Monday, November 5, 2012



Director: George Lucas
Screenplay: George Lucas, Gloria Katz & Willard Huyck

George Lucas’s “American Graffiti,” is about its time and place, the last weekend of the Summer of ’63. This sprawling multi-narrative  was made after his debut sci-fi film “THX 1183”, and before his legendary “Star Wars,” films, and maybe that’s appropriate consider how he’d spend practically the rest of his career creating images of the future, that he would take one last step into the past. (Although, technically “Star Wars” takes place in the past, so maybe he never left the past...?) Thankfully Lucas was smart enough to not let the characters in the film know that it was about nostalgia. With so many interesting subplots, I almost wonder if Lucas was influence by filmmakers like Robert Altman when he made “American Graffiti”.

Okay, here’s where I have to make my confession and if anybody wants confirmation of this, ask, pretty much anybody who went to high school with me. I first started wearing leather jackets because of ‘50s throwbacks like “Happy Days,” “Grease,” and this film, and I took a lot of crap for it then. That’s not why I’m writing on this film now though, but yes, I was heavily influenced for a time of this nostalgia era of the ‘70s that was basically invented by “American Graffiti”. 

This is the movie that reflects the last moment of American innocence for a generation. It takes place right on the last Saturday Night in summer of ’63 right before JFK was assassinated, before anybody ever heard of Vietnam, and before The Beatles, would cross the Atlantic. I make special note of the last one because the ‘50s classics that the film uses on the radio for the film are crucial to show the country’s innocence. The radio was always on back then, usually to Wolfman Jack. There’s only hints of that uncertain future for the country that’s yet to come. (It helped that the songs were mostly cheap; that's also why they couldn't afford Elvis songs though...)
Curt (Richard Dreyfuss) spends the entire night struggling to find the elusive girl in the White T-Bird (Suzanne Somers); it's the film’s most famous subplot but arguably the whole film is just guys trying to get the girl, trying to get rid of the girl, trying to get back together with the girl, and basically do anything they can think of so they don’t have to be stuck at home on a Saturday. At least that’s what’s on the surface. Curt’s frantic search for the girl in the t-bird is spurred on by his sudden meandering on his decision to go off to college, despite the fact that he just received scholarship money from the Moose Lodge. (It’s amazing to me that those lodges still exist) Steve and Laurie, (Ron Howard and Cindy Williams) are busy trying to consciously and/or subconsciously breakup as Steve is also heading off to college. The two funnier storylines involve Toad (Charles Martin Smith), the somewhat nerdy member of the clique whose been placed in charge of Steve’s car, and the numerous problems he suddenly develops with it that night, not in no small part to Debbie (Oscar-nominee Candy Clark), who is clearly out of Toad’s league, and is continuously manipulative. The other comic aside involves the local greaser John, (Paul Le Mat) as he spends the night somehow babysitting a rambunctious twelve-year old (Mackenzie Phillips), while trying to avoid a newcomer in town who’s out to challenge his drag racing title (Harrison Ford). 

When I was young, I watch the movie as a homage to the Americana tradition of cruisin’, and as a remembrance of the innocence and fragility of youth. Now, I see how Lucas was able to document a zeitgeist of a moment, ten years after the moment had ended, and it remains his strongest and most underappreciated film. I also understand why someone would make one last grasp at their old youth, but also recognize that even if the characters aren’t aware of their futures, the filmmakers do. The audience probably does to. They and we have knowledge and wisdom they don’t and shouldn’t have. 

The movie has spawned many imitators, most famously Richard Linklater’s “Dazed and Confused,” which took the structure of “American Graffiti,” but set the film in the ‘70s, while making it in the ‘90s, and instead of creating nostalgia, he created disillusionment. I’m a huge Linklater fan, but I always thought that film of his was overrated, possibly because I think it’s more fun to look into the past, and see joy, whether we were actually joyous or not. It’s not the overall that we remember anyway, it’s those briefs moments that actually stick into our mind, like the girl Mr. Bernstein talks about seeing that one time in “Citizen Kane”, or that girl in that elusive white t-bird. I wonder about what would’ve happened to Curt had the result of his search been different....

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