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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.