Directed By: George Lucas
Written By: George Lucas, Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck
Starring: Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Howard, Cindy Williams, Paul Le Mat, Charles Martin Smith
It’s the infectiousness of its spirit that makes American Graffiti so watchable. The most revered film critic of all, Roger Ebert, always thought the beauty of movies came from their ability to act as a machine for creating empathy. With American Graffiti there can be no questioning the empathy of director George Lucas. He gazes with starry eyes into a time that he truly believes was simpler; where having the fastest car was as important as having a job. And you’d be hard pressed to tell him his fondness for a bygone era is wrong. American Graffiti takes place in a time decades before my own, but I never felt as though I was on the fringes looking in. This is because the director allows his own experiences of the time to become ours. The film’s greatest joys come from Lucas allowing us to share in his affections; his passion for a rockin’ 1962 is mirrored in us.
Lucas and co-writers Gloria Katz and William Huyck have traded in all traces of a plot for a series of largely comedic sketches, each revolving around a group of friends reluctantly on the brink of college. The film pivots between what can be narrowed down to four sub-stories, as it light-heartedly mulls over existentialism, sex, automobiles, and relationships, all of which are empowered by a universally vibrant cast.
Richard Dreyfus is wonderfully sharp yet understated as Curt, an intelligent high-school graduate displaying the early symptoms of the Benjamin Braddocks, already struggling for purpose post school. The sub-existential ponderings fall on him, more scratching at his soul than searching it, wrestling with whether to go to college as planned, or perhaps forever chase a mysterious blonde in a Ford Thunderbird he spots one night through a car window for the rest of his days. Curt’s close friend Steve (Ron Howard) has no reservations about moving on to college, his troubles are tied in with Curt’s sister Laurie (Cindy Williams) with whom he’s been going steady, and whether or not he should abandon the union upon moving North for his studies. The film’s musings over love and relationships rest here.
As their rougher edged friend John, Paul Le Mat puts up a charmingly flimsy front of a tough guy rebel who unwittingly gets himself involved with a testy teenybopper as he cruises Modesto in his prized yellow deuce coupe. And the geeky, in-over-his-head Toad (Charles Martin Smith), who, empowered by Steve’s Chevrolet Impala which has been entrusted to him, picks up a blonde of his own and attempts to woo her with alcohol and mendacities about his machismo. Naturally, automobiles become the fixation for these two sub stories.
The fascination with sex however never discriminates.
The arena for all the hijinx is a lovingly imagined town which seems to be the beacon of everything quintessential about the 50’s and 60’s. The centre of the community is the drive-in diner Mel’s, where everyone who’s anyone meets up to have their cherry cokes skated out to their cars. There are dopey greasers raiding pinball machines for money, school sock hops, and young men settling their differences with street races, all glued together with an iconic soundtrack that is so distinctly of its time that it has since become timeless, and anchored by the raspy voice of beloved D.J Wolfman Jack.
However, as warming and affectionate as Lucas’s love letter is to the cruising American culture of decades past, American Graffiti is much more than a hopelessly nostalgic foray. It didn’t strike me until the film’s ending, a stomach socking epilogue which snatches away whatever future it is that we had dreamt up for these characters that we had so quickly become enamoured with. Lucas’s celebration isn’t so much reminiscence as it is a visitation to America’s resting place of innocence. The troubles of our heroes aren’t really troubles at all, and with the death of Kennedy, Vietnam, and so much more looming, this carefree youth has since become an extinct breed. American Graffiti is a celebration of the exact moment America’s freedom was last at its peak. There is an unsuspecting melancholia to the film, a thoughtfulness and sadness. It is pining, but isn’t the personal pining of its filmmaker (not completely at least), rather it’s the pining of an entire world.
Maybe this is why the film has endured so powerfully, because in actuality it’s about something which transcends any one moment in time. It’s a dreamy film, cooked up by a shameless yet mesmerising fondness which doesn’t only fixate on what it is that this period consisted of, but why it is that this period is worth our fixation. And it’s an irresistibly fun period at that.