Thursday, December 1, 2011

Dazed and Confused

“The older you get, the more rules they are going to try and get you to follow. You just gotta keep on livin', man. L-I-V-I-N.” – Wooderson in Dazed and Confused.

Critic Robin Wood, while discussing the history and meaning of teen movies, once let slip the following nugget: “...when I described [Dazed and Confused] in an article as a 'horror' movie, I received a message from its director Richard Linklater congratulating me on being the first to notice his intention!” What the heck might they have meant?

Wood praised The Texas Chainsaw Massacre while discussing the meaning of horror movies (he discussed meaning of movies a lot, my kind of guy). Shot in and around Austin, Texas (same as Dazed) in 1974 (two years before the setting of Dazed); I'll begin with it.

Chainsaw pits its wide-eyed protagonists – five young adults straight out of Scooby Doo – against a terrible family of three generations. Grandpa, Pa, and Sons have always worked at the slaughterhouse, but now the meat packing company has found a more efficient way to kill cattle. Rendered obsolete and out of work, they find new ways to apply their skills.

The protagonists' hopes for the future are killed one by one by a sledgehammer, a meat hook, and the titular chainsaw and the only survivor will forever be a basket case. Chainsaw is about one generation obstinately following the next even though the future once enjoyed by its parents and grandparents is no longer out there. Dazed is also about generation following generation with steadily diminishing promises.

Every character in Dazed is part of a generation – incoming high school freshmen, the new senior class, and adults. The action involves freshmen boys being mercilessly beaten with wood paddles and freshmen girls being humiliated by having food smeared on their bodies, led about on leashes, and ordered to propose to senior boys. The seniors gleefully have at it, the memory of their freshman year still fresh. The adults go along, vaguely remembering their own glory days, even selling concessions.

Many of the seniors look toward their futures with feigned optimism. One doesn't want to go to college, he just wants to dance. Another believes that, since the seventies obviously suck, “maybe the eighties will be like radical or something.” And a stoner simply sees the whole adult world as a huge conspiracy with spooky stuff happening on the dollar bill.

Two characters, Wooderson and O'Bannion refuse to graduate to adulthood altogether. Wooderson lives in some pre-adulthood purgatory saying, “That's what I love about these high school girls, man. I get older, they stay the same age.” O'Bannion flunked his senior year and gets to continue paddling freshman (for eternity?).

Star quarterback Randall 'Pink' Floyd is the wide-eyed protagonist of Dazed. He opts out of a paddling simply giving a sympathetic tap and despises his coaches that he recognizes as pathetic future versions of his teammates. The coaches demand he sign a form promising he will stay drug and alcohol free all summer. A running gag is that no matter how many times he wads it up and tosses it away someone picks it up and puts it back in his pocket.

I think the root of Wood's horror was the sense that Pink – conflicted about what to do (at one point he says he'll probably sign, at another he declares he never will) – will give in, sign, and continue the tradition, maybe even end up coaching the team one day.

“You just gotta keep on livin', man. L-I-V-I-N.”

(As a footnote, that line by Wooderson would've made a terrifically sardonic tagline for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, describing the terrified young woman caught in its vortex.)