Criterion Movie of the Month: ‘Dazed and Confused’
I do not remember the first time I watched Dazed and Confused. It was a teenage essential on constant repeat, so to narrow down the first time seems impossible. It was first released in 1993. I was 7. By the time I graduated 8th grade and was making my way into my freshman year of high school, it seemed to have cut a path through my entire generation. It wasn’t made for us, but we found it anyway. It might be one of the first pieces of pop culture that wasn’t targeted at us that still became ubiquitous.
Funny enough, I do remember the first commercial I ever saw for it. It wasn’t for its theatrical run but just a lazy Sunday afternoon broadcast. The type with all the good stuff cut out. I remember specifically the shot of Ben Affleck getting white paint dumped on his head. By then, Affleck was a household name with an Oscar win for writing. I was also from Massachusetts, like Affleck. We were so far from the epicenter of the movie business that it wasn’t uncommon for the Bay State to take extra pride in anyone who moved out to LA and made it. I remember thinking, “Aw man, do they pick on Affleck in this movie?” I could not have been any more wrong.
Affleck was playing O’Bannion, who could best be described as an absolute dick. He was a “super” senior in his second “last” year of high school. The incoming seniors joke that he stayed back just to wallop incoming freshman again. See, this Austin, Texas school system has a tradition where incoming senior boys would make themselves some paddles and mercilessly spank the asses of incoming freshman boys all summer, a fraternity hazing ritual we had already seen in other movies. The girls have their own traditions too, involving getting covered in food pantry items and forced to play act demeaning flirtations on any incoming senior boys who happened to be watching.
If you have never seen this movie and read what I just wrote, I imagine you have just been pretty turned off. Might I add, school officials seem to at least passively approve of it. Hazing rituals have always been a touchy subject, even when they were dismissed as “boys being boys.” Once kids were being sent to the hospital or drinking themselves to death, it was time to draw a line that should have been drawn a long time ago. It is one of the reasons why I thought, re-watching this film for the first time since college, it would have aged like milk. And not just because of hazing rituals. The story is basically a bunch of teenagers (back when the drinking age was 18) celebrating their first night of summer by getting super wasted and attempting to get laid. Before I even hit play, I had the sneaking suspicion that I might witness a sexual assault played for laughs.
The worst offender, and these are all thoughts I was having before starting the re-watch, would be Matthew McConaughey’s now legendary Wooderson. No mention of McConaughey has gone without an obligatory “alright, alright, alright,” Wooderson’s hang loose catchphrase. He was a townie in his early 20s, who at one point crossed passed with the incoming seniors during his former stay at the high school. He skipped higher education to get a job with the city and put money in his pocket, so he says. When you are younger than the characters and looking in, he seems like a cool older guy. But now I’m over a decade older than they are supposed to be, and in my head, I wonder what I ever saw in that creep. “That’s what I love about these high school girls, man. I get older, they stay the same age.” Arrest that man! And now will Pink (the lead senior character, played by Jason London) be just like Wooderson when Mitch (the lead freshman, played by Wiley Wiggins) is a senior?
Now , having re-watched it, it is surprisingly not that bad. Wooderson, for example, is still a creep. Definitively. But the movie is played with enough ambiguity that what I read as cool when I was 13 or whatever is actually sad now. Sad in a pathetic way. Sad like Ryan Reynolds’ performance in Adventureland as a former king shit who is now just shit. All of the assholes and the asshole behavior from not-quite-assholes are branded appropriately enough that you can still get a chuckle out of the situational comedy without really being on any of their sides. The film somehow survives without ever actively defending anyone, just depicting them for who they really are. Some good. Some bad. A lot waffling in between.
As for sex, no one actually has any. There is one scene where one of the female students gets a smack on the ass and she turns around and says, “Don’t do that,” with a big smile, that doesn’t exactly feel appropriate anymore. Otherwise, it is just a bunch of hormonal teenagers casually bumping into each other. They mutually get close and sometimes make out, but it never goes any further from what I recall. Which is probably for the best. Any attempt to go further would have simply dug a grave for this movie.
I can’t help but keep comparing my views on this movie from when I was younger to where I am now. I am so utterly impressed that is able to work on both levels. I still have fond memories of just laughing at the jokes and pranks and being excited about having the kind of freedom that a car, a lack of curfew, and a case of beer might bring me. But now, I see all of the other stuff too. This is a weird age to be. You are getting hammered with expectations for your future. You need to choose a major and a career path before you choose a college, because that’s important to which college you choose. Changing majors is a bitch so you get locked in at a pretty young age. Military is an option; sometimes you are hurried out of your parents’ house at a tender age. It is a stressful sink or swim moment, especially now having lived through it, knowing it’s all bullshit. You work hard. You graduate. You get that piece of paper that says you can have a job now. And then you get there and everyone still don’t know what the fuck they are doing. Everyone is still making it up as they go along. It’s interesting that the title now means more than just drugs to me.
And then there is the moral quandary at the heart of Pink’s story. It is such small potatoes in retrospect. “I voluntarily agree to not indulge in any alcohol, drugs, sex after twelve, or engage in any other illegal activity that may in any way jeopardize the years of hard work we as a team have committed to our goal of a championship season in ’76.” That is the pledge that Pink’s football coaches require him to sign before the summer begins. Pink struggles with signing something he doesn’t believe in, while the rest of the team explains to him that it’s not exactly binding. That the rest of the team signed it just to get the coaches off their back, and they don’t have any intention of keeping to it one bit. Pink wants to make a dignified, moral stance. Back when I first saw it, I thought that was awesome. I was really into punk music back then (punk revival, but whatever….), and I totally bought into it. I didn’t want to tear the world down, I just simply wanted to question the very specific social mechanics everyone agreed was “the right thing.” I thought I was seeing through people’s bullshit and that meant I knew better. I still think it is mostly bullshit, but now I also think that people deserve to buy into it if they want. It makes them feel better.
Watching it now, just sign the fucking pledge, man. It means nothing.