Rites of Passage

In many ways, all stories that are about the process of coming of age are stories about some rite of passage or another. Both of these films are filled with ritual surrounding important coming of age events such as the use of alcohol or other drugs, first kisses or the loss of one's virginity, as well as the coming of age process in and of itself. American Graffiti deals explicitly with rituals in relation to the gang that Dreyfuss almost joins and implicitly with rituals of sex and liquor consumption in much of the rest of the movie. Dazed and Confused is much more explicit with regards to the ritual process of coming of age as a whole, integrating the sex and drug rituals more fully into the overall process while de-emphasizing their individual importance. Moreover, Dazed and Confused is more consciously aware of the ritual aspects of the coming of age process that it represents. Indeed, at one point in the movie two of the 'nerd' characters comment on the "utter stupidity of these initiation rituals."

Throughout the world two important processes which are very often related to rites of passage into adulthood are sex and alchohol or drug consumption. Indeed, these two elements play significant roles in both movies. In American Graffiti Terry the Toad's coming of age, which the viewer gets to watch over the course of the film, directly involves both alcohol and sex. Toad's coming of age is one of comical amusement (or possibly sympathetic nostalgia) for the audience, as he fumbles to purchase "a pint of Old Harper's" whiskey for his date who he had earlier been able to pick up only after upgrading his "wheels" from a scooter to the departing Bolander's car. Now with the alcohol (which he is, for the first time, consuming enough of to get drunk) he attempts to make out with her in the car, an act he is unable to accomplish because of space constraints. Even when he does successfully have sex with her outside on a blanket he still has the car stolen, gets in a fight, and vomits from all the liquor he has consumed. His story is parallelled partly by that of Mitch in Dazed and Confused. Mitch too gets drunk (and also smokes weed for the first time) and has sex for the first time on the same night, also as the audiences watches. While these acts are part of his overall coming of age, they are not weighted so heavily in the movie. Moreover, Mitch has little trouble with these small coming of age acts, needing only the least bit of encouragement and the briefest opportunity to carry them out. Indeed the rites of passage which figure most prominently in Dazed and Confused are the explicit, humiliating, and even violent rituals to which the high school seniors subject the incoming freshman.

These rituals vary by sex, but are something which the incoming freshman cannot avoid especially if they have any desire to be popular in high school. The girls are forced to drop whenever a senior girl (wearing her "senior" t-shirt) yells "air raid" and are drenched with, among other things, ketchup, mustard and eggs. This clip shows how these acts are expressly linked to the coming of age process. The male freshman actually have it much harsher, as they are physically beaten with paddles that the seniors have carefully crafted and are actually quite proud of. In contrast to this centrality of ritual in Dazed and Confused, the only real presence of explicit ritual in American Graffiti is associated with a gang of delinquents (and therefore somewhat marginalized). It is possible that this difference in the degree of emphasis placed upon explicit rites of passage may indicate some deeper changes in modern American culture. Indeed, if one accepts the argument that these films must resonate in some way with the broader culture that produced them then it appears likely that , for some reason, the audience who views Dazed and Confused is more receptive to explicit coming of age ritual (and, it follows, a clear demarcation between youth and adulthood) than those who view American Graffiti.

Previous     Next

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