In the '70s, kids didn't know what they wanted or what there was to want, and they were sort of spaced-out but at the same time kind of idealistic, and they smoked lots of pot and wore ugly clothes.
If there's anything to learn from Richard Linklater's new movie "Dazed and Confused," that's what it is. But it seems like his point is that there isn't really anything to learn, that you shouldn't try to "document" a generation. The low-key and essentially plotless movie, although extremely well-made and entertaining, resists signification, and even review. It doesn't want to be interpreted as anything more than what it is: a series of denotative snapshots, rather than a coherent narrative, of some kids on the last day of high school in 1976.
Of course, there's a contradiction inherent in Linklater's project of filming a bunch of nothing much and presenting it as an object for hedonistic consumption: having been filmed it ceases to be nothing much. Thus his 1990 low-budget cult film "Slacker," which shows some aimless people in Austin doing whatever, has become an emblem of "Generation X," and Linklater its ingenuously reluctant spokesperson. How ironic, since the message of his movie and of Douglas Coupland's book was that there's not that much to say, or for that matter to do or to think. And how even more ironic that if they really believed this to be the case, or believed that others did, they would both be flipping burgers.
All this aside, "Dazed and Confused," which was made on a $2 million budget versus "Slacker"'s $30,000, is amusing and sophisticated entertainment. Linklater follows various groups of classmates around on the afternoon, evening and night of the last day of high school, accompanied by a nostalgic '70s soundtrack of ZZ Top, Aerosmith, Alice Cooper, etc. There aren't main characters in the traditional sense, but the camera rests longest on the high school quarterback Pink (Jason London), and on soon-to-be-first-year Mitch (Wiley Wiggins). If Pink wants to stay on the football team, he has to sign a new anti-drug and alcohol agreement; all of his teammates have signed already with every intention of disregarding the pledge. He resists doing so. Mitch, as a new first-year, has to undergo the ritual hazing from the upperclass guys, and since his sister is a popular senior he's going to get it especially bad. Can he undergo public humiliation and still play it cool?
At various points, Linklater uses the camera very effectively to add comedic dimension to the movie. Mitch's final pitch in a baseball game is filmed in slow-motion at an unlikely angle, a funny parody of how B-movies often frame crucial moments. The next scene, of Mitch's hazing (a few guys spank him with wooden paddles) is also slow-motion, and bears clever similiarity to the bull-killing scene in "Apocalypse Now."
Minor episodic conflicts--the drug test, hazing, a fight, various love interests--are the bare bones of the film. They aren't terribly compelling, nor are they meant to be. It's just fun and interesting to watch these characters hang out. Some of them are very appealing, especially Slater (Rory Cochrane), the resident drug fiend, who is always slouching around in a cute, grungy way making funny little comments. Some aren't appealing, like O'Bannion (Ben Affleck), the typical sexist jock bully. There are the two nerdy guys, Mike (Adam Gold-berg) and Tony (Anthony Rapp), who spend the movie philosophizing and screwing up courage to engage in appropriate senior activities, and the nice, shy girl, Sabrina (Christin Hinojosa). For the purposes of the movie they're all like the people you went to high school with, even if they really aren't.