Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Director Report Card: George Lucas (1973)

2. American Graffiti

Following the audience indifference that faced “THX 1138,” Francis Ford Coppola encouraged George Lucas to write something more commercial. Seeking inspiration in his teenage days of cruising his car down the streets of Modesto, California, Lucas decided to make a nostalgic, slice-of-life story. After a lengthy pre-production – which almost had the movie being produced by American International Pictures as an exploitation flick – “American Graffiti” was released with little financial expectations. Despite the lack of promotion, the film would turn into a huge hit, becoming one of the highest grossing films of the year and being nominated for several Academy awards. Not only is “American Graffiti” one of the defining hits of the seventies, it also afforded Lucas a chance to make a little space opera he had been working on.

The time is August, 1962. The place is Modesto, California. Curt and his friends have graduated high school the month before. Curt has received a college scholarship but is uncertain if he wants to attend. Steve and Laurie’s relationship reaches a crossroad. Terry the Toad, who is taking care of Curt’s car while he’s gone, picks up a care-free girl and has a wild night with her. Street racer John gets saddled with a friend’s little sister, while looking for a mysterious new racer who wants to challenge him. Over the course of the night, all the teenagers find some sort of resolution or another to their dilemmas.

They say every generation is nostalgic for their childhood. The culture had changed a lot by 1973. During a time defined by war, racial tension, and upheaval, a lot of people looked back on a time they perceived as simpler. “American Graffiti” was part of the same nostalgia wave that produced Sha Na Na and similarly themed films like “The Lords of Flatbrush.” “American Graffiti” isn’t just nostalgic for the early sixties. The characters are nostalgic for a time in their lives when things were simpler. Though the film is equal parts funny and dramatic, an air of meloncholey hangs over the entire story. Lucas made a movie about a time that no longer existed. The characters seem aware of this too, all of them sensing that their lives are soon going to irreversibly change. Without being explicitly about it, “American Graffiti” comments on nostalgia, presenting it as neither a good thing or a bad thing but as a feeling everyone has always felt.

It’s also a simple slice-of-life story, presenting a handful of teens at a turning point in their lives. The first conflict we see is between Steve and Laurie. A perfectly wholesome couple, who even won Prom King and Queen, they are secretly splitting at the seams. Even before Steve declares that he wants to date other girls while he’s away at college, the two are obviously on edge. Though initially agreeing to Steve’s terms, Laurie soon begins to rebel, picking at him, starting fights, and refusing to make out. The teens’ dissolving relationship represents the changing times. If you’ll allow me to read too much into it, Laurie’s disobedience could even be a reference to the women’s lib movement that would soon emerge. Ron Howard is believably prickly as an entitled teenage boy without loosing his small town charm. Cindy Williams has a similarly down-to-earth charm as the rebelling girl.

“American Graffiti’s” popularity probably has less to do with its deeper meanings and more to do with its laid back tone, which is full of humor and fun. Look no further then the adventure Curt goes on during the night. After paling around with some female friends for a while, and even getting some necking time in the back seat, he winds up with a group of lowlifes. The Pharaohs look like your stereotypical greasers but are far less wholesome then the homogenized, pop culture conception. The clean-cut Curt falling in with such a troublesome crowd is an image the movie gladly plays for laughs. Curt unknowingly distracts the owners of a local drive-in, also members of the Moose lodge, while his unexpected new friends drain the change from the pinball machines. Later, Curt is talked into tying a chain to the axle of a police car, the vehicle pulling itself apart later when it tries to drive away. It’s all pretty funny and Richard Dreyfus employs his typically nervous style to good effect.

Curt’s nighttime adventure has a purpose though. While driving around, a beautiful blonde woman mouths to him “I love you.” He spends the rest of the film on her trail, desperately trying to find this mysterious woman before he leaves the next day. Whether or not he stays in his home town seems dependent on if he can find this dream woman. A scene that was written but never shot would have revealed that Curt’s dream woman is a fantasy that doesn’t exist. This scene proved ultimately unnecessary. The impossible woman ties into Curt’s search for meaning. He’s ambivalent to pursue college because he’s tired of other people directing his life. Ultimately, he can’t find the woman and goes to college anyway. Curt’s journey seems to speak to a generation desperately searching for deeper meaning who still wind up doing what their parents did.

Stepping away from subtext, John Milner’s subplot is the movie at its most naturalistic. John has a tough exterior. He’s a motorhead, who drives the strip in a chopped up speedster. He wears short white shirts with a pack of cigarettes shoved up the one sleeve. Despite occasional claims to the title, John isn’t really a tough guy. If anything, he’s very anxious about loosing his position as the cool guy in town. When the new racer flips his car and looses the race, John claims the other guy almost had him beat. Like the other boys, he can feel a change coming. Like Curt, he’s anxious about what the future holds. Chipping away at John’s exterior is Carol, the teenage girl that goes riding with him through the movie. Most of their scenes are devoted solely to the two sitting in the car talking. Yet they're totally absorbing. Some of that is because of the easy-going chemistry between Paul le Mat and Mackenzie Phillips. Mostly, it’s the irresistible sight of a macho racer being brought down by a precocious teen girl. Le Mat projects a logical sensibility that seems to run counter to, yet somehow compliments, his status as a danger-seeking street racer. Mackenzie Phillips, meanwhile, is funny and charming as a carefree if moody teen girl.

The funniest storyline in “American Graffiti” concerns Toad’s desperate attempt to get laid. Toad is very much the stereotypical nerd. He wears thick-rimmed glasses, has no luck with the ladies, and carries himself with an obviously non-confident body language. Curt loans Toad his cool car, which the boy uses as an oppretunity to reinvent himself. He picks up Debbie, a lovely young lady with an adventurous attitude. Making up all sorts of ridiculous lies about himself, which the girl seemingly accepts, Toad builds himself up as a brave, sophisticated man of adventure. Watching this thrown-together persona crumble under the nights various stresses – attempting to get booze, witnessing a robbery, loosing the car, beaten up by thugs – provides plenty of humor. Despite being kind of pathetic, Charles Martin Smith is too earnest and believable to be unlikable. Candy Clark’s Debbie, meanwhile, is all effervescent joy and light-hearted sexiness. She’d rightfully earned an Oscar nomination for such an easy-going, unforgettable performance.

Connecting all the divergent plot points is one man. Or, rather, a voice. On the radio throughout the film is Wolfman Jack, those most iconic of all rock deejays. Most of the characters in the film listen in to his show at one point. A running gag shows the different character debating the nature of the Wolfman. Some think he broadcast from an airplane. Others think he’s black or Mexican. The speculation on the deejay’s identity shows how pop culture can connect people of different backgrounds. The eventual reveal of the Wolfman’s true identity – an unassuming radio guy eating popsicles – is one of the film’s most satisfying moments. Acting as something of a Greek chorus, Jack subtly comments on the story’s event while providing a narrative through line.

Something that connects seemingly all the kids in the film are cars. Lucas was inspired to write the film because of his teenage love of cruising. That is, teens driving their cars around aimlessly for fun, a luxury afforded by a time with much lower gas prices. The teens all seem to desire a car and a cool car is the greatest of status symbols. A cool car turns Toad from a nerd to someone who can pick up a girl. John undoubtedly has the coolest car, a ’32 Deuce Coupe hot rod. The film’s climax is the race between John and Harrison Ford’s Bob Falfa. The speed of the race, and the sudden crash that ends is, stand in stark contrast to the laid-back tone of most of the film.

Perhaps another reason the movie was so successful was due to its soundtrack. (The soundtrack album went triple platinum and was popular enough to spawn two follow-up releases.) Foregoing a traditional score, instead the entire film is backed by a constant soundtrack of fifties and sixties pop. Frequently, the music interacts with the film’s action, such as when the Silhouette’s “Get a Job” plays while John and Carol cover a car with shaving cream. Or when “Johnny B. Goode” introduces the Pharaohs. More often, the music provides energy, atmosphere, and context. “Rock Around the Block” sets the time and place perfectly. The eerie “The Stroll” adds a darker shade to the school hop. And the film somehow makes the Beach Boys’ “All Summer Long” sound sad, the end of summer coinciding with the end of a chapter in the characters’ lives.

As the film concludes, “American Graffiti” tacks on a final post-script. As Dreyfus’ character flies away towards an uncertain future, the audience finds out the fates of most of the main characters. Curt becomes a writer, Steve a used car salesman. Shockingly, John is killed by a drunk driver and Toad is presumed dead in Vietnam. Those final seconds adds a completely new context to everything we just watched. Not only are these characters’ lives changing, some of them will be over much sooner than expected. Now, a single night in August takes on a new, eerie importance.

Considering the films he would become known for, “American Graffiti” is character-oriented and aware of its location and history. Yet both this film and “Star Wars” have a few things in common. Both create a fully-formed world, fill it with an odd ensemble cast, and manages to imbue a simple story with a deeper resonance. And both films show that George Lucas had an uncanny ability to figure out what the public liked. In my mind, “American Graffiti” is easily Lucas’ best films, a study in nostalgia that manages to be powerful, funny, and melancholic in equal measures. [Grade: A]

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