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Nostalgia Unlimited

How to come of age watching a coming-of-age movie

Dazed and Confused is a film that seems to live on and on and on and on. Directed by Richard Linklater, the story concerns a group a high school kids on their last day of classes in 1976. Some are preparing for the responsibilities of being seniors, others to leave the safety of middle school, and then there's a select cadre of kids interested in little more than drugs, drinking, sex and staying locked in the same social position-if not for the rest of their lives, than for as long as humanly possible.

I was in high school the year the film came out, in 1993. Strangely and almost instantly, this movie about the rites of passage became a rite of passage all its own. I was seventeen and thought nearly everyone in the movie was at the height of cool. It made me long for a time I couldn't even remember-the late-seventies, when you could make bongs in shop class, drink beer legally at eighteen and beat the snot out of younger kids during community-approved days of hazing.

Driving around my hometown in 1993, you could still see the debris of 1970s youth culture as depicted in Dazed and Confused. The screen at the drive-in had blown down during a particularly bad storm but the box office gates still guarded an overgrown lot. We broke in there once and stole armfuls of the speakers that used to hook onto the window of your car so you could hear the movie. I used them to create an ad hoc surround-sound system in my bedroom that made music, regardless of the genre, sound tinny and weird, as though transmitted from an underground bunker. Then there was Kart & Golf Land-a reasonable simulacrum of the pool hall in Dazed and Confused-where you could drink surreptitious beers by the windmill on the putt-putt course or head to the game room to shake down the scrawny nerds with dumb ideas about stereo systems.

My high school was another remnant. Built in the mid-1960s, it reached its zenith in the 1970s when it had not yet become overpopulated and its course list was still untouched by budget rollbacks. The mechanical-drawing teacher had convinced the school administration to allow a series of murals to be commissioned all along the main hallway outside the study hall. There was a portrait of Jim Morrison quoting some of his lunk-headed poetry, a Led Zeppelin mural and a pitch-perfect recreation of the cover to Rush's 2112 album. It became so normal to walk past these murals that it wasn't until I was nearly a senior that I realized how weird it was to see Morrison on the wall next to our school mascot.

Dazed and Confusedplayed every weekend at the midnight movies. There was a contingent of teenagers who went to see The Rocky Horror Picture Show downtown, another who had sex and drank-who did all of the things depicted in Dazed and Confused, basically-and then those of us in the 'burbs who trekked out to see Linklater's flick because it offered something to do other than hanging out at Kart & Golf Land.

The film opens with a spate of overwrought dialogue about gender identity, Gilligan's Island and dream interpretation-typical Linklater ballyhoo. There is a sense of aimlessness as the characters are introduced. The film eventually wanders towards a plot after the cancellation of a suburban pot dealer's party. Rather than following up that scene with a predictable one about pot-buying, Linklater instead cuts to a wide view of a ball field where young Mitch and his pals are playing a little league game. To me, this says that, despite any attempts at maturity, only a few years separate the older "cool" kids from the nerds playing little league.

Teenagers of different generations are a lot more comparable than they'd like to think. If George Lucas's American Graffiticaptured the aimlessness of 1950s car culture for a 1970s audience, then Dazed and Confusedcaptured the aimlessness of 1970s suburbia for 1990s suburbia-environments which are nearly identical. When I walked past those murals at my high school, I wasn't all that different from the kids who painted them. The generational difference didn't really exist-or, at the very least, it didn't matter.

At seventeen, though, you absolutely refuse to see this. One bit from Dazed and Confused that I've always enjoyed is the "Every Other Decade" theory put forth by the redheaded Cynthia Dunn (played by Marisa Ribisi). "The fifties were boring," she says. "The sixties rocked. The seventies-oh my god, they obviously suck, right? C'mon. Maybe the eighties will be radical, y'know? I figure we'll be in our twenties and, hey, it can't get any worse." Every nostalgic period piece loves a knowing wink at the future, but this quote is also good in that it tosses away any notions of nostalgia. Graffiti did that too. The music, the clothing styles and the freedom of being a certain age converge not to make you nostalgic for a specific period of time in history, but for a specific period of time in your life.

Why Dazed and Confusedheld residency at the midnight movies I will never know, but I'm glad it did. There were never more than a handful of people in the audience. Like those who dressed up like Dr. Frank-N-Furter to see Rocky Horror, there was no shortage of Slater clones munching on popcorn and peppering rambling hemp monologues with "man," "dude" and "man." But that's not what stuck with me the most.

The final line of the movie, if you remove the lyrical blanket of Foghat's "Slow Ride," is the rhetorical, "Have you been drinking?" delivered to Mitch by his omniscient mother. The question is greeted by a dismissive snort from her ungainly son, about to embark on four years of being dazed and confused. This is juxtaposed with the image of those who are leaving it all behind-friends charging towards the dawn, hoping to intercept Aerosmith tickets. As an ending, it would a far more heartening if the car in question didn't contain our hero Pink, surrounded by an older burn-out and Pink's vapid, giggly girlfriend. Like the last shot of The Graduate, this closing shows us an escape that's a mixed blessing. The road is long and unremarkable, yellow dashes tick away the miles, and things will never be as good as they just were.