Dazed and Confused at 25: A period piece that remains unstuck in time

Photo credit: Gramercy Pictures -- Acquired via Fons PR
Photo credit: Gramercy Pictures -- Acquired via Fons PR /

Richard Linklater’s seminal high school story may be set in the 70s, but Dazed and Confused is still a timeless classic 25 years later.

“I didn’t realize culture would hit a snag,” said Richard Linklater last weekend while introducing the 25th-anniversary screening of his high school classic Dazed and Confused. Held outdoors at Zilker Park in Austin, Texas as part of the Alamo Drafthouse’s Rolling Roadshow, Linklater lamented on popular culture’s relative stagnation in the years since.

“We shot this in the summer of 1992, and it’s set 16 years previous, and it felt… kinda the same. If you go back to other points in history, like from ’76 back 16 years to 1960, you wouldn’t recognize a thing. I don’t know what that means,” said the director.

When the movie started to get going, it was easy to see exactly what Linklater was talking about. Aerosmith, who provides the movie’s opening song, “Sweet Emotion,” were MTV darlings throughout the early/mid-1990s. KISS was still putting out records. Bob Dylan, ZZ Top, and Black Sabbath were still performing regularly. And, it should be noted, still are.

“The Baby Boomers hit a certain spot and said ‘Okay, we’re gonna ride this out all the way. For the next 50 years,'” Linklater said, before jokingly saying he could’ve subtitled the movie Dazed and Confused: The End of History.

Photo by Heather Leah Kennedy — Acquired via Fons PR
Photo by Heather Leah Kennedy — Acquired via Fons PR /

Still, Dazed and Confused, even a quarter century later, manages to stay appealing because it feels like a timeless story. Sure, there are some dated moments, like the occasional reference to America’s bicentennial, or the fact you could be 18 and buy beer, but even the film’s telltale 70’s fashion was once again popular when the film hit theaters back in 1993.

For those who were in high school when Dazed and Confused came out, as I was, it was the kind of film you watched, hoping you were as cool as Randall “Pink” Floyd or Jodi Kramer. The reality, of course, was that many of us were closer to the perpetually neurotic of Mike Newhouse, or worse, a lowly, uncool Mitch Kramer. Although some of us might have eeked by as a Slater, falling in with the cool kids thanks to a laid-back attitude and a reliable weed connection.

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Given the benefit of hindsight, this kind of nostalgic re-watch ends up being two-fold. First, the romanticized portrayal of small-town life at the dawn of the Carter era, a simpler time that will be forever out-of-reach for Gen-Xers and everyone after. Second, a longing for one’s old high school days, when the rigidity of its social caste structure seemed like the most important thing in the world.

Beyond the muscle cars and ringer tees of days gone by, Dazed and Confused still captures the totality of the teenage experience, from the anxiety of senioritis to the anticipation of life after middle school, and all the frustrating boredom that lies between.

Part of that appeal comes from Linklater’s long-held ability to captivate audiences without that much of a story. He helped put Austin on the map in 1990 with Slacker, won over audiences everywhere with his ambitious Boyhood, and even continued the spirit of Dazed with its “spiritual sequel” Everybody Wants Some!! in 2016.

Like life itself, Dazed and Confused has no real plot, yet manages to stay not only watchable, but relevant, arguably for that very reason. I’s an 18-hour snapshot of a cross-section of teenage lives, from the popular kids who run the school down to the lowly freshman who are forced to endure a humiliating hazing ritual as an annual right-of-passage. Even the post-high school hangers-on, like the now-immortal character of Wooderson, tend to remind us of someone we knew who never really let high school go.

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Of course, it’s Wooderson’s philosophy-turned-catchphrase, “just L.I.V.I.N.,” that ended up being the film’s most resonating sentiment. Sure, it’s set in a very specific period of time, but Dazed and Confused remains a near-universal story about how to deal with life just before adulthood starts to take hold.