Ethan Hawke on ‘Dazed and Confused’: Important Film in American Cinema

This essay is one of several contributed by filmmakers and actors as part of Variety’s 100 Greatest Movies of All Time package.

I’ve always thought Cassavetes, Kerouac and Bukowski carry a great responsibility for inspiring some of the most insipid work of the last half century. They make it look too easy. With his first two films, “Slacker” and “Dazed and Confused,” Rick Linklater immediately joined this illustrious crew. Through a haze of pot smoke, spilled keg beer and ’70s rock ‘n’ roll, he made everyday life profound.

I first saw “Dazed and Confused” in 1993, a couple of weeks before its release. Steve Zahn and I were doing a play with fellow actor Anthony Rapp, and he invited us to some advanced screening to check out his new film. We snuck a six-pack into the movie theater, and immediately from the opening Aerosmith cue — “Sweet Emotion” — to the end credit scroll, I knew that movie was everything I ever aspired to do with my life. In one swift blow I became one of those insipid acolytes.

It’s a staggeringly simple film. Retro and modern. There are no obvious dramatic plot high jinks, no special effects, just people honestly, humorously revealed. Like “American Graffiti” before it, it’s an examination of a prior generation’s adolescence. And with the gift of hindsight, both examine small slices of life in an attempt to unpack the central mysteries of why it’s so difficult to grow up.

Oddly, what makes “Dazed and Confused” great (besides the fact it’s hilarious) is that it’s a movie filled with moments that shouldn’t be in a movie. For example, in an early scene after an uneventful game, two baseball teams form opposing lines and exchange limp, underhanded high-fives as they mumble, “Good game” to each other. I had never even imagined a dramatization of this hypocritical, boring ritual I had actually lived through a thousand times. I understood my own life through this film — realizing that moments that had passed by unnoticed had actually formed me. The culmination of these stupid, anti-dramatic insights captures that melancholy, anxious feeling of being in high school, aching for a more exciting future to arrive.

I’d be remiss not to mention the brilliant ensemble of actors in this film, who so perfectly embody every high-school archetype. Whenever an acting ensemble is this consistently excellent in a film, you know you’re dealing with a very special director. Add that to the ravishing (seemingly) effortless camera work and constantly insightful writing, you get what the old-timers call a “Stone Cold Masterpiece.”

Now, I may be a bit biased here, as I also grew up in Texas and have since become a longtime friend and collaborator of Richard Linklater. But I didn’t know Rick the evening I saw this film. And it was obvious that in tandem with his preceding film, “Slacker,” that there was a new, important voice in American cinema.

Ethan Hawke is the star of “Training Day,” the “Before Sunrise” trilogy and “Boyhood.”

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