The Sweet Sting

With nothing better to do last Saturday night, my wife and I found ourselves watching Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused again. Aside from my lingering obsession with Sixteen Candles, I’ve never been a big fan of teen comedies. Most are cut-and-paste collages of cliches and bad pop that are too busy romanticizing high school to remember how much it sucked and how damn interesting the typical teenager really is. I’m not being ironic this time. Seriously.

The best compliment I can give Dazed and Confused is that it makes me deliriously nostalgic. My American Heritage calls “nostalgia” a “bittersweet longing,” which gets it just about right, I think. I’ve never been one to miss high school. I would guess that in the last ten years I’ve spoken to three people from my class. But I do occasionally find myself longing for something from those days, something lacking in the day to day management of adult life.

Joanna and I chatted about this as we watched Dazed and Confused Saturday night (as adults are wont to do — we chat), and we decided that that something is an “intensity of experience” only found amidst the stew of anxiety and wonder that is adolescence. Think about it. When you’re in high school, whose car you ride around in on Friday night matters. And who sees you in that car matters even more. It’s not trivial, although I think we adults like to console ourselves by pretending it is. In fact, I’m not sure that anything I’ve done in the last ten years has mattered as intensely as almost everything mattered when I was fifteen. Dazed and Confused gets that just right, which makes it the only teen movie that, well, that matters.

Watching it again, I was really struck by this conversation, which is also just right.

Mike: I’m serious, man, we should be up for anything.
Cynthia: I know. We are. But what? I mean, God, don’t you ever feel like everything we do and everything we’ve been taught is just to service the future.
Tony: Yeah, I know. It’s like it’s all preparation.
Cynthia: Right. But what are we preparing ourselves for?
Mike: {glib} Death.
Tony: Life of the party.
Mike: {glib again} It’s true.
Cynthia: You know, but that’s valid. Because if we’re all gonna die anyways, shouldn’t we be enjoying ourselves now? You know, I’d like to quit thinking of the present, like right now, as some minor, insignificant preamble to something else.
Mike: Exactly. Man, that’s what everyone in this car needs is some good ol’, worthwhile, visceral experience.

Sure, it’s a bit carpe diem-ish — and I usually recoil at anything that smacks of Robin Williams sentimentality — but there’s also something wonderfully freeing in that existential naivety. That “insignificant preamble” stuff has come up often in my conversations with other well-adjusted adults lately. Odd.