1 Years, 100 Movies #62 American Graffiti (1973)

by Trey Hock on November 7, 2010

in 1 Year, 100 Movies,Columns

For 1 Year, 100 Movies, contributor/filmmaker Trey Hock is watching all of AFI’s 100 Years, 100 Movies list (compiled in 2007) in one year. His reactions to each film are recorded here twice a week until the year (and list) is up!

Before Richard Linklater revisited Austin during the 70s in “Dazed and Confused,” George Lucas took a look at a night in the summer of 1962, and set the standard for generational glimpse films with “American Graffiti.” Set in a time before the Beatles were heard in the states, before the Cuban Missile Crisis, before the escalation in Vietnam. This was a time, when college wasn’t a foregone conclusion, and having the fastest car with a working radio was all that mattered.

For George Lucas, the making of “American Graffiti” was a time of exploration. He was fresh from his master’s degree from USC, and his first feature, THX 1138, followed a slow progression into narrative from the non-character, non-narrative tone pieces he created in school. He couldn’t have been more perfectly poised to create a piece that gives a light touch to character and story in order to capture a time and a generation.

The story is so simple and straightforward that is summed up in this small scene after the opening credits conclude.

Simple and straightforward, sure, but that doesn’t mean that is not engaging. Two friends heading off to college, one is desperate for the change, the other is getting cold feet. There’s a girlfriend, who’s a year younger, an older guy, who’s stuck in the role of his youth, and a sweet overlooked misfit. This story is a story that most of us have played a part in.

But though most of us can relate to the story, it’s not entirely universal. It’s grounded in 1962 and follows the rules of the teenager in ’62. Cue AM radio as an ever-present soundtrack, and let’s cruise.

Here Curt (Richard Dreyfus), as he cruises with friend Steve (Ron Howard) and sister Laurie (Cindy Williams), sees a vision. This vision is the only vision possible for a young male in the early 6os, a beautiful blonde woman in a white thunderbird. Curt’s ambivalence towards college causes him to chase this glimpsed siren. He’s looking for a sign and she may lead him to one.

Steve and Laurie, after dropping off Curt to pursue his mystery woman, go to the dance. Their story is another common one. They’ve been together for a while, but Steve’s a year older and leaving for college. The planned breakup has already been hinted at, and yet they are members of the popular crowd, and have their courtly duties to attend. They must lead the snowball dance.

Cindy Williams rules. She’s able to move smoothly from presenting a face to her public, to calling out Steve on his lack of gusto, to finally succumbing to the reality of his inevitable departure. This is a sweet and touching scene, in part because most of us have been on one side or the other of this defining moment. And the scene is really beautiful. The lights keep flaring the lens and causing our main couple to fall into and out of a hazy fog of colored lights. This is a moment of sense memory and emotion, if the particular reality is blurred that’s how it should be.

While Curt chases his woman in white and Steve and Laurie stand on the brink of a crumbling high school romance, the night moves on. John (Paul Le Mat), the local townie rebel, who has stuck around to defend his street racing title and give grief to the local police, he has been tricked into driving around with Carol (Mackenzie Phillips), a young teen who is trying to act cooler than her few years allow.

The two take a break from cruising the strip and instead wander the local salvage yard, where John recounts races past. (Sound starts at 3 seconds.)

This is John’s graveyard, and there is a tone or tremor to his voice as he and Carol wander through. Even though Carol’s naïve exuberance claims otherwise, John knows that he can’t win forever.

Almost as soon as John and Carol are back in his yellow Deuce Coupe, the black ‘55 Chevy, that’s been looking for him, is on his tail.

Everything about this scene is magic, the cowboy hat wearing Bob Falfa (Harrison Ford), the insults thrown back and forth through car windows, Carol’s awkward jab, and John’s reflection after the race. Falfa’s recklessness troubles John, and hints at the showdown to come.

Each of the characters in “American Graffiti” is at a transitional moment. John knows he can’t hold on to his youth for much longer, Curt and Steve must decide between friends and places they know and the future that is elsewhere, Laurie looks to her Senior year without her friends, even Carol is flirting with a womanhood that is not yet hers. That’s what makes this film great. The simple story is its power, and culminates in a late scene between Curt and the local DJ.

We know that the DJ (Wolfman Jack) is and isn’t the Wolfman. The Wolfman, like Curt’s woman in white, is everywhere. They are both ideas. They are spirit guides, which lead Curt to his final decision. It’s a big beautiful world, and it’s time he got his head in gear. Curt has been so consumed with the huge picture that he’s missing it. He’s forgetting to just sit down and have Popsicle.

There’s a pretty awesome race, and a late night/early morning dedication that lead all involved to their resolutions, but “American Graffiti” feels less about well structured story (though it is well told) and more about capturing a moment in time.

“Dazed and Confused” is often more clever, but cleverness is a double edge sword, which can distract as well as engage. “American Graffiti” allows for its clever moments, but also gives the viewer the sleepy repetitive motion of cars moving along a main drag, and the conversations of teens, who talk of very little because they have no idea of what’s around the corner.

When in doubt, have a Popsicle.

Next on the list #61 “Sullivan’s Travels” (1941)

1 Year, 100 Movies #63 Cabaret (1972)

1 Year, 100 Movies #64 Network (1976)

1 Year, 100 Movies #65 The African Queen (1951)

1 Year, 100 Movies #66 Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

1 Year, 100 Movies #67 Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)

1 Year, 100 Movies #68 Unforgiven (1992)

1 Year, 100 Movies #69 Tootsie (1982)

For links to #70 – 79, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #70 A Clockwork Orange (1971)

For links to #80 – 89, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #80 The Apartment (1960)

For links to #90 – 100, click on 1 Year, 100 Movies #90 Swing Time (1936)

In addition to contributing to Scene-Stealers, Trey makes short films and teaches at the Kansas City Art Institute. Follow him here:

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Chris Weaver November 8, 2010 at 8:05 am

I always have problems with nostalgia in any art form. For some reason, AG is an exception. I think it’s because there was such a heavy sense of impending change – which made it as relevant to me when I first saw it when I was in high school as it did to my parents who lived through the same culture. Along with “Dazed and Confused” – I have to say “Nick and Nora’s Infinate Playlist” have both tapped into the AG ethos of liminal adolescence to standard.

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2 Streams of Whiskey November 8, 2010 at 9:01 am

I really like this movie and I like its soundtrack, even with the Wolfman Jack voiceovers that run over the beginnings of too many songs. It’s fascinating to watch this cast from the vantage point of today, knowing what we know about their subsequent careers.

I find it interesting that the gap between when this movie was made and when it’s set is only 11 years. A filmmaker today making a similar movie with a similar time difference would be making it about the youth of 1999, which doesn’t seem all that distant to me. Sort of like how it seems like there’s a world of difference between 1955 and 1985, but not as much difference between 1985 and 2015 (1.21 gigawatts!).

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3 Trey Hock November 12, 2010 at 11:45 am

Chris, I agree with you on nostalgia in art. It’s often employed to cover or fix a piece’s lack of emotion. American Graffiti is not really nostalgic. It just presenting a moment in time, and can therefore escape the pitfalls of say a Saturday Evening Post, which presents a synthetic, overly processed, and nostalgic picture of the Mid-century.

SoW, Run for it, Marty!

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