Scott: American Graffiti’s dusk-’til-dawn structure lets George Lucas make the film into the largest possible repository for his memories of the period, unbound by the strictures of more conventional plotting. With Mel’s Drive-In serving as a kind of gravitational force, his four main characters—Curt, Steve, John, and Terry The Toad—can go off on separate orbits and have experiences that will determine (or at least account for) the trajectory of their adult lives. They all have very busy nights: Even given the fact that Curt and/or Steve are due to ship off for college the next morning, Lucas compresses a summer’s worth of life-changing incident into one exceptionally significant night. But American Graffiti is about boys on the precipice of personal—and national—change, and Lucas manages to sketch specific portraits of these characters and this milieu while making broader statements about where America was, and where it was headed.
In stylistic terms, American Graffiti is a case where Lucas’ fetishization of objects proves meaningful without eclipsing his human characters. The diner and the cars are so absolutely pristine, they give the impression that neither dirt nor poverty existed in Northern California at that time. But just the idea that these teenagers could have the freedom to invest themselves in such frivolous things is poignant in light of what adulthood will bring. The movie unfolds like a dream that the epilogue punctures.
Keith: Outside the finale, and maybe Curt destroying that police car, American Graffiti is short on really big moments, but it’s full of little moments that add up to a fuller picture. Remove a single element, and the image changes, like a mosaic. It’s almost as if Lucas and his screenwriting partners, Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck, were attempting to squeeze every relevant detail of a vanished way of life into one film. On that front, it’s tremendously successful, with details that feel even more unforced than those in Dazed And Confused (no knock against that film). Lucas and his co-writers could have been working from a checklist (greasers, pinball machines, make-out hills, etc.), but it never feels like it. The style never feels intrusive, either. Lucas made Graffiti between THX 1138 and Star Wars, and though it’s a stylish film, it’s primarily an observant one.
Matt: Exactly; the most stylish aspects of American Graffiti are the words—that Northern California teenage slang of the early 1960s—rather than the images, which is pretty unusual for a George Lucas film. I think that speaks to his comfort level with this setting and its milieu; to a large extent, Lucas is telling his own story here, and speaking from a place of personal truth.
The other really stylish part of the film isn’t visual either: the soundtrack was revolutionary in its time for its extensive use of vintage pop songs instead of an orchestral score. In fact, according to editor (and American Graffiti sound re-recordist) Walter Murch, the title of “music supervisor” didn’t even exist before Lucas inadvertently invented it by inserting dozens of the pop songs directly into the screenplay of American Graffiti as he wrote it. We’ll talk in more detail about the music in a bit, but I do think it’s important to note just how crucial the soundtrack was to American Graffiti’s conception. It wasn’t added in post-production to accentuate certain scenes; it was embedded into the film from day one, and really defined its structure and tone.
Noel: Yes, we’ll get to the importance of the music (and Wolfman Jack) from a cultural point of view later, but just structurally speaking, the wall-to-wall rock ’n’ roll radio on the soundtrack serves to link these scenes and characters, flagging that all of this is happening at the same time, no matter what Lucas is cutting to. And speaking of that cross-cutting, if one thing links American Graffiti to Star Wars—beyond Luke Skywalker’s spiritual kinship with the restless teens of Modesto—it’s the way Lucas keeps all his narrative plates spinning, always moving to a new one as soon as he’s got the others really moving.
Nathan: Re-watching American Graffiti, I was struck by how much of it is driven by dialogue and performances. The visual style serves the actors and the words rather than the other way around. Lucas is particularly adroit at long takes, my favorite being the brilliant scene in the car where Ron Howard’s Steve stumbles and bumbles as he tries to talk to his longtime girlfriend Laurie (Cindy Williams) about seeing other people. Meanwhile, she looks on brightly in a state of rapt anticipation that morphs into something approaching mortification once she realizes the nature of her boyfriend’s clumsy, self-serving spiel.
The absence of cuts heightens the tension, particularly once it becomes apparent that Steve isn’t nervous and awkward because he’s looking for more commitment, but rather because he’s trying to see if he can maybe get laid in college and still hold onto a pretty wonderful girlfriend at the same time. This visually simple but brilliantly constructed scene tells us everything we need to know about these characters without resorting to clumsy exposition or melodrama. In 1973, at least, all Lucas needed was a car, two actors, and some smart dialogue to create something quietly magical.
Keith: George Lucas has said anthropological instincts drove him to make American Graffiti, that he wanted to document the dating rituals of the recent past, particularly the practice of cruising and its connection to California’s car culture. Interviews sometimes make it easy to paint Lucas as a cold technician, but he knew his subject well. Before making a film about kids who loved cars, and loved being reckless with them, he was one. And in the summer of 1962, the same year American Graffiti takes place, he was in a serious car accident that cooled his enthusiasm for hot-rodding, at least as an active participant. That didn’t stop him from immortalizing it, however, and cars practically become characters in the film. Curt doesn’t just chase a blonde dream girl, he chases a blonde dream girl in a choice ’56 Thunderbird. It’s hardly the only memorable vehicle, either. As the character with the deepest investment in California car culture, John has the flashiest vehicle, one that embodies the hot-rod ideal of turning a cheaper, older model—here a ’32 Deuce Coupe—into a formidable machine capable of taking on all comers. My favorite, however, is the ’55 Chevy driven by Harrison Ford’s Bob, though that’s partly for reasons that have nothing to do with the film itself: Lucas used three different Chevys for the shoot, which were also used in the other quintessential early-’70s movie about driving enthusiasts realizing they’re racing down dead ends: Two-Lane Blacktop.
Noel: My favorite vehicle in American Graffiti is the little scooter that Terry tools around on at the start of the movie, and has trouble controlling. I didn’t own a car or drive regularly until after I graduated college, so I would’ve been like Terry: out of my league amid the fleet of big, slick motorcars. I do like the specificity of Lucas’ memories of California car culture, though, and not just in the choice of vehicles, but in the way everyone drives around with their windows down, enjoying the temperate climate and shouting back and forth at each other while on the go.
Nathan: In American Graffiti, automobiles are destiny as well as identity. Behind the wheel of Steve’s sweet ride, Terry exudes a confidence—even cockiness—that he never would be able to conjure up merely walking around or trying to control his little scooter. The car becomes his mojo, his external id. Hell, the car damn near gets him laid, with a little help from alcohol. When Terry is forced to give back the car, he becomes a little like Cinderella after the ball, once again reduced to being just another scrawny little Poindexter with greasy hair.
Scott: It’s emblematic of American Graffiti that every car on display looks like it just came off the lot: A gorgeous, gleaming exemplar of Lucas’ buffed-and-polished memories. And yet it’s Curt, the one character who isn’t behind the wheel of some sweet ride, who winds up with the better destiny than his three friends. I’ll admit the correlation isn’t strong—Terry dying in Vietnam doesn’t have even the thinnest connection to him driving Steve’s car around for the night—but cars are part of the allure of this time and place, and that makes them an anchor as well as a symbol of escape and transcendence.
Matt: To Lucas, cars are complex symbols. He loved cruising and racing as a teenager, and the Fords and Chevys in American Graffiti clearly represent the independence he felt in those innocent years. On the other hand, the Fords and Chevys in the film don’t really go anywhere. They drive endlessly down the same downtown loop, never arriving at a destination, and certainly never leaving the peaceful but restricting confines of Modesto. As Scott notes, the characters are almost trapped by their inappropriate sense of freedom.
The teen antics and lively soundtrack keep the mood upbeat, but American Graffiti is often a sad film, even before that devastating title card that reveals the tragic fates of most of the characters. A lot of that sadness comes, somewhat counterintuitively, from the cars and that aimless, fruitless wandering. Rewatching it this week, I wondered whether perhaps the movie was Lucas’ response to Easy Rider, another film about the freedom, beauty, and potentially deadly danger of automobiles and the open road. Both films feature rock-music soundtracks, and both films end with massive, fiery crashes. There’s even a little of Peter Fonda’s disillusioned attitude in Paul Le Mat’s John, who slowly realizes his best years are already behind him. His line to Terry after narrowly escaping the drag-racing accident—“The man had me. He was beating me.”—is his “We blew it” moment.
Noel: We’ve talked about how Lucas uses music in American Graffiti to unify the storylines, which the movie does through the sound design as well. The volume of the music varies from scene to scene, and even within scenes: Sometimes it’s faint in the background while people are talking, sometimes it’s cranked up while they drive, and in my favorite effect, sometimes it echoes a bit because it’s blasting from two cars simultaneously. But it’s incessant, this flow of garage rock, surf tunes, and doo-wop—the last, best vestiges of the first rock ’n’ roll era, pre-Beatles—and the simplicity of the music is very much a part of what American Graffiti is about. The whole film records a moment in time when this group of kids was certain that their cars, love affairs, social status, and music were what mattered most. Lucas’ epilogue makes it clear that this whole generation is about to be tested. What’s left unspoken—but what the audiences of the 1970s probably understood implicitly—was that their music was about to get a lot heavier and more complicated, too.
Nathan: Noel, that last line is affirmed by the film’s little-loved but audacious, underrated sequel, More American Graffiti, which I’ll be writing about in depth tomorrow. That film’s similarly central soundtrack combines golden oldies with heavy psychedelic rock and protest songs. Music unites everyone in American Graffiti, but they’re also united by the central presence of Wolfman Jack, a real-life radio personality who is upgraded to folk-hero status here. There’s something poignant about the kids’ strong belief that any man who brings them so much magical music and so much impish comedy must be something approaching a god.
Keith: One thing I never caught before was the way the film uses the Beach Boys. John can’t stand the sound of them when they come on the radio, and part of him must recognize that it’s because they’re part of the coming thing that’s going to displace the music he knows and loves. The younger Carol digs them, but John isn’t so young anymore, and it’s just one of several signs that his time is passing. And what song plays over the closing credits to drive the point home? The Beach Boys’ “All Summer Long,” which wouldn’t be released until summer 1964.
Matt: I like the way the music often comments directly on the action onscreen. The film opens with “Rock Around The Clock,” just before the characters spend all night cruising Modesto. The last scene at the airport is scored by The Spaniels’ “Goodnite, Sweetheart, Goodnite” because, well, it’s time to go. Curt gets his phone call from his dream girl in the Thunderbird to the Platters’ “Only You (And You Alone).” The key scene between Steve and his girlfriend Laurie, who are deciding whether to stay together or break up as he leaves for college, takes place at a school dance during a rendition of “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes,” whose lyrics ominously describe what happens “when a lovely flame dies.” The songs aren’t haphazard, or picked simply for their commercial appeal on a soundtrack album; they’re essential to American Graffiti’s impact.
Nathan: American Graffiti is arguably George Lucas’ most personal film, but in many ways, it feels like an outlier in his filmography. It’s a human, modestly scaled work distinguished by its dialogue and performances rather than a sense of spectacle. But there are still signs throughout of the filmmaker Lucas was going to become. American Graffiti might have marked the first and last time Lucas seemed to care more about the people inside vehicles than the vehicles themselves—but even so, this film still features a lot of vehicular obsession. It’s easy to draw a straight line between the movie’s snazzy cars and nifty space-vehicles of his follow-up film, Star Wars.
But for me, the most personal moment in the film is when Curt spies Wolfman Jack in the radio station. I suspect that for a young George Lucas, the image of a man surrounded by what at the time was fairly advanced technology, broadcasting his art and entertainment out into the world from a remote location shrouded in mystery, represented something approximating a giddy fantasy.
Where do you guys feel American Graffiti fits in Lucas’ career? Is it the outlier I’ve described, or something more in line with the rest of his films?
Matt: As I mentioned in my Keynote yesterday, I definitely see some parallels between American Graffiti and Star Wars beyond the aforementioned fetishization of speed and sleek machines. Mostly it’s in their shared sense of nostalgia. Even though Star Wars is a futuristic film, it’s set in the past; both Graffiti and Star Wars are chronicles of long-dead societies, and homages to extinct pop-culture phenomena (cruising and Saturday-morning serials, respectively). They’re also tales of sheltered teenagers nervously making their first steps into a wider world. Granted, one film ends the moment that heroic teen decides to take that leap, and the other follows its protagonist as he blows up a Death Star. But Curt and Luke Skywalker are definitely kindred spirits.
Keith: It’s also, best I can tell, the only Lucas feature not in some way about the battle between good and evil. THX 1138, the Star Wars films, and the Indiana Jones movies are all defined by clear forces of light and dark. Where’s the evil here? Even the local gang, the Pharaohs, are more mischievous than bad. It’s almost as if he got less comfortable with moral ambiguity the longer his career lasted.
Scott: It’s always been my belief that if directors can get the world of the film right, that will take them most of the way there. And that’s where George Lucas thrives here and in his other films, including the Stars Wars prequels, which may be severely under-realized in other ways, but are obsessed with world-building detail. Even for a film as warm and personal as American Graffiti, Lucas starts with that shot of the perfect diner, with the perfect music, and those perfect cars. This is him preserving his fondest memories in amber. And as much as he feels for these characters, the ambience does much of the work.
Noel: What I want to know is what happened to the Lucas who knew his way around a dirty joke, or could coax such a fine comic performance out of Charles Martin Smith? I’m a defender of the Star Wars prequels (a subject for another day), but I do wish Lucas hadn’t waited so long to make them, and that he hadn’t spent so much time rebuilding and revisiting a universe that lacks American Graffiti’s humanity and funkiness.
That said, you guys are right that there’s a connection between the preservative qualities of American Graffiti and Star Wars. And just as Star Wars’ success touched off a boom in science-fiction movies and merchandise, American Graffiti was at the front of a wave of late-1950s/early-1960s nostalgia that followed. I still remember how the “1950s area” of our local amusement park would play the American Graffiti soundtrack on a loop—Wolfman Jack and all.
Matt: And Wolfman, now that I think about it, is sort of the Obi-Wan or Yoda of American Graffiti, offering the sage advice the young hero needs to guide him along his adventure.
Matt: One of the more interesting tidbits mentioned on the making-of documentary on the American Graffiti DVD is the fact that George Lucas was often, in the words of one cast member, “directing for mistakes.” In other words, he would play scenes long and loose, and when things went wrong, he included them because he liked the naturalistic flavor they added to the movie. The most famous example comes right in the beginning, when Terry The Toad drives up to Mel’s on his Vespa and crashes into a bank of vending machines. Terry was just supposed to arrive without incident, but Charles Martin Smith had never driven a scooter before, and didn’t get enough rehearsal time before the shoot. Smith didn’t break character after he crashed, though, so Lucas left the gaffe in.
It’s hard to imagine the Lucas of Star Wars, the perfectionist who recut his movies over and over until he got them precisely right, being so hands-off about any detail now. Noel is already on record as a Star Wars prequel fan (also: WHAT?!?!?), but it seems to me like this willingness to leave a little bit to chance is exactly what’s missing from Lucas’ later movies. Do you guys have any other favorite moments—or moments that strike you as particularly uncharacteristic of the Lucas we think of as the guy who built the Star Wars franchise?
Nathan: One of my favorite dynamics in the film is between Paul Le Mat’s John and Harrison Ford’s Bob Falfa. What makes John so interesting, and ultimately so tragic, is that he knows all too well the limitations of being the cool guy with the hot car. He knows exactly what that’s gotten him, and that he can’t keep it up forever. He wants to be James Dean, but he knows, deep down, that he’s really more of a Tab Hunter pretender. When he made American Graffiti, Harrison Ford was a nobody, but watching the film 41 years later, it seems like foreshadowing that Paul Le Mat, who went on to have a pretty good film career through the 1970s and early 1980s before fading into obscurity, would be challenged by Harrison Ford, who went on to become an American icon—the real deal to Le Mat’s well-intentioned, talented, but overmatched pretender.
Noel: The scene where Terry walks into the liquor store and orders a candy bar, a pen, “one of those combs there,” and a bottle of Old Harper is as natural and funny a piece of comedy as anything Lucas has done, outside of maybe everything involving the lazy, easily manipulated stormtroopers in Star Wars. Beyond Terry, I find the Steve storyline unusually poignant for Lucas. Here’s this guy who had the perfect plan: He’ll go off to college and have wanton sex with those fast coeds he’s always heard about, while never officially breaking up with his sweetheart Laurie. But then she cuts him off, and he’s so distraught that he shuts the wider world out and becomes an insurance agent in his hometown. Tragic.
Scott: Now seems like the time to bring up perhaps the single worst bit of digital tinkering Lucas has ever done, which is cleaning up and “enhancing” the opening shot of the diner for the Blu-ray edition. Specifically, the sky, once a bit overcast, is now awash in screensaver orange and blue. The facelifts and additions on Star Wars special editions were bad enough, but American Graffiti is his one earthbound, analog, naturalistic film, and there’s no justification for applying 21st-century advancements to a 20th-century film. Beyond that, the choice to change the sky to sunset colors underlines a theme of change that the film itself does a fine enough job of explicating on its own. In short: Put the brush down, Picasso.
Nathan: Definitely. This speaks to another of my favorite touches in the film: shots of Flash Cadillac And The Continental Kids playing the school dance, looking sweaty and a little disheveled. Lucas soon wanted to make everything in his movies seem impossibly perfect, better than life, but these shots capture all-too-human performers sweating their way through their performance, looking ragged and rough. This may be a big coming-of-age ritual for the kids, but for the dogged pros onstage, it’s clearly just another gig.
Keith: That change of Mel’s Drive-In is a particularly sore point for me. Beyond making Modesto at dusk look like Tatooine, it spoils an effect that was already perfect. Sure, Mel’s looks a little dinky in the original shot—which still opens the making-of doc included on the DVD and Blu-ray editions of the film—but that serves the film rather than detracting from it. In the light of day, it’s just a little landlocked bit of California. At night, it becomes a dark wonderland of possibilities.
Our Movie Of The Week discussion of American Graffiti began yesterday with Matt Singer’s Keynote on the film’s nostalgic approach to nostalgia. And tomorrow, Nathan Rabin discusses the surprisingly ambitious, audacious sequel, More American Graffiti.