In both of these films, indeed in any historical coming of age movie, time itself is an important element. These films (often very consciously) ask the viewer to transport themselves back to an earlier period of American history and/or to an earlier period of their own lives. In addition to these societal and personal times (and the nostalgia for the period of one's coming of age and for the past in general which they often evoke) there is another important element of time in these two films. This is the fact that they were released twenty years apart in 1973 and 1993 respectively and therefore were first received by two different generations of Americans. If we assume that these two films can function as a kind of social history of the periods in which they are made, then we can examine certain aspects of the movies in order to determine whether there are any changes which might indicate shifting trends, ideas, or beliefs in the underlying culture. We can pose the questions of whether changes in representations of ritual, beliefs about the past, and relations with society in these movies are indicative or more substantive cultural changes taking place during this period.
The changes in the representations of rites of passage between the two movies is the first subject which may indicate changes in the broader society as a whole. While the rites of passage in American Graffiti are largely fairly subtle, those in Dazed and Confused are quite often very explicit. However, the question still remains of why this ritual should be so much more explicit in one movie than the other? One possible answer to this question comes from looking at the different audiences of the two movies. While American Graffiti appealed specifically to people who had themselves come of age during the fifties and early sixties, Dazed and Confused has been especially popular among those groups who have come of age during the 1990's. Many people who have studied this group of people born in the late 1970's and early 1980's have concluded that this age group, despite their most earnest desires to do so, has had a much more difficult time 'growing up' than had their parents generation. They feel nostalgia for a youth they never had in which one could not avoid coming of age even if one wanted too. This theory is further supported by the fact that while the teenagers in American Graffiti are portrayed as not wanting to grow up those in Dazed and Confused, just like their Gen X counterparts, can't wait to do so.
Differences in the level of nostalgia which the characters within the films feel provides another indication of broader shifts in the underlying culture. The "nostalgia for the present" which is felt be the characters in American Graffiti functions as a nostalgia for the past on the part of the viewing audience. What they appear to be nostalgic for is the simpler period of their youth. While the film is set in the summer of 1962, this is still within the period of 1950's culture; an era that is often portrayed as America's last age of innocence. Especially after the assasinations and cultural clashes of the 1960's and in the midst of economic crisis and the Vietnam war, this generation of Americans must have been more than ready to reminisce about their nation's (and their own) past innocence. The complete lack of any such nostalgia for the present on the part of the characters in Dazed and Confused indicates something very different about the generation it portrays (as well as the generation which it most appeals to). For the generation that portrayed in the film, which had only been self aware for the period of the 1960's and 1970's that those who were nostalgic for 1962 were reacting against, there was no lost age of innocence to remember. These teenagers, who state the "the 70's obviously suck" wish that they had been young 10 years earlier in the 1960's while looking forward hopefully to a better decade in 1980's. 1990's teens who view this film may also be nostalgic for the fun, excitement, and freedom which these 1970's teens seem to enjoy in an age before AIDS, harsh drug policies, and general concerns about their own futures.
The relationship between the characters and the larger society in these films also indicates some shift occuring in the period after 1962. In American Graffiti Dreyfuss' character ultimately rejects "the Pharaohs" and decides to go to college as originally planned, upholding society's expectations in the process. Moreover, the general nostalgic tone of the movie, the apparent lack of questioning of the post-war 'liberal' consensus view of history and society, and as well the marginalization of most of the rebellious groups indicate the triumph of conformity over rebellion. Dazed and Confused, with its recurrent theme of rebellion against society, is almost the exact opposite in this respect. The revisionist history offered up by both the students and their teacher helps demonstrate this general theme of questioning the past and (it follows) the older generations. Randalls's struggle to decide between the young, liberal, free spirited drug culture and the older, more conservative, community based football culture is in many ways a metaphor for his time. Indeed, his ultimate decision to maintain his independence and his own personal beliefs even thought they seem to conflict with the desires of the society as a whole is likely a reflection of the spirit of protest which had swept the country during the 1960's. To a new generation of liberal youth of the 1990's who were looking to assert their own independence against a new form of consensus taking root in the 1980's and 1990's such an image could be quite appealing.
Roger Ebert, in his review of Dazed and Confused stated that it offered a glimpse of "the dark underside of American Graffiti. This is not entirely accurate. Those elements which Ebert perceived as a dark underside are not simply a part of another perspective on fundamentally the same story. They are instead a reflection of much deeper societal changes which had taken place in America over the course of the 1960's, 70's, and 80's. The stark differences between the two films in their representations of rites of passage, nostalgia, and society are indicative of this shift in the broader society's conception of itself and its past. It is in many ways indicative of the generation gap(s) so visible in post-war America, and how these gaps are very much the result of the differenent experiences which each generation goes through as it comes of age. Finally, they are an example of the fact that, while American culture as a whole is incredibly concerned with remembering its own past, the way in which this past is remembered is ultimately shaped by who it is that is doing the remembering and what purpose this group needs that memory to serve.