One day, a few years back, I put my Criterion copy of Dazed and Confused on. As soon as the film was over with I got up, flipped the commentary on, and watched it again. Credits rolled, back up, turned the commentary off, watched it again. Credits rolled...and so on. By the end of the day I had watched Dazed and Confused five times.
It took me a few years to figure out why this happened because I love the movie, and I adore director Richard Linklater, but it's not even in my top 100 and somehow I felt helpless in its power. Even the films that Linklater has done that are better, Waking Life and Before Sunset to name two, I haven't watched as much as Dazed and Confused. The reason I ended up watching it so much is that those first two minutes set the tone so amazingly well that I can't just watch a clip of the moments and be satisfied, I have to watch the thing.
The choice of music and camera shots deflect any criticism that the movie is about some magic day that couldn't happen. The decision to use "Sweet Emotion" over the opening credits is an important one. It's not a party anthem like the later-used "Slow Ride", or too laid back like the closing "Summer Breeze". Aerosmith's song has a strong twinge of melancholy and anger running alongside the gorgeous parts. It's not a song associated with the good times, but one that makes a great anthem for a confusing time.
So when Steven Tyler's voice hits that first mark Linklater shows a 1970 Pontiac GTO curling around the parking lot in slow motion. The speed shows that this is something taking place in the memory, but it's not mythologizing the moment. To do that Linklater could have gone with a low-angle shot, making the car dominate the surroundings. Instead he makes a trickier choice, shooting the car from an interesting point between a medium and high-angle shot. This gives the car the illusion of freedom within the frame but still traps it in the parking lot, a point that parallels how every character feels throughout the movie - trapped but aware of their restrictions.
Which is why I love the quick bits that follow as each little clique is introduced. The nerds have most of their bodies in-frame and are also the only folks really content to sit around the school and play games. Everyone else is sandwiched in various parts of the school, with the girl seniors the most boxed in both literally by the cars, and by the regimented hazing they 're set to perform. Any escape is temporary and their cars, which give that illusion of freedom, are just resting points to steal a break but nothing more.
It's a perfect microcosm of their lives, and one that ensures that I sit and watch the rest of the film. So this Labor Day, take a moment to breathe in and look for those moments that sum up a difficult emotion so well.