The Double Nostalgia of Richard Linklater’s “Dazed and Confused”

Dazed and Confused The kids of Richard Linklater's "Dazed and Confused."

Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema and the filmmaker’s own biography. This month, in honor of his latest film Where’d You Go, Bernadette? we turn our eye to Austin’s favored son, Richard Linklater. Read the rest of our coverage here.

Richard Linklater claims he didn’t set out to make a nostalgia film with Dazed and Confused

Quite the opposite, in fact. His bongwater-smelling, mailbox-smashing, Aerosmith-rocking portrait of a group of listless Texan teens was meant to be “anti-nostalgic,” to convey how much he thought the 70s sucked. But, like a variant on Truffaut’s famous sentiment about “anti-war movies,” Dazed and Confused can’t help itself: “Just by depicting it,” Linklater shrugged to The Guardian this past June, “you make it look fun.” 

Dazed and Confused still does make its moment look fun. Or at least our conception of the film does. Twenty-six years after it barely made its budget back at the theater but went on to cult home video immortality, its rougher, anti-nostalgic edges have been sanded down in our collective memory. 

We tend to remember the perpetually stoned Slater (Rory Cochrane) waxing moronic about Martha Washington handing her husband George “a big fat bowl” at the end of every workday more than we do the conflicted football star Pink (Jason London) remarking, “If I ever start referring to these as the ‘best years of my life,’ remind me to kill myself.” Linklater’s genial slacker sympathies overwhelm Dazed and Confused‘s persistent expressions of generational anxiety. 

Its icon is Matthew McConaughey‘s wall-leaning Wooderson, in one of modern American cinema’s most unforgettable debuts, intoning “alright, alright, alright”, and not Marissa Ribisi‘s Cynthia agonizing, “Don’t you ever feel like everything we do and everything we’ve been taught is just to service the future?” (That Wooderson and Cynthia have a date to keep when Dazed and Confused ends suggest a wonderful synthesis of perspective outside the borders of the film.)

Our own nostalgia for this movie’s nostalgia makes it difficult to see it clearly. Many, if not most, contemporary write-ups emphasize first encounters, and the truth or falsity of the experience it conjures. Chuck Klosterman is exemplary of this (“I have watched Dazed and Confused approximately sixty-five times, and I have been stoned for approximately sixty-four of those viewings.”), but Kent Jones less predictably heads in the same direction: “I’ve leaned against the same wall that McConaughey, London, and Wiley Wiggins lean against; I’ve danced the same slow dance and clung to my partner just as desperately…”

Those of us who were not alive in these fuzzily halcyon days of its setting are left instead with the movie’s nostalgia, which is exceedingly ambivalent. It’s curious to revisit Dazed and Confused, a film that seemed to radiate midday stoner warmth in memory, and remember how much of it takes place at night, in shadows and woods. It’s not a dark night of the soul by any stretch, but it does feature more existential grappling than your average teen comedy. 

Twenty-six years after it barely made its budget back at the theater but went on to cult home video immortality, its rougher, anti-nostalgic edges have been sanded down in our collective memory. 

The central narrative around which the others spin is Pink’s decision about whether or not to sign a mandatory “clean living” pledge; it’s a neat generational stand-in that comes to define his alienation not just from the overlords of Texas football but also from his larger friend group. Low stakes as it is, everyone seems invested in his decision, everyone feels change coming, and everyone, despite their protestations, would just as soon have things stay the same. 

In this sense, and contra its weed culture (and thus “counterculture”) icon status, Dazed and Confused presents a vision of a deeply conservative world, even if its protagonists would be aghast at the notion. (In 2019, with former Republican Speakers of the House handling PR for cannabis companies, this is another remarkably astute gesture.)  

The film’s passages of ritual and routine can be nightmarish. Some sequences – like the one in which three freshman, strolling through the dark, suddenly find themselves backlit by the car headlights of incoming seniors whose “rites of passage” read a lot more like “violent abuse” – play like excerpts from some lost Hixploitation slasher. Linklater plays others for laughs.

The famous moment when McConaughey enters the dimly lit pool hall to the strains of Bob Dylan’s “Hurricane” absurdly calls to mind Robert De Niro’s introduction in Mean Streets; it looks cool and dangerous until you recall the utter lack of consequences on offer. It’s a perfectly warm, eye-rolling distillation of Linklater’s bemused visual attitude to adolescent grandeur. Every moment is either the beginning or the end of the world.

It’s a characteristically empathetic approach from a filmmaker equally hesitant to castigate or revere his creations. And like all of his best work, Dazed and Confused is self-consciously time-bound: its narrative is not simply aware of the passage of time and commenting on it, but formally determined by it. We can feel this May 28, 1976 slipping away. The fleeting moments and the barely perceptible changes we encounter as we move through our lives register here in ways that usually elude the “nostalgia film,” obsessed as it is with simply getting the details right.

Linklater does get a lot of the details right here, or so we’re told by those who lived it. But more than that, Dazed and Confused feels like a feature-length nod of agreement with the closing lines of Cynthia’s speech about living in service to the future: “I’d like to quit thinking of the present, like right now, as some minor, insignificant preamble to something else.” 

The offhand poetry of Dazed and Confused, and the seriousness with which it treats its own suspect nostalgia, ends up being a tribute to the longing and the possibilities always in front of us, always right now.

Dazed and Confused Trailer:

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