Sunday, November 29, 2009

Great Acid Cinema #1: DAZED & CONFUSED (1993)

Yeah so what if they don't do acid in it? It's still great acid cinema, as in a good trip, since a joyous awareness of living suffuses it and, like any good trip, it starts in the late morning and ends at dawn of the following day, leaving our heroes driving into the sunrise cranking "Slow Ride / Take it Easy" on their drive to a nearby city to score concert tickets. Oh yeah, when you're young, sexy, high as hell, and surrounded by the cool, confident tribe of your choice, the world is a ball. It's hard to capture on film though, without coming off cocky or snide. Can Linklater really duplicate that rare ecstatic bliss of the moment onto film?

There's no comparing DAZED & CONFUSED to other nostalgic "day in the life" teen nostalgia-thons. It belongs in its own section, as far away from THE BREAKFAST CLUB as the original WOODSTOCK is from WOODSTOCK '98. I was a newly-laid teenager taking my first girlfriend to see BREAKFAST in the local cinema, and while it resonated it also skeeved me out. There was no place for me amidst these stock types - I was too cool to be a geek (I thought), to uncoordinated to be a jock, too sober to be a burnout. I needed rescuing, by the right tribe. It would be another year or two but it happened.

DAZED would have rescued me. For one thing it would have taught me that in order to be confident, drunk, coordinated and cooler, I needed to understand it was cool to embrace pot and understand its rightful place in the culture of these United States. It's the substance that exposes the fascism that passes for high school football and class separations between jocks, stoners and geeks. Anyone who gets high is suddenly cool: less violent, less self-righteously scared (stoner paranoia is quite different from all other paranoia). A better if lazier person all around. Linklater's film gets that, yet it also understands the positive aspects of apparently brutal ordeals like hazing as far as creating important rites of passage in a mythic sense. The transition of boys to men, girls to women, the ceremonial effect of physical trauma, and the way the entire senior class works harmoniously as one giant good cop/bad cop machine, the bullies creating a trauma which the nicer seniors then step into heal, and to extend the olive branch invite into the cool kid clique, relative to the stoicism with which the beating is endured. There's a sense of interconnected belonging in DAZED that you don't find much outside of Howard Hawks. If Howard Hawks was a teenage pothead in the 1970s, this is the film he'd have made, or wanted to make.

So casual it's almost unnoticed is the ingenious way that Linklater moves gradually from a larger school cast of characters in the opening scenes to just a couple kids by the end, the ones who got transformed, who made the change, who stayed up all night: the taunted junior league (incumbent HS freshman) pitcher who takes a licking from Ben Affleck and winds up in his first make-out session; the antsy Adam Goldberg who gets his first bruises, admiring them on the way home in the rear-view mirror; the stoner quarterback who decides to not sign his sobriety pledge even though it means missing all the senior year football glory. Each finds and endures their initiation into the unknown.

The coaches who enforce this pledge are brutish caricatures (ala Cloris Leachman's hubby in LAST PICTURE SHOW) but the rest of the adults are all seen as complexly benevolent, just pretending to be enemies of the teenager universe, understanding the need for these bizarre initiations, playing their parts as parents: the dad who stays home and scares away the stoners coming to the door expecting a party, like its reverse trick-or-treat; he lumbers out after them in his big Texan get-up like the new sheriff in town, only to let out a sly grin when they're out of sight; an irate local shoots at the kids for smashing his mailbox, but you know he won't call the cops on them. He doesn't even aim to hit - it's all a rite. These adults dig that it's their job to throw up many obstacles as they can in these kids' way, but to not make them too insurmountable, and to not get mad when every last one is hurtled or ignored on that last ditch blaze out of Dodge. Without the obstacles, there's nothing gained. It's a difficult thing to even notice in one's growing up (this is all based on true Linklater adventures).

While some coming-of-age films unconsciously advocate the status quo (John Hughes) and others outright challenge it (Jody Hill, Werner Herzog) there's also in-between pictures like DAZED, which do both and neither, thus actually offering a unique hybrid wherein high school stoner cliques become like indigenous tribes of old, with all the violent initiation rites of piercing, burying alive, scarring, masked dances, etc. having been transformed into wooden paddles and threats over loudspeakers, chases and inflictions of pain, all followed by welcoming and sympathy ("Heard you got it, pretty bad," a hot girl consoles the pitcher. "In my day it was much worse," says an older mentor type). The noble endurance of pain/trauma initiates a positive response in the community, triggering sympathy and connection, and a mounting loathing for the odious Affleck.

Men tried to recapture this in the 1980s by going out in the woods to bang on drums and whatnot via the "Men's Movement," but the pain of initiation was forgotten. It's neo-pagans with their tattooings, fight clubs and acts of defiance that are closest to true bonding. The pain of a tattoo or a fight (or the terrors of an acid trip) has permanence. It creates an event from which, in neurological terms, creates all sorts of new pathways and possibilities for change. People get tattoos at certain times to mark occasions. The paddling and grilling of football creates this same mark, so does overcoming the anxiety associated with your "first time" getting high, or making out, or riding with the big kids, or standing up to a shitheel even if it means you're going to lose.

The only film that matches it is OVER THE EDGE. If you've ever been "cool" or been giddily excited to be sitting in the back seat of some badass car getting high for the first time, in quiet awe of the older longhairs in the front seat, blasting hard rock and the feeling something dangerous could happen at any moment, and yet feeling oddly safe and secure, that's the vibe Linklater captures in DAZED. While OVER THE EDGE found our kid's dogged by the aptly named Sgt. Doberman, these kids don't fear cops so much as boredom, the future, emptiness. What they don't realize is that they've created a perfect social network, right there, a community in the strict sense of indigenous populations, of cultures centuries older than our own, who understood it was dancing, drugs and cool friends that made one whole, not expensive cars and financial prosperity.

I had trouble picking a number one for this list. If it was pure hallucinatory weirdness I was going to have Jodorowsky's THE HOLY MOUNTAIN. OR EASY RIDER for the more straight-up influential counterculture, or 2001 for the arthouse. But ultimately none of those are really about us, man. Kubrick looks at man as just another form of intelligence on an endless journey of evolution discovering itself; EASY RIDER is ultimately more about condemnation than solution and Jodorowsky's endless penis/vagina humor and freaks-for-the-sake-of-freakiness gets wearisome after awhile, even when stoned out of your mind.

But DAZED leaves you on a full-blown contact high, full of that drunken giddy sense of possibility that comes from being newly free from parental curfews, open to the possibilities of the universe. We come away as happy as Mitch Kramer when he plops down into bed and puts on his big headphones to rock himself to sleep. Compare that to the up-against-the-wall headphone desperation of Carl in OVER THE EDGE and you can feel the healing. While most cool teen films spend their time pointing fingers and selling soap, DAZED AND CONFUSED whispers in your ear to meet you outside in five minutes, then drives you off to a place where you can be, as John Sebastian put it at Woodstock, "walking around this big beautiful green place, and not being afraid." When all the bullshit's cleared away through memory's uncloggable filter, that's what remains, that sense of "not being afraid" and being connected to everyone around you the way your chest is connected to your limbs, or as J. Sebastian later noted "You couldn't get one page of a book between me and that crowd" 

That's why we're here, to shrink the distance until it's less than one page between you and the crowd, and Linklater's the only one who's truly been able to capture it. DAZED & CONFUSED is the rare case of lightning actually staying in the bottle. Every time you watch it you get as high as the first. No other drug in the world can make that claim, nor group of friends, nor band, nor film. Just thinking about that awesome opening,  the orange 1970 GTO rolling slow into the school parking lot as "Sweet Emotion" pumps though the soundtrack--makes my mouth dry up, my spine tingle and my heart flutter with pre-trip-ticipation. It's our Valhalla. It's our Motorcycle Boy. It's our one shining moment.


  1. Well said! I couldn't agree more with your assessment about this film. In particular you write:

    "But DAZED leaves you high, full of that drunken giddy sense of possibility that comes from being newly free from parental curfews, driving around all night with friends, open to the possibility of anything happening. We come away as happy as Mitch Kramer when he plops down into bed and puts on his big headphones to rock himself to sleep."

    This has to be one of the best endings to a film and one that leaves things on a high (pun intended) in such a fantastic way. This is a film that somehow manages to be simultaneously nostalgic and anti-nostalgic. Linklater doesn't sugarcoat how bad things were but also points that there were good moments as well, much like life itself.

  2. I recently started a blog about this exact same topic ( and finally get up the nerve to go write something in it, but before I do, I was doing a bit of aimless clicking looking for a couple of obscure details...and up comes this blog.

    It's like you've done exactly what I wanted to do with it here, but you've got your shit together and it's going on already, so now I would probably sort of seem like a hapless imitator. Got to figure out how to make it have its own 'take' on things, or something.

    Oh well, you'll have me too busy downloading gobs of new hallucinematics to even care. I thought I knew about ALL this shit! Amazing...

  3. Mesila, there's always room for more psychedelically-aware film criticism on this ultra-square web of ours. I've linked to thee, so don't stop a rockin'

    And JD, you're damned right, as usual. Even the bad things become good in hindsight, and sometimes the good times are remembered as bad... such as ecstasy trip memories for me, which might produce a shiver of physical euphoria just thinking about them (circa 96-98) but then I remember the blue tuesdays...and weep, weep!

  4. I'm 53 years old and I first saw this movie a few years back because it was in my sons collection. I immediately fell in love with it as it brought me home. Those kids, the story line etc came right out of my hometown and the crowd I hung around with in 1973. Those were the good old days! LOL

  5. I have a couple recommendations for your "Acid Cinema" series: Darren Aronofsky's "The Fountain" and Richard Linklater's "A Scanner Darkly". Both are really trippy films, and they're both films in which I seem to respond better to their themes when I'm under the influence. Just a suggestion haha. Love your writing, keep doing what you're doing!

  6. Thanks Zak - I have reviewed the Fountain ( see here)

    I did like A Scanner Darkly, I need to see it again.

  7. I always wondered if Slater and Pickford dropped acid at the beginning of the movie when they're at the water fountain and Slater says "fixin' to be a lot better." Perhaps?! Great review! I always thought of Over the Edge is as the dark Dazed and Confused.

  8. glad I'm not the only one ! thanks and nice to hear from you


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