Dazed and Confused – Richard Linklater and the horrors of teenage life. (Film Review)

If I ever say these were the best years of my life, remind me to kill myself. – Dazed and Confused

As far as I can tell we’re pretty much done with teen nostalgia.  This is partly due to films like Richard Linklaters Dazed and Confused, overdone now-a-days but important and poignant in its day; and not just for introducing a spate of new movies stars to the world. On a personal note, I couldn’t wait for my teens to be over when I lived through them and I have never had a moment of looking back with fondness; And I had a comparatively pleasant teen age. They are a terrible time, filled with anxiety and pain and that awful awful feeling that every person on the street is looking at you and judging you for your hair, shoes, fingernails, eyelashes, cuticle, longings, dreams and hopes. Never do you feel as exposed and vulnerable and less sure of yourself and your ideals and convictions. Selling out is de rigueur and feeling like dirt its unhappy consequence. Almost no action is authentic because of the overwhelming feeling you are being perpetually watched.  (Or the dreaded fear that no one is looking at you.)

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Dazed and Confused captures this feeling perfectly. Teens escape it by using non prescription drugs, bonding, copulating, and most of all, attacking anyone who has the courage to be different. The seething anger that swells under the surface of the older students as they “initiate” freshman via cruel and hateful means is intended to toughen them up in theory, but only serves to introduce them to a world where the status quo reigns supreme and anyone who thinks they can side step is in for a painful ride. The rights of passage look more like the removal of rights, as young teens are humiliated publicly and then welcomed into the inner sanctum filled with drugs and human creatures coming to terms with the fact they are headed for a life of mediocrity. Saddest of all are those who won’t leave high school because of a realization it does represent the most freedom they will experience.  A clinging at youth involves seducing first year girls and beating up first year boys, rituals repeated long after they’ve left high school.

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Richard Linklater made Slacker two years earlier, a breakout film that established not just the director as a strong new voice but heralded the start of indie films in the US.  Slacker is another searing close look at a certain generation and their attempts at engaging with the complex business of being alive, but Slacker seems more cheerful and certainly more hopeful than Dazed and Confused, but surely this is its own commentary on the stages of life. College life and its satellite thinking couldn’t be more different from the rabid conformity of high school. Suddenly being different doesn’t matter, and you’re allowed to read and study in peace. Although Linklater has obvious affection for the time in Dazed and Confused, unlike other teen romp films he refuses to allow nostalgia to hide the horrors of teen years. Dazed and Confused is a rebellion against the  soft porn “boob comedies” popular in the late 70’s to late 80’s that romanced teen life and placed a glossy sheen over what teens were going through. The shadow of the boob comedies were the teen sit coms like Facts of Life, Family Ties, Growing Pains and Saved by the Bell, all telling a glossy sanitized version of teen life consistent only with the overwhelming push for conformity that teenagers are subjected to. Linklater made Dazed and Confused in the wake of the spate of these films and  television shows, turning their prudishness on themselves.

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If anything, Linklater has a talent for characterization and this is part of the key to his success with unforgettable folk like Teresa Taylor’s  pap smear pusher, Ben Affleck’s ridiculous Fred O’Bannion, and of course Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy’s  Jessie and Celine. This close connection to the human is the consistent thread throughout all his films, but Dazed and Confused somehow feels autobiographical partly because of Linklaters clear affection for the time period and partly due to his age. There is something very special about Linklater as a director, and it hinges on his ability to see a universal politic in each of his characters without adding an obvious preachy message.  All of this occurs while Linklater never shys away from the message he wants to convey. He has a real talent for this, and it makes him one of the most interesting directors around.

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I’m looking at the films of Richard Linklater at the moment, in the wake of the release of Before Midnight.

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