It'd be a lot cooler if you did (July, 1976)
Dazed and Confused isn't just the best comedy of the 1990s. It also might be the best sports movie.
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In 1972, a former University of Texas football player named Gary Shaw published a memoir titled “Meat on the Hoof.” Shaw was an all-state tackle from Denton High School in suburban Dallas when he arrived in Austin to play for the Longhorns in 1963. By 1966, after struggling to break into the lineup, he quit the team and decided to write a book about the brutality of college football—the hazing rituals, the lack of medical attention, the brutal practice drills (known as “shit drills”) designed to drive marginal players into quitting, thereby freeing up their scholarships for new blood.
Shaw’s coach at Texas was Darrell Royal, a reedy and tough man from rural Oklahoma who won more games than any other coach in school history. The book hit Royal’s program hard at the time, but he did not question the accuracy of “ninety five percent” of Shaw’s recollections. The way Royal saw it, Shaw simply didn’t get it; he was an exemplar of the Generation Gap, a young man shaped by the sixties who simply couldn’t comprehend the draconian methods that Royal utilized while attempting to win championships. Maybe, Royal later wondered, Shaw was too sensitive—he spent nearly a decade homeless in the 1980s and was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia before his death in 1999. The sixties had changed so many things, particularly in a quirky city like Austin, and to Royal and compatriots like former UT sports relations employee Bill Little, Shaw’s memoir was a harbinger of those changes.
“He said in the book that he didn't want to play football,” Little told a reporter in 1999. “And football is hard enough when you do want to play it.
“Gary Shaw was a product of the times. It was popular to attack the establishment.”
And so it was still popular to attack the establishment in the summer of 1976, when a sensitive and creative kid named Richard Linklater served as the backup quarterback at Huntsville High School, on the top-ranked football team in the state of Texas. Linklater would transfer to a different high school for his senior year in order to focus on baseball. He would play baseball at Sam Houston State University before dropping out to work on an oil rig and read novels, until eventually he found his passion, and decided make a low-budget anti-establishment film set in Austin, called Slacker.
If you are of a certain age and a certain sensibility—if you are cool, man—then you probably remember where you were the first time you watched Linklater’s teen-stoner-coming-of-age masterpiece, Dazed and Confused. I was living in a sprawling frat house in State College, Pennsylvania, amid the dusty third-hand furniture and the stacks of empty kegs. Many of my fraternity brothers were aimless stoners, and I watched the movie with a handful of them, once we could finally score a copy on VHS from the local video store’s branch in nearby Bellefonte.
We watched it once, and then we watched it again, and at some point, I lost count, because we just kept watching it, over and over again. We had never seen anything quite like Dazed before. It was a movie about young people living in 1976, in Austin, Texas, but it felt entirely relevant to our own lives. It bore none of the ‘80s sheen of John Hughes; it was about teenagers who drank and smoked copious amounts of weed and openly questioned what the hell they were supposed to be doing with their lives. It is a movie I have watched more than any other since then. It is a movie that’s grown up with me, and grown older with me, the way nostalgia itself tends to do.
Dazed is a surprisingly profound movie crammed into a simple package, which is why it holds up over repeat viewings. And in a way, it is also a sports movie, a kindred spirit of ‘70s movies like The Bad News Bears and North Dallas Forty and Slap Shot, all of which questioned our societal relationship with sports. The two primary characters—both based on Linklater—are an incoming freshman baseball star who seems not to care that much about baseball, and a soon-to-be-senior quarterback who’s wrestling with whether he’s willing to sacrifice his ideals and sign a loyalty and sobriety pledge just to please a draconian football coach (who is not based on Darrell Royal, but who I now associate almost completely with Darrell Royal). There is only one short scene of an actual sporting event in Dazed—in which the incoming freshman baseball pitcher, played by Wiley Wiggins (who was apparently incapable of actually throwing a baseball in real life), finishes off a game while facing an inevitable hazing ritual—but the entire movie is about the choices we make to embrace sports, and to play sports, and whether sports really mean anything at all. Can an athlete be an individualist, or does he essentially have to sacrifice his youth for sports? Who was ultimately right, Darrell Royal or Gary Shaw?
Given these truths, there is little question that I am the optimal reader for Melissa Maerz’s new oral history of Dazed and Confused, the aptly titled Alright, Alright, Alright. (Author’s Note: The fact that she has allowed me to sit in her varied living rooms for hours and play a now-defunct video game and watch hundreds of actual football games with her husband only heightened my interest slightly more.) But I’ve never read an oral history quite like this one, because it is not just a book about a movie, or about the making of a movie, or even just a book about the battle between art and commerce that surrounds the making of nearly any creative work. It is a book about an entire generation, and how we came of age in that in-between era of the 1990s clinging to our nostalgia in real time, and how, like the athletes in the movie, and like Linklater himself, we wrestled with the notion of attacking the establishment or selling out and joining it.
In the midst of this odd juncture in American history, we are also at an odd juncture in sports history: A hollow college football season is clinging to life, and the NFL, clinging once more to the notion that it is bigger than American society itself, seems determined to plow forward without cancelling a single game. We are even getting college basketball, whether we want it or not, but as the pandemic rages, those of us with consciences have been wondering what’s worth it and what isn’t, and perhaps we’ve even been wondering what the place of sports should be in a functioning society.
This year, we’ve seen athletes boycott and protest; we’ve seen them question the very nature of the system, and often get pilloried by the president himself for questioning the nature of the system, for using their voices rather than deferring to the establishment. And very often when these things happened, I would think back to the choice faced by the quarterback in Dazed and Confused, Randall “Pink” Floyd, who is both the coolest guy in his high school and the most well-liked, able to flit from one social circle to the next without a hint of friction. When Floyd’s football coach confronts him and declares he’s in need of a “serious attitude adjustment,” you can see Floyd wondering: Is this the kind of man I want to spend the rest of my life working for? Is it worth playing football if I have to sacrifice my youth?
I think this is why Dazed and Confused appealed to me so much back then, and why it still does today: Because it is ultimately a story about finding your place in the world, and about searching for your own values. For Randall “Pink” Floyd, for Gary Shaw—and, I’m assuming, for Richard Linklater—the push toward an organized sport made sense, until it didn’t anymore, until it led them to compromise their values in ways that they simply couldn’t live with.
As I was reading Maerz’s book, I was also listening to the second season of Michael Lewis’s outstanding Against the Rules podcast, which is about the role of coaches in society. And at one point, as he’s interviewing Bette Midler, of all people, Midler tells him this when speaking about her voice coach:
I do think that a coach has to be…you can’t have someone who’s gonna be abusive…You have to trust them. And trust is absolutely imperative. If you don’t trust your coach, you’re not gonna make it.
Coaching has already changed immensely since the era of Darrell Royal, and many of Royal’s tactics would now be viewed with horror if they were revealed in a book like Gary Shaw’s. There are two ways to look at this: The first is that this is yet another example of a world gone soft, and that the generations of Americans who grew up after the 1960s are less and less equipped to handle the real world. But the second way to look at it is that maybe those methods were never really that effective in the first place. What if Gary Shaw didn’t want to play football because he he didn’t trust the people who wanted him to play football? This is the choice Randall “Pink” Floyd makes at the end of Dazed, while smoking a joint on his own football field: By tearing up that loyalty pledge, he’s declaring that he’ll only play football on his own terms. And maybe that can be viewed as selfish, but maybe it’s also a failure of a coach to build trust in his players.
Such is the story-within-the-story of Alright, Alright, Alright: It’s about Linklater trying to produce a script about a character coming to terms with how much he’s willing to compromise—even as Linklater himself was dealing with the inevitable compromises of moviemaking within the studio system. Throughout Alright, Alright, Alright, Linklater insists that he wants the process to be collaborative, that he wants his actors to improvise their scenes and search for the soul of their characters. He wants the movie to find its own heart, rather than force it into a series of shit drills to make it work.
It turned out that Linklater had the immense talent to do this. But it also turned out that Linklater himself embodied the new paradigm of a coach who largely refused to be an asshole (except when he was punching upward at studio execs), and who coaxed transcendent performances out of people without bullying them into submission. Thirty years after the fact, some of the actors from Dazed have gone on to be stars, and others have quit acting altogether. But for a short time, they trusted one man enough to make a work of art that feels like a timeless meditation on what it means to work within a group to find your true self, even if only for a moment. And perhaps that’s the reason why sports exist in the first place.
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