I was a first-year college student when I watched Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused for the first time. The movie came out in 1993, takes place in 1976, and I was watching it in 2003. The people I was with had seen it a hundred times and were parroting the characters and howling at the jokes, but I remember not, like, really getting it. It felt like an exercise in nostalgia for a time and place I couldn’t relate to and didn’t really want to anyway. High school was traumatic enough without sitting through 103 minutes of not-so playful hazing. I think the movie’s interesting when viewed for what it is, though, which is a cast of twenty-somethings acting as 18-year-olds seventeen years prior. But today I only want to talk about one character: Mr. Payne.
A central driver of the action in Confused is the give and take of hazing. It’s the last day of classes in a Texas high school and bedlam is barely contained until the end of the day, when things get dire quick. It’s apparently in good fun and charitably coded “tradition,” but the rising seniors spend the afternoon violently hazing the rising freshmen with insults, threats, and wooden paddles. When two students ask their teacher to be let out early to avoid the melee, Mr. Payne replies with, “It’s like our sergeant told us before one trip into the jungle: Men! Fifty of you are leaving on a mission. Twenty-five of you ain’t coming back.” It’s a joke, I think. But more Full Metal Jacket than Stripes.
Clearly there’s no real love lost between this movie and me, but this Memorial Day I’m thinking of Mr. Payne and hoping the interceding years were kind to him. I’ve only known war in the abstract, and I am grateful. So I don’t care that Payne is fictitious, I still wish peace and calm and clarity to the man, the soldier. I’d argue that Dazed and Confused aged horribly, but I hope Mr. Payne didn’t.