Few directors are as enamored with the passage of time and the preservation of memory as Richard Linklater. From the episodic chronicling of a relationship in the Before trilogy and the real-time unfolding of the chamber play Tape to his upcoming Boyhood, which was filmed in vignettes over the last 12 years to reflect the aging of its protagonist, Linklater is primarily concerned with capturing specific moments of significance and preserving them like celluloid time capsules. To that end, Linklater’s teenage opus Dazed and Confused, a 1970s high-school snapshot that, on Oct. 10, celebrated its 20th birthday at the New York Film Festival, ideally and uniquely lends itself to an anniversary screening. And even if Linklater, who was present at the screening, joked in his intro that the film “never would’ve gotten into” NYFF when it was first released, it also doesn’t hurt that it’s one of the most beloved and influential movies of the 1990s.
Dazed and Confused follows in the great tradition of the all-in-one-night film, an odd little subgenre that seems to specialize in churning out cult classics. One early notable entry in the “up all night” canon is George Lucas’ American Graffiti (1973), a nostalgia-soaked look at adolescence in the 1960s, and the film Dazed most clearly resembles. Other films in this vein vary from Martin Scorsese’s underground favorite After Hours to John Landis’s even less appreciated Jeff Goldblum vehicle Into the Night, also from 1985. Since Dazed, we’ve had Greg Mottola’s Superbad, which essentially borrows Linklater’s premise and spins it in a decidedly broader, heightened, millennial direction, and this year’s The World’s End, from Edgar Wright, which pays homage to its forebears with a wistful opening montage of its main characters doing an all-night pub crawl in their ’90s high school days.
Dazed and Confused manages to be unique in its autobiographical sincerity. Unfolding on the afternoon and night following the last day of school in May 1976, the events—jarringly brutal freshman hazing, busted parties, rock music, and first love—all seem deliberately lifted, with loving attention, from Linklater’s own life (and Linklater admitted that they indeed are, from the crazed, gun-toting neighbor to the infamous hazing). This is harder than it sounds. Lesser so-called “period pieces” have tried and failed to accumulate a sum from parts like banal, timely references, over-the-top haircuts, and stagey production design that equals something in the vicinity of “how we lived then.” What victims of this trap—from the ill-fated Mad Men knockoffs of network television to this summer’s 1990s overdose The To Do List—are missing is the capacity to let their characters live rather than reenact. Dazed and Confused remains thankfully free of cheap, SparkNotes references to its decade and culture and never overuses the idioms and eccentricities of its time. Its glorious opening shot—an orange GTO skidding in slow motion into the school parking lot, set to the magnificently summery strains of Aerosmith’s “Sweet Emotion”—doesn’t feel manipulative; it feels right. Of course these kids would be blaring that song, emanating the faux-cool that only teenagers believe themselves to possess. Update the song, the car, and the lingo, and the scene would fit in just as accurately 20 years later.
But while teenagers may never change, the times certainly do, as evidenced by the evolutions of the Dazed actors. Seething psychopathic senior flunkard O’Bannion (Ben Affleck) grew up to be Batman. A surprising amount of the cast of young unknowns also aged into relative fame, from standout Matthew McConaughey (here in his first feature role) to Adam Goldberg and Parker Posey. Wiley Wiggins, who appeared as beleaguered freshman Mitch Kramer, and was an actual Austin high school freshman at the time, had a large role in this year’s gonzo sleeper Computer Chess.
At the NYFF screening, Linklater appeared on stage with Posey and fellow ensemble stars Jason London and Anthony Rapp to discuss the film with the festival’s director of programming, Kent Jones. Jones, having penned one of the Criterion essays for the film, was just as unabashedly excited as the cast and audience, giving the whole event the tone of the most entertaining high school reunion in history. Ostensibly, based on the memories of the cast, the entire shoot sounded like a deliriously fun summer camp. London wistfully described how the cast essentially lived in the period they were recreating (with the help of mix-tape cassettes handmade by Linklater), and offered the bold claim that they also completely depleted Austin’s pot supply, even after getting kicked out of their hotel for “shenanigans.” On a more mournful note, everyone recalled that while Universal was leery of turning over even a modest budget to a relatively untested indie director, a cast of unknowns, and a script full of teenage drinking, there’s not a chance that the film could’ve been made in today’s filmic climate.
While he was absent, most of the group had nothing but favorable anecdotes about McConaughey, who steals every scene he’s in as Wooderson, the good-natured, hard partying town layabout who spouts such immortal aphorisms as, “That’s what I love about these high school girls, man: I get older, they stay the same age.” According to Linklater, McConaughey based his performance on his older brother and live recordings of Jim Morrison, and was originally only supposed to be on the shoot for a short period of time. The cast and crew loved him so much that they kept him around and allowed him to improvise himself into additional scenes.
When asked the requisite question of where the characters would be 20 years on, Linklater explained that the real Darla Marks, Posey’s cold-blooded senior queen, married the high school football coach young and had a bunch of kids. “Interesting. I was thinking about that today,” Posey mused. “A lot of crazy stuff happened there and I kind of hoped that she got it together.” Linklater quickly backtracked, saying that Darla was actually a composite. (“I don’t want to get sued again,” he quipped.)
Being shown on a 35mm print—one of very few at the festival, and the director’s own—only heightened the sense of encapsulated timelessness of the film. It may be the definitive film about high school in the 1970s, but it transcends both age and time. In essence and youthful spirit, it just keeps “L-I-V-I-N.”