation doesn't know what they're talking about and the younger just need to follow our lead?