History and Society

Another very important aspect of both films which can be used to shed light on the broader culture is their portrayal of American history and society. While there is a strong interaction between the representation of history in these movies and nostalgic feelings on the part of the viewers, discussion of history in and of itself also figures prominently at least in Dazed and Confused. This presence (as well as the striking lack of any such discussion in American Graffiti) is especially important (and possibly revealing) given the way in which American history is treated in this film. One the other hand, both movies do deal substantively with issues of contemporary society and clash between certain segments of society with competing ideologies. Specifically, both movies present characters who are faced with important choices as to whether they should conform to what society (or some set of authority figures) expects or whether they ought not follow their own path. In this case, it is the different choices which the characters make which may be taken as revealing something about the broader society.

References to American history within Dazed and Confused are present throughout the entire movie beginning with the school's name and mascot explicitly making reference to the Civil War. There is also much discussion about American history (especially the colonial period) throughout the film on the part of both students and teachers. While having a stoned conversation at a party, some of the students comment on early America remarking that "this whole country was founded by people who were into aliens" and that George Washington both grew and smoked marijuana. Indeed, in what must have been a kind of nostalgic revisionism for the pot smoking students (and for at least some of the people watching the film), they declare at one point that "the whole country back then was getting high." As seen in this clip the students' history teacher was encouraging at least a general questioning of the establishment version of history, if not their particular beliefs. The radical interpretations of history presented in Dazed and Confused have no real counterparts in American Graffiti. Indeed, this fact may in and of itself be revealing. If the revisionist history espoused by both students and teachers in Dazed and Confused can be said to represent a questioning of prevailing views of American history, then perhaps the lack of any such questioning (or any commentary whatsoever) in American Graffiti may suggest a general acceptance by that film (and perhaps its audience as well) of a more traditional conception of history.

Related to this concern with history is the recurrent issue of the relationships between certain characters and society as a whole in these films. In American Graffiti this conflict is represented in Richard Dreyfuss' character, who is deciding whether or not to depart for (a probably Ivy League) college as he is expected to. In discussing this matter with a former teacher, he declares that he "might not be the competitive type" and might instead simply wish to avoid the stress and strain of competition in college (and probably too in the corporate world to which college at this period was a funnel). His exposure to the "Pharaohs" gives him a taste of the counter-cultural alternative of the period. However, there are many in his community, including the local "Moose lodge" which has given him a scholarship, who he would gravely disappoint if he chooses not to go to college. Indeed, as this clip indicates, Dreyfuss' decision about whether to leave for college or not involves deeper questions about his place in society. In the end, despite his acceptance into the gang, Dreyfuss decides to go to school as planned, a fact which is presented in the film as the manifestation of his coming of age. This image of acceptance of prevailing societal ideas as a form of maturity is sharply contrasted by Dazed and Confused where rebellion is a recurrent theme, from the school name and mascot to the references to revolutionary era history. This rebellion is personally manifested in the character of Randall as he struggles with the question of whether or not to sign the pledge form as his coach and teammates (and one must assume, the society at large) wish him to do. In the end he decides to adhere to his own personal convictions, refusing to sign the form and casting his lot firmly with his counter-cultural friends against the establishment. Thus his coming of age is marked by a refusal to conform. This cinematic difference may also be indicative of a deeper cultural shift away from social conformity and towards individuality and rebellion.

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Cultural Stories
The Historical
Coming of Age Genre
Dazed and
Nostalgia and
Time and Memory
American Film as
Cultural History
Rites of
History and