Monday, August 4, 2014

Dazed and Confused (1993): A Review

Dazed and Confused is one of those great and beloved movies whose greatness I can perceive, but whose beloved-ness is lost on me.  It's a 1993 movie about a 1976 crop of high school students, and I suppose part of its emotional appeal at the time it was released derived from the fact that, for audience members who were old enough to have graduated the year it is set, the film was both close enough to and far enough from their high school reality to make for pleasant viewing.  The depiction of its Ford-era teenagers seems to have struck members of that generation as realistic enough to call back memories, but also as concerned with a distant enough time and phase of life that the memories no longer stung.

Given the year I graduated from high school, however, the film had precisely the opposite effect on me.  On the one hand, I can't get over the fact that 1976 was the year my parents graduated from high school-- and as little as you want to think about your parents as teenagers was how little I wanted to think about the events unfolding in this movie.  The fact that Dazed and Confused is set 14 years before I was born makes it less of a nostalgic romp for me than a sort of awkward, pimply "primal scene."  For people of my generation, who have been in high school much more recently than the characters in the film, I suspect a lot of Dazed and Confused's material will seem totally alien-- this is particularly true of the culture of sanctioned violence depicted in the film: the "hazing" of freshman, etc., which everyone seems to endorse.  Granted that I went to a pretty sheltered high school, but I think there has been some advance in civilized values since 1976 where bullying is concerned.  

But as much as the film's period detail seems ancient and foreign to me, the extent to which it is faithful to the contemporary high school experience makes it awkward viewing for the opposite reason as well: I got away from this stuff too recently for me to enjoy returning to it now.  There is certainly a creditable realism to this movie, one that will ring true even for people who went to very different high schools at a very different time in the country's history.  The film captures the basic squalor of the high school years, whenever or wherever they have unfolded; it makes fresh the wounds, physical, mental, and moral, that those times inflict (or at least, that they feel like they are inflicting, which at that age is pretty much the same thing).  And if you are young enough that those wounds haven't scabbed over, the film's habit of picking at them will not endear it to you.  Its realism may make the film into art, but it doesn't make it "funny"-- which apparently a lot of people find it; it is usually dubbed a comedy.

This isn't to say the film lacks irony or satirical bite.  But in order for satire to give you the burst of sudden, throaty joy we know as "laughter," it usually has to be expressed through characters who are sympathetic enough that the sarcasm is tinged with affection, or else who are so absurd as to become caricatures.  Here, however, the characters are so obnoxious, and in such an ordinary way, that the formula breaks down.  There is the "intellectual" character who says he wanted to become an ACLU lawyer and "help people"-- until he realized he has contempt for the kinds of people an ACLU lawyer might help.  There are the high school "feminists" who rant about Gilligan's Island being a "male pornographic fantasy," but who giggle under the aggressive harassment of the macho jocks, one of them declaring to the other: "You know you like it."  The irony is not leavened by any underlying sweetness.  The whole thing tastes sour and looks ugly.

The basic unlikeability of the characters stems most of all from the fact that every one of them seems to participate gratefully in the "hazing rituals" -- unless they are the victims of those rituals -- that provide the film its thin plot.  Granted, the "intellectual" character observes dispassionately at one point how strange it is that "the entire society appears to be condoning this."  He points out that no parents are objecting, and that the students "evidently got permission to use the parking lot" in order to cover the freshman girls with mustard and force them to propose to senior boys (And what do these boys say in response?  Just remember that if you think a character in this movie is going to say something less nasty than they might in real life, you're wrong.)  But this stray remark is the only sign the (senior) characters give that they disapprove of the hazing.  

Is the attitude of the filmmakers any different?  I'm not sure.  On the one hand, the hazing of the freshman boys is told from the victims' perspective, through the character of Mitch Kramer, and therefore with considerable sympathy for their plight.  But on the other, the hazing seems to accomplish the purpose of being a "rite of passage" for the victims, within the narrative arc of the film.

If the girls' hazing is focused on psychological degradation, the boys' centers more on their physical humiliation -- specifically, on their being thrust against a wall and beaten with wooden paddles by the senior boys.  When the overgrown senior football stars show up in front of the junior high on the last day of school to declare their intention of inflicting this punishment, the only teacher on duty smiles and chuckles at their threats, which they deliver over a megaphone.  This teacher is also entirely unavailing when the boys ask him for help in escaping their tormentors.  Meanwhile, the seniors' fixation on inflicting pain on the freshmen's buttocks makes their hazing a not-so-subtle exercise in substitutionary sexual sadism.  The way in which they "take turns" in assaulting one character, Mitch, with the worst of the pack straining at the leash after he has finished and demanding "seconds with this one," makes the procedure seem almost like a gang rape.  

The profoundly unsettling quality of the scene, and the intensity of Mitch's anguish, suggest at first that the film is taking a more realistic and pained look at physical bullying than your typical high school movie, which at most portrays it as a minor obstacle for the characters to surmount.  But as I say, the movie also portrays hazing as a "rite of passage," and Mitch at least seems to gain character from it.  

The point of hazing, I take it, lies partly in whatever sadistic gratification it provides to its inflictors-- but the unconscious social purpose it serves, and the reason for the bizarre acquiescence of authority figures in its continuance that the "intellectual" character observes, is that it provides a test of whether or not a person will submit himself to the demands of the group, even to the point of undergoing unjust and arbitrary suffering at their behest.  If he does, he graduates to other tests, and finds them less onerous.  He will also eventually be rewarded with the chance to vent the inner cauldron of rage he accumulated during his own prolonged humiliation on the next crop of youngsters.  The "nicer" senior characters in this film do not refuse to participate in the hazing, but they do throw a comforting arm around the freshmen who manage to choke back their tears, assuring the latter that "you'll do it when you're a senior too" (as one girl informs her victims).  The idea behind hazing is that adjusting to life means adjusting to pain and iniquity, so long as these will offer a chance to wield the whip-hand for oneself someday.

What disturbs me about the film is that it almost seems to endorse this notion.  Mitch, for instance, "succeeds" in the plot of the film because he doesn't bear a grudge against his tormentors.  Instead, he hangs out with them and runs errands for them, and in the process is allowed to graduate through a series of high school social activities, including drinking, dating, etc.  He has passed the test of hazing. Admittedly, he seeks some very satisfying revenge in a prank against Ben Affleck's character, the biggest sadist in the bunch, but only because the latter went too far in the hazing.  The other seniors, who carried it out more dispassionately, become idols to Mitch.  The "nicest" of the senior boys, Randall Floyd, is portrayed as one of the good guys, because he drives Mitch home after his beating and offers to take him along on the evening's outing.  That does not mean he rejects the hazing system, though-- he just holds out the carrot end of the system's stick. He is the second article of the odd social compact that hazing represents.

I guess the director wants us to like Randall Floyd-- I think we're supposed to root for him, for instance, in his own story-line, which is little more than a crudely clichéd battle of wills between the rebellious but athletically gifted Floyd and his conservative coaches.  The coaches here are the unappealing "heavies," who gate-crash every teen movie and ruin the protagonists' fun.  The filmmakers obviously want us to view it as heroic when Floyd turns his back on their value system, in order to go on hanging out with the stoner kids whom the coaches regard as a "bad element."  But since the characters in this "bad element" are so unsympathetic themselves, one hardly knows which is the worse choice -- to align with the asshole coaches or with the asshole students.  Both seem so similar in their misogyny, their posing, their cruelty.

Mitch, however, is a genuinely touching character, played by Wiley Wiggins with great earnestness and realism.  The scene where he impersonates a senior in order to buy beer at a gas station (you only had to be 18 at the time, remember?) is the best in the movie.  Wiggins's performance captures the unique kind of vulnerability to which one is exposed at that age.  This vulnerability stems not just from the fact that he is physically smaller and scrawnier than the seniors.  After all, across all the student classes there is a basic division between the strong and the weak.  But the weaker senior characters in this film have at least had time to develop some psychological ramparting whereby to resist the indignities of life.  They have honed the various stances-- flip, philosophical, moralistic, sarcastic -- by which we learn to reassure ourselves that our kingdom is not of this world.  The fourteen-year-old Mitch has no such fortifications-- so we feel his pain and glory in his triumphs much more directly than we do those of the other characters.

What makes the high school years such distinctly wretched ones in a person's life is the combination they present of a increasing number of adult frustrations and a lack of any adult identity by which to process them.  The pain of living with these disappointments but without that underlying "self" is captured very well in this film -- not so much through any of the actual events it depicts, but through a mood, which one can recognize even if one was never picked on by bullies or big kids in high school.  Looking back on my own high school years, for instance, it occurs to me that I have very little to complain about-- so much of the unpleasantness of that time was internal to me rather than coming from without.  But that didn't make it unreal.  This is why, however much society and high school will change externally from the world depicted in Dazed and Confused (and hopefully it has changed already for the better), that movie will still be true to life-- true enough, at any rate, to make you squirm with recognition.

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