It’s September, the perfect time to talk about two of the greatest movies ever made about high school, American Graffiti and Dazed and Confused. Made exactly twenty years apart (1973-1993), their points of comparison are many. These films are specifically about the end of high school — the last night before some graduates leave for college in American Graffiti and the night after the last day of school in Dazed and Confused. The pivotal moments in each film balance nostalgia for youth (and the rock music of particular generations’ formative years) with a realistic look at the anxiety surrounding the transition to adulthood. This balance is reinforced by the fact that both films take place over the course of a single night. The teenagers in these films try to make the good times last as long as possible, but they know it’ll all be over very soon.
The time between American Graffiti‘s setting (1962) and the year it was made is what is colloquially considered “the 60’s” — the Civil Rights Movement, assassinations, Vietnam, the counterculture. It’s easy to look at the era preceding all that as a time of innocence, but unlike, say, Grease, this film’s presentation of “the 50’s” is not sugarcoated, just warm. There’s real danger, real frustration, even real heartbreak among these sock-hopping, hot rod-cruising, milkshake-drinking kids. That’s what makes them register as real people and not just as cute representatives of a cute bygone culture. Their conflicts aren’t limited to one specific era anyway. The prospect of leaving home to go to college is just as scary now as it was then. Boyfriends and girlfriends still have to deal with geographical challenges when high school is over. And nerds are still desperate to get lucky with a beautiful girl. For viewers who weren’t even alive in 1962, the period elements, while fun, are peripheral to the inner lives of the characters, who from the inside look just like us.
But oh, how fun those period elements are. George Lucas and his crew including the great cinematographer Haskell Wexler (credited as “visual consultant”) and the great editor Walter Murch (credited for “sound montage and re-recording”) fill the movie with dazzling sights and sounds. Gorgeous automobiles cruise the streets, with their radios constantly playing a galvanizing selection of rock-n-roll and doo wop. The soundtrack occasionally becomes an essential commentary on the action, as when Curt (Richard Dreyfuss) first sees the woman in the T-bird (Suzanne Somers) to the tune of “Why Do Fools Fall in Love,” or when Steve (Ron Howard) and Laurie (Cindy Williams) face a crisis in their relationship to the tune of “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” Curt spends much of the film looking for the blonde — a heavily symbolic search, and perhaps my favorite storyline of the movie. Steve and Laurie spend the movie chasing and avoiding each other. Terry (Charles Martin Smith), borrowing Steve’s car, looks around for respect and successfully pursues Debbie (Candy Clark). The younger teen Carol (Mackenzie Phillips) has a crush on John (Paul Le Mat), and he spends the night stuck with her. Finally, John faces Bob Falfa (Harrison Ford) in a drag race after the two had spent the night looking for each other. Everyone is looking for something; everyone is on the move.
Dazed and Confused is set three years after the release of American Graffiti, in the disillusioned wake of “the 60’s.” In the film, drugs are the most prominent offshoot of the events of those years, but so is a new kind of political awareness. This film isn’t so much about entering the post-high school years (many of the main characters are just becoming seniors), but it has a broader gaze than American Graffiti, because it also focuses on the students who will be entering high school in the fall and the initiation rituals (very different for girls than for boys) that they must endure. If the college years are seen as just a big question mark, the high school years are seen by the younger kids as the best of their lives, only accessible after a trial by fire. Disillusionment awaits them as well. The balance of this film rests between a joyful recollection of the energy that allows teens to be stupid and a sober acknowledgment that all of us were only in high school because we were “stuck” there.
Richard Linklater’s laid-back ensemble picture covers many of the same subjects Lucas did: the attraction of younger students for older ones, men in their early twenties who still hang out with high school students, the act of “hanging out” via driving around town, social bonding over the tunes on car radios (here provided by Alice Cooper, Foghat, ZZ Top, and many others). American Graffiti tends to reach for a portentous treatment of these subjects, but here they’re just a phase people go through. On the other hand, the vandalism inflicted on a police car in the earlier film is a memory for a lifetime, whereas throwing trash cans at mailboxes is some fairly forgettable drunken idiocy. The primary conflict in the film is a simple decision raised to a matter of principle. Randall “Pink” Floyd (Jason London), star quarterback, is required to sign a pledge that he won’t take drugs during his senior year. It’s not just that he could sign it and keep taking drugs in secret; he doesn’t want to admit a loss of control over his own decision-making, or be seen to agree with the football team’s conservative values. It’s enough to make him wonder whether football is worth the time he’s given it. Meanwhile, Mike (Adam Goldberg) gets into a fight, some freshmen get sweet revenge on the bully Fred (Ben Affleck), and Mitch Kramer (Wily Wiggins) comes of age by managing to buy a six-pack of beer — something Terry in American Graffiti needed help to do — and making out with the older Julie (Catherine Morris). Everyone is set on seizing the opportunity to take control of their lives.
It was the combination of movies, cars, and rock-n-roll that created the archetype of the American teenager in the first place, and these two films celebrate that archetype with style. But teens need to be taken down a peg every once in a while, too. The kids in these films experience more than enough humiliation and disappointment to ensure they stay unsatisfied with one of the shortest stages of life. The best years of their lives will almost certainly come later, but that doesn’t make high school any less special. It’s a time of self-discovery, all the more precious for how quickly it’s over. These two films are about people who in some way realize this, people who stay out all night so they won’t miss any of it.