Some brief notes in defence of American Graffiti

Last week, while home sick with a cold, I decided to revisit the coming of age classic, American Graffiti (1973) directed by George Lucas and produced by Francis Ford Coppola. It had been a long while since I’d seen it. A friend rates it, passionately, as his favourite film of all time. He has been trying to convince another friend of ours, who’s less charmed, to give it another chance, so he asked me to prepare some notes in American Graffiti’s defence. I was more than happy to oblige. Here are those notes.

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American Graffiti (1973, George Lucas) marks a pivotal moment in the emergence of the New Hollywood when filmmaking took an important turn away from the producer towards the director, and became an artform with the auteur at the wheel.

In some ways, American Graffiti is the ultimate New Hollywood film – defined by a youthful energy, personal subject matter, and a shift from casting conventionally attractive leads, to a representative interest in the Everyman.

The film is funny and unsentimental to the end. Lucas shows tremendous empathy and compassion towards his characters. Each of them – Curt Henderson (Richard Dreyfus), Steve Bolander (Ron Howard), John Milner (Paul Le Mat), Terry ‘The Toad’ Fields (Charles Martin Smith), Laurie Henderson (Cindy Williams) and Debbie Dunham (Candy Clark) – reveals layers over the course of the night we follow them, each on the verge of major change in the California of August 1962. This feels authentic to me, seeing them become something other than what they first appear to be. This is how people reveal themselves to you once you really spend time with them. John’s scenes, in particular, driving around in his bitchin’ yellow chopped deuce coupe with the young Carol (Mackenzie Phillips) are especially funny and touching in this way.

American Graffiti makes extraordinary use of popular music in a way that became associated with the New Hollywood (Scorsese would take this up with ferocity from Mean Streets on). Here the 50s music – with tracks from Bill Haley & the Comets, Del Shannon, Buddy Holly, The Platters and more – is diegetic from beginning to end and is also true of time and place. These characters live in a time when the radio was always on – in cars, at home and in diners. Just through the movie’s soundtrack we get to live this time along with them.

Lucas’ direction is skillful and musical displaying a wonderful sense of interplay between stories. The dialogue is poignant and razor sharp – ‘wimps get all the snatch,’ ‘who cut the cheese,’ and ‘he who smelt it dealt it’ true to the language of youth, with its braggadocio and fatuity.

American Graffiti is a film that says goodbye to childhood and innocence at both a personal and national level. Under all this, it’s a film about the myths that keep you breathing when it feels like everything around you is falling apart. The unattainable, beautiful blonde (Suzanne Somers) driving around in a white Ford Thunderbird, only briefly glimpsed is the film’s symbol for both the future (zooming by, out of town) and the past (always circling around you). The American Dream about to be ripped wide open with the assassination of J.F.K and the escalation of the Vietnam War, American Graffiti is a bittersweet look back to a time before it all changed – not only a nostalgia trip but a look deep into America’s soul.

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