American Graffiti (1973, George Lucas)
!! CAUTION !!
This was a game changer for its verifiable creation of the wistful high school instant-nostalgia subgenre, which I don’t have to tell you has managed a stranglehold on mainstream Hollywood’s understanding of youth culture ever since; this isn’t entirely a bad thing since it means we can safely say that without American Graffiti, we wouldn’t have been given Fast Times at Ridgemont High. That’s a big deal in my world. But it was also an enabler, the reason George Lucas was able to do whatever the hell he’s been doing for the last forty years. So am I going to come out and say that we should curse American Graffiti since it begat the Star Wars monolith? No, but that’s beside the point — neither of these big contextual touchstones can put aside the feeling that this is not a particularly fun film to watch or basically to live through. Its dimly lit evocation of the last night in town for a quartet of horny dudes seems like an exorcising of demons for its director but it’s all so pat and cutesy — not much like real life, which creates an odd juxtaposition since it’s shot in some sort of a high-romance neorealist guise. Lucas lets these characters hold themselves up for such scrutiny, and then there’s not much there — but stranger yet is the claustrophobic atmosphere he generates. Some love this about the film and claim it hits home for their sense of longing for the period and for youth in general; I find it distancing, busy, and a mere distraction from a set of stories that are simply too vaguely conceived and obvious in execution.
For much of my life, since being exposed to it (like Lucas’ other two ’70s films) at a very young age, I’d remembered American Graffiti as a terrible movie. It’s not — really, I can see why someone would love it and sympathize completely with the dominant and divergent view. It was clear to me why the film’s structure and fixations would be charming and of considerable emotional importance to many; being extremely interested in this period and avenue of American culture myself, of the rock & roll cruising scene of the early ’60s, I’m certainly on board with that. So why on earth don’t I like this particular detailed and loving evocation of it? It’s not a story-driven film but a character-driven one, something I’d normally appreciate. We’re really here to spend time getting to know these people, really feeling as though we already know them. And there’s the crux: I frankly just don’t like these people, nor do I find them particularly “real,” and in a so-called hangout movie, that’s lethal. But it’s also partially a personal problem, mine more than the film’s. Not entirely, though.
Those characters are as follows: Ron Howard plays a college-bound young prick named Steve, in golden-couple mode with Cindy Williams’ Laurie, but Steve feels like with his about to leave town and all it’s time to break away from the serious relationship, sow a few wild oats; the exact stuff you’d expect to happen ensues, concluding with Steve and Cindy somewhat improbably realizing they belong together 4 life and eternity after she takes a joyride with Harrison Ford, because deciding to spend your life with a bucktoothed ginger (which I can say cause I am one) is definitely what a young girl does after she takes a joyride with Harrison Ford. Paul Le Mat is John, a big-stupid prototype for Ryan Gosling in Drive, sharing that character’s preoccupation with young children as a result of his accidental-on-purpose night of cruising around with ever-dangerous Mackenzie Phillips. Still with me? Charles Martin Smith is the gawking geek whose destiny thanks to a brief car loan is an unlikely tryst with the lovely Debbie (Candy Clark); his arc plays out, again, exactly how the geek-with-a-stroke-of-luck story always plays out in these movies and TV shows, including the ones (Freaks and Geeks, I’m looking at you) that should know better than to bandy about such tired wish fulfillment instead of challenging the traditional ideas about attraction and sexuality, but anyway. Lastly is Richard Dreyfuss, and all right, it’s in this avenue that I was somewhat won over this time — Dreyfuss is brilliant in his low-key role as a boy who doesn’t want to leave but does and sees an apparition driving about Modesto, giving him a purpose on this last night. The way this character, Curt, relates to the people around him and bounces around his former lives has a ring of truth the rest of the film does not. The film should have been about him.
Dreyfuss does most of the work on developing his character; the screenplay by Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck (later the, uh, geniuses behind Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Howard the Duck) doesn’t have the time to stretch or build on any of the basic tropes laid out by the premise and the archetypes involved. Only one of the four major stories in the movie really feels like more than a blip, a point A-to-B exercise. Curt’s journey out of his clique and into a mildly surreal flight of fancy is a bright idea — and occasions most of the film’s best and most felt, telling moments — but even it suffers from feeling unfinished. Its clear resolution is that Curt decides he must leave Modesto and go to college and start to grow up, but its desolate climax occurs in a phone booth when the woman he’s been pursuing asserts her existence and adds to her enigma. That’s romantic enough but it’s also a copout; perhaps American Graffiti suffers merely because so many of its ideas have passed into cliché and been expanded on by other movies. It’s maybe unfair to bring this up but I can’t help thinking of National Lampoon’s Vacation, which blatantly steals the thrust of Curt’s narrative. Chevy Chase in that film repeatedly sees a mysterious woman (Christie Brinkley), a stand-in for his own youth, in a sports car driving past him and the fixation transcends ogling into a near-obsession. But Vacation one-ups American Graffiti very simply by allowing Brinkley to meet Chase and become humanized. The result in that film’s case is a reinforcement of the Chase character’s marriage. If American Graffiti weren’t so busy trying to be The Film of the Teen Experience, it could have completed Curt’s arc in a satisfying and perceptive manner. But it’s too tied up with other matters and the conceit never changes from the Girl being an unreachable totem.
Can I say that I’d like the movie to be longer than its 108 minutes? No, I just wish it spent them differently. In addition to the limiting pratfalls of “vignette” cinema in general, these are just poorly realized assholes by and large. Maybe it’s just a mark of the changing times and/or my own squeamishness but I’m uncomfortable with the people I’m asked to feel sentimental about almost from the first moments. The four lead characters all come across as sexist, self-regarding, immature boys, which I suppose fits, but the perspective of a female voice not strictly tied to her desirability or supposed lack thereof is sorely missing in giving this movie some weight or sense of reality as an actual lived-in experience, instead of someone’s abstract cartoon of adolescence. Right out of the gate we’re getting remarks about “ugly girls” and plenty of rapiness-in-the-guise-of-courtship and the across-the-board normalization of relationship codependency. I understand that this is all meant to be a picture of a different time and that any authentic portrait of under-21ers is going to be full of deplorable and unsavory things, but there’s still something grossly unblanaced about this experienced rendered fully through the eyes of four quite arrogant young men, yeah?
Maybe it’s just me. About the only things I don’t have much sentimental interest in about America in the early ’60s are the open machismo and the damn cars, both of which are on full display. Lucas meant to enliven a period in his own life for the screen, and I’ve never had much doubt that Lucas is a well-meaning guy, just not much of a storyteller — so there’s lots of shorthand here. Compare The Last Picture Show, which captures a period without casting a glossy romantic haze around it, and you note just how much this amounts to sledgehammer nostalgia. As for the soundtrack, it’s pleasing enough (were kids still listening to the Cadence-era Everly Brothers that much in 1962?), though I’d imagine there is a shade of revisionism to the way the same radio station blares out from virtually every speaker, always emceed by the inexhaustible Wolfman Jack, Robert W. Smith — a genuinely good dude and a luminous figure in rock & roll for decades. (The happiest result of American Graffiti‘s success is that Jack got a cut of profits, and lived the rest of his too-short life comfortably.) There’s plenty of goodwill in my heart for the scene in which Curt encounters Jack face to face, and the latter crushes the young fan’s sense of mythology quite utterly — his is an unglamorous existence; the fridge is breaking down and he’s got sticky popsicle residue all over his hands, but he’ll try to help anyway. It’s a marvelously poignant and odd sequence that’s stuck with me ever since I first saw the film back in the late ’90s — unquestionably one of my favorite scenes in any movie I don’t actually dig.
Of course the artistry in the rock music being peddled throughout is arguably superior to that of the film itself, which sold lots of soundtrack albums. But again, so much of this is stuff that bugs me that may not bug you, that you may even flip for — the muddy nighttime photography courtesy of Jan D’Alquen, Ron Eveslage and so-called “visual consultant” Haskell Wexler just looks ugly and unnecessarily obscure to me, but many love it and point it up as the boldest artistic stroke in Lucas’ entire career. I honestly wish the film looked more like its magnificent poster, drawn by MAD’s Mort Drucker — so lively and overloaded like actual teenage life, not like the lethargic pining of this museum piece. Thus, with that semi-defense out of the way: one element of American Graffiti that I think is indefensibly ill-advised is Lucas’ maddening insertion of a written postscript just before the credits. It’s infuriating because he had a perfect moment: Richard Dreyfuss gazing longingly out the window and the welled-up mixture of triumph and sadness that permeates leaving the town you grew up in, bursting out in the anachronistic but perfectly-chosen Beach Boys tune “All Summer Long,” one of the most brilliant matches of end credit music to a film in history. But no, he has to spoil it with a spillage of gooey sentiment that plays on the impulsive preoccupations of the generation being targeted. One of the boys (Curt) went on to be a writer, of course, and of course married-in-advance Steve is working for the man as an insurance agent. John tugs at the ol’ strings by getting himself killed by a drunk just two years after the film takes place, and of fucking course the nerd goes missing in Vietnam. Vietnam, in case you’ve forgotten, was still happening when this film was made — was in fact a fixation of Lucas’, who planned to make “the” Vietnam movie, Apocalypse Now — and this practice of completely making up a character for the primarily purpose of killing him offscreen to be “relevant” strikes me as a baldfaced bit of manipulation that says a lot about Lucas’ cynicism for his audience’s playability.
If there’s one thing American Graffiti was most prophetic about, then, it’s the dominance of the Baby Boomers over the wider landscape of American culture in general — Lucas knew that his peers were soon to be turning into the new money and picking up those three-car garages and he probably even knew, as most of them didn’t, that they would spend the next forty years reminding us, repeatedly and unforgivingly, about how fucking magnificent their music and their “ideals” and their heroes were. That they are at least partially right is beside the point; it’s hard to see the good in something when it’s so frequently put on a pedestal. That’s why when I want to visit 1962, the film I watch is Joe Dante’s truly wonderful Matinee, ten times the movie this is just like Dante is ten times the director Lucas is. It bursts out of Graffiti‘s myopia, which only dares to conquer the larger world in a pithy and pathetic closing paragraph, with its dance atop the Cuban Missile Crisis. It views its time on the level of an actual kid with depth and flaws, it’s genuinely weird and funny, and like all of Dante’s films it’s conscious of its own strange power because it’s ultimately about movies. And at the end of it, I feel as if I’ve lived in a place and a story that was genuinely felt and carved out of something real. American Graffiti is mere cardboard by comparison.