FILM / NEW RELEASES: The best daze of their lives: Sheila Johnston on teen pics, thrill pics and peeping-Tom pics. Plus the Alain Resnais / Alan Ayckbourn double act

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The Independent Culture
Dazed and Confused (18)

Director: Richard Linklater (US)

Clear and Present Danger (12)

Director: Phillip Noyce (US)

Peeping Tom (18)

Director: Michael Powell (UK)

Watching Dazed and Confused, you realise how solidly the baleful shade of John Hughes has settled upon the teenpic. In the late Seventies, being a pimply, horny adolescent was gross but a gas, with romps like National Lampoon's Animal House and Porky's. Then along came Hughes with encounter- group movies like Pretty in Pink and The Breakfast Club. At the time these films were praised for their insight and modernity, but each came wrapped in a pat little homily about growing up, accepting responsibility or learning to love who you are (Hughes' coarser, later work - Dennis and Baby's Day Out - has gone further, much further in this direction). Even recent Generation X spin-offs from Hollywood (Singles and Reality Bites) made being young, cute and unattached seem like a mighty hard slog. The closest teendom gets to being cool these days is in Wayne's World.

Richard Linklater's affectionate comedy makes adolescence fun again. Like Slacker, his quirky, no- budget first film, it observes the classic unities of time and place (if unconventional in almost every other manner). It's 1976, school's out and the kids pile into the streets itching to party. But the party is a bust, and so everyone spends the night cruising round aimlessly in their cars, listening to the radio, until they all come together with various legal and illegal stimulants for some unproductive social activity.

Linklater's film is certainly sceptical about these activities (at one point the director even detaches himself from them, and cranes the camera high above the teeming mob in a God's-eye overhead shot). But it's also celebratory: it savours all the silliness of youth, without needing to preach about it. In one sequence, you see that throwing trash cans at mailboxes is daft and pointless - but you also feel the adrenalin thrill, and when one victim later comes thundering up with a 'tampering with mailboxes is a felony offence]' you laugh along with the miscreants at the anally-retentive adult world.

Working with a significantly bigger budget (dollars 6m) than Slacker, Linklater has made a marginally more mainstream film: an ensemble drama with several dozen well- drawn and exceptionally well- played characters, and a number of parallel plot-strands. There are a couple of vague 'through-stories': the seniors go through the ancient ritual of thrashing and humiliating incoming freshmen; a high- school jock comes under pressure from his coach to sign a no-drugs pledge; and a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed junior (played by the delightfully named Wiley Wiggins) finds himself tagging along with his elders - if not betters - for his very first night on the tiles.

But the film contains only the barest bones of narrative resolution. The school bully gets his comeuppance; Wiggins staggers home stoned and happy; the athlete decides not to play ball with the authorities - the coach calls his friends a bunch of losers, which you know is true, but you also know that his decision to stick by them is absolutely the right one. There's a sombre undertone - 'If these are the best years of my life,' moans the jock tragi- comically, 'remind me to kill myself,' - and the future never looks bright. But for the most part, Dazed and Confused drifts along euphorically in a never-ending present of good mid-Seventies music (no punk, thankfully: that took a while longer to hit Linklater's native Texas where the film is set) and mood-enhancing drugs.

Narcotics occupy their traditional, villainous role in Clear and Present Danger, alongside a cartel of evil Colombian coke barons, with Harrison Ford, deploying his small and familiar repertoire of apologetic shrugs, hesitations and lopsided smiles, as Jack Ryan, the straight-arrow CIA agent on their trail. This, the third Tom Clancy adaptation - after The Hunt for Red October and Patriot Games - has slack moments (it runs well over two hours) but they are lifted by opulent set-pieces: the smart- bombing of a drugs lord's country seat, a spectacular, interminable shoot-out in a narrow Bogota alley, and an ingenious variant on that current Hollywood favourite, the scene in which the hero hacks into the enemy's computer.

The story is a tortured affair, but that might be down to the screen-writing alliance: it includes Steven Zaillian, the author of Schindler's List and Awakenings, and John Milius (Red Dawn, Apocalypse Now) - a curious and not altogether compatible combination of liberalism and right-radical gung-ho. On the one hand, the film seems set to map out a nice, tidy Manichean struggle between righteous Americans and swarthy Latins, of a kind seen in many a recent Hollywood movie.

On the other, Ryan is soon entrapped in a moral maze. The President (transparently modelled on Reagan - his jar of brightly coloured jellybeans glows like a beacon against the cold, almost monochrome tones of the Washington sequences) is a shifty, prevaricating, ill-informed customer. When he delivers the funeral oration for a much-decorated Vietnam vet, the sentimental patriotism is patently phoney. And Ryan's cold, reptilian CIA colleagues are no better: their machinations make America the secret villain of the piece. Ryan is, the script stresses insistently, the last boy scout, a lone beacon of probity in a tired and cynical country. The film works overtime at the end, and a little desperately - the recruiting of an amoral young sniper to Ryan's cause; the clenched-teeth determination of Ryan himself to pursue justice - to inject a last- minute note of hope into the proceedings.

Michael Powell's Peeping Tom, re-released this week in parallel with the Barbican's Powell and Pressburger retrospective, was one of the great films maudits of British cinema, crucified by critics on its first release in 1960, resurrected and glorified in the mid-Seventies as a misunderstood masterpiece. In it, a repressed young man impales women on the sharpened end of his camera tripod, filming them in their death agony - and all thanks to a nasty psychologist father (played by Powell himself) who frightened and filmed him as a little boy. The German actor Karl Bohm brings a note of diffident otherness to the central character (13 years later, Fassbinder was to use this actor, in a much more overtly sadistic role, in his television melodrama Martha).

I have an unease about this revival. For one thing, there's the nagging sense that Peeping Tom, chiming so nicely as it did with modish, mid-Seventies theories of voyeurism and psychoanalysis, might not have been over-rated in the first excited thrill of rediscovery. And then there's the insidious invitation to scorn those early critics, all blinded by their moral hysteria (it would be pleasant to think that we today could never be as mistaken about a movie, though I'm sure that one day we will). But Peeping Tom remains a fascinating, disquieting and very considerable film.

For details, see page 27

(Photograph omitted)