American Graffiti

a brief survey by Roger Ebert

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10 min, Rated PG, Color, Comedy

My first car was a '54 Ford and I bought it for $435. It wasn't scooped, channeled, shaved, decked, pinstriped, or chopped, and it didn't have duals, but its hubcaps were a wonder to behold.
On weekends my friends and I drove around downtown Urbana—past the Princess Theater, past the courthouse—sometimes stopping for a dance at the youth center or a hamburger at the Steak 'n' Shake ("In Sight, It Must Be Right"). And always we listened to Dick Biondi on WLS. Only two years earlier, WLS had been the Prairie Farmer Station; now it was the voice of rock all over the Midwest.
When I went to see George Lucas's AMERICAN GRAFFITI that whole world—a world that now seems incomparably distant and innocent—was brought back with a rush of feeling that wasn't so much nostalgia as culture shock. Remembering my high school generation, I can only wonder at how unprepared we were for the loss of innocence that took place in America with the series of hammer blows beginning with the assassination of President Kennedy.
The great divide was November 22, 1963,and nothing was ever the same again. The teenagers in AMERICAN GRAFFITI are, in a sense, like that cartoon character in the magazine ads: the one who gives the name of his insurance company, unaware that an avalanche is about to land on him. The options seemed so simple then: to go to college, or to stay home and look for a job and cruise Main Street and make the scene.
The options were simple, and so was the music that formed so much of the way we saw ourselves. AMERICAN GRAFFITI's sound track is papered from one end to the other with Wolfman Jack's nonstop disc jockey show, that's crucial and absolutely right. The radio was on every waking moment. A character in the movie only realizes his car, parked nearby, has been stolen when he hears the music stop: He didn't hear the car being driven away.
The music was as innocent as the time. Songs like "Sixteen Candles" and "Gonna Find Her" and "The Book of Love" sound touchingly naive today; nothing prepared us for the decadence and the aggression of rock only a handful of years later. The Rolling Stones of 1972 would have blown WLS off the air in 1962.
AMERICAN GRAFFITI acts almost as a milestone to show us how far (and in many cases how tragically) we have come. Stanley Kauffmann, who liked it, complained in the New Republic that Lucas had made a film more fascinating to the generation now between thirty and forty than it could be for other generations, older or younger.
But it isn't the age of the characters that matters; it's the time they inhabited. Whole cultures and societies have passed since 1962. AMERICAN GRAFFITI is not only a great movie but a brilliant work of historical fiction; no sociological treatise could duplicate the movie's success in remembering exactly how it was to be alive at that cultural instant.
On the surface, Lucas has made a film that seems almost artless; his teenagers cruise Main Street and stop at Mel's Drive-In and listen to Wolfman Jack on the radio and neck and lay rubber and almost convince themselves their moment will last forever. But the film's buried structure shows an innocence in the process of being lost, and as its symbol Lucas provides the elusive blonde in the white Thunderbird—the vision of beauty always glimpsed at the next intersection, the end of the next street.
Who is she? And did she really whisper "I love you" at the last traffic signal? In 81, Fellini used Claudia Cardinale as his mysterious angel in white, and the image remains one of his best; but George Lucas knows that for one brief afternoon of American history angels drove Thunderbirds and could possibly be found at Mel's Drive-In tonight … or maybe tomorrow night, or the night after.

CineBooks' Motion Picture Guide Review

A hallmark film of the 1970s, AMERICAN GRAFFITI's action and great cast of characters are seen in the time span of one night in 1962 in a small California town through touching and telling vignettes.
End of summer The film centers around a group of teenagers and their ambitions: a clean-cut All-American boy, Steve (Ron Howard), is about to leave for college the next day; the class intellectual, Curt (Richard Dreyfuss), has doubts about his future and that of the world; Steve's girlfriend and Curt's sister, Laurie (Cindy Williams), is upset, almost depressed, at Steve's impending departure; a hopeless nerd Terry (Charles Martin Smith) wants nothing more than to be "cool;" an older boy, John (Paul Le Mat), drives "the fastest car in the valley" and is constantly being forced to prove that boast.
After the school dance, everyone goes cruising. John picks up a thirteen-year-old, Carol (Mackenzie Phillips), thinking she is much older until she climbs into his 1932 Ford Deuce Coupe, then becoming embarrassed as she chatters his ears off. Steve and Laurie, driving about in his 1958 Impala, talk about their tomorrows; he is full of desires for the future, while she tearfully believes her life is over at seventeen. Everyone meets at Mel's Drive-In where exchanges of the groping teenagers seem to reveal their entire personalities in microcosm.
A drag race John, whose hot-rodding is legendary in the area, takes pride in driving to a junkyard to point out cars to Carol that have been destroyed in drag races, their drivers killed. He later meets a racer, Falfa, (Ford), who is driving a 1955 Chevy and challenges him to a duel. The entire group gathers to watch the race on remote Paradise Road where Falfa's car crashes from a blowout (he is not killed).
Terry, the hopeless bumbler of the group, feels he has lived his ultimate moments: an older, attractive girl, Debbie (Candy Clark), has deigned to cruise with him, and he has witnessed a near-fatal crash that only his peer group has been entitled to see. (The drag race is not unlike that shown in REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, 1955, and this film owes much to that Nicholas Ray masterpiece. In fact, GRAFFITI duplicates much from that film, replacing the sinister with the sweet.)
Unexpected changes The next morning, situations are reversed. Steve has succumbed to Laurie's blandishments. He decides not to go on to college but stay with his girlfriend. The undecided Curt suddenly refuses to "stay seventeen forever" and goes off to a university.
In a tacked-on epilogue, somber significance is gratuitously added to this plotless, aimless film as the viewer is informed that Steve later became an insurance agent, Curt a writer, John a fatality in a drunk-driving accident, and Terry a victim of the Vietnam War.
Poignant fragments The appeal of this film is in its fragmentary scenes as the nervous camera jumps frantically from character to character to present a powerful collage of American youth on the brink of maturity. Poignant, often priceless in its dialogue and mannerisms, GRAFFITI has the innocence of a Saturday afternoon matinee, yet it is as unsure and inexperienced as its characters, a happy accident that nostalgically captures one balmy night in America. Director George Lucas later admitted that the film was largely autobiographical, based upon his own teenage hot-rodding in Modesto, California.
Auspicious beginnings At its San Francisco premiere, although enthusiastically received, Universal bigwigs sniggered at the film's murky lighting and told producer Coppola and director Lucas that they might not release the film, that it was an "unfinished product." The agitated Coppola immediately offered to buy the property and release it himself. The executives, to Universal's financial credit, refused; the film would gross more than $55 million. This proved an incredible feat on the ledger books in that GRAFFITI was produced for only $750,000, shot in northern California in only twenty-five days.
The film also made stars of a host of young actors including Ford, Howard, LeMat, Dreyfuss, Clark, Williams, Bo Hopkins, Kathleen Quinlan, and Somers. Its enormous success and its gigantic financial rewards allowed Lucas to finance one of the greatest-grossing films of all time—STAR WARS (1977). The success also spawned numerous imitations and inspired the television show "Happy Days," with Howard as the star.
AMERICAN GRAFFITI was nominated for five Academy Awards: Best Picture (it lost to THE STING), Best Supporting Actress (Clark), Best Direction, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Film Editing. Unfortunately the film didn't take home a single award.

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