Historical Circuit: American Graffiti (****)

American GraffitiWithout sounding condescending, which is clearly not my intent, this film will grow to mean more to you as you age. As you move further and further from your high school days, there will be something familiar about American Graffiti that allows you to appreciate the film more and more. Perhaps there is someone in the film you connect with, or maybe you too grew up in a small town and spent Friday nights driving around town. More than likely though you see a reflection of yourself and the kids you grew up with in the film. Maybe your best friend was like John Milner (Paul Le Mat) or you knew a girl like Debbie (Candy Clark). I think everyone knew someone like Steve (Ron Howard) or Curt (Richard Dreyfuss) and perhaps secretly longed for their lives, never really understanding they had issues of their own. There is something of burnished memory within the film, something that speaks to each one of us in a unique way, which of course is the grand power of George Lucas’ best film. The characters that inhabit American Graffiti are so much a part of our past it is as though Lucas had tapped into our minds and downloaded our memories. We knew these people, hell we were those people in our youth. And then Lucas does something brilliant at the end of the film, something that gives the picture a bittersweet, almost tragic edge to it, by telling us what happens to these kids a few years down the road. We leave the theater  knowing that John Milner dies in a drunk driver wreck, his greatest fear, and that Terry the Toad (Charles Martin Smith) is MIA in Viet Nam, a place he has no business being. We know that Steve and Laurie (Cindy Williams) do indeed marry, and then divorce, and that Curt is a writer living in Canada, no doubt to escape the draft that takes his friend Terry. By knowing what becomes of the kids we have spent two hours with, we the audience are forced to grow up as we leave the theater, while they are left forever as they are on the screen, ageless, never to go beyond the years portrayed in the film.


Remember the first time someone your age died? I do, it was terrible. It was a friend of my younger brother’s, killed in a dune buggy accident and I could get my head around someone so young dying. That is kind of how I felt leaving the film. How is it possible that Milner dies and that Terry ends up in Viet Nam?? The future is forever a mystery to us, we can never know. I left my house on Valentine’s Day 2001 and was hit head on forty minuets later, left near death, in a coma for weeks before recovering and beginning the long process of healing and learning to walk again. Who could have predicted that? My wife and I went to bed April 30, 2008, only to have her erupt into a massive seizure through the night that was the first hint we had that she had brain cancer. How could we known? Life throws what it will at us, and we deal with it. But there was a time when our futures were bright and what we wanted in life seemed limitless and infinitely possible. That time was the last year of high school and the summer before leaving for college.
That is what American Graffiti is about, letting go of childhood and teenaged years and, moving into adulthood where actions have consequences.The entire film takes place through the early hours of a morning in Modesto, California, in 1962, the last year of American innocence, the year before President Kennedy was gunned down in Dallas, the end of an era. A group of kids are spending the last night of summer vacation together, two of them heading off to college, the others if different states of their lives, all connected by the friendships they forged in high school. The performances of the actors in the film, in hindsight are quite remarkable. We expected Ron Howard to be good and he was, as was Richard
Dreyfuss as brainy Curt Henderson, smitten by a blonde in a T Bird. But the heart and soul of the film belongs to little known actors Paul Le Mat, Charlie Martin Smith, Mackenzie Phillips and Candy Clark, the misfits that were more than likely the mirror images of more of us than we would care to admit. As Milner, the older guy in the group, out of school for four or five years but unable to let go of the celebrity that comes with being the older guy, the one the younger kids look up too, Milner knows his time as a hero tot he youth is coming to an end because in a few short years they will figure out that he hung out with them because he had nothing else. Le Mat quietly captures this with his eloquent performance that is all the more heartbreaking when we understand at the end of the film he will not live beyond thirty. Charlie Martin Smith is superb as Terry the Toad, the consummate bull shitter who lies about nearly everything because whatever stories he tells he feels will always be better than the truth about himself. What he fails to realize is he is a decent guy, and though he is the smallest, the weakest and the dorkiest, he is likely the most decent of the bunch. Though Mackenzie Phillips found fame later on television and in the tabloids she gives a lovely performance as a fourteen year old who ends up, by a freak accident with Milner for the night and strangely they just might be soulmates, though neither can act upon it at this time. She gets him
in ways women his age do not, and her wisdom captivates him, though she is barely aware of her charm.
Lucas kept the film humming along with a terrific score, the hits of the fifties and sixties, cursing music it was called, and as the cars cruise the streets of downtown Modesto, the headlight gleaming, as everyone knows everyone, we feel oddly at home. Within a year President Kennedy would be dead and the war in Viet Nam would be escalated, forever ending the trust the youth of the time had with their government. Civil Rights wars would rage, Martin Luther King would be gunned down followed by Senator Robert Kennedy and the world would change. ForGeorge Lucas Lucas, metaphorically, this group of kids represented the last gasp of innocence before the world went crazy.
American Graffiti was nominated for five Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Director. How it lost to The Sting (1973) remains one of the great injustices in Oscar history, especially when one considers the extraordinary impact it had on pop culture in the seventies. The soundtrack album was a smash success, and suddenly the music of the fifties and sixties was huge again, while on television a sitcom called Happy Days, featuring Ron Howard became one of the top rated shows on the tube, obviously influenced by the film. Two years later Laverne and Shirley would emerge, another series created due to the impact of the film, though neither would ever be considered as brilliant as the film.

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There was of course a sequel, one that is barely mentioned these days entitled simply More American Graffiti (1979) that was made with some of the stars, while Dreyfuss passed on the project, which was not directed by Lucas. Though there is much humor through the film, some of it is smiling through tears as we remember a simpler time, a time when things were not so complicated, a time when the biggest worry on a teenager’s mind was what to order with their burger? There was no terrorism? No mistrust of the government? Just hope for what was to come, and while American Graffiti celebrated that sense of hope, it also made clear that when life intervenes, even the brightest hopes can be dashed in a heartbeat.

About John H. Foote

Any film you haven't seen yet is a new release.