School’s Out

Richard Linklater, Dazed and Confused, 1993, still from a color film in 35 mm, 102 minutes. David Wooderson (Matthew McConaughey).

DECADES. They’re so much fun to look at from the outside, so miserable to inhabit. Nostalgia—commonly frowned on by intellectuals and forward-thinking folk—actually allows us to be in and out simultaneously, which might account for the enduring popularity of the nostalgia flick.

Rewatching a film like Dazed and Confused eighteen years after its release means being lucky enough to have scored two tabs of nostalgia stuck together. For Richard Linklater’s second feature is just as much about the 1990s as it is about the ’70s—a fact that might have been lost on us at the time it hit theaters in 1993, but which seems oh so clear from today’s retrospective vantage point. Aside from Jon Moritsugu and Jacques Boyreau’s Hippy Porn (1993), it’s the only viable contender for the Easy Rider (1969) of my generation.

Like Easy Rider, much of Dazed and Confused’s charm can be traced back to its essential plotlessness. Like its predecessor (and arguably the only other great film so far in the Linklater oeuvre) Slacker (1991), the film’s scenes are organized around its ensemble cast and its setting, the last day of school at Lee High in Austin, Texas, 1976. Slip a kickass rock ’n’ roll sound track into that eight-track deck, rev up the engine, and we’re ready to go. There are, of course, tiny obstacles that must be overcome along the way, but remember, kids, the secret to nostalgia is idealizing the past. As such, Dazed and Confused’s dramatic arcs revolve around such earth-shattering dilemmas as finding the party, figuring out if the new kid smokes pot or not, calling shotgun, and getting laid. It perfectly captures that fleeting moment when the only thing that really matters in life is having a fucking great time.

The film would not only be a launching pad for Linklater’s career but serve as the casting reel for a whole generation of actors no one had ever heard of before, among them Matthew McConaughey, Ben Affleck, Anthony Rapp, Milla Jovovich, Joey Lauren Adams, and, perhaps most stunningly, “indie queen” Parker Posey (whatever happened to . . . ?)

There are reasons for retro fever. Just as the 2000s would mine the worst aspects of the ’80s—provoking a string of vapid covers of pop songs, unwatchable remakes of slasher films, and, worst of all, another right-wing religious nut in the White House—the ’70s somehow resonated with the cultural mentality of the ’90s. Though today one would be hard pressed to see any viable correspondences between the two decades, at the time, both felt like the end of something. If the ’70s were the prolonged hangover of the countercultural revolt of the late ’60s, the ’90s in America saw the last gasps of the rock ’n’ roll underground, before everything would be subsumed by that great and damning equalizer, the Internet.

For viewers of my generation, watching the film today brings back memories of Nirvana, Doc Martens, and the scent of stale bong smoke. At one point in the film, a character proffers her own spin on the “decades” phenomenon, quipping, “It’s like the every-other-decade theory, you know? The ’50s were boring, the ’60s rocked. The ’70s—oh my God, they obviously suck, right? Maybe the ’80s will be radical!” I remember this line provoking an uproar of laughter from the audience in the cinema in 1993. Perhaps the film’s rerelease on DVD signals a chance to finally laugh at the ’80s-fetishizing hipsters of the aughts.

A Blu-ray edition of Dazed and Confused is now available from the Criterion Collection.