Ever since “independent film” broke out as a commercial force in the early 1990’s, there’s been considerable debate over what truly constitutes an “independent” film. Along with that has been a backlash against so-called indie films as well, and it’s just not a simplistic “Studio films rock! Indie films suck!” argument either (there is an element of that, to be sure). The argument goes something like this; there’s a certain strain of independent film – particularly the kind that plays at the Sundance or Slamdance film festivals every year – that’s just as hermetically sealed, and cliched, as studio films are regularly accused of being. There’s also the argument so-called “indie” films have become, in many cases, merely low-budget versions of studio films, down to the fact many of them are merely copies of earlier films. There’s a certain amount of truth to both arguments, but even allowing for that, there’s one thing indie films have done much better than studio films (and one of the reasons why I think indie films are still necessary, vital and important); they’ve allowed for voices outside of the main film production centers (Hollywood, New York City) to flourish, or at least be heard. I don’t deny many of these “regional” films (as they’re sometimes called) can indulge in their own cliches – the recent Martha Marcy May Marlene, for example – but more often than not, they provide a fresh voice, and the sense the makers lived life beyond watching other films. Even in the early days of the indie film wave in the early 90’s, when it seemed as if every indie movie was a rehash in some way of Mean Streets (Amongst Friends being the most egregious example), these regional voices were especially valuable. Two such examples in 1993 – and two of my favorite films of that year – were Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused and Victor Nunez’s Ruby in Paradise.
Linklater, who hails from Texas,has gone outside his home to make movies (all three Before movies to date are set in different cities in Europe), has occasionally made studio films (School of Rock), has been fairly prolific (including Slacker, his 1991 debut, he’s made 15 features, plus a few shorts and made-for-TV movies), and has tackled a variety of genres, from the romantic comedy/drama of the Before films to filmed plays (Tape) to roto-scope animation (A Scanner Darkly). Nunez – who hails from Florida – by contrast, has never made a studio film, has rarely left his home state to make a film (with the exception of Spoken Word, his most recent film, which was filmed and set in New Mexico), has often gone several years between films (Spoken Word came out in 2009), and all of his films have been character-driven dramas that, with one exception, hang on the edges of the crime drama. What they both have in common at their best (I’ve disliked a couple of Linklater’s films (Fast Food Nation and his remake of The Bad News Bears), but I’ve yet to see a Nunez film I’ve disliked) is they not only avoid most of the cliches of films set in the South, they also make films that demonstrate the knowledge of someone who’s lived life beyond other films, and their films don’t feel like low-budget blockbusters, but real, independent films.
Jodi (Michelle Burke), Pink (Jason London) and Cynthia (Marissa Ribisi) on the last day of school.
At the time Dazed and Confused came out, the teen film, which had prospered through the 80’s (you could say they were as inescapable and ubiquitous as comic book movies are today), was going through a lull. Just as music-loving teens of the 90’s steered clear of what they saw as the excess and bombast of 80’s music, so movie-going teens of the time no longer seemed interested in the exploitation movies, slasher movies, or earnest romantic comedy/dramas that made up most of 80’s teen movies (it also didn’t help such filmmakers as Cameron Crowe and John Hughes, both of whom were identified with teen films, had moved on to other things). In Pretty in Pink; The Golden Age of Teenage Movies, Jonathan Bernstein (a former editor of Spin) theorized the so-called “Generation X” teens fled from what they saw as the contrivance of Hollywood in general and teen movies in particular. He also claimed Heathers – the 1989 cult film written by Daniel Waters and directed by Michael Lehman – the poison-pen valentine to John Hughes’ 80’s films, helped kill off the genre (not until the mid-90’s, thanks to films such as Clueless and the Scream franchise, did the teen film revive). Whatever the reason, when Linklater’s movie came out, its studio (Gramercy, then a division of Universal) had little faith in it, and despite excellent reviews, it received little promotion and didn’t do much in the theater. Yet it became a cult hit on video, and is rightly recognized today as an excellent movie in its own right as well as being one of the best teen movies ever made.
Linklater’s film is set in an 18-hour period starting near the end of the last day of school at Lee High in Austin in 1976 (May 28, to be exact). In a switch from the usual, the film isn’t about those who are leaving high school for good, but about those who are either going to become seniors the next year or, to a lesser extent, those who will become freshmen that fall. In another twist, while both of the characters who could possibly be called the “main” characters are athletes, neither of them conform to the jock stereotype that so permeated 80’s teen films. Randall “Pink” Floyd (Jason London) is the star quarterback of Lee’s varsity team, but he’s equally at home hanging out with stoners like Slater (Rory Cochrane) or “geeks” like Mike (Adam Goldberg) and Tony (Anthony Rapp) as he is with his fellow teammates (who include Don (Sasha Jenson) and Benny (Cole Hauser)). There’s also a rebellious streak in him; one of the subplots of the film involves Pink mulling over whether or not to sign a pledge that he’ll abstain from drinking, doing drugs, or having sex during the football season. Mitch Kramer (Wiley Wiggins), on the other hand, may be the star pitcher of his Little League team, but unfortunately, all incoming freshmen get hazed (the boys get paddled, while the girls go through a more elaborate torture involving air raid drills, getting mustard, ketchup and flour poured on them, and being forced to propose to upcoming senior students), and Mitch is getting the worst of it because his older sister Jodi (Michelle Burke) pleaded with Pink and his teammates to go easy on Mitch (only Pink honors that promise). While Pink’s fellow teammates may conform to the jock stereotype more easily (they enthusiastically paddle students, and while they agree with Pink the pledge is bullshit, and don’t plan on following it, they have no problem signing it), only O’Bannion (Ben Affleck) seems like he’s from an 80’s teen movie; also, except for Mitch and his friends (O’Bannion is the most enthusiastic about paddling freshmen), everyone seems to regard him as an annoyance (he got left behind a year) than anything else, and he gets his comeuppance.
O’Bannion (Ben Affleck) catches Carl (Esteban Powell) and Mitch (Wiley Wiggins) just before they can get away safely.
Those subplots may make Linklater’s film sound more plot-driven than it really is – others include Pink briefly straying away from his girlfriend Simone (Joey Lauren Adams) to try and hook up with Jodi, Tony developing an attraction to Sabrina (Christin Hinojosa), one of Mitch’s classmates, and everyone looking for a place to have a party after Pickford’s (Shawn Andrews) parents decide not to go away for the weekend after all (the keg delivery man showed up too early) until Wooderson (Matthew McConaughey), a Lee High graduate who’s friends with the others, suggests the moon tower – but whereas an 80’s teen movie might have ratcheted up the melodrama, Linklater keeps a lighter hand on the material. Mitch recovers from being paddled and goes out with Pink and the others later (as Pink correctly predicts, the fact Mitch shrugs it off to go out goes down well with everybody), and while there are a couple of close scrapes (Don, Mitch and Pickford, among others, are chased down by an irate homeowner after they knocked down his mailbox), it all ends well for Mitch; he ends up getting to make out with Julie (Catherine Morris), a friend of his sister’s, and even though he stays out all night, his normally strict mother grants him a reprieve. Sabrina, meanwhile, defies Darla (Parker Posey), who led the hazing of the girls – by not doing an air-raid drill at the party (Tony encourages Sabrina to rebel), and while Darla promises to make Sabrina’s freshman year “a living hell”, that’s in the future. Finally, while Mike gets humiliated by Clint (Nicky Katt), a townie who takes exception to Mike’s “observation” that he’s smoking pot (“Who are you, Isaac Fucking Newton?”), and even gets into a fight with him later, he doesn’t get too badly hurt.
Many critics at the time compared Linklater’s film to George Lucas’ American Graffiti, since they both take place over the course of a night (and early morning), both are dominated by the hits of the time (among Dazed and Confused‘s choice cuts are Aerosmith’s “Sweet Emotion” (which plays over the opening credits), Head East’s “There’s Never Been Any Reason” (which plays as Wooderson brags about his car to Clint), and Foghat’s “Slow Ride” (which plays in the pool hall and over the closing credits); Linklater originally wanted Led Zeppelin’s “Rock-n-Roll” for the end credits, but Robert Plant vetoed the idea), both of them use those hits in lieu of a traditional score, and both are ensemble teen coming of age stories. Yet Linklater’s film is closer in spirit to Barry Levinson’s Diner than to Lucas’ film. Levinson’s movie, it’s true, covers a longer period of time (one week), is about older characters (one of them is married already, one is getting married, though he has misgivings, and one wants to marry a woman he got pregnant), has a narrower focus (like American Graffiti, there’s only about six or seven major characters), and a different style of humor. But Linklater and Levinson both take an unsentimental approach to the time period and a non-judgmental approach to the characters, and both are about the small details rather than making some kind of generational statement (though Linklater does nod towards that a couple of times; Cynthia (Marissa Ribisi), who’s friends with Mike and Tony, thinks that while the 60’s were cool, the 70’s suck, and she guesses the 80’s will be cool, while Pink grouses near the end, “If I ever start referring to these as the best times of my life, remind me to kill myself”, and Don’s rejoinder is that he just wants to know he did the best he could while “stuck in this place”).
Another tag Linklater’s movie gets labeled with is that it’s a stoner movie. Certainly, if you watched the trailer and saw the movie’s poster (with the tagline “See it with a bud!”), you’d be forgiven for thinking that. And yes, a number of the characters in the movie are seen either getting drunk or getting high, and Slater in particular is given to free-form monologues reflecting his state of mind (particularly his celebrated riff on George and Martha Washington), though, as Anthony Lane pointed out in his rave review of the film, Slater talks this way because he thinks everyone else is stoned. But the thing is, this isn’t like a Cheech or Chong movie, where characters are making jokes about how the world is from the perspective of someone getting high (though we hear Slater being skeptical about John Bonham’s ability to play long drum solos while stoned). And while the movie does capture how dead life seems to some of the teens at the time, Linklater’s not trying to make some kind of grand statement about kids taking drugs (or drinking) to escape (the closest we get to that is Mike telling Tony and Cynthia they all need some visceral experience in their lives). They drink and smoke pot because it’s there, and as with the rest of the scenes in the movie, Linklater portrays this in a naturalistic way.
That naturalism extends to the cast as well, which was put together by Linklater and casting director Don Phillips, who worked on Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and as with that movie, put together people who weren’t well known at the time but have since become famous today (ironically, two of the biggest names to come out of the movie are barely in it; Renee Zellweger can be glimpsed briefly in the opening credits with Posey and Burke, and while Milla Jovovich has a supporting role as Pickford’s girlfriend, she has almost no dialogue). Affleck has what’s probably the most cartoonish role in the movie, but he plays it with gusto, and doesn’t neglect the comedy either. McConaughey has been making a comeback as of later after coasting for far too long, and revisiting this film, you see the talent was there all along, as he slips right into Wooderson’s skin and holds the camera every time he’s on screen. Wiggins doesn’t really carry himself like an athlete (and Linklater needed a double for the pitching scenes), but in every other way, he’s right as someone who’s more poised than he seems. Cochrane and Posey make you laugh every time they appear on screen, as does Goldberg in the classic role of the misanthrope who nevertheless desperately wants to fit in (as in the classic scene where he declares he doesn’t want to be a lawyer defending the oppressed, and when Tony asks what he wants to do instead, declares, “I wanna dance”). And Burke and Ribisi, playing the relatively “nice” characters, are able to exude sweetness without making their characters insufferable. Oddly enough, the one actor I thought was going to have the biggest career after this movie was London (thanks to this and another naturalistic performance in 1991’s The Man in the Moon). Unlike Wiggins, he carries himself like an athlete, yet he also lets you see the brain and sensitivity underneath (so you believe, for example, he’d be the only one to spare Mitch). This is the one connection to Lucas, as whom London reminded me of most here was Paul Le Mat, who appeared in American Graffiti (as well as two of Jonathan Demme’s best movies, Citizen’s Band and Melvin and Howard); London doesn’t who Le Mat’s intensity, but he is just as natural, and as good-natured. Even though Dazed and Confused tries to strip away nostalgia for the 70’s, and doesn’t trade in on the kitsch of the decade (which That 70’s Show, the Fox sitcom that wouldn’t exist without Linklater’s film, completely does), there’s a similar good nature about the movie that, even today, makes it enjoyable to revisit (Quentin Tarantino has called it one of his favorite movies because of all the characters to “hang out” with, and it’s easy to see why), even if you were never like this as a teen.
Ruby (Allison Judd) revisiting an old memory with Rochelle (Allison Dean).
More than ever, it’s harder for a lead actress to sustain a career in film these days (which is why many of a certain age – 40 or over, maybe even 35 or over – have made the movie to TV or web series). The sexism of the major studios, the media, many fans, and even the filmmakers themselves all make for a dearth of good roles for actresses (to be sure, TV has this problem as well, just not to the same extent). So it’s all too normal for an actress who may show a lot of promise early on in their career to be unable to find the roles that make good on that promise. It’s especially sad, from my point of view, when it comes to Ashley Judd. While she had done work on TV (a two-episode guest spot on Star Trek: The Next Generation and a recurring role on Sisters), she was still best known as the daughter of country singer Naomi Judd and the sister of country singer Wynonna Judd when she landed the title role in Ruby in Paradise. But in Nunez’s film, Judd showed the assurance, poise and emotional depth of someone much more experienced, and gave one of the best performances by a lead actress that year (and 1993 was a *very* good year for lead actresses).
As the film begins, Ruby Lee Gissing flees her home in Tennessee (for unknown reasons, though we gather things went bad when her mother died), and ends up in Panama City, a resort town Ruby once visited when she was 10 (it was her idea of paradise, hence the movie’s title). She comes at a slow time for the town, which does its best during spring break, but Ruby manages to convince Mildred Chambers (Dorothy Lyman), who runs a souvenir/beach wear store (called Chambers Emporium) to hire her anyway (Ruby says, “I work real cheap”, and Mildred later admits she saw a fired in Ruby that she liked). Along with all the other duties she assigns Ruby – she’s a cashier, and also does inventory, pricing, and helping to set up the store – Mildred has one firm rule; Ruby is to avoid going out with Mildred’s son Ricky (Bentley Mitchum), who occasionally helps out at the store but is more interested in his own deals (real estate). Ruby has every intention of following this rule, but when Mildred goes away for a week on business and Ricky – who has a roguish charm and roving eye – dares her to go out with him, she finally gives in. They go out dancing, and Ruby even goes to bed with Ricky a couple of times, but when Ruby discovers she’s not the only notch in Ricky’s belt (he gives her a Walkman as a present – “to help while away those lonely nights” – and after sleeping with him the second and last time, she discovers a drawer full of them), she breaks it off.
Despite this temporary indiscretion, Ruby’s able to stay out of trouble at first. She remains friends with Rochelle (Allison Dean), the young woman she replaced at the store (Rochelle’s gone to college, though not far away). She makes friends with Debrah Ann (Betsy Douds), her neighbor in a mobile home community. And Ruby even ends up in a relationship with Mike (Todd Field), who sells plants. Mike may be snobbish – when they go see a sci-fi movie, he can only talk about how dumb it was, while she enjoyed herself – but he treats Ruby well, and seems as interested in her mind as her body (he lends her Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, and they even talk about it). Plus, Mildred, who’s tough but fair, grows to like Ruby, giving her more responsibility, and even taking her along to a yearly convention. Unfortunately, Ricky is not to be put off, and when she comes back from that convention, Ruby finds Ricky waiting outside her home. Drunk, he tries to force himself on her, and when she manages to fight him off, he calls her a “tease” and tells her not to bother to come into work the next day. Unfortunately, the job market is even worse than it was when Mildred hired her, and she gets turned down several times. Ruby even briefly considers getting a job as a stripper, but comes to her senses. The best she can do is a job folding laundry.
Ruby shares a tender moment with Mike (Todd Field).
If I spend so much time talking about Ruby’s job, or her search for one, it’s because Nunez, unlike most Hollywood directors and studio executives, takes it seriously, considering it part of her character. Nunez understands the choices people make in that department may not be what they dreamt of, nor especially romantic, but it’s what they can live with. When Mike, who has a more jaundiced view of the world they live in, scoffs at Ruby’s job at the store and calls it part of “the selling game”, she replies, “At least it’s a game whose rules I understand.” And as the movie demonstrates, Ruby does understand those rules. While she’s not above doing other things during any down time at the store (we see her reading the Austen book until Ricky catches her at it and playfully warns her not to do so while his mother’s watching), she works hard, showing up on time (even being there before Ricky when he’s opening the store), and carrying herself in a professional manner. And while in Tampa for that convention she and Mildred go to, the two of them go to lunch, Ruby sees a woman around her age, professional dressed, at a business lunch of her own. Their eyes meet briefly, and the woman gives a courteous, if not exactly inviting, smile before turning back to her colleagues. Nunez doesn’t press the point, but it’s clear Ruby is impressed by the woman, and sees her as someone to possibly aspire to be. And after Ruby loses that job (temporarily), and has to fold laundry for a living, Nunez doesn’t romanticize the job or stereotype her co-workers (Felicia Hernandez and Wanda Barnes), making them tough but good humored.
Nunez fills a lot of the movie with Ruby’s narration, starting about 15 minutes into the film, when she decides to keep a journal of her thoughts. Narration, or voice-over, is supposed to be a sign of bad writing in movies these days, but Nunez does limit it mostly to Ruby’s thoughts, and he doesn’t overdo it. And while it occasionally strains towards the poetic (in summing up Ricky, she recalls how she swerved her car one time to avoid hitting a rabbit, only to hit a skunk), Ruby’s thoughts are mostly straightforward, just like her approach to work and the rest of her life (when Mike goes on about the satirical nature of Austen’s writing, and asks what she thinks, Ruby replies, “It was a neat story”). Except for Mike, Rochelle and Debrah Ann, Ruby doesn’t seem to have a lot of friends, and except with Mike and lunch with Rochelle on occasion, she doesn’t seem to go out that often, but until Ricky forces her to quit her job, she seems to have become content with her place in the world. It’s expressed through Ruby’s narration, her interaction with others, and just the way she carries herself in her every day life. Even her one act outside the box – after she makes that discovery about Ricky, she goes around shoplifting various items, including clothes, CDs, and earrings – is dealt with in a no-nonsense manner; after she gets home and fully realizes what she’s done and why, she throws everything in a garbage bag, takes it to the dump, and throws it away, rationalizing people have done stupider things.
Before I get to Judd, I should mention the other actors are all fine as well. Field, who’s become known as much for being a director (In the Bedroom, Little Children), was a stalwart in indie movies (as well as the occasional studio movie – Eyes Wide Shut – and TV show (Once & Again)) in the 90’s, and it’s easy to see why; he’s a natural, unaffected presence. Mike obviously is dedicated to a lot of things, he’s got a sense of humor about himself, and, as I wrote before, he takes Ruby seriously, but there’s also something paternalistic about him, and Field isn’t afraid to bring that out. Mitchum, the grandson of Robert Mitchum, hasn’t done much outside of this film (previously, he had a small role in Reese Witherspoon’s breakout film The Man in the Moon, which, coincidentally, co-starred Jason London), which is too bad, as he’s also got a natural ease in front of the camera, and it’s easy to see why Ruby is both attracted and repelled by him. Lyman, who’s best known for her turn on the sitcom Mama’s Family, doesn’t play the businesswoman stereotype, but plays someone who’s smart and maybe a little guarded, but nice and also direct. And while Dean doesn’t have much to do, she does manage to do a lot with the stock “black best friend” role, and is an actress who can say a lot with just a look.
But the movie wouldn’t work as well without Judd. It’s true a major part of the movie, as I said, relies on Ruby’s narration, but it also depends on our reading her when she’s just looking at something or someone (the other major characters, an elderly man who goes fishing, or an Indian girl who cleans at the motel Ruby stays at early in the film, and in another mobile home near the end). Scenes like that depend on an actor who can let us into their thoughts and emotional state, and Judd nails that perfectly. And she makes the small gestures count as well; there’s a wonderful moment early on when Rochelle tells her how she and her boyfriend are planning to get married “and all that other good stuff, knock on wood.” After she says this, Rochelle takes a fist and gently taps it on her own head, and Ruby mimics the gesture and smiles back. It’s a lovely show of friendship, and there’s even a nice call back to it at the end. Even Judd’s one big emotional scene – after Ricky tries to force himself on Ruby – doesn’t come off as overplayed. It’s a masterful performance all around, and while, given the competition that year, and the fact indie films didn’t have the pull with the Academy they do now, I can understand why Judd was ignored at Oscar time, but it is a shame.
An even bigger shame, though, is what happened to Judd’s career after this. After a string of strong performances in supporting roles (Smoke, Heat) mixed in with lead roles in films that, while not successful, at least were interesting (Normal Life) or gave her visibility (Kiss the Girls). However, it seemed like, starting in the late 90’s with Double Jeopardy, she was giving herself to films that didn’t even have half a brain in them (in an interview around this time, she said the script of a film didn’t really matter; assuming she wasn’t misquoted, at best, this can be seen as ill-advised). Only High Crimes (a thriller that was somewhat ludicrous, but at least had some interesting characters and re-teamed her with Morgan Freeman), Frida (where she made a strong impression in a cameo) and especially Come Early Morning (where she played a character who could have been Ruby if she had been thoroughly beaten down by life) gave her roles anywhere commensurate of her talents. There was a rumor going around early this year that she was going to run for Senate (she declined to do so), and while that obviously speaks to her commitment to causes (feminism, funding for AIDS and for children of underdeveloped countries), I wonder if it wasn’t also due to frustration over the kind of movies she was doing. In interviews, Nunez said he wanted to do this movie to give an actress a three-dimensional role for a change. I hope we get more movies from Nunez, and I also hope Judd gets another role like Ruby Lee Gissing, because she deserves it.