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The dazed and confused generation


This is an amusing essay comparing George Lucas’s American Graffiti to Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused, which makes two obvious yet crucial points about generational definitions:

(1) The whole concept of cultural “generations” is kind of sloppy and stupid; and

(2) Assuming we’re going to play this game, it’s even less sensical to treat those of us who went to high school in the mid-1970s — Dazed and Confused is about a bunch of high school juniors in 1976 Austin Texas — as somehow being in the same generation in any real sense as the front end of the Baby Boom, and we really deserve our own separate moniker.

These days, boomer resentment is usually credited to Gen X-ers and millennials, but the ones who had to put up with older boomers first were their younger siblings—a burden that Linklater well remembers. “Weren’t you sick of hearing people that were college-age or whatever in the late sixties talking about how great it was?” he said. “It was, like, ‘O.K., you guys, no matter what you do, you’ll never top what we did’—you know, Woodstock and all that shit. So I was, like, ‘Yeah, guess what? We don’t need to self-mythologize. We don’t even want to.’ ”

“Dazed and Confused” underscores this idea in a short scene in which a high-school social-studies teacher boasts that “the ’68 Democratic Convention in Chicago is probably the most bitchin’ time” she ever had, while her students struggle to stay awake. I remember a sixth-grade teacher bragging about having been at the March on Washington and getting to hear Martin Luther King, Jr., deliver the “I Have a Dream” speech, in person. Our generation naturally had no equivalent watershed events, no epochal gatherings worth lying about having attended. Linklater and I reminisced about what a corny, cynical dud the Bicentennial had been. “The Comet Kohoutek of holidays,” he called it, referencing yet another seventies disappointment.

Linklater cautioned that he hadn’t intended to lard “Dazed and Confused” with generational freight the way Lucas, for one, clearly meant to do with “American Graffiti,” arguably the quintessential baby-boomer teen movie (though its characters, like Lucas, who was born in 1944, are only on the cusp of boomerhood). Linklater’s film echoes, and even seems to comment on, Lucas’s in key ways: both follow large groups of teen-agers meandering their way through a single evening and into the morning. In “American Graffiti,” it’s not the first night of summer but the last. The setting is Modesto, the small city in California’s Central Valley where Lucas grew up, and the year is 1962, when Lucas graduated high school. Two characters, played by Ron Howard and Richard Dreyfuss, face a decision: Will they leave the next day for college back East or chicken out and stay home? In Linklater’s film, the stakes are suitably lower: Will Randall (Pink) Floyd, the stoner quarterback played by Jason London, sign a pledge not to do drugs, as his hard-ass football coach demands? The pledge is more or less a formality; actual abstention doesn’t seem to be on the table for the quarterback or anyone else on the team. In the end, he tells the coach to stick it, and the movie’s final scene has Pink, Wooderson, and a few other friends driving off into the morning sun to buy Aerosmith tickets.

This really resonates — if you were in high school in 1976, Woodstock etc. might as well have been some truly ancient historical period, like the 1950s (“I’m a million miles away from that helicopter day” sang Neil Young, and he was, thankfully).

It’s interesting, to me anyway, to contemplate how the demographics of the Baby Boom created a remarkably compressed concept of nostalgia: American Graffiti is set just 11 years in the past from when the film was released in 1973, yet it treats Modesto CA in 1962 in a practically archeological way. (Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland The Invisible Bridge catalogs and analyzes the striking nostalgia boom of the Watergate and immediate post-Watergate period, that included such artifacts as the revival of Horatio Alger’s novels, Happy Days, songs like Chicago’s “Harry Truman,” and even something like All in the Family).

Linklater’s slacker sensibility is, naturally, much more congenial to those of us who grew up in the long echo of THE SIXTIES ™, with all of its extremely annoying self-mythologizing. BTW the movie’s biggest expense was the licensing rights for the soundtrack, which sadly ended up precluding the inclusion of any Led Zeppelin — THE quintessential 1970s rock band, as indeed the film’s title acknowledges.

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