“Dazed and Confused” feels like such an authentic piece of slice of life cinema that it would be unsurprising if someone who knew nothing about it thought it was actually lensed in 1976, the year in which it’s set. It reeks of accuracy – the fashions, the dialogue, the hair, and yes, the cannabis use. Cannabis is a word that you’d never hear uttered by anyone in this film. Set on the last day of high school in the Bicentennial year, it’s all weed, pot, reefer and joints.
Back when the film came out in 1993, I was the manager of a video store, and such was our excitement for it that I arranged it so that all of the employees (save for one poor sap who had to stay behind and mind the store) could go see it as a group on the Friday afternoon it opened. We wanted to embrace one of the film’s taglines “See it with a bud” on both of its intended levels. It was a glorious afternoon; I only wish I could remember it better. It is also crazy to realize that while only 17 years separates the setting of the film from the year it was made, nearly 30 years separates its ‘93 release from today.
I pulled out my glorious Criterion Collection Blu-ray and gave the film a spin a couple days ago, watching it through a Cannabinthusiast lens, which is a slightly different manner of movie viewing. Going in, you might be surprised to know, I was feeling hard-pressed to remember marijuana playing a pivotal role in the film. But surely that could not be? Not in a movie that’s poster featured a clearly stoned smiley face assuring folks it was “the film everyone will be toking about.”
Cannabis does indeed have big part to play in “Dazed and Confused,” or rather the pressure to not partake in it does. While the film is largely an ensemble piece, Randall “Pink” Floyd’s (Jason London) dilemma is central to the goings-on. As the star player of the football team, he’s been asked by a barking coach to sign a pledge that he won’t do drugs or drink alcohol over the summer break. As he’s seemingly got the job done all this time without signing such an agreement, naturally it is not something he is keen to do.
But aside from that specific plot point, which sort of rumbles away beneath the surface of the entire film (“Will he or won’t he sign the pledge?”), cannabis is rarely center stage, yet is paradoxically almost ever-present. Indeed, marijuana is an enormous part of these kids’ culture, and using it comes almost as natural as eating lunch. No shame surrounds their cannabis use, which is part of what seems to gall Pink so much about the squareness of the pledge. He’s done nothing to be put in this position except play good ball, and the imagined threat of him not doing so is the reason for the paper. He hasn’t earned this level of scrutiny.
One of the great triumphs of “Dazed and Confused” is, despite it being essentially a comedy, rampant marijuana use amongst upper classmen does not appear to produce a class of idiots. One noticeable exception to that is Rory Cochrane’s Slater, who, while not necessarily an idiot, is very much the perpetually stoned hippy dippy dude. Early in the film he’s shown carving a bong in shop class, and the weed gags surrounding him pretty much pile up on top of each other as the movie moves forward. His lengthy theory about George and Martha Washington is a film highlight, and there’s no question that Slater, with his non-violent good heart is one of the characters that sticks with you when the movie is over.
Getting high is never really the punchline in “Dazed and Confused,” which sets it apart from so many other stoner comedies. There’s a sort of honor surrounding smoking here. Seeing “Dazed” in ’93 (again, only 17 years after the film’s setting) truly was like looking back into a totally different time. The effect Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign had on this country was nothing less than seismic. A decade after the days of “Dazed,” on the Reagans’ watches, marijuana would go from being a harmless rite of passage to a public scourge to be stamped out. By the time ’93 rolled around, “Dazed and Confused” felt like a fun history lesson – a peek back into a time that no longer existed.
Much has changed in the world of cannabis in the 30 years since “Dazed and Confused” was released. Obviously, the biggest being legalization across half the country. Studies show time and again that teenagers are not partaking as heavily as the kids in this movie do (nor could they, given how potent marijuana is compared to what was available in ’76). Cannabis unsurprisingly has become a pastime (and a medication) for adults and senior citizens: the folks who were in high school in 1976.
“Dazed and Confused” is probably streaming somewhere, or you can buy it on DVD or Blu-ray. But for the fan who wants more (documentaries, commentary, screen tests, and a groovy poster and booklet), I highly recommend spending a few extra dollars and picking up the Criterion Collection offering on DVD, Blu-ray or now in a spiffy new 4K edition (which includes a Blu-ray copy).