In this week’s Aubrey’s Causeries, Aubrey Beardsley reviews that coming-of-age classic, Dazed and Confused …
A dog’s eye review of Dazed and Confused (1993), Richard Linklater (dir. and writer), starring Jason London, Ben Affleck, Adam Goldberg, Parker Posey, Milla Jovovich, Joey Lauren Adams, Rory Cochrane, Wiley Wiggins, Anthony Rapp, Marissa Ribisi, Matthew McConaughey, Michelle Burke … and many more … you can probably tell it’s one of those ensemble movies.
Oh, and it also has Renée Zellweger in a non-speaking, uncredited role (sitting on a truck).
Dazed and Confused (1993) isn’t just one of Quentin Tarantino’s favourite movies. It’s actually one of the most sophisticated allegories of the dog park that has ever been made. Stick with me, and you will see that this is true … the clue is in the final scenes, when all is revealed (like in The Sixth Sense). The famous critic, Roger Ebert, described it as “art crossed with anthropology.” And I say it’s anthropology, all right. It’s the anthropology of the dog park! All right, all right, all right!
Interestingly, the film itself also came about at around the same time as the dog park was emerging as a new element in modern urban design. And geographers were starting to talk about urban geography as being more than just human geography. It was becoming dog as well! And as we will see, Dazed and Confused is a compelling exploration of animal geography, human-dog relations, and the importance of space and place.
The movie is about the last day of school and the start of the summer holidays in the suburbs of Austin, Texas. All the action takes place between Friday afternoon (28 May 1976, 1.05pm) and the early hours of Saturday morning.
The film doesn’t focus on any particular character, other than perhaps taking a slightly greater interest in Randall “Pink” Floyd (Jason London), the star quarter-back. Pink moves easily between groups – from the jocks, to the stoners, to the brains, to the freaks. And in that way, Pink takes the film through a variety of interactions. But other than that, the film ambles between character and interaction and communication, just like an average day at the dog park.
There are no moments of romantic resolution, no punching the air. As Richard Linklater says, “The drama is so low-key in Dazed. I don’t remember teenage being that dramatic. I remember just trying to go with the flow, socialize, fit in and be cool. The stakes were really low. To get Aerosmith tickets or not? That’s a big thing.”
A lot of the early part of the film is concerned with the ritual of hazing, where the next year’s group of seniors initiates the incoming freshmen through humiliating and painful actions, including paddling of the male students. One of the worst and most violent of the seniors, one who seems to take almost perverse pleasure in the ritual, is Fred O’Bannion. O’Bannion is taking part in the ritual for the second time because of his failure to progress to the next year of school, and so he has suffered the ignominy of repeating the year. O’Bannion is himself somewhat tormented – a failure at school, a slight outsider, and easily agitated by others. For dogs, the kind of reactivity and aggression is often misinterpreted as “dominance” which is a rather inaccurate and damaging label. Rather, it is often a behaviour borne of fearfulness or a lack of confidence. And it is the same for O’Bannion. He cannot pass school, and in reality he is on the periphery, awkward, and threatened by the freshmen.
Everyone is talking about a big party that is to happen at Pickford’s house that night. Picford’s parents are going away for the weekend, so he has the house to himself. But unfortunately for Pickford, the delivery of the beer kegs is an hour early and he is rumbled. So his parents decide to stay home and the party is cancelled. But all is not lost. Wooderson (Matthew McConaughey), who graduated years earlier, relocates the party to the Moon Tower in the woods. Park life!
Place is significant for the characters. First, the school holds a lot of emotional significance, good and bad. The characters attend school every day, just like the dog park. They are familiar with everyone there, just like we get to know our favourite pals down the dog park. And the implicit clues to park life abound: the film opens in the parking lot of the school; Hitchcock’s Family Plot is the film at the drive-in; and the girls are hazed in a parking lot.
And then there are all the new experiences, good and bad, at the party in the woods. The Moon Tower itself holds particular emotional significance for all the students. A kind of rite of passage, it has its own legends. And finally, there is the football field, where Pink and Wooderson convene a “sub-committee” after the party.
Just like any dog and the dog park, everyone has formed some sort of emotional link with place in Dazed and Confused. There is almost a form of affective loyalty to the school and many revisit these glory days – O’Bannion is forced to do so, but Wooderson chooses to keep reliving his school days. This is in contrast to Pink’s protest, “All I’m saying is that if I ever start referring to these as the best years of my life – remind me to kill myself.” But there is a suspicion this is teenage angst and hyperbole. We know that he will. Everyone loves park life.
The party provides an insightful picture of the diverse experiences that are to be expected in any socialization. Just like the dog park, there are episodes of sharing of resources, falling over, running and chasing, romantic entanglements, misplaced conflict, and peace-making. And just like the dog park, there are all sorts of interactions, from dyadic interactions right through to group play.
Dazed offers a particular insight into the changing politics of play and off-leash training. We see more of this at the later party, but in an earlier scene, while watching the ritual hazing of the female students, Mike (Adam Goldberg) says to Tony (Anthony Rapp), “You see, what’s fascinating is the way not only the school but the entire community seem to be supporting this, you know, at least turn their heads. I mean, they apparently gave permission to use the parking lot. No parents seem to mind.” With some reservations aside at some of the hazing rituals (the boys’ fates in particular), this is an interesting insight into socialization in the “parking lot” – the park. While Mike and Tony express their concern, they do not intervene except in a very gentle way when they suspect things might go too far. Similarly, in the dog park, often humans will interrupt play far too much. They will become concerned about noises that their dogs make, or that they are running too quickly, or playing too boisterously. But in fact, often they are interrupting what is merely quality social play.
It is actually a lot like being a misunderstood teenager when humans get it all so wrong. And the one that really seems to send humans over the edge is when dogs are mounting each other. This seems to offend humans quite unreasonably, because they have some pretty weird ideas as to what is going on. No, it’s not sexual, and no, it’s not “dominance” (good grief). It is usually just social play, unless it is part of some other compulsive disorder. Actually, I sometimes wonder about the ones that get a little bit compulsive about it and whether it is mostly down to humans.
And of course, some humans think that dogs are silent movies and they can’t stand the barking in the park. We had a gorgeous little terrier pal who loved to bark with joy when she was running. It was such a pleasure to see her so happy. But believe it or not, some humans used to complain about “those noisy terriers”. It used to upset her human so much that she didn’t want to go to the park. This is a perfect example of inappropriate intervening in what is normal social play, and ruining interactions not only with dogs but also with humans. I might add that the humans that seem to hate barking are usually the same ones that never seem to shut up. I guess that’s another of life’s ironies.
And sometimes when humans intervene they actually escalate or create a problem. Just like when Coach tries to stop Pink socializing with Slater and his stoner friends. And just like when Carl’s mother interrupts the ritual (by pointing a shotgun at O’Bannion’s head) – it actually escalates the situation. But remember, it’s allegorical. There is no way I am endorsing paddling!
The other thing that is so striking about the film is the concept of community. At the end of the film, Wooderson, Pink, Simone (Joey Lauren Adams), and Slater drive off to get Aerosmith tickets: “Top priority of the summer!” And lots of people have talked about how this experience, so important in the film, is so different from buying tickets today. Communication technologies obviously change the way we do things, but what about that drive to Houston for Aerosmith tickets? This brings me back to the dog park. As I’ve mentioned, the film was made around the time of the emergence of the dedicated dog park as a standard element of urban geography. More recently, a lot more work is starting to be done on town planning and the importance of parks to local communities. At a time when we no longer have to drive to the next city for Aerosmith tickets, the dog park is more important than ever. We go to make friends, to meet other dogs, to meet other humans. And the dog park means that a whole range of people and dogs, who might otherwise never ever meet, get to have a good old chat. Even if it is just about zoomies.
One of the key vehicles for conveying the wisdom of park life is Mitch. Mitch is a freshman that we get to know a bit more closely than the others. After a brutal hazing, he is “adopted” by Pink. And his older sister, Jodi, invites one of her hazed freshmen girls to the party as well. A kind of “pet dog” motif has been identified throughout cinema and television, and some describe what is going on here in this way. But what is really important about the inclusion of Mitch at the party is what the film says about guardianship and socialization. And Mitch’s high-school status as a senior’s “pet dog” encourages the viewer to look at this more closely.
At the party, we get a chance to understand the acquisition of wisdom in dog play and learning. Jodi sees that Mitch has been drinking and exclaims with disbelief at how easy their mother is being on him, compared with how she was with her. She warns Mitch that their mother will be up waiting for him when he gets home and that he had better watch out. Mitch’s mother is indeed waiting up for him after he has been out all night. She is stern, but she isn’t fierce and angry. She even smiles a little. Everyone knows that a dog that is allowed off-leash will go on to have better and longer interactions with other dogs, including when leashed. There is even some science to prove it. As Mike says, just leave the poker table and you might actually experience something a little more tangible.
So how do I know this was really all about the dog park? It’s obvious. The tell-tale dog scratches on the back of the door when Mitch comes home.
Mitch has been on an incredible journey.