Yes, yes, it's blockbuster season. But there's another way to while away a hot afternoon - catching up on (or discovering) cinematic gems. Our reviewers offer a primer to the films they consider summer classics in a 10-part weekly series.
Dazed and Confused (1991)
THE ESTABLISHING SHOT
After channelling the weird, wandering ways of hometown hipsters in his 1991 feature debut Slacker, Austin filmmaker Richard Linklater rounds up some beater cars, casts Matthew McConaughey, Parker Posey, Ben Affleck, Milla Jovovich and Adam Goldberg in early screen roles and pushes play on two albums' worth of vintage 1970s rock (thus spending most of his budget) for Dazed and Confused (1993). The film tracks several incoming freshmen and seniors as they meander, muse and mix it up on the last day of high school. Elevating the studied yet loose style and backseat philosophizing of Slacker, Linklater's sophomore film will eventually be regarded as a cinematic high point of coming-of-age summer teen comedies. Dazed and Confused keeps it regional, supercool and funny while connecting to European art-house aesthetics, foreshadowing many magical, chatty Linklater movies to come.
What do you remember of the last day of high school, or any summer night of young adulthood for that matter? If it's a sensory daze of impromptu parties, pranks and dares, confrontations and tentative romance, underage drinking, stoned conversation and anticipating big rock concerts, know Dazed and Confused captures that without getting dreamy or melancholy. Viewers of a certain age will get a nostalgia kick, but the film, set in 1976, is not a period piece (à la American Graffiti). Nor does it rely on the over-the-top comic bits, plot payoffs or star turns of today's Hollywood teen fare. Instead we get smart, small, well-observed visions, flowing from twilight cruising to nighttime loitering, from a vacant-lot keg bash to sunrise philosophizing and short-term plans. Linklater nails the perfect tempo of a summer night, and cinematographer Lee Daniel puts us right where we need to be to share in the fun.
A true ensemble film, Dazed and Confused is nevertheless anchored on the overlapping trajectories of three dudes. Freshman Mitch (Wiley Wiggins, who later starred in Linklater's animated Waking Life) survives a bad hazing and as a reward, gets to cruise with seniors; later he gets revenge on the hazer (Affleck), gets high for the first time, makes out with a pretty sophomore and, after getting chewed out for staying out all night, puts on headphones to listen to Foghat. Senior Randall "Pink" Floyd (Jason London), who takes Mitch under his wing, is the only football player who hasn't signed a pledge promising not to do anything over the summer that would "jeopardize" the team (i.e., take drugs); later he breaks up a fight, then gets caught smoking dope on the 50-yard line at dawn and throws the pledge in the coach's face. David Wooderson (McConaughey), a former football star, is a slightly older charmer who still hangs out with high school kids, including Pink; you know his status will soon fade and he'll be the weird older dude clinging to the past, but tonight he's the cool cruise director.
Dazed and Confused celebrates the elusive feeing of living in the moment, aligning itself with the dreamers and slackers without turning them into heroes. Marketed ineptly for its theatrical release, the film was nevertheless widely praised by critics and is now a bona fide cult classic. It tends to air on TV this time of year, but resist the temptation. Go for a long walk around the neighbourhood at sunset, then fire up the Criterion Collection's two-disc edition.
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