American Graffiti (1973)

*. It’s a commonplace to see Star Wars and Jaws as marking the end of an era, meaning the end of the New Hollywood chronicled by Peter Biskind in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. But maybe the end came earlier. American Graffiti was a huge box office success and it categorically rejects the darkness and seriousness of the creative golden age of American film in the early ’70s. In fact, I think you could even argue that it rejects the darkness and seriousness of Rebel Without a Cause (1955).
*. Friend and mentor Francis Ford Coppola, brought in to be a “name” producer, had advised George Lucas, who had been disappointed in the reception given THX 1138, to do something “warm and fuzzy.” That is to say, commercial. Lucas did not think this would be difficult.
*. This may make American Graffiti out to be a cynical production, but the shoe fits. This is, at least in some ways, how everyone saw the project at the time: as a turn against the New Hollywood and its late-Vietnam pessimism. So, pushing the setting back to 1962 (before the watershed moment of the Kennedy assassination) was a return to a state of innocence. The kids never get into any trouble (from the law, scary gangs, gun-wielding store owners, or even fiery car crashes) that they can’t walk away from. The only clouds in that otherwise brilliantly blue sky at the end would take the form of the gang’s yearbook notices.
*. It’s a movie that looks in two directions. It’s an ode to nostalgia, which is what audiences have always appreciated in it. But it also looks ahead in lots of obvious ways. The talent would all go on to gaudier things, and shortly. And other new directions were being marked out as well.
*. This was a groundbreaking film. Its use of a playlist soundtrack to create a sort of musical montage, and the presentation of a milieu rather than a story, was in advance of Altman’s Nashville. It’s just that Altman had characters and here we only have stereotypes: the muscled rocker who is king of the strip, the cool kid (Richard Howard as the Big Man on Campus), the nerd, the dreamer, the good girl and the slutty girl with a heart of a gold. We’re not too far advanced from the pages of Archie comics here, or the soon-to-debut Happy Days.
*. Apparently the budget for the music was $80,000, which strikes me as very low. It would be inconceivable for a low-budget film to get together a soundtrack like this today. And even though I’m not a big fan, I think it sounds great.
*. But you’ll have probably guessed by now that I don’t like the movie much. Perhaps it’s just because the milieu in question is so alien to my own childhood. I didn’t grow up near anyplace like Modesto, and I’ve never cared about cars. I never engaged in the kind of mating rituals that so fascinated Lucas. So the nostalgia factor doesn’t work for me.
*. More than that, the movie looks muddy and seems almost randomly assembled. On a few occasions I had the feeling that important connecting scenes had been lost when Lucas cut it down from its original 3 hours. Worse, I find the reaching for some more profound or mythic significance a bit lame. Suzanne Somers in a white T-Bird is the unattainable blonde idealized by the romantic hero who is about to begin his journey, while “the the “solemn endnotes about the destiny of the four young men are superficial and pompous, and filled with the wish to keep pain at arm’s length” (David Thomson, who considered this to be the best film Lucas ever made).
*. The endnotes and the blonde in the T-Bird also have another meaning. Lucas has often been taken to task for not really understanding women or relationships. He’s not misogynist (or at least I don’t know of that charge being made) but he just isn’t interested in women very much. So the blonde will remain unattainable and another page of endnotes telling us whatever happened to the female leads was cut because Lucas thought it just made the movie too long.
*. Though I think American Graffiti overrated it’s easy to understand what its many fans see in it. It’s a movie that was designed to charm and not to offend. There’s lots of terrific music and likeable young actors who embody the freedom of youth, a time when one’s actions hold no consequences and there’s nothing much to do but drive up and down the strip all night long.
*. A good time, and a favourite of many, but a great movie? Its mythic evocation of a time and place has by now replaced the reality, or has become more important than the reality, but despite all the talent involved on both sides of the camera I have a hard time pointing to anything about the film that impresses me, or that strikes me as particularly well done. Lucas, like a lot of super-popular entertainers, had the same need as the public apparently did for this kind of story, and so was able to make popular culture over in his own mental image of what it should be. We’re still living with the consequences of that.

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