Thursday, March 25, 2021

American Graffiti


Director George Lucas on the set

Mackenzie Phillips

Charles Martin Smith

Left to right, Ron Howard, Candy Clark and Charles Martin Smith

Ron Howard and Cindy Williams in front of an Edsel

Richard Dreyfuss













































AMERICAN GRAFFITI                   A                                                                                           USA  (110 mi)  1973  ‘Scope  d:  George Lucas

I decided it was time to make a movie where people felt better coming out of the theater than when they went in.                                                                                                                        — George Lucas

Coming at a time when the Beatles had broken up, Brian Jones, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, and Jimi Hendrix were dead, and more importantly the Vietnam War, which had lingered for decades, giving rise to a 60’s counterculture, endless demonstrations, and all that political divisiveness, was nearly over with the signed Paris Peace Accords declaring a truce and restoring peace.  In fact, the film was released during the heart of the Watergate scandal.  Yet this film looks back to a different era when the Beatles released their first single, a period infused with optimism, where just on the horizon was the March on Washington and Martin Luther King’s I Had a Dream speech, but also the assassination of President Kennedy and the escalation of the Vietnam War.  Instead, recalling a time of innocence, we see car-hop waitresses on roller skates circle around the drive-in restaurant delivering orders on window trays to parked cars, a time when the nation was infatuated with the 50’s, an insulated world of conformity viewed by many as the last time it was fun to be young, largely because it preceded all the social change from the Civil Rights turmoil, the Black Panthers, the Vietnam War, the War on Poverty, gay rights, feminism, drug use, and the political assassinations of the 60’s.  One of America’s feelgood movies, it features a beautiful blend of cinematography, editing, and ensemble acting where the film is driven by dialogue and performances, as well as an omnipresent jukebox effect of nonstop musical hits.  Social issues and racial disparities were rarely visible or ever discussed, as the prevailing cultural view was a white homogenized picture of suburban happiness, where the American Dream was alive and well, and postwar America was a picture of prosperity and upward mobility.  While the influence of television portrayed a whitewashed view of America, where there was no civil strife to speak of, and everyone looked the same, this was really a depiction of a big lie, as minorities were simply absent from view, living segregated lives separate and apart from white society that the nationwide media typically ignored.  Apparently television, newspapers, and the motion picture industry pretended like minorities didn’t exist.  Similarly, many American communities were set apart from the urban sprawl where racial contention existed over desegregation and mandatory bussing, where small town life continued pretty much as it always had, beholden to certain rituals and longstanding traditions, seemingly stuck in simpler times, which this film reverently captures.  Released not long after Peter Bogdanovich’s scathing depiction of small town loneliness and isolation in the 50’s coming-of-age drama The Last Picture Show (1971), where the emergence of a strong, youth-oriented, rock ‘n’ roll soundtrack is a key cultural component, like Mike Nichols’ The Graduate (1967) or Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider (1969), produced by Francis Ford Coppola immediately after receiving all the accolades from THE GODFATHER (1972), where the phenomenal success of the film generated over $100 million dollars in its initial release, with Lucas joining Coppola as overnight millionaires, providing the finances needed for his continuing, decades-long STAR WARS (1977 to present) adventures, while spawning the nostalgia craze with the long-running TV knock-offs like Happy Days (1974-84) and Lavergne & Shirley (1976–83), which became household fixtures.  The son of an office supplies salesman and walnut farmer, Lucas, a real hot rod advocate, preferred tinkering with souped-up fast cars to school, where just days before his high school graduation he was involved in a serious racing accident that left him hospitalized with crushed lungs, causing him to re-evaluate a career on the racing circuit.  His interest in vintage cars led him to legendary cinematographer Haskell Wexler, another sports car enthusiast, who steered him into film school, with Wexler becoming a camera consultant on the film, providing the neon-lit aura that the director was looking for, almost entirely shot at night, featuring a courtship ritual taking place in small towns all across America on Friday and Saturday nights where luminously waxed and perfectly pristine vintage cars simply cruise up and down Main Street, where everyone drives around with their windows down shouting back and forth at each other, with teenagers, alone or in groups, in a perpetual search for members of the opposite sex to hook up with, kind of like bar-hopping without the booze, where the common thread was listening to 50’s music on the car radios hosted by Wolfman Jack, an all-consuming presence on the airwaves with a high-powered radio signal from Mexico that could be picked up across much of the United States, becoming a source of inspiration in the film and one of its true wonders.  Car culture simply defined American life, with guys inevitably showing off rebuilt hot rods designed for speed, ultimately leading to drag races on some isolated stretch of the highway. 

A road movie where the road leads nowhere, and a musical where no one sings, except on the radio, the prevailing structure of the film is a series of vigettes that showcase the last night of summer vacation before school starts up again, set in 1962, representing an end of an era, as the 50’s comes to a close in Modesto, California, a Central Valley town where the director grew up, among the most productive agricultural regions in the world, accounting for more than half the fruits and vegetables grown in the United States, yet released in 1973 when the era of the 60’s was ending.  Unlike other Lucas films, this one features some brilliant dialogue that provides unexpected resonance, where the husband and wife team of Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz introduce realistic language that captures the slang of the times, where the naturalistic tone is very refreshing, introducing extremely likeable characters that have become iconic figures in the American landscape.  Only Ron Howard (billed onscreen as Ronny, now a working director) as straight arrow, senior class President Steve Bolander, a recent high school graduate (driving a conventional white ’58 Chevy Impala), was the only known star, having appeared regularly on television since early childhood as Opie on The Andy Griffith Show (1960-68), though half a dozen others became immediately recognizable movie stars afterwards, including Steve’s insecure girlfriend Laurie (Cindy Williams, driving a ’58 Edsel, one of the most catastrophic failures in the history of the automobile industry), wearing his oversized letterman’s jacket, her more inquisitive brother Curt (Richard Dreyfuss, driving an unusual ’67 Citroën 2CV), with Steve and Curt planning to fly out East for college in the morning, but Curt is having second thoughts.  Charles Martin Smith is “The Toad,” the ultimate nerd and wannabe, where driving a car completely changes his persona, seen arriving at the drive-in on his Vespa scooter, only to crash it into a garbage can in a comic entrance, set to the music of Bill Haley’s Rock Around the Clock, American Graffiti 1973 -- OPENING TITLE SEQUENCE YouTube (1:56), a tribute to the first rock ‘n’ roll song played in the movies during Blackboard Jungle (1955).  Candy Clark plays Debbie (the only one nominated for an Academy Award), an offbeat Sandra Dee blonde mistaken for Connie Stevens by Toad, but it’s enough to generate an evening together, where the more things go disastrously wrong the more she seems to like it, while Suzanne Somers is the phantom blonde in the ’56 white T-bird who continually eludes Curt, emblematic of what he’s been missing all his life.  Paul Le Mat plays John Milner, a guy whose life revolves around cars, driving the most timeless car in the film, a ’32 chopped yellow highboy Ford 5 window deuce coupe with a ’57 Chevy rear end, (KIP'S AMERICAN GRAFFITI BLOG: THE CARS: '32 COUPE ...), the most popular hot rod of the era, where an eerie stroll through a graveyard of wrecked race cars actually reveals the highlights of his life, like an automotive boot hill, offering a dim glimpse into his own future, knowing his reign can’t last forever, yet taking on all comers when it comes to racing, currently driving the fastest car in the valley.  Like a gunslinger, his reputation precedes him, where guys from out of town wander in to challenge him, like Harrison Ford as Bob Falfa, driving a ’55 Chevy, an amalgam of hot rod and custom with a rebuilt engine, the same car used in Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), where the two avoid each other for most of the film, coming together for a climactic race near the end, with dramatic results.  When they do finally meet cruising down the boulevard, they spew trash talk at each other, where insults are only the warm-up for the real thing.  12-year old Mackenzie Phillips is Carol, who rides with a group of girls as they encounter Milner, where he welcomes them into his car, but she feels more like a consolation prize, too young and irritating, continually getting on his nerves, but they do produce one of the best scenes together, as she takes a water balloon to the face before both hilariously jump on the offending car while spraying the windows with shaving cream to the sounds of Johnny B. Goode, American Graffiti (5/10) Movie CLIP - Water Balloon Prank (1973) HD YouTube (2:16).  Featuring wall-to-wall music that was written into the story of the entire film, the eclectic choices are not the obvious, picking some real gems, like Booker T and the MG’s Green Onions as the cars arrive for the race, American Graffiti (10/10) Movie CLIP - Drag Race at Paradise Road (1973) HD YouTube (3:27), a nice change of pace from the surf music and doo-wop songs featured throughout.  There is some question how all the musical rights were obtained, as this is a sizeable chunk of the overall budget and would be an astronomical cost today, yet 10% of the $780,000 budget was used to secure the rights to forty-one original rock ‘n’ roll songs that were popular between 1955 and 1962, most before 1960, with some rarely listened to, intentionally avoiding some of the most popular classics, like Elvis, for example (too expensive), yet they all capture vivid memories from a lost era that will not be forgotten, becoming a poetic lament for one memorable night, revealing a sheltered world of extended childhood that was coming to an end.    

Remaining low-key and unpretentious throughout, this highly observant example of American Neo-Realism is pieced together like a jigsaw puzzle, having its laugh out loud moments, yet also poignant naturalistic scenes that are quiet and contemplative, generating a wildly interesting set of circumstances that effectively serve as the architectural blueprint for Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused (1993).  To start things off, at a rather inopportune moment, Steve rather offensively suggests to Laurie that they see other people while he’s off at college, contending this will actually “strengthen” their relationship, a rather boorish request that leaves her devastated, completely floored and off-putting that this should happen on their last night together.  But she doesn’t reveal her feelings, drawing inwardly angry and withdrawn, basically cutting him off afterwards.  This is a couple that goes everywhere together, never seeing one without the other, where going steady is a serious commitment, as you never leave the other’s side.  But all bets are off with Laurie refusing to dance with him at a back to high school sock hop, quickly choosing another partner, where it’s easy to see trouble lurks just under the surface, yet all around them a boundless energy is alive on the dance floor, as seen in At The Hop YouTube (2:30), with Toni Basil as the choreographer.  When the spotlight dance features the two of them in an accentuated slow dance together, they hilariously continue arguing while putting on a happy face, yet when she hears the heartfelt music of Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, just before they sing the lyric “Tears I cannot hide,” tears come streaming down her face, American Graffiti (3/10) Movie CLIP - A Snowball Dance (1973) HD YouTube (2:59), where they are supposed to separate and dance with other partners, continually adding partners until the entire dance floor is filled, creating a snowball effect, but intriguingly she never lets go.  The ambiguity of Curt’s decision whether or not to attend college is one of the main sources of inspiration in the film, as none of the girls have that opportunity, only Steve and Curt, and the eternal question arises whether staying or leaving town is the best option.  In most small towns, employment options are extremely limited.  For instance, in Peter Berg’s FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS (2004), an amazing exposé of life in the small oil towns of West Texas, there really is no life after high school, as whatever bleak future awaits is already decided, as there’s little else to do but work, which is why high school football remains the featured attraction and the talk of the town.  In most of these towns, high school is the last vestige of any real independence, as a dismal future awaits filled with bratty kids, mortgages, food expenses, and the responsibility of all-consuming bills that quickly await you, as the balance between work and family takes centerstage.  While there is a latent sense of foreboding about the future, where every day is pretty much like the next, the same can’t be said for the events transpiring on this night, where a wealth of memories accumulate, creating a sense of nostalgia where one’s remembrance of the past is much more intense than when it was experienced, fueled by an overall affection and fondness for those earlier times, beautifully summed up by Debbie telling Toad she had a really great time, recounting the fateful events of the evening, where everything felt like a misadventure, yet having survived, it felt like fun.  The entire film plays out like that, where it’s never as good as it could be, and hardly ever what you expect, where every moment is loaded with humor and dramatic conflict, but overall this is a carefully calculated and exquisitely designed film.  Among the most unexpected adventures is Curt’s trip to the radio tower located just outside town, featuring an encounter with none other than Wolfman Jack, heard on every car radio throughout the night, given a sense of utmost importance, with Curt hoping to get him to read a message on the air, as he’s dying to meet the phantom lady in the white T-bird.  But the Wolfman is elusively humble, claiming he’s only a stand-in, an extension of the Wolfman’s operations, yet he offers Curt advice to travel and see the world, to open up his horizons, “It’s a great big beautiful world out there,” becoming a moral voice instilled in the back of his head, forever guiding his path.  In a strange twist of fate, it’s Steve who decides not to leave, protecting his fragile relationship with Laurie, who’s all shook up after a near-death experience surviving a crash, deciding to never leave her side.  The fates of four characters are revealed at the end, adding an unrealized poignancy to the events that transpired, wonderfully capturing the flavor of the era.   

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