Golden Celluloid – 5/23/2012

American Graffiti (1973)

Directed by George Lucas (Universal Pictures)

Before George Lucas spawned the spectacular Star Wars franchise in 1977, which arguably shifted American cinema from New Wave-style art films to narrative-driven blockbusters, he crafted one the finest movies ever made about teenagers – American Graffiti. It is a shame that once the pop culture sensationalism of Star Wars took the country by storm, Lucas abandoned his filmmaking potential, not only failing to reverse the trend he began, but never again utilizing such behind-the-camera talent for anything but his game-changing, science-fiction franchise.

 

The story: “Where were you in ’62?” reads the tagline of American Graffiti, a film about a group of high school graduates and their last night of summer, set in Modesto, California during that very year. Curt (Richard Dreyfuss), has recently obtained a scholarship for college, yet he can’t help but wish life would slow down; in fact, he is considering not going at all. Meanwhile, his buddy Steve (Ron Howard) is gung-ho about going away to school, yet thinks he may have to break up with the girl he loves, Curt’s sister (Cindy Williams).

Along for the ride are their friends John (Paul Le Mat) and Toad (Charles Martin Smith), in addition to assorted characters that include a local speed demon who hopes to rival John, played by Harrison Ford. And of course, there is that girl (Suzanne Somers) cruising around town in a ’56 Thunderbird; the one who Curt wonders if he has seen before, thinks he loves, and desperately hopes to find before he makes his fateful decision.

 

Why you should see it: George Lucas made a film that not only captures a specific time and place with the accuracy of a historical artifact (the cars, the costumes, the dialogue, Mel’s Drive In, and good ol’ rock ‘n’ roll), but also functions as a relatable tale for teenagers of any generation. Co-produced by Lucas’s friend and fellow filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola, and co-written by Lucas himself, the free-form (and at the time, avant-garde) style of American Graffiti, now developed into the so-called “hang-out” genre, would be utilized by other filmmakers to make similarly accomplished teen films, namely those directed by Richard Linklater (Slacker, Dazed and Confused).

Yet it all began with Lucas, and what an incredible job he has done of recreating this cultural period in American history, while also allowing his audience to emphasize with a colorful cast of characters, those who they are likely to know in their own lives (or those they did know in high school). No matter what decade you call your own, those days will come rushing back, and the emotion of those feeling just as strong in your heart.

It’s all a bit of nostalgic fun, but also operates as a bittersweet story of innocence, and remarkably enough, a serious, societal examination. American Graffiti is even more relevant today, as modern society grapples with such moral issues as abortion, gay marriage, protests on Wall Street, health care, and the ever-present topic of war, it touches us to remember a time when staying or going, getting/keeping the girl, deciding whether or not to accept a dangerous challenge, or snagging some booze for the night were the most important things in a very small world.

It soon becomes obvious why Curt and Steve begin to reverse their opinions about leaving town; sometimes we have responsibilities tied to where we come from, people who simply need us to be with them. In other situations, we require the nerve to break out of our complacent lifestyles, and explore options that are offered outside of the society we have been born into. Some dreams are meant to be chased, others left behind. It all depends on where they lie. But in whatever situation these characters find themselves in, it soon occurs to them that they will not be young forever. Innocence is lost, and no matter how hard the simplest decision may be, each is one step closer toward growing up.

As for the topic of innocence, American Graffiti‘s historical context places it directly before one of the country’s darkest periods, that of war, assassination, and counterculture; far different from the “wholesome” childhood these kids have likely received. The decisions that would be made in the mid to late ’60s would be far greater than those that any of these teens have been pressured to make, and their consequences would be a matter of life or death. This is an eternal story, but the ’62 setting makes our characters’ feelings seem so much more delicate; many moments are hilarious, some are sad, the film breaks your heart, but in many ways, is quite uplifting. These are all terrific performances, and it puts a smile on your face to think of Dreyfuss, Howard, or Ford as unknowns, which they surely were 1973. And when set to the tunes of Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, the Beach Boys, and many others, the effect is sublime.

Like Curt, we are ultimately left with that vision of a white Thunderbird, and an angel sitting inside. These characters are lost, but when confronted with a choice that may affect the rest of their lives, are somehow able to detect the beauty that may be waiting for them if the right path is chosen. In any case, some portion of present/future happiness must be sacrificed. With an equal quotient of intelligence and hope, we all hold onto the great dream that if we reflect deeply, and realize that what is easy (or what we currently desire) may not always be right, we will make happiness for ourselves. The angel, while ever elusive, has another benefit aside from her looks, or at the very least, one we can always imagine. She’s willing to wait.

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