School’s out... ecstatic kids cruise around in sleek automobiles from dusk till dawn, getting girls, getting high, getting into trouble.
Years later, an experimental director, fresh off his slacker debut, wistfully turns his childhood experiences into a nostalgic reverie.
Said director has a taste for overlapping narrative, the balls to cast a band of eager unknowns and the passion to blow the budget on wall-to-wall golden oldies. In the process, he mainlines those memories into a blast of giddy cinematic joy.
Richard Linklater’s 1993 slacker classic Dazed And Confused has a lot in common with George Lucas’ pre-Star Wars breakthrough, American Graffiti (1973). Does cinema need two movies on the same subject, made in broadly the same manner?
The answer comes from an unlikely source: English novelist LP Hartley proposed that “the past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.” These films prove his point.
Lucas delved into his miscreant past as a hot-rod racer in Modesto, California, 1962, to revisit the halcyon days of youth culture before the JFK assassination and Vietnam soured the mood. Hair is cropped short, late-night pirate DJs spin Beach Boys singles, and the kids are drunk on nothing more dangerous than Coke.
Fourteen years later and 1,400 miles further east, in Austin, Texas, 1976, Linklater’s generation has grown its hair, grown its weed, and grown a taste for Aerosmith in the wake of Watergate.
Look back in languor
That’s nothing compared to the generation shift off-screen between the Movie Brat ’70s and the Sundance ’90s, which made Lucas’ film a hit, but consigned Linklater to a flop – for the same studio, Universal.
Ironically, nobody wanted Lucas after THX 1138 tanked; he had to use friend/producer Francis Ford Coppola’s post-Godfather heft to get greenlit. Even then, Universal couldn’t comprehend Lucas’ then-radical parallel narratives, weaving in and out of four friends’ night like the cars on the main drag.
Fast-forward to the indie renaissance of the early ’90s, and everybody wanted Linklater after the zeitgeist-capturing, Generation X-defining Slacker. But he too scared execs, marshalling an even bigger, Altman-esque cast and loosening the structure further with a languid drift from classroom to pool hall to hilltop beer-bust that can scarcely be bothered to look for drama.
And yet, Universal ’73 trusted test audiences when ’70s kids went wild for ’60s hijinks, prompting a huge hit. Universal ’93 didn’t give Dazed a chance, burying it through indifferent marketing and rueing the loss when it became a belated cult success on video.
Lucas sparked a bonanza in retro-cool (notably TV’s Happy Days, starring Graffiti artist Ron Howard), leg-ups for its going-places cast (Richard Dreyfuss, Harrison Ford), and the launch of his pet space opera.
Team Austin’s triumphs are more muted: Linklater’s relationship with the mainstream continues to blow hot and cold, and even the film’s biggest stars, Matthew McConaughey and Ben Affleck, have had careers that can be filed under “dazed” and “confused”, respectively.
That perception is reflected in lop-sided extras. Graffiti brings out its big guns in a superb feature-length Making Of and Lucas video commentary; Dazed has little beyond jokey Reefer Madness-style vignettes. Frustratingly, there’s nothing from the ace Criterion DVD package that convincingly made the case for Linklater’s film being Graffiti’s equal in craft and entertainment.
Romancing the stoned
Nonetheless, it’s worth asking whether Dazed was always the harder sell. American Graffiti welcomes its audience with open arms. Even encompassing crime, debauchery and a near-fatal car smash, there’s a bubblegum purity that’s a welcome antidote to ’70s miserablism.
Lucas preserves his childhood innocence in aspic, only allowing bad things to happen in the film’s “where are they now?” coda – an essential staging post to Star Wars, where the Dark Side has to wait until the sequel for payback.
Dazed And Confused is set in precisely the same cynical years that Lucas was fleeing – America’s bicentennial an incongruous backdrop for a community where newcomers are initiated into high school by having their asses paddled raw by senior-year bullies.
All that stoned bullshit disguises a wry social chronology that pokes fun at the certainties of Lucas’ babyboomer generation: “The ’50s were boring, the ’60s rocked... the ’70s obviously suck, maybe the ’80s will be radical?” One unexpected side-effect of Linklater’s stylistic debt to Graffiti is to lament Lucas’ journey from experimental student to chairman of the board.
The films are united by their sheer exuberance and an innate grasp for teenage kicks that rhyme and resonate with one another. You can picture Lucas and Linklater bonding over a belief that there’s nothing quite like getting behind the wheel – cinema needs such pop-culture cartographers.
That’s why, four decades on from Graffiti, two since Dazed, we’re surely due for the ’90s-set threequel. C’mon, Hollywood, it’s Hammered Time!
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