Iconic Films: ‘American Graffiti’ Versus ‘Dazed and Confused’: American Innocence Slowly Evaporates

May 4, 2020 Updated: May 4, 2020

American Graffiti: PG | | Comedy, Drama | 11 August 1973 (USA)

diner in the evening with cars in "American Graffiti"
The fictitious Mel’s Diner in Modesto, Calif., where the town’s teens in “American Graffiti” gather. (Universal Pictures)

I have a personal welcoming-in-the-spring ritual: On a warm, slightly humid, purple-lilacs-fragrant, late-May evening that carries the nostalgic promise of the “Moons and Junes and Ferris wheels” of early summer, I re-watch 1973’s “American Graffiti.” And if another such evening presents itself a week later, I re-watch 1993’s “Dazed and Confused.”

Director Richard Linklater acknowledges in the “Dazed” DVD commentary that when he made his studio pitch, he envisioned “Dazed” as an “American Graffiti” for the 1970s. A tribute. “Dazed” is more or less the exact same teenage, last-day-of-high-school, up-all-night-partying movie, except “Graffiti” (historically known as the first movie to run multiple story lines simultaneously) chronicles American teenage life in 1962, and “Dazed” describes our teenage life in 1976.

Here’s a quick summation of the difference between the journeys of the main protagonist in each film: In “American Graffiti,” Curt Henderson (Richard Dreyfuss) overcomes his fear of leaving a small California town, gets on the plane to an Eastern college, and kicks off his Hero’s Journey to become a writer.

In “Dazed and Confused,” Randall “Pink” Floyd (Jason London), on the other hand, goes into full-tilt rebellion, refuses to sign his overbearing coach’s pledge to stop doing drugs, and thereby cuts his nose off to spite his face because he’ll no longer be the high school starting quarterback.

Seems like an honorable thing to do, right? Refuse quarterbacking because you resent your school’s responsible adults requesting you to reject smoking reefer?

boy in yellow car talks to boy outside car in "American Graffiti"
John Milner (Paul Le Mat, L) and Curt Henderson (Richard Dreyfuss) in “American Graffiti.” (Universal Pictures)

Now, the other character that both movies share—John Milner (Paul Le Mat) of “Graffiti” and Wooderson (Matthew McConaughey) in “Dazed”—represents America’s “townie” syndrome, that is, the he-was-cool-in-high-school slacker with little or no ambition who’s still hanging around the local high school trying to pick up girls. At least Milner was the local drag-racing king, whereas Wooderson’s hot car is just to attract underage high school girls. They represent the inability to leave small-town life and go on the Hero’s Journey.

Two boy in a car in "Dazed & Confused"
Slater (Rory Cochrane, L) and Wooderson (Matthew McConaughey) in “Dazed and Confused.” (Gramercy Pictures)

And at the end of “American Graffiti,” Curt leaves Milner at the airport, whereas in “Dazed,” Pink jumps in Wooderson’s muscled-up Chevelle as they catch their third wind (of weed smoking) and, with the sun coming up, burn rubber down the highway while firing up a fresh joint.

“Who cares?” you might say. Touché—this is not high art. And yet, these are the cultural signposts that indicate how, imperceptibly under the guise of good times and party-hearty, America’s morality has gone to the dogs.

‘American Graffiti’

“American Graffiti” takes place in 1962, right before the Beatles, Bob Dylan, psychedelic drugs, the Kennedys’ and MLK’s assassinations, Vietnam, and the rise of political protest, Woodstock, and late-1960s counterculture.

The music of the day is the still-innocent doo-wop, which is also diegetic (meaning it’s heard by the characters in the film as well as the audience), all of which serves to create time and place in an almost magical way.

“Graffiti” describes the teenage years of its now legendary filmmakers: writer-director George Lucas (who later created the “Star Wars” franchise, and upon whom the character of hot-rodder John Milner is loosely based), and producer Francis Ford Coppola (who had just directed “The Godfather”).

Made in 1973 and taking place on one summer night in Modesto, California, “Graffiti” depicts a variety of mini-adventures, shenanigans, yearnings, revelations, and teen philosophizing by a group of kids for whom life is about to change drastically and forever.

Of all the movie’s main characters—drag-racer John Milner, ultra-nerd Terry “The Toad” Fields (Charles Martin Smith), and all-American college-boy-to-be Steve Bolander (Ron Howard), who hang out at Mel’s Drive-In—it’s everyman Curt Henderson who is the most interesting.

Unlike class president Steve, who dates Curt’s cheerleader sister Laurie (Cindy Williams) and who seems to-the-manor-born collegiate, Curt was clearly destined to remain in Modesto if he hadn’t earned a college scholarship.

No Life After High School

So, over the course of the night, Curt observes his high school teacher, who admits he’d had a shot at attending the exclusive Middlebury College but came back with his tail between his legs—now having a relationship with one of his female students.

Curt hunts down the legendary radio disk jockey Wolfman Jack, whose disembodied, hilarious diatribes rule the legions of cruising car radio airwaves, and who, like some rude, fun uncle, dispenses ribald wisdoms and wolf howls along with rock ‘n’ roll playlists.

Curt tracks the Wolfman to his hiding place in a radio tower on the outskirts of town. Everybody’s got a romanticized theory about the Wolfman: “He broadcasts out of Mexico!” “He flies around in a spaceship and never comes down!” Curt discovers an Oz-like man in a lonely sound-isolation booth, eating popsicles and talking into the night.

Disc jockey talking to boy in "American Grafitti"
Wolfman Jack (L) as himself, and Richard Dreyfuss, in “American Graffiti.” (Universal Pictures)

Curt recognizes that John Milner is going nowhere fast, in a yellow deuce coupe. Curt is rudely awakened to the fact that his obsession with a mysterious, elusive blonde in a white Ford Thunderbird (Suzanne Somers), who mouths “I love you” (representing the mirage of unattainable desire, always glimpsed turning the corner at the end of the next street) is, in reality, a “dirty-dollar Sherry.” Curt sees behind the scenes and glimpses the far less glamorous, less exciting adult world that will consume him if he doesn’t seize the day.

blonde in a whilte Thunderbird in "American Graffiti"
Suzanne Somers as the blonde in the white T-bird in “American Graffiti.” (Universal Pictures)

Cruising and Car Culture

“American Graffiti’” depicts the height of 1950s and ’60s American car culture; the entire movie is a giant car-homage to ’57 Chevys, ’32 Ford deuce coupes, ’53 ‘Vettes, “Darryl Starbird’s Superfleck Moonbird,” Harley-Davidson Flatheads, dune buggies, and the sounds of insanely enhanced engines yowling and tires burning rubber.

Black '55 Chevy and Jyellow '32 Ford in "American Graffit"
Bob Falfa’s (Harrison Ford) ’55 Chevy (L) and John Milner’s (Paul Le Mat) ’32 Ford in “American Graffiti.” (Universal Pictures)

And so, as the scales begin to fall from Curt’s eyes, cars also, symbolically, start getting stolen and crashed. Milner has a monologue in a car graveyard: “That right there is Freddie Benson’s ‘Vette. He got his in a head-on collision with a drunk.”

Milner eventually goes up against the sneering Bob Falfa (Harrison Ford in his movie debut), who crashes and burns (but was faster), and Milner realizes his days are numbered.

All of which also signifies the end of the post-World War II American dream. Whole societies, cultures, fashions, and trends have come and gone since 1962, but if American post-high school reality was bleak back then, it continued to worsen.

Dazed and Confused

Dazed and Confused: R | | Comedy | 10 February 1993 (USA)

“Dazed and Confused” is about a Texas high school class of 1976. I was New York class of ’78, and this movie is my high school experience exactly—minus the making of wooden paddles by seniors in shop class with which to beat incoming freshman in a summer-long hazing ritual.

boy in shop class in "Dazed & Confused"
Benny (Cole Hauser) puts finishing touches on his freshman paddle in “Dazed and Confused.” (Gramercy Pictures)

Americans who came of age in the ’70s have always thought they were born a decade too late; and that the coolest decade of all was clearly the ’60s, with back-to-the land communes, Jefferson Airplane, acid trips, “tune in, turn on, and drop out,” Woodstock, Afros, Jew-fros, Janis and Jimi, peace signs, hip-huggers, and love-ins.

The ’70s was when the hippie culture of the ’60s cool kids diluted and dispersed to the uncool, leading to three-piece, bell-bottomed, polyester suits; platform shoes; porn ‘staches; chocolate-brown shag rugs; lava lamps; eight-track cassette decks; olive-colored, suede, moc-toe bluchers, and other hideous fashion statements; disco; down vests; “feathered” hair; puka shells; AMC Pacers; and keg parties.

pool hall exterior in "Dazed & Confused"
The Emporium pool hall where teens gather in “Dazed and Confused.” (Gramercy Pictures)

High-schoolers in the 1970s felt a prolonged, anticlimactic, cynical hangover from the 1960s’ euphoria. They felt deflated, disenfranchised, sold out, and distrustful. The ’70s seemed like a decade to be endured until the arrival of the savior-like ’80s (one hoped, as does a “Dazed” character at a keg party), not a decade to actually enjoy. Except for maybe Led Zeppelin, weed, Bruce Lee, Mark Spitz, and Billy Jack. And everywhere were vehement signs that stated, “Disco Sucks!”

two teens in a 1976 GTO in "Dazed & Confused"
Michelle (Milla Jovovich) and Pickford (Shawn Andrews) in “Dazed & Confused” (Gramercy Pictures)

But Richard Linklater’s ″Dazed and Confused″ is an uproarious paean to the ’70s and, as such, sprinkles the fairy dust of nostalgia over the mess the 1970s actually were by giving us, à la “Graffiti,” that same, up-all-night, bacchanalian celebration of freedom (“… no more books, no more teacher’s dirty looks”).

Male seniors chase and paddle the next year’s freshmen, and the girls are forced by the female seniors to lay out in the school parking lot, be sprayed with ketchup, mustard, eggs, and flour, before getting collectively car-washed in the back of a pickup truck. This is all America has retained from ancient tribal initiation rituals.

a girl squirts mustard on another girl in "Dazed & Confused"
Christin Hinojosa (L) and Renée Zellweger as freshman and senior, respectively, in “Dazed and Confused.” (Gramercy Pictures)

And, same as in ’62, they all go cruising around aimlessly, looking to bust their boredom: here by banging mailboxes with baseball bats and waiting for news of the next big beer bash to break.

3 girls in a VW bug in "Dazed & Confused"
(L–R) Christine Harnos, Deena Martin, and Michelle Burke in “Dazed and Confused” (Gramercy Pictures)

In this light, the things we ’70s kids hated at the time, like Seals & Crofts’s FM-lite kitsch, “Summer Breeze, makes me feel fine, playing like the jazz-man in my mind,” now feel nostalgic, rather sweet, and relatively uncorrupted. But again—these are signposts.

There was, as of yet, no 1980s’ crack, 1990s’ meth, or 2010s’ opioid epidemic. There was high school sex, but one still listened to Meat Loaf singing about “Paradise by the Dashboard Light,” where the girl said, “Stop right there, I gotta know right now, before we go any further, do you love me? … Will you take me away and will you make me your wife?”

4 teens hang outside a pool hall in "Dazed & Confused"
(L–R) Sasha Jenson, Matthew McConaughey, Jason London, and Wiley Wiggins, in “Dazed and Confused.” (Gramercy Pictures)

There was no AIDS. It wasn’t yet Prince in the 1980s singing: “In France, a skinny man died of a big disease with a little name. By chance his girlfriend came across a needle and soon she did the same. At home there are 17-year-old boys and their idea of fun, is being in a gang called ‘The Disciples,’ high on crack, and totin’ a machine gun.”

Extrapolating From High School

The ’60s and ’70s are innocent in comparison to the ’90s and onward. Both “Dazed and Confused” and “American Graffiti” are arguably two of the best coming-of-age films ever made. The films are aimless because the characters are aimless. Both films, by being technically about nothing at all, truly capture the modern American teenage experience, which includes the boredom and suffocation of small-town life.

“American Graffiti” and “Dazed and Confused” are both bittersweet pills regarding the time in America that red M.A.G.A. hats hark back to: innocent times with higher moral values. Bittersweet because “American Graffiti” implies that high school is just a party veneer hiding the bleaker American reality that spawned the F. Scott Fitzgerald phrase from “My Lost City”: “There are no second acts in American lives.” American high school is often the first act. It’s this underlying cultural hint that we should seize the day that moves one to re-watch both these films ad infinitum.

‘American Graffiti’
Director: George Lucas
Starring: Harrison Ford, Richard Dreyfuss, Paul Le Mat, Ron Howard, Cindy Williams, Mackenzie Phillips, Charles Martin Smith, Candy Clark
Rated: PG
Running Time: 1 hour, 50 minutes
Release date: Aug. 11, 1973
Rated: 4.5 stars out of 5

‘Dazed and Confused’
Director: Richard Linklater
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Ben Affleck, Parker Posey, Milla Jovovich, Renée Zellweger, Adam Goldberg, Anthony Rapp, Nicky Katt, Cole Hauser, Sasha Jenson, Jason London, Wiley Wiggins
Rated: R
Running Time: 1 hour, 42 minutes
Release date: Sept. 24, 1993 (USA limited)
Rated: 4.5 stars out of 5

Follow Mark on Twitter: @FilmCriticEpoch