And so, I come to that task all critics must—or, more accurately, should—arrive at, for better or worse: coming face to face, critically speaking, with your favorite film. My unwavering adoration for Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused began sometime in the late 1990s, as I began careening toward writing college essays, the SATs, graduation, and those senior parties that turned out to be genuinely debauched, not unlike the time detailed in Linklater’s peerless ’70s landscape. Dedicated stoner and burgeoning film nerd though I was, the genius and incalculable depth of Linklater’s narrative, which he also wrote, didn’t come into relief until a little less than a decade after my friends and I spent nearly every afternoon blowing smoke and cycling through staple titles that usually began with Dazed and Confused and ended around Animal House.
Still, what business do I have, a little over a decade and a college education focused largely on cinema later, considering Dazed and Confused the very axiom of my filmic tastes? The subject matter is downright juvenile: one long, weed-and-beer sautéed ride through the ZZ Top-soundtracked nocturne following the last day of school in Anytown, U.S.A. (Austin, Texas, to be precise). It’s oddly a film obsessed with rituals, beginning with a series of summer-christening paddlings administered to incoming high school freshman (most prominently represented by Wiley Wiggins’s Mitch) by newly ordained seniors (Cole Hauser’s Benny and Sasha Jenson’s Don get the better scenes) and ending with the stunning party at the Moon Tower sequence. In between there are those stops for greasy eats at the Top Notch, billiards, foosball tournaments, and pinball games at the Emporium and endless streams of talk about pot, cars, beer, concerts, philosophical notions, politics, and getting laid. The amount of drunk driving documented without an iota of regret or moral underpinnings alone would date the film.
At the center of it all is Randall “Pink” Floyd (Jason London), superstar QB and certifiable cool cat in the midst of his very own existential crisis, brought on by a pledge sheet handed down by his brutish football coach. His buddies sign it, for one reason or another, but Pink is less concerned with the machinations of high school politics and any sense of duty to his football cronies than he is with getting stoned with his “loser” friends, perfectly embodied by Rory Cochrane’s Slater and Shawn Andrews’s Pickford. In turn, Linklater’s focus on Pink loosens to incorporate a blissful cornucopia of personalities, stereotypes, cliques, and age groups, all swarming around a busted party at Pickford’s house that is resurrected as the Moon Tower fiesta by Wooderson (Matthew McConaughey, at his best).
Linklater so beautifully choreographs each character’s movements through the night and into the dawn, from the gang of freshmen to Pink and his buddies to the battalion of girls that range from brainy (Marissa Ribisi’s Cynthia, Michelle Burke’s Jodi) to artsy (Milla Jovovich’s Michelle) to bitchy (Parker Posey’s gloriously cruel Darla), that the film’s strong, multilayered emotional core transcends even the astoundingly detailed look of the film, carefully and lovingly realized by Linklater, John Frick, Katherine Dover, Deborah Pastor and Jenny C. Patrick. And the smooth movement and placing of Lee Daniel’s camera, partnered with Sandra Adair’s brilliant editing, is key to the sense of constant motion and lively pacing that Linklater summons from those first shots of the high school parking lot to the jovial drive down the highway, drowned out by Foghat’s funk-soaked “Slow Ride,” that closes the film.
So, Dazed and Confused excels at that near-impossible task of being about the ’70s without feeling as if its striving to reproduce the aesthetic artifice of a cinematic artifact of the ’70s, or attempting to surmise the ’70s. And yet, there’s that sense of dread that the Watergate era seemed battered and deep-fried in, and the economic and sociological horrors of the decade to come seem imbedded in every small speech Pink’s football friends give him about signing the pledge sheet. It is in this, I believe, that Robin Wood so famously came up with the idea of Dazed and Confused as Linklater’s “horror movie,” but then we can also see shots and scenarios from Halloween, The Last House on the Left, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Carrie throughout the film, consistently tarried by returns to the good times of Linklater’s teenage years.
If Dazed and Confused is, in some way, a memory film, it’s a generous and complex one, conjoining two versions of Linklater’s formative self (Mitch and Pink) to one another. In Pink, we are given the Linklater pitched between the glories of acceptance and pleasures of doing what he truly loves, a situation not unlike the one that Linklater and his producers found themselves in when battling to get the film made under the Universal Pictures banner. In Mitch, we are hit with a sense of awakening, the first breath of the possibilities of life (women, drugs, rock n’ roll, genuine camaraderie) that drives artists to make films like Dazed and Confused. As juvenile as its exterior may seem, Linklater’s film strikes at the heart of creative inspiration, of experience unbound by the expected, set parameters of narrative storytelling. Perhaps those wasted afternoons of my youth weren’t completely a waste after all.
Criterion’s 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer of Dazed and Confused is recognizably stronger than Universal’s Blu-ray release of the film, which hit shelves earlier this year. The most noticeable difference is the contrast, which Criterion has taken great care with. The look of the film, which is built on a strong and wide palette of colors, is sharper, and all the details, from the cars to the posters to the clothing, pop beautifully. The saturation levels are tip-top, though there are negligible amounts of sharpening that a seasoned Blu-ray viewer will pick up on. Black levels also look very good. The audio is equally excellent, especially considering that this film’s soundtrack is a key facet of the entire production. The dialogue is crisp, stable, and out front, and the mix is beautifully balanced between retro tunes from KISS, Bob Dylan, and Black Sabbath and a vast soundscape of atmosphere noise.
You could lose most of these extras, keeping only Richard Linklater’s excellent commentary, the 50-minute featurette "Making Dazed," and the booklet, featuring production notes, character profiles, interviews, and essays by Kent Jones and Chuck Klosterman, and still have a great package. This isn’t to say that I don’t appreciate the bounty of other extras, including deleted scenes, behind-the-scenes footage, audition footage, and footage from the 10-year reunion, but they’re more enjoyable than essential to understanding where the film came from, both artistically and production-wise. Still, this is a treasurable selection of supplements. A theatrical trailer is also included.
The imagery and luxurious auditory landscape of Richard Linklater’s ’70s-set masterpiece retains on this Criterion Blu-ray a potency that hits like a freshly lit, well-rolled joint.