I have watched Dazed and Confused approximately sixty-five times, and I have been stoned for approximately sixty-four of those viewings. At this point, it seems unfathomable to watch this movie without being high; in fact, it’s entirely possible that watching this movie actively releases THC into my bloodstream. But I do know this: I was not smoking pot the first time I watched Dazed and Confused. And I know this because I was drunk.
There has never been a movie I wanted to see as much as Dazed and Confused. This was primarily due to my somewhat fanatical affinity for Slacker (1991), a movie I sometimes watched twice a day. Prior to Slacker, it had never occurred to me that a narrative could exist without a plot, a rudimentary realization that instantaneously reinvented my understanding of almost everything. The fact that Dazed and Confused was named after a Led Zeppelin song was almost as important: as a college junior in 1993, I glamorized the 1970s to a degree that now seems absurd. I had, technically, lived through 80 percent of that particular decade, but it still seemed distant and alien and unknowable; the culture of the recent past seemed wholly incomparable to the conditions of the present. At the time, my favorite rock bands were Nirvana and Guns N’ Roses, but—even then—I certainly didn’t think either one was anything like Zeppelin (or even anything like Peter Frampton). That would have been like comparing Bill Clinton to Abe Lincoln. So even though I had no idea whatsoever about its plot, I suspected Dazed and Confused was going to incarnate a zeitgeist I wanted to inhabit yet never could (and never would). This was the kind of hopeless, self-reflexive dream that made me very, very excited.
Unfortunately, my college happened to exist in the community of Grand Forks, North Dakota, which meant Dazed and Confused never opened in theaters. I think it played briefly in Fargo (seventy-three miles to the south), but I didn’t have a car. As a consequence, I did not see this film in 1993, although I read a lot of reviews (many of which were mixed, and most of which made reference to American Graffiti, a film I hated because of Richard Dreyfuss, whom I hate on principle). I purchased a Dazed and Confused companion tome that was structured like a high school yearbook, and I remember thinking, There are probably too many characters in this story. But that was it; there was nothing else I could do. I knew that somewhere where I was not living there was a movie that involved Kiss and high school football and smoking marijuana, and people who were not me were paying $7.50 to see it.
When Dazed and Confused became available on video, it was difficult to rent; every weirdo in Grand Forks evidently shared my worldview, because the VHS tape was always gone from Superstar Video. It was several weeks before my friend Michael was finally able to find it, at a twenty-four-hour truck stop. We drank Busch beer and watched it in somebody’s dorm room (followed by David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me). And I must be honest: the first time I saw Dazed and Confused, I was disappointed. It just didn’t seem realistic; it was like a cinematic caricature.
The fashion seemed exaggerated. The hazing seemed implausible. The idea of teenagers in a car being shot at for wrecking a mailbox seemed ridiculous. It was entertaining, and I appreciated the fact that the word man was said 185 times in casual conversation, but I had waited a year for this. The movie inside my brain was still better.
Obviously, I have watched Dazed and Confused many, many times since that first afternoon, and it has improved with almost every viewing. It now seems like a completely different film. And as I have grown older, I’ve deduced why. Dazed and Confused is not a movie about how things were; Dazed and Confused is a movie about how things are remembered. This ﬁlm doesn’t illustrate what it was actually like to be in semirural Texas in 1976, but I’m sure it evokes how that time and place must retrospectively feel to anyone who was actually there. Like so many of Richard Linklater’s movies, Dazed and Confused is about how memory operates (and what memories mean). When I recall my most insane high school experiences, it’s difﬁcult to untangle what truly happened, what seems retrospectively plausible, and what I pretend to remember in my mind. No ﬁlm has ever combined those three realities as adroitly as Dazed and Confused. But that’s not something you can realize by watching it once. Mythology requires repetition.
I interviewed Linklater in 2005, and we talked about how we all create our own nostalgia, usually without effort or intent. “Everyone does this,” Linklater said. “It’s like asking someone about Saturday-morning cartoons: by some incredible coincidence, the only good cartoons anyone can ever remember are the ones that were on when they were six years old. It’s a fucking cultural pathology. People always want to return to something they recall being pure. It’s like when people say stuff like ‘Let’s return to the 1950s. The morals were better. There was no teenage pregnancy.’ People just make up shit that never existed.”
This is true; I don’t think the world inside Dazed and Confused ever really existed. And I suspect the world where I spent a year desperately waiting to watch Dazed and Confused didn’t exist, either. But if you can tell the difference between how things were and how things feel, you are the only one, man.
This essay was originally written for the Criterion Collection in 2006.
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