25 years later, ‘Dazed and Confused’ stays the same age

Midway through Dazed and Confused we are introduced to the Emporium, a dimly lit arcade and pool hall. Lanky high schoolers loiter outside and sit atop all the pool tables, if they’re not playing on them; it seems as if the customers are also the people running the joint. Into this space busts Wooderson (Matthew McConaughey), Pink (Jason London), and Mitch (Wiley Wiggins), swaggering through the doors as Bob Dylan’s “Hurricane” escorts them inside. Wooderson points at someone he knows offscreen as Dylan sings what we can already see about these people, that in this moment, they are the champions of the world.

And they truly are: later on, as the night is winding down, Simone (Joey Lauren Adams) tells Pink, “You guys are kings of the school. You get away with whatever you want.” But Pink complains about how stifled he feels by high school. “All I’m saying is that if I ever start referring to these as the best years of my life, remind me to kill myself.”

The contrast between these two moments, more than any plot point in Richard Linklater’s 1993 cult classic about the first day of summer for a group of Texas high school stoners, is the central tension of the film. Like Boyhood, or Before Sunset, or many of Linklater’s films, Dazed and Confused is about the passage of time. It’s about how the most important thing in life is, as one character puts it, “Good ol’ worthwhile visceral experience,” even if we can’t appreciate that experience in the moment.

Dazed and Confused ostensibly happens in a real time and place: it is loosely based on Linklater’s own experience growing up in Texas in the 1970s. But the magic of the film is rooted in just how unreal the setting is. After school lets out, the night is seemingly endless. There is little sense of what time it is, or even if time still applies to these people. Plans are made spontaneously, but everything seems to work out. The characters have nothing to do except be. Everyone can drink in public without repercussion, and no one seems to need any sleep. The characters’ experiences are unextraordinary (grabbing a burger, driving around aimlessly, going to a high school keg party), and yet each moment is somehow transcendent. A normal high school party is an insignificant event, but a party at the moontower is a religious experience.

Dazed and Confused takes place in a memory more than a real time and place. It occurs in a world that never really was but feels recognizable. Linklater captures a mixture of specificity and timelessness like no other director can. It’s so tangible that I almost feel like I lived through that day in 1976.

It’s not just the fantastical touches that make Dazed and Confused seem like something beyond reality. It’s how utterly alive every moment feels. Each line is delivered with indelible energy, and the characters are totally engaged with every moment of their lives, no matter how insignificant they seem. When Slater (Rory Cochrane), the über-stoner of the lot, is describing how George Washington definitely smoked weed, it feels as if no conversation has ever mattered more in his life. When Tony (Anthony Rapp) tells Mike (Adam Goldberg) about a sex dream he had involving Abraham Lincoln, Mike doesn’t mock Tony, or even dismiss the dream’s significance. He replies with genuine empathy, as if this dream is a real tragedy that they will need to engage with more later.

Wooderson is the manifestation of this ability to lend gravitas to the present. With vacant eyes and a constant soft smile, Wooderson wanders through life without any worries. House party busted? No problem, party at the moontower. You don’t have a joint? No problem, but it’d be cooler if you did. His mellow laugh is a physical expression of his signature line in the movie: “You just gotta keep livin’, man. L-I-V-I-N.”

But aside from Wooderson, even amid all the sublime freedom of the night, the characters do not feel satisfied by the present. Pink, the quarterback for the high school football team and ‘king of the school’, spends a good amount of his screen time griping about the authority figures in his life. The characters actively celebrate the recent past and near future as they grumble about the present: the seniors look forward to college, and the incoming freshmen view high school as a transformative social leap. And when Mike gets pummeled in a fight, he rationalizes the experience by considering how people will remember the fight in the future, and not the reality of how it went in the present.

Even for the characters who want to enjoy the moment, they seem unable to do so. Driving around with Mike and Tony, Cynthia (Marissa Ribisi) says, “If we are all gonna die anyway, shouldn’t we be enjoying ourselves now? You know, I’d like to quit thinking of the present, like right now, as some minor insignificant preamble to something else.” But later, at the party at the moontower, Cynthia complains about how she didn’t grow up in a different era: “The 50’s were boring. The 60’s rocked. The 70’s, my God, they obviously suck.”

This is the prevailing sentiment of Dazed and Confused, that the present is something to both be enjoyed to the fullest but inevitably undervalued. It’s tragic, and beautiful. There are not many perfect movies. Dazed and Confused is one of them.

Part of that perfection comes from the way in which Dazed and Confused itself functions as an example of the power of nostalgia. The memory of that shot entering the Emporium always unfolded in my mind in slow-motion. Even a few days after re-watching the film, that’s still how I remembered it. But when looking up that scene while writing this article, I was again reminded that it happens in real time. It’s not in slow-motion, but it’s just as glorious as if it were. That’s the greatness of Dazed and Confused: it’s just as great in the moment as it is in memory.

Dazed and Confused: 4 stars