By Vadim Rizov
Last Friday, CHUD.com reported that at a benefit screening of Dazed And Confused, writer-director Richard Linklater said he was working on "a sort of spiritual sequel" to the film, using none of the same characters, but a similar approach to frosh stumbling through a first weekend at college in 1980. If you're a fan of Dazed (and I am, to the point of fetishism), this is good news: though Dazed has definitively replaced American Graffiti as the template for the "one coming-of-age night" genre, no one's really gotten it right since. (Can't Hardly Wait got closest, and it's basically a cartoon.)
It's easy to be cynical about why Linklater's making this movie at this particular moment. He's sitting on two movies that aren't theater-bound. It's no real surprise that his documentary profile of University of Texas coach Augie Garrido, Inning By Inning: A Portrait of a Coach, is going straight-to-DVD after being shown on ESPN; the arthouse crowd doesn't typically do sports movies, no matter how warmly intended or who's making them. But who could've guessed Me And Orson Welles would still be distributor-less half a year after its Toronto premiere, demographic-baiting star Zac Efron and all? It gets worse: in the years since the undeniable critical and commercial success of School of Rock, Linklater's worked on a rejected HBO pilot, a Bad News Bears remake that underperformed commercially and critically, a cult movie (A Scanner Darkly) that failed to justify its budget, and a didactic lecture-film (Fast Food Nation) that came and went virtually unnoticed. This is not the way one of '90s indie cinema's icons should be heading; Linklater would appear to no longer be at the vanguard of American film, a status that once went unquestioned.
That's the direst version of events, yet it's safe to say that it's not even remotely close to capturing the reasons a Dazed "spiritual sequel" will be interesting: Linklater won't give us the same amiably non-dramatic comedy with the bad vibes only faintly hinted at. That's because Linklater's made a remarkable transition in his work of late, and almost no one has noticed. People used to obsess over how the word "plotless" could've been invented for Linklater; his aversion for strong narrative beats seemed almost as strong as his aversion to real conflict or villains.
But then A Scanner Darkly actually had a strong, paranoid dystopian framework requiring conventional pacing and revelations Linklater previously seemed incapable of or uninterested in. Fast Food Nation also built to a meaningful climax while experimenting with deliberate narrative entropy (Greg Kinnear, ostensibly the main character, disappears halfway through).
What we have is a filmmaker who, after years of rejecting conventional narrative tools and building his own, has suddenly shown he's actually quite apt at using those tools if he feels like it. The essential Linklater theme hasn't changed at all: one person (or group of people) struggles to achieve individuality in an environment actively or passively hostile to that kind of self-definition. It's the urge which drives Slacker, makes Pink such a pissed-off iconoclast for nothing in Dazed And Confused, and pushes Jack Black in School of Rock; above all, it's actively turned into a system-vs.-individual plot in Scanner. (Before Sunrise/Sunset doesn't really fit here, but more on that in a moment.)
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