Dazed and Confused: Flashback Edition Review

“If I ever say these were the best years of my life, remind me to kill myself...”

-- Randy “Pink” Floyd (Jason London)


With my college years behind me, my high school days seem long gone; which I have no trouble in accepting. Yet, most of us will look back at these times with comforting reflection. Were they really the “best years of our lives”, or were they merely preparation for our future, and nothing more? These questions are posed by Richard Linklater’s cult classic Dazed and Confused, a film that claims to tell teenage life the way it is - uncertain, hopeful, and often messy. Drawing on Linklater’s own experiences, it’s a vivid snapshot of high school in 1976, a time when bell-bottoms, drink-driving and marijuana were all part of society’s fabric. The music wasn’t bad either...

Often compared to American Graffiti, Linklater’s teen odyssey follows a similar pattern, yet where that film dealt with time-honoured genre archetypes, Dazed and Confused treats us to characters that seem eerily accurate. We’ve all known these people. Some of us may even recognise ourselves. It may be set nearly 30 years ago, but Linklater’s script has a clear vale of honesty that penetrates the generation gap. Dazed and Confused is a film dripping with nostalgia, and whether you lived through the era or not, there’s something here to remember.



To say Dazed and Confused isn’t really about anything would be missing the point. Indeed, it isn’t a film for those hoping to get lost in a story. There is no narrative, or a conventional three-act structure. The film is more “real” than that, showing these characters as they pass the time. Strangely, I was gripped from the opening frame. We find ourselves whisked away to 1976, on the last day of high school in an unnamed town. Soon enough, the protagonists are introduced. Randy "Pink" Floyd (Jason London), is a handsome quarterback who has more on his mind than playing football. Instead, he’d rather party with his stoner accomplice Slater (Rory Cochrane) and professional love rat Don (Sasha Jenson), who are whiling away the hours until the boozing can commence.

Among the days events, is the initiation of those freshman, who are just waiting to enter high school life. This involves hunting them down and beating their asses with paddles. (Yes, you did read that last part right). Enjoying this childish ritual, are Benny (Cole Hauser), Melvin (Jason O. Smith) and dim-witted bully O’Bannon (Ben Affleck). It’s the perfect excuse for Linklater to expose that timely inner-school class system - the handsome rebels, the jocks, the good-looking girls, and of course, the geeks. Representing the latter, are Mike (Adam Goldberg) and Tony (Anthony Rapp), who are lucky enough to happen across the evening’s party. Many others will be thrown into the mix (including Parker Posey and Milla Jovovich), eventually ending up at the social event of the season; the final death throes of a class that saw it all.

Preceding works like Before Sunrise, its sequel, and the existential musings of Waking Life, Linklater has really cemented his indie credentials. Dazed and Confused might be funded with Universal’s money, but in many respects, it holds several similarities to his debut, the no-budget hit Slacker. His style in that film was to introduce a variety of Texan layabouts, moving from one person to another; taking in the lives of a whole community. He never lingered on a character for too long, and if one of them bored you, there was always another waiting just around the corner. He adopted a similar pattern with Dazed, but it’s nowhere near as extreme, choosing this small group of personalities, and switching between them until the credits roll. If nothing else, it proves Linklater’s worth as a gifted screenwriter. Only Tarantino seems to beat him in this area, though they both take pride in intertwining unrelated stories. It was a gimmick in Slacker, but here it bares emotional resonance.

Dazed is an actor’s dream. It’s essentially a “talk” picture, and with a script belting out witty platitudes, it certainly pays to be vocal. The icing on the cake is a pretty stellar cast, most of whom have gone on to fair success. Linklater is a director that can make full use of his cast, and each of the group bring something different to the table. It all adds to a refreshing experience, with most of the fun generated by those familiar faces. Seeing Affleck this early in his career, was certainly amusing, especially since his asshole character gets a fitting comeuppance (and a delightfully retro hairdo). The big-chinned one aside, I found it very hard to spot a weak-link in the cast. Goldberg and Rapp (he of Road Trip fame) are perfect as “stereotypical” geeks; people just as insecure as the jocks. The only difference is, they’ll admit it. Stealing most of the scenes though, is Cochrane as the weed-smoking Slater. Stoner characters are often poorly sketched, but the CSI veteran gets it just right. Among his many side-splitting scenes, is his rant about George Washington, who apparently, was into an alien cult...



As with most films, the director always relates to one character in particular. In Linklater’s case, I suspect that honour lies with Mitch Kramer, played with a youthful charm by Wiley Wiggins. One of the freshman bound for high school, he provides the audience with a portal into the story, meeting this motley bunch on what is probably the greatest night of his life. Adding this coming-of-age sub-plot merely gives Linklater more to analyse and remember. It’s clear that the film holds more than a few real-life anecdotes (many of the characters are based on the director’s friends), and this gives the picture its emotional centre. There’s an electrifying charge prevalent from start to finish; a director perfectly content to reminisce about his life, and reflect on his achievements.

Technically, Dazed and Confused is one of those achievements, and with a $6 million budget, Linklater was able to fully realise the maverick potential of Slacker. Much of that cash was clearly spent on production design, and the film has an acute sense of era - the memories of a man that lived through it all. The sets, the wardrobe, and even the cars are just right. But what really makes the film is its soundtrack, which is nothing short of perfection. Fans of classic rock will adore this eclectic mix, which includes Aerosmith, Black Sabbath, KISS and Alice Cooper (contributions which took one-sixth of the budget). With anthems such as “School’s Out”, and “Sweet Emotion” hitting the airwaves, most audiences will find the film an enjoyable brew. The filmmaker uses music in the best way possible, letting it play over tightly choreographed scenes, or from the stereos of his cast - something he’d perfect with School of Rock.

Still, the themes of the film are allowed to flourish, surfacing above the guitars and reefer smoke long enough to register. With the partying, Linklater manages to voice an observation. As with most males, the dominant always seem to hide their true colours. Secretly, they feel like outsiders. Are these inane rituals merely a way of escaping the harsh truth of life outside high school? One man seems to miss those glory days - the impossibly hip Wooderson (Matthew McConaughey), who graduated years ago, but still lingers on school property. Is life too short? Should we be enjoying ourselves now, instead of toiling away? Naturally, the film doesn’t give us the answers. We have to figure this out for ourselves.

As the night draws to a close, the group take to the open road to buy Aerosmith tickets; the summer weeks laying in wait. Where they go from here is uncertain, but you know they’ll have fun finding out...



The Disc

Finally unleashed on a decent disc, Dazed and Confused doesn’t get the ultimate treatment it deserves, but it does get a quality re-master. Dubbed as a Flashback Edition, fans should definitely pick this up; if only to replace their worn-out copies. So, what does the release get right?

The Look and Sound

Universal give the film a beautiful anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) transfer, which has clearly been granted a digital facelift. The film is a sunny one, so the image is bright and pleasant from the start. Immediately, I was bowled over by the richness of the print - few films a decade old have so much texture to the image, and thankfully, noticeable grain is largely absent. Lee Daniel’s cinematography is wonderfully preserved, and the film is awash with colour - greens, reds, yellows - all bright and nicely defined. When the second half of the film shifts into night-time, no clarity is lost. The picture stays clear, and is free of any print damage. Though I do have some caveats. A few frames of the daylight footage are overly soft, and could have been sharper. Ultimately, Dazed and Confused looks fantastic - old followers of the picture will appreciate the time Universal have spent to make it look brand new.

The audio also benefits, with both Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS tracks really showcasing the films sound and musical interludes. They are fairly vibrant mixes - the surrounds are rarely used, but when they do, the effects are above-average. The scene in which the group go smashing mailboxes is alive with noise, and really gets you into the scene. Dialogue is very important in this film, so it’s good to know that the vocals are clearly transferred. There were only a few instances where the dialogue was low (mostly in the opening 10 minutes), but for the most part, the tracks do well to separate the different elements. Nit-picking aside, Dazed and Confused is all about the music, and the mixes give the soundtrack a passionate overhaul. Those legendary anthems sound fantastic. So good in fact, that any small flaws are quickly overlooked. To coin a popular 70’s phrase, this disc is “groovy”...

The Menus

Full of kitsch 70’s styling, these animated menus accompany the film well. Easy to navigate, scenes from the film play in the background as you make your selection. I really digged these menus - the design is simple but very effective, with bright colours and witty sound-bytes that set the mood. Thankfully, the transitions don’t outlive their welcome. “The Man” has done a good job here.

Bonus Material

Here’s where Universal drops the ball. While the material is disappointing, it’s even more annoying when Linklater voiced his interest in making a full-blown “Special Edition”. His plan was to produce a documentary, with many of the cast contributing interview material. The studio vetoed this decision, and as a result, Linklater denied them an audio commentary. It’s a crying shame, especially when you look at Criterion’s recent release of the director’s Slacker. Still, this disc isn’t entirely barebones, but there’s nothing here you’ll want to watch again.

Deleted Scenes

There’s a lot of cut footage here, which raises the curiosity value for rabid fans. Most of it consists of scene extensions, or brief snippets of dialogue - nothing especially exciting, but worth a watch. There’s 9 scenes in total, and the quality is pretty poor for the most part, with print damage inherent throughout. Still, it’s always interesting to see what hit the cutting room floor, and this is no exception...

“The Blunt Truth”

This runs for about 5 minutes, and surprisingly, I laughed myself silly. As an extra to the film it’s totally redundant, but certainly fun. Dubbed as an “Institutional Filmstrip on the Dangers of Partying”, it plays like one of those vintage school documentaries, and the maker has achieved a classic mockumentary-look. With stock footage and plenty of wild editing, this tirade against smoking grass will no doubt raise a smile. Enjoyable, but pointless.

“Retro Public Service Announcements”

These are in the same vein as the piece above, and cover such topics as VD (!). They all look pretty rough now, which give away their age. Amusing while they last.

The disc also includes the theatrical trailer, and a small set of production notes. A far cry from the set I was expecting, but hardly worthless. On another note, the box art is fantastic - you can remove the outer-sleeve to reveal a lovingly designed case. Complete with a shiny finish, it will look good on your shelf. Cosmic.

Overall

Cool, iconic, and full of memorable moments, Dazed and Confused really is the exception in this genre. Linklater’s film is a passionate and intelligent concoction, but it probably won’t appeal to everyone. Universal’s disc falls short of greatness, but the transfer gives the film an added boost of anarchic life. This Flashback is a history lesson I’d gladly take again...

Film
8 out of 10
Video
8 out of 10
Audio
8 out of 10
Extras
5 out of 10
Overall

7

out of 10

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