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‘Dazed and Confused’

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 22, 1993

 


Director:
Richard Linklater
Cast:
Jason London;
Rory Cochrane;
Adam Goldberg;
Anthony Rapp;
Sasha Jenson;
Milla Jovovich;
Michelle Burke
R
Under 17 restricted


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"Dazed and Confused" ought to be in a prominent place at the Library of Congress, next to "The Godfather," Frederick Wiseman's "High School," "American Graffiti," "Nashville," "Citizen Kane" and other quintessentially American works. Like all those films, "Dazed" succeeds on its own terms and reflects American culture so well, it becomes part of it. More important, it's the best movie I've seen on serious butt whacking since "If."

Richard Linklater's satirical take on high school life in the 1970s is not only funny and entertaining. It's practically a historic document of life during the smiley-face button era -- when people wore wide-bottomed pants, listened to Edgar Winter and (to paraphrase a "Dazed and Confused" ad banned by the Motion Picture Association of America) actually inhaled when they smoked marijuana.

It's the last day of school, somewhere in Middle America, summer 1976. Watergate is four years old and America is about to weather Jimmy Carter's misery-index regime. When that bell rings, all hell will break loose. High school jocks are lurking outside junior-high classrooms, custom-made paddles in hand, to ceremonially sting the posteriors of boys about to be fall freshmen.

Meanwhile, the female seniors are cooking up similarly abusive rites of passage for the incoming freshmen girls. After the pain and humiliation, multiple partying is planned, with beer, loud music and dope. It's going to be a wild night.

"Dazed" is not a call to smoke 'em if you got 'em; nor is it a civic-minded admonition about the evils of narcotics. It's about life during wartime -- the wartime of high school, where the staff is crazy, the parents are clueless and the students are bizarre. Nothing makes sense. The times are so weird, it makes perfect sense to get through them on the drug -- or self-delusion -- of your choice. If joints and six-packs aren't appealing, you can seek refuge in eccentricity or alienation. If you're appalled at the younger generation, you can always lose yourself in a purple haze of shock, bewilderment and sanctimony.

The mostly first-time performers in this ensemble drama are too numerous to outline, but two emerge. There's Jason London, as a star quarterback all set to lead the team to victory the following semester. He's been asked to sign a team pledge not to use drugs or alcohol, but he resents the authoritarianism. Then there's sweet-faced Wiley Wiggins, an eighth grader who grimly anticipates the ritual beating he's in for -- not only today, but probably for the whole summer. It doesn't help matters that his overprotective sister asked the sadistic seniors to go easy on him.

"Dazed," which unfolds in a Robert Altman-style series of overlapping escapades, finds the pain and humor in life before voting age. Two parents, about to leave for a trip with their pothead son remaining at home, can't help noticing the beer-keg delivery man pull (a little early) into their driveway. They decide to stay and repel the onslaught of weirdos at the door. When Wiggins finally submits to the inevitable (an incredibly affecting, lamb-to-the-slaughter experience), Alice Cooper's "No More Mr. Nice Guy" plays on the soundtrack. (Speaking of music, more than 30 songs -- from Kiss, Peter Frampton, Led Zeppelin and others -- evoke this stranger-than-any era of pop.)

The movie's also full of Linklater's memorable utterances, from an intellectual senior's lament that she keeps thinking of the present as "some minor, insignificant preamble to something else," to London's post-beating advice to Wiggins: "Hey man, put some ice on it. After that, it won't be anything a few beers can't take care of."

Linklater, whose "Slacker" reaped similar culturally reflective success (the angst of young Americans with nothing political or life-threatening to fight for), sums up an even younger generation's absurdities, frustrations and joys. There's a knowing, sympathetic and witty spirit about the exercise that makes you laugh as you wince, whether you inhaled or not.

   
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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