Since the sixties, nostalgia has been one of the main features of American entertainment. The most successful show of the '70s was Happy Days, and it was followed by Grease and Back to the Future and too many other period pieces to name. When people look back at our own moment, they'll no doubt talk about Mad Men and Downton Abbey. Twenty years ago, the nostalgia of the moment was captured perfectly by Richard Linklater's impeccable recreation of Texas in the 1970s, Dazed and Confused, which is being celebrated with a reunion screening in Austin tonight. That movie has a special place in the history of nostalgia because it arrived right in the middle of Generation X, that most nostalgic of generations. It may well be the best movie ever made about the longing for other times.
The obsessive quality of memory in Dazed and Confused is the main source of its strength. The detail of the recreation of the past is extreme, and not just on the cars and the clothes. Obviously Linklater was on a mission to get everything just right: At the grade-eight year-end dance, all the girls are taller than the boys. How many people noticed that? The shows made about the fifities in the seventies didn't really care so much about the detail. It was enough to put a jukebox playing doo-wop in the corner for a bar to feel "fiftiesish." In Dazed and Confused, the level of detail makes the movie endlessly rewatchable. Tarantino said that the movie is one of the great "hangout" movies ever — movies that you rewatch for the characters rather than the plot — and he's right. You can stay with the characters for so long because they seem like real people.
Besides being an amazing act of memory in itself, Dazed and Confused is also one of the great films about memory, about aching for another era. Virtually everyone in the movie believes in some way that their time has past. The clearest example is the endlessly quoted Matthew McConaughey line "That's what I like about high school girls. I get older and they stay the same age." Ben Affleck's character is so angry because he's been kept back a year in school. He should be moving on but he's not. The geeks, led by Adam Goldberg, are my favorites. They really have missed their moment. All the great intellectual struggles of the civil rights era and Watergate have passed. They may as well get high and lose some fistfights.
Everyone in the whole movie is in the wrong time. The central character is Randall "Pink" Floyd, who represents that one guy in high school — I know exactly who he was in mine — who rolled through adolescence at ease in his skin, friendly with everyone and loving every minute of it. Even he isn't happy of course. During the movie's climactic scene on the football field, Floyd says, "If I ever start looking back on these as the best years of my life, remind me to kill myself." He is trying to decide whether or not to sign an anti-drug pledge for the football team. He doesn't want to rebel, but he doesn't want to concede to authority either. That's such a nineties predicament. I remember it: Were you going to sell out? Were you going to join the man? Everybody did sell out, of course, but everybody also wanted to preserve the aura of outrage, the feeling of alternativeness. It is the single most annoying feature of Generation X — tenured professors who believe they are countercultural radicals, lawyers who think they're rebels because they know about hip-hop, accountants who "keep it real."
That mixture of faux anti-authoritianism and intensely self-obsessed nostalgia makes Dazed and Confused the definitive film of Generation X. But it's also a flim that goes beyond its own time. It's a film about the confounding mixture of longing and regret that the memory of youth always has. All the kids in Dazed and Confused want nothing but to be out of high school. All the people watching Dazed and Confused want nothing more than to be back in high school. Everybody wants the times they're going to have or the times they once had. There's no solution to that ache. Maybe McConaughey's character, the one who refuses to grow up, gets it right: "You gotta just keep livin, man. L-I-V-I-N."
Read more: Dazed and Confused 20th Anniversary - Dazed and Confused and the 90s - Esquire http://www.esquire.com/blogs/culture/dazed-and-confused-20th-anniversary-15175511#ixzz2My0Tnylp