The Social Currency of Smoking Pot in ‘Dazed & Confused’

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by Blaise Radley

You are now reading an exclusive piece from the Film Daze Digital Magazine, Issue 6: Adolescence. Enjoy! – The Film Daze Team

Like it or not, in high school being cool really matters,  and nowhere is that more evident than with the entrance of the  questionably older but indubitably slick David Wooderson (Matthew  McConaughey) in Dazed & Confused. Replete in a woefully  unironic Bob Marley t-shirt with a pack of smokes tucked tight under his  left sleeve, he stares nonchalantly ahead as freshman dweeb Mitch  Kramer (Wiley Wiggans) awkwardly gets into his sleek black Chevy. “Say  man, you got a joint?” he drawls. “Uh, no, not on me, man,” stutters  Mitch in return. Wooderson chuckles slyly, exchanging a quick side  glance with his shotgun-seated buddy Randall (Jason London), before  delivering his iconic response. “It’d be a lot cooler if you diiiid.”

For such a short sequence there’s a clear trading of social currency  occurring here, with everything from the blocking to the body language  communicating where each character lands on the hot/not scale.  Wooderson, in the literal driver’s seat, first asks Mitch how he’s  doing, but the answer isn’t important, and neither is Mitch’s return  serve of the same question. Rather than turn his head to face him—an  amount of effort far too excessive for a measly freshman loser—Wooderson  glances back in his rear view mirror as Mitch cranes himself forward,  asking the only question that really matters: got any weed? Attempting  to cover his lack of experience, Mitch implies he’s got plenty of weed,  ounces of the stuff, just not here, not now, but Wooderson, of course,  sees straight through it. Social status: dork.

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Few eras of cinema fetishised “cool” more than the independent  movement in the early ‘90s, and few eras were more fetishised for being  cool than the ‘70s, a decade of suburban apathy and directionless  rebellion. Pot smoking had shifted from being a symbol of hedonic  liberation in the ‘60s to a signifier of popularity, a blasé form of  recreation for jocks and burnouts alike—assuming you were high enough up  the social ladder. In what amounts to a bittersweet love letter to the  ambling directionlessness of teenagers, director Richard Linklater holds  a magnifying glass to how the elusive concept of cool is coded on a  social level, and how, to suburban white kids, weed is only ever a lark.

Taking place solely on the last day of term at Lee High School in Austin, Texas, Dazed & Confused revolves  around a near impossibly massive ensemble cast of freshmen, sophomores  and seniors, but a few concerns remain the same across the board:  drinking, smoking, partying, and avoiding getting your ass kicked.  Still, one of those preoccupations shines past all the rest, one that’s  implicit in the film’s very title—this is a movie where the first  unnamed character in the cast list is simply called “Stoner”, after all.  There are points where weed is demonised by the establishment, and  points where it’s presented as taboo amongst peers, but its inherent  criminality is only expressed through the badge of honour it entails,  rather than any actual risk. Welcome to suburbia.

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But first: school’s out. Linklater’s nostalgia for adolescent conceptions of cool is  exemplified in the film’s first shot, a slow-motion luxuriation in the  American finery of a bright orange 1970 Pontiac GTO. Backed by the  distorted haze of Aerosmith’s ‘Sweet Emotion’, editor Sandra Edair cuts  effortlessly on the beat, using a montage of images to revel in how  little learning is occurring up and down the school yard. There are  lockers graffitied with the epitaph “SENIORS ‘76”, people crouched  playing craps with fistfuls of dollar bills, and a slew of slouching  figures sporting lusciously long locks. It’s a vivid insight into the  giddiness Linklater has for the teenage aversion to authority, and,  unsurprisingly, weed features heavily, whether it’s Michelle (Milla  Jollovich) sat in the passenger seat of her boyfriend’s ride, fingers  coated in a thin layer of ground buds, or resident squinting stoner  Slater (Rory Cochrane) skulking behind a wall, gesticulating wildly in  the middle of a smoke circle.

How weed functions at a social  level is best explored by three focuses. There’s Randall, the senior  quarterback and Ferris Bueller-esque “they all adore him” bridge between  social groups; Mitch, the aforementioned gawky freshman; and three  similarly socially awkward seniors, Cynthia (Marissa Ribisi), Tony  (Anthony Rapp) and Mike (Adam Goldberg). The hierarchy binding and  separating these groups is most obviously delineated by age, especially  given how much of a focus Linklater places on hazing rituals, but  there’s more to it than that. Generally speaking, each person’s coolness  can be surmised by how they’d respond to being offered a joint.

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Wooderson may represent a more comically slick rendition of masculine  cool, but it’s Randall that Linklater clearly thinks most highly of; an  effortlessly laidback figure who would never need to be offered a  joint—it’d be in his hand already. The fact that the school’s star  football player splits his social life between jocks, freaks and geeks  doesn’t sit right with The Man (his coach), and so he’s asked to sign a  pledge explicitly stating he won’t engage in any drug use over the  summer—unsurprising at a school whose motto “FIGHTING REBELS” is  engraved in stone. Talk about a bummer.

Of course, Randall  crumples up the contract and throws it in the trash, later sneering  “They’re just worried some of us are having too good a time.” As if the  act of smoking weed wasn’t cool enough, Randall ticks off yet more cool  markers: flouting authority, mocking rules and embracing a philosophy of  pleasure. The fact that abstaining from smoking is presented as a  contractual obligation rather than just, you know, illegal, shows how  for middle class white kids in Austin, the only risk really is a slap on  the wrists. Accordingly, the only glimpse of drug dealing we get sees  it presented as a suburban delight, the hand-off taking place between  Randall and his friends in a gigantic teenage bedroom, replete with a  swivelling egg chair, and a pair of prim and proper parents downstairs.  Ultimately, their ability to act cool and nonchalant is built on their  privilege to behave without fear of consequence.

On the polar  opposite end of the spectrum is Mitch, an incoming freshman who exudes  discomfort in his own skin, constantly touching his face and mumbling  his words. It’s only thanks to Randall taking Mitch under his wing after  a particularly aggressive beating from some seniors that he’s given  access to this world of late night partying and driving, and it shows.  After his initial faux pas with Wooderson, Mitch shadows Randall to the  local pool hall, until he’s asked yet another direct question, this time  by Slater: “You cool, man?” Mitch, out of the loop on his peers’ lingo,  retorts “Like how?” only for Slater to roll his eyes and deliver the  most loaded “Okay…” in cinematic history. By this point Mitch’s social  status is less than zero.

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If the interaction with Wooderson didn’t do enough to equate smoking  with coolness, Slater goes one stop further, using coded language to  directly correlate marijuana use with being cool. Here, not knowing how  to respond to the question is enough of an answer in itself. Still,  Mitch is a quick learner, and it’s this implicit peer pressure that  motivates many of his later actions; nervously puffing on a joint in the  backseat of a senior’s Pontiac; wrecking a car by throwing a bowling  ball at it; regurgitating Wooderson’s words verbatim to appear older to a  gas station sales clerk. Mitch just wants to fit in, attempting to  replicate his peers’ cool credentials through osmosis, and it all starts  with that first accepted joint.

Mitch is young enough that his  naivety can be chalked up to age, but the same can’t be said for senior  outcasts Cynthia, Tony and Mike. Always on the peripheries of whatever  event is taking place, these three act as an audience stand-in, querying  much of the raucous behaviour around them. Predictably, the only member  of the social elite they interact with is Randall, Lee High School’s  very own man of the people. Early in the school day, Mike asks him  “Smoked or liquid lunch?”, emulating the coded language of pot smokers,  but it comes across forced. Mike’s status outside the clique is  confirmed by Randall’s slightly uncomfortable shrug in response; he  might as well be a narc.

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The need for coding here suggests that pot is taboo, but the fact  that everyone knows fragments of the code shows what an open secret  recreational drug use is. Slater, one of the most true-to-life stoners  ever committed to celluloid, walks around school in a t-shirt emblazoned  with a marijuana leaf, and spends his woodworking class making a bong;  education isn’t just a joke, it’s a means to facilitate their casual  drug habits. Likewise, Randall constantly alternates between abusing  some manner of substance, and scowling at anyone that tells him he  should behave otherwise. Even when they do get caught smoking on the  football field at the end of the film, at no point does anyone take  their behaviour seriously, and before you know it, they’re off, cruising  down the highway to buy Aerosmith tickets, lighting up once more.

There’s  only one moment where this privilege is acknowledged, one moment where  anyone queries what being cool really connotes. Sat on the football  field seconds before they’re caught, Randall launches into one of his  listless rants, only for his sort-of-girlfriend Simone to interject.  “You act like you’re so oppressed. You guys are kings of the school, you  get away with whatever you want. What are you bitching about?” Randall  continues on unabated, missing his chance at self awareness, but it’s a  telling moment from Linklater. Randall’s equation of a high school  pledge with persecution only scans because he’s never faced real  scrutiny for any of his transgressions, and presumably never will. He’s  white, he’s young, and he’s cool, and in America that basically means  his social currency is good for life.

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