Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Thursday, November 12, 2015

Recent Watches: More American Graffiti (1979)

Though George Lucas’ next film would inevitably overshadowed it, you can’t overlook that “American Graffiti” was a huge hit in its day. A film few people had any expectations for, it wound up becoming one of the highest grossing films of the year. “American Graffiti” isn’t the kind of movie that normally gets a sequel. After the enormous success of “Star Wars,” I suppose George Lucas could get any project he wanted made. Lucas didn’t write or direct “More American Graffiti,” instead handing it over an inexperienced comedy writer named Bill L. Norton. The sequel grossed only a fraction of its predecessor, was critically shrugged at, and continues to be overlooked.

Beginning two years after the events of “American Graffiti,” the film follows most of the same characters over the course of four different New Year Eves. At the end of 1964, John Milner struggles to win a local drag race. In 1965, Terry toils as a soldier in Vietnam, desperate to go home and mistreated by his superior officers. In 1966, Steve and Laurie’s marriage has hit a bump after she requests to get a job. A series of coincidences sees the two involved in the student protests of the war. In 1967, Debbie is living among hippies in San Francisco. The film cuts between the four days, showing how far the characters and the world had come throughout the tumultuous second half of the decade.

This VHS box is slightly misleading.
“More American Graffiti” is a much darker story then the original. The first film was a simplistic coming-of-age story, built upon nostalgia for a simpler age. By the time, “More American Graffiti” is set, that simpler age has passed. Vietnam, the student protest, women’s lib, and the drug culture are all issues discussed in the film. Even the story set closest to the first film’s period has a dark cloud floating over it. In 1964, John Milner hangs out with many of his friends, Steve and Laurie just married, Terry about to be deployed. He spends the day trying to score with a hot Icelandic girl that speaks no English and trying to best his rivals on the drag stripe. It’s a funny, sweet story built around Paul Le Mat’s easy, laid-back charm and his ability to mine complexity out of simple writing. However, viewers of the first movie know that John is killed by a drunk driver that night. As he drives home, he looks forward to the next day, to his date with the girl and winning more races. These things will never happen, his promising young life cut short. It cast a normal day for him in a sadder, more serious shade.

The sequel is more ambitious in terms of story too. Instead of covering the events of one night, “More American Graffiti” is spread over four time periods. The four days are distinguished with visual gimmicks. Toad’s adventure in Vietnam is shot like grainy war footage. Steve and Laurie’s marital troubles appear like a TV movie. Debbie’s hippy troubles are shot through multiple frames, a style patterned after “Woodstock.” It’s an interesting visual shorthand to tell the time periods apart. More often then not, it’s also rather distracting. Cutting between the different settings also means the film’s tone is constantly changing. The low-key character drama of John’s race day, Debbie’s hippy misadventures, the tragi-comedy of Toad’s time in Vietnam, and Steve and Laurie’s mostly serious student protest adventure don’t jive together in necessarily the best way.

Sticking the light-hearted “American Graffiti” cast in more serious settings leads to an uneven execution. Sticking Charles Martin Smith in the Vietnam certainly allows the actor to stretch his acting chops. His calm reaction to the a soldier’s sputtering, agonized death, while his more refined officer grows sick, certainly speaks to the character’s growth. However, there’s a problem with the 1965 sequence: “M*A*S*H” already existed. The film’s attempt at an irrelevant but respectful take on the horrors of the Vietnam War, even the specifics of a home-sick soldier bristling under his superiors, feels derivative of that landmark film. The conclusion is satisfying enough. The sequence, where Terry befriends one of the Pharaohs from the first film only to him suddenly shot down, is effective. However, the sequence doesn’t really say anything about Vietnam.

That’s kind of a problem all of “More American Grafitti” has. Unlike the original, which imbued a simple story with loads of meaning, the sequel struggles to find anything new or interesting to say about these important historical events. Look at the Steve and Laurie’s story line. It begins in a compelling place. Laurie wants to get a job, tried of being just a housewife. She leaves Steve in a lurch, the guy unable to take care of his kids on his own. She winds up involved with the student protest on the local college, thanks to her rebellious brother. There are good sequences here. Laurie shows solidarity with the students when she joins them in a sing-along. Steve bullshits some information out of a stoner, before similarly bullshitting his way onto the campus. His reaction to being treated like one of the protesters is amusing. Ron Howard and Cindy Williams actually give decent performances. However, if the protest story was ejected and the focus placed back on the actors, the segment would’ve worked better.

The sequel provides an example of this itself. The 1967 sequence has Debbie living among the hippy scene, eventually befriending a band of wacky musicians. Though there are passing references to the political scene of the time – an early moment has an uncredited Harrison Ford as an abusive cop – it mostly focuses on Debbie’s life. Candy Clark really gets to shine in the part. She maintains the flightiness that defined her character in the first film but now she’s noticing that flighty life-style maybe doesn’t work for her. It provides some solid supporting parts for a likable Scott Glenn and a more experienced Mackenzie Phillips. It leads to a truly satisfying conclusion, Clark choosing a new direction in her life. The movie even seemingly strips away its own visual gimmick, that being focused on less as the story progresses.

Richard Dreyfuss was the only major character from the first film not to return from the original. His absence is definitely felt. “More American Graffiti” certainly features some solid performances, funny moments, and some interesting ideas. However, it never collects into a satisfying whole. That “More American Graffiti” wouldn’t repeat the success of the original isn’t surprising. I can’t imagine people in 1979 had much nostalgia for the turbulent late sixties. George Lucas – who did some uncredited work on the picture – even declared the picture a failure. Director Bill L. Norton’s most notable feature after this one would be “Baby: Secret of the Lost Legend,” the filmmaker slipping into obscurity soon afterwards. I had never even heard of the sequel before I found a DVD double-pack of the two movies years ago. “Further American Graffiti” was not to be. While not really successful, and minor compared to the original, the sequel isn’t bad either. It has some intriguing elements and should be sought out by fans of the first picture. [7/10]

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