AMERICAN GRAFFITI, 1973
Two High School graduates plan to make their last small town summer night one to remember.
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George Lucas films are never usually described as romantic. There are always chases, high energy, and comedy to be found but I also see a good deal of love in his films. A love, not so much for people, but for times; for places – his films are in love with eras. He’s not in love with nostalgia (which critics, like Pauline Kael, would accuse) but in love with strange, yet realistic worlds. Happy Days is a nostalgic, hearts & flowers, past - which celebrates the good times and down plays the bad times. American Graffiti is just as invested in the hardships of being young as it is with the beautiful benefits of youth. It’s the commitment to realism that makes American Graffiti one of the most daring and entertaining American movies of the past forty years.
Curt (Dreyfuss) and Steve (Howard) are not planning much of anything for their last night before going off to college. Just some cruising, revisiting old hangouts, eating fast food at Mel’s drive-in diner, and other little things in between. Both boys struggle with the concept of leaving home and by the end, after much soul searching and mind changing, both boys decide where their future lies. The film starts with the boys and their friends then breaks off into four inter-cut stories until finally reuniting all the characters in the film’s final moments. Sharing the experience of Steve and Curt are a younger friend, Terry, and older friend, John. Terry, still in high school, is awkward and insecure - likely how Curt and Steve used to be. John is in his early 20’s and, while he’s still respected by the boys, he’s exactly what they’re afraid of becoming if they never leave town. When Curt has doubts about leaving town, Steve uses John’s life as an example. “You just can’t stay seventeen forever.”
There is also a Godlike aspect to the film in the character of the DJ, Wolfman Jack. His voice, his music, narrates the journey of all the characters – he’s the spirit or “Force” of the stories, like the choruses of the early Grecian dramas. Interestingly, only one of the characters meets Wolfman face to face, and he’s surprisingly nothing like the various legends tell – so much that the character doesn’t even realize they have met till after he leaves the radio station. It’s the “Man behind the curtain” moment from Wizard of Oz – but instead of bright lights and pyrotechnics – Wolfman’s all powerful magic is wielded through a tape-deck and AM transmitter.
The boys each encounter four vastly different women – Steve wants to keep his pretentious relationship with his high school sweetheart, Laurie, alive; Terry encounters dream girl, Debbie, who is way out of his league but just so happens to be fed up with the Bad Boys; John is stuck babysitting 13 year old Carol when she is stranded by her older sister; and Curt spends his night chasing the mysterious Blonde in the White Thunderbird. The four men learn extremely pivotal lessons from these women. Steve only realizes how much he loves Laurie when a drag racer tries to steal her away; Debbie extinguishes Terry’s raging fires of Geekdom before sunrise; Carol teaches John to be responsible while giving him the wide eyed, hero worship, he had been denied for years; but it is Curt’s Blonde in the White T-bird that may be the most fascinating. She knows him – she loves him – but he has no idea who she is. He follows her all over town, all night long, without ever learning her name. Curt is not so much looking for her as much as he’s looking for an answer. He’s searching for someone to help him decide if he should leave home or not. Ultimately, this proves to be something he must decide for himself.
The last night of summer can’t last forever. As the sun rises on Modesto California, one boy decides to stay while the other decides to leave. The film ends with a brilliant epilogue - explaining the future of the four boys - and it is a perfect cinematic exclamation point to truly unique movie experience. It’s one of those endings you have to re-watch a few times because it hits you so hard – like the last line of a great poem. American Graffiti tends to get overshadowed by Lucas’ follow-up project, Star Wars, but I can’t think of any film (even the blockbusters of the past 30 plus years) one-upping Star Wars for universal appreciation. For me, though, I find American Graffiti and its amazing, underrated, sequel in good company with that Galaxy Far, Far Away.