Nostalgia is a powerful agent for affinity. It has the ability to make things that are simply not good seem amazing. Lost in a cloud of emotions and hazy memories, we look back on events/things without the 20/20 vision that hindsight generally affords us. Things, such as film canon of Corey Feldman and Corey Haim for example, become nostalgic treasures harkening back to a time when you didn’t have car payments, a job, and student loans for a degree you don’t even use. Seriously, don’t even get me started about Dream A Little Dream (1989). As director Richard Linklater said about the subject of nostalgia “People always want return to something they recall being pure.” (From interview with Chuck Klosterman for Criterion Collection 2006).
Nostalgia can also make you long for the days of old. Whether or not they were actually your old days, good days, or even reality. The past tends to get simplified in our minds and therefore must be better. Media has a role to play in this. Giving us a misguided representation of was it was really like ala Leave It To Beaver. With movies, some filmmakers attempt to show us what it was like in a time period. However, period pieces don’t usually take place in a time to which the writer or director grew up. Fortunately for us, we have Dazed and Confused (1993), a film whose construction derives from the high school memories of it’s writer/director Richard Linklater. And since Dazed and Confused is essentially a stylized version of Linklater’s memories, it would only be natural that the film would flow like memory. Not in streams of linear progression, but in snippets of events or recurrences. But there is something to be said for Linklater’s memory laden film in its ability to tie to the memories of its viewers.He noted in the commentary for the Criterion disc that people would tell him that the film reminded them of their high school, which he found odd.
So what is it that links us to this film? On May 28, 1976 I was not going into highschool, or about to be a senior. I wasn’t born yet. I didn’t grow up in Texas, or even go to a high school that had a football team. Yet for some reason, I find myself attached to this film in way that is deeper than cult repetitious viewing and college stoner debating over the hipness of Martha Washington. Linklater said it best “My point was that some things never change in teenagerland..” (From “Spirit of ‘76” interviews with cast and crew, Criterion Collection 2006)
In his review of the film in 1993, Roger Ebert writes“The film is art crossed with anthropology.” I think Ebert’s assessment is right on point. When studying rites of passage, anthropologist Victor Turner theorized that the power of rituals was derived from the drama associated with them. That rites of passage symbolically deconstructed societal norms of social life, reconstructing them through three stages; separation, liminality, and reincorporation. Turner thought that all humans share in these rites of passage in some form or another. In film we see rites of passage displayed in many forms, the most popular is the coming of age story. Dazed and Confused is not a coming of age story. But it does give us a glimpse into various teenage rites of passage we all can relate to and therein find a connection.
For this post I will be looking at Mitch’s journey through the film. While Linklater doesn’t focus on just one character as the protagonist, let’s be honest, it’s Mitch. The progress of Mitch through the film follows the stages in a rite of passage. No, Mitch does not have a bar mitzvah or get married, but he does participate in rituals through which he is transformed.
Now I know what you’re saying, what about Sabrina? She has to put up with the amazingly harsh, gum smackin Darla (Parker Posey). Really, did the girls really have it as bad as the guys? I would much rather participate in an “air raid” and have mustard squirted on me than be paddled with a wood shop manufactured “soul pole”. That’s literally your tax dollars being used to beat your own children. Anyway, I digress.
Mitch Kramer has a problem. Mainly, his older sister, who happens to be popular. In an attempt help her little brother, she inadvertently sets the stage for what is a life altering afternoon/night/morning for Mitch. Moving from junior high to high school is a change for Mitch. It is separating himself from what he knows, the world of the junior high, to an unknown place, high school. As Carl puts it best as the boys leave their last junior high dance “We're not in Junior High any more. We're freshmen. We're in the big time now…” Part of this induction is getting paddled by seniors.
After the bell rings Mitch and his friends make a break for a car in order to escape the waiting seniors. A feat he only narrowly pulled off with the help of Carl’s mom. Thankfully she was there,, since there were some ruffians about that afternoon. While Mitch and his friends avoid the punishing blows of the upperclassmen for a moment, they know that it is inevitable. If in fact they want to be “in”. What is interesting is that the boys avoid this at all costs. Yet at the same time, this act is the only way they will be ritually inserted into the popular group. You must pay your dues. For the boys it’s physical humiliation, literally bending over in subordination to those above you. One has to wonder if Mike and Tony were ever paddled as incoming freshmen. There popularity in the class suggests that perhaps they weren’t. I can imagine that not every future freshman got whipped. This act helps to create social structure of hierarchy within the school before the school year has even started. Those who are in and those who are not.
After the ball game Mitch makes a sacrifice for his friends, leaving by the back gate so that they can skip out. Don’t worry, they’ll get it, or at least Hirschfelder will. What can we say, he’s slow. Mitch takes a beating, fittingly to Alice Cooper’s “No More Mr. Nice Guy”. Pink gives Mitch a ride home and offers to pick him up later when they go riding around, where Mitch meets Wooderson. Wooderson doesn’t go to school with them, in fact we don’t know when he went to school. However we can venture a guess it was a long time ago, like when everyone else was in the third grade. The first thing Wooderson asks Mitch is “Say, man, you got a joint?” A puzzled Mitch replies “No, not on me,man.” almost wondering if this a requirement until Wooderson says “It’d be a lot cooler if you did.”
Mitch heads out with Pink and Wooderson to the Emporium. Where eventually Mitch ends up in Pickford’s car smoking and vandalizing. After throwing a bowling ball through a car window, Mitch has officially made his way into the new group of seniors. Ready to be trained in the ways of high school as it were. Meanwhile his freshman friends are still trying to avoid getting hit with a paddle. They don’t cross paths again until the boys see Mitch coming out of the store with a sixer. It is at this point in the film that we truly see the separation of where Mitch is socially and where Carl and the others are. Simply through the ritualistic act of spanking.
While Mitch may have seemingly moved upward in his social standing his friends have remained stagnant. Unwilling to go through with the ritual of paddling they don’t get to enter into the Emporium or later attend the beer bust at the moon tower. They do however, with the help of someone has already been integrated into the new group of high school, get back at O’Bannon.
At the moon tower Mitch is told the mythic tale of the freshman who fell to his death by Slater; given more advice about women from Don, Melvin, and Pink; and has a nice discussion with his older sister. Leaving the party Mitch is reintegrated into the world of the freshman. But he is not the same Mitch we saw at the beginning of the film. It is only the first day of summer, and yet Mitch has already succeeded in placing himself within the stratified culture of high school through a ritualistic hazing. He also hooks up with an older woman on a blanket at sunrise. Nights don’t get much better than that Mitch, you should thank your sister.
If you don't own this Criterion film I would suggest you pick it up. It contains a wealth of information about the film with commentary from Richard Linklater, a booklet, and a poster. There is a free poster. How have you not purchased this already?