This week’s brunch movie, Dazed and Confused, occupies a very specific genre of teen movie, one shared by only a handful of others. Dazed is a Time Capsule Party Movie, a film that follows a diffuse cast of young characters over a 24 hour period, with greater stress on tone and a sense of place than a traditional over-arching plot. These are films with a strong track record of casting bright, untapped talent and have a penchant for killer soundtracks.
Since the genre first appeared, there has been one of these films to mark each passing decade, either made as a product of the time or through an act of wistful nostalgia. While the settings and the clothes may change, the stories have remained largely the same. Where to score beer, how to get the girl of your dreams, the plight of the nerd and the secret suffering of the popular crowd. The cars, the clothes, and the music may all be different, but the song remains the same.
The 1960s – American Graffiti (1973)
Set at the dawn of the Vietnam War, American Graffiti was the film that put George Lucas and the bulk of his cast on the map. With Wolfman Jack spinning over the airwaves, American Graffiti follows a group of cruising teens the night before they head down different paths in life. Set just ten years before the film’s production, American Graffiti presents a bygone era, one ripped apart by the social strife that tore through the preceding decade.
Moreso than the films that followed it, American Graffiti is marked with a tremendous sense of ironic foresight—especially in reference to the Vietnam War, a shadow which looms over the entire narrative. It’s not just the lives of these characters teetering on the brink of change, but the culture as a whole.
The 1970s – Dazed and Confused (1993)
Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused is a kind of spiritual successor to American Graffiti, jumping forward in the American narrative to the summer of 1976 in Austin, Texas on the last day of school.
While all of these films set out to capture a specific moment in time, not all of them resonate as well with an audience that never experienced the culture that’s presented on screen. Many of Dazed and Confused’s most ardent admirers weren’t even alive in the summer of ’76–a fanbase that’s utterly oblivious to the sensation of putting around in a muscle car blasting Edgar Winter Group.
Younger generations always gravitate towards eras they barely experienced. While the film itself came from a time in the early-90s when fetishizing the mid-70’s was chic (much like the culture fetishizes the early-90’s today), Dazed’s lasting popularity is owed more to Linklater’s dedication to tone and atmosphere than his painstaking recreation of the era.
You can feel summer in Dazed and Confused–the dust off the baseball field, the evening breeze, the pervasive sense of nothing to do. It’s pretentious to say, but the movie is a tone poem to the season.
The 1980s – Do The Right Thing (1989)
Originally we had John Hughes’ Sixteen Candles in this space—a movie that fits the mold established by American Graffiti perfectly–but then decided to skirt the rules a bit to include Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing.
While the rest of these films dwell on comparatively diminutive issues as whether or not to go to college or where to score a keg, Do The Right Thing offers a film that’s structurally similar, but wildly divergent in tone–a kind of “Meanwhile, in Bed-Stuy.”
It may not stir up the same wistful, golden age nostalgia that the rest of these films lean on, but Do The Right Thing does share many of the same generic traits. Told over the course of one hot summer day, the film boasts a sprawling cast largely of up-and-coming talent like John Turturro, Rosie Perez, Samuel L. Jackson, Martin Lawrence and Lee himself and makes liberal use of music from Public Enemy and Teddy Riley. While Lee’s characters brim with the same youthful energy as those from Linklater or Lucas, their day doesn’t end with a party, it ends with a riot.
With Do The Right Thing, Lee captures the essence of an era brimming with pent up aggression and resentment on a beautifully small scale.
The 1990s – Can’t Hardly Wait (1998)
As yet, no one has really stepped to the plate to make the nostalgic look back at when Gen-Xers ruled the zeitgeist. But we do have one example of a group of stereotypes partying their way through the last day of school with Can’t Hardly Wait. Released in the midst of the late-90’s revival of mildly raunchy, yet somehow squeaky clean teen flicks, Can’t Hardly Wait hosts a bevy of pretty young faces of the era including Ethan Embry, Seth Green, Lauren Ambrose, Jennifer Love Hewitt, and, if you don’t blink, Jason Segal. Wrestling with many of the same issues as American Graffiti or Dazed–life after high school, staying connected with friends, coming to terms with yourself–but does so in a manner that’s not nearly as effective.
It’s almost impressive how cartoonish and dated Can’t Hardly Wait is looking back. It’s superficial film for a superficial time—but that’s saying something, right?
The 2000s – Superbad (2007)
Released just three months after Judd Apatow’s grand slam Knocked Up, the Apatow produced, Greg Mottola helmed Superbad introduced America to a cast of young faces who went on to dominate today’s comedy scene with Oscar nominees Jonah Hill and Emma Stone as well as Michael Cera, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, the—still—underappreciated Bill Hader.
Superbad is a film that, like American Graffiti and Can’t Hardly Wait, concentrates on transition. Evan and Seth (Cera and Hill) are two lifelong friends starting down divergent paths, and covers what amounts to the pair’s last day as best friends. Released in 2007, time will tell how Superbad will age, but even now there are already a couple of aspects of the film that mark the time—mostly in the technology department (size of computers, video game consoles, phones), and then there’s the iPod commercial of an opening credits sequence.