Wednesday, February 20, 2008

dazed and confused, by richard linklater

This week in Film Club, we chose to look at Dazed and Confused (1993), another piece about adolescence in the 1970s.

Dazed and Confused is a pretty successful example of the ensemble film, a form I'm extremely interested in (most of the fiction-writing I've done over the last, eh, decade has been in the ensemble form). However, watching it this time I was more interested in a particular relationship in the film, particularly the one between freshman Mitchell Kramer and senior Randall "Pink" Floyd. The film begins to draw a parallel between them about thirty minutes into the film:

For the remainder of its run-time, the film investigates parallels between these characters, in part by investigating what is important to each of them. Young Mitch is enthralled by the novelties that are becoming available to him, here on the threshold of late adolescence. Three of the big ones, of course, are drugs:


and women:

Mitch's arc involves his introduction to and successful negotiation of these pleasures. It's almost heartwarming, in a way—and this is testament to one of Dazed and Confused's great strengths: it aptly observes that for a certain type of (middle-class?) adolescent, "high-risk" behavior is also a, perhaps the, primary source of enjoyment. Antisocial perhaps: but also life-affirming in a way that is deeply felt and legitimate.

The story complicates this, however, through the narrative arc of Randall. Randall undeniably enjoys these same sorts of "antisocial" pleasures throughout the entire course of the film:

However, Randall also derives affirmation through another, more official, channel: he plays high school football, and his team is preparing to embark upon a promising-looking season, one where he's the designated starting quarterback. Part of the tension of Dazed and Confused's narrative, then, comes from setting up these two sources of pleasure as mutually exclusive, through the narrative device of the "pledge sheet." In order to continue on with the football team, Randall is required to sign a sheet pledging not to drink or do drugs (womanizing appears to be left as an option). This forces him to make a choice between two sources of enjoyment, each of which the film designates as legitimate.

To be precise, it should be said that the sheet itself doesn't force this choice: the film takes pains to set up the act of signing as essentially empty. We see other football players who have signed the pledge, but explicitly state that they have no plans to honor it. Randall has effectively forced the choice on himself, in the name of principle—he sees it, understandably, as a virtue not to put your name to a document you have no intention of honoring. But the film is not content to show this as a heroic act: the more lasting impression the film gives us is that Randall's "principled" choice is one with lasting consequences, one that he will come to regret, and which will also hurts his teammates and their own chances of success. The degree to which they feel betrayed by Randall is palpable, just check out the mug of that fella on the right:

For a movie with almost no footage of actual sports being played, Dazed and Confused makes a compellingly strong case for sports as a source of meaning, value, unifying narrative, and homosocial community for young people, presenting it as a more legitimate and lasting source of life-affirmation than the more obviously hedonistic pleasures that the film glorifies with a much greater percentage of screen-time. Maybe that means that next week we'll move into the world of sports movies? Stay tuned.

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