Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Bildungsroman

Film: American Graffiti
Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library on big ol’ television.

Let’s talk soundtrack for a moment. Plenty of films have great soundtracks. Personally, I think the high point of the film score came with the release of Super Fly and the incredible work by Curtis Mayfield. For a soundtrack of found music, most people look to films by Tarantino and his ability to select the right song for the right mood. As much as I am ambivalent to Tarantino’s work in general, I do have to credit him with a good ear. But the soundtrack for American Graffiti is impossible to top. If I remember correctly, it was a two-record set, and every song was a hit in the early days of rock and roll.

This is completely appropriate for a film that is more or less a love letter to those days when rock records were about teen love and drag races, because that’s really what American Graffiti is. It tells of a much simpler, easier time, when juvenile delinquents caused a little property damage instead of running around armed. Kids showed up to school with a hickey, not pregnant. Okay, I don’t really believe any of that, either. However, it is the position that the film takes, because the film is looking at this time through the lens of 10 years worth of nostalgia.

The film takes place on the last night of the summer of 1962, and concerns the fate of a number of kids, specifically four young men. It’s a pretty standard formula, and one that has been repeated a number of times (the first American Pie film comes to mind). Our quartet consists of Curt (Richard Dreyfuss), who is not sure he wants to go to college on the East Coast. Going with him is Steve (Ron Howard), who is currently dating Curt’s kid sister, Laurie (Cindy Williams), but wants to see other people while he’s away. Staying in town are John (Paul Le Mat), the current king of the dragstrip, and Terry (Charles Martin Smith), a semi-nerd with the unfortunate nickname of Toad. Toad’s biggest problem isn’t his horn-rimmed glasses or his pink shirt, but his lack of a car.

On this final evening of the summer, the four meet, separate, and have their own adventures as the cruise the town for girls and, essentially, look for meaning in their lives. Each one of them is looking for something, and none of them is really sure what the goal is. They’re just doing what they’ve always done, but on this night, there seems to be a little more at stake.

Curt ends up on his own and runs afoul of the local gang of car-crazy juvenile delinquents, the Pharoahs. To save himself from being pummeled, he performs his own acts of delinquency. He also spends the evening chasing a blonde vision in a white T-bird (Suzanne Sommers), going so far as to contact the local radio station to send out a dedication to her in one of the sweetest scenes in the film. Curt doesn’t know what he wants—he doesn’t want anything to change, but comes to realize that life is what he makes it, and the life he wants isn’t here.

Steve, on the other hand, does seem to know what he wants, and knows it’s not here. He cares very much for Laurie, but wants to be set free to experience the world, something that Laurie resists strongly. After all, they’ve been together for a long time and seem like a perfect couple. Their break-up in the middle of the film is a real break in Steve’s life, causing him to reevaluate everything he thinks he wants and needs.

John feels stuck in the town, but doesn’t really seem to consciously want anything more. At least, on the surface, he appears to be content, but there is a sense of ennui in him that runs pretty deep. He cruises the strip and, after offering an invitation to a car full of girls, ends up cruising with the 12-year-old sister of someone else. Carol (Mackenzie Phillips) is at first a nuisance, but eventually, John comes to feel about her like a little sister. Also, since John is the equivalent of the fastest gun, he’s being pursued by another drag racer (Harrison Ford) through the town.

And then there’s Terry, a sort of loveable loser. Terry the Toad is essentially the group’s Ringo. Steve, who is going to college, gives Terry the use of his car, and Terry uses this to pick up Debbie (Candy Clark), and has a series of misadventures with her. All Terry wants is a girl to like him, and will go to any length to convince a girl that he’s worth being with.

And really, that’s the whole movie. Each of the four storylines bounce into each other, and the film is essentially told in order, switching between the four characters throughout as they go through this final evening. In their own way, each of them grows up. Curt discovers that he needs to let go, Steve finds what he wants out of his life, and Terry realizes that he’s not necessarily the loser he thought he was. And then there’s John, who seems to come away from the night with the realization that he won’t always be the fastest gunslinger behind the wheel and needs to discover something to do.

All of this is great. American Graffiti is charming and fun and wildly entertaining. And then there’s the final moment of the film before the credits roll, and we learn about the lives of these four guys after this night. That makes sense with a film like this, and while I’ve seen this film before, it had been a long time and I had forgotten this was there. And these “whatever happened to” bios were ridiculously depressing. It was a huge downer after such a sweet and tender film.

It’s good. Surprise, surprise, it actually had some pretty decent dialogue, which has always been the Achilles heel of George Lucas. Just be warned that when you see the shot of the airplane flying off into the big blue, you may want to stop the film and consider that the end.

Incidentally, you can almost certainly cite this film as the source of the television show Happy Days, and thus Laverne and Shirley as well as the casting of Ron Howard in the first and Cindy Williams in the second. Who knew Richie Cunningham and Shirley Feeney went steady?

Why to watch American Graffiti: Nostalgia done the way it should be.
Why not to watch: The “what happened to” graphics are a let-down.

12 comments:

  1. This is one I enjoyed seeing again even if Curt ended up as a writer in Canada.

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  2. In terms of the limited resources and Lucas' script you could argue this is his best film. Regardless of whether Star Wars did more for cinema, and its director, this is a great coming of age tale.

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  3. I think you could very much argue that this film is what allowed him to make Star Wars. Without this film made on the cheap and making tons of money, who would have trusted him with a real budget?

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  4. Great little movie. I still play the soundtrack from time to time – vinyl of course!

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  5. As well you should. If you didn't, I'd have to say, "Ain't that a Shame?"

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  6. It's a great film, but how bad are the "what happened to" graphics?

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  7. Well, it's not like they're badly made. They're just...depressing.

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  8. I love American Graffiti and just like Nicolas I still listen to the soundtrack from time to time.
    You're the first reviewer I've read that gives the soundtrack due credit, well done.
    Wolfman Jack is an another essential element of this film that people often overlook, much like Super Soul in Vanishing Point, he has a song and a comment for everything and they are all heard at exactly the right moment.
    I don't know what Andy's problem is with the graphics at the end. They're a variation on the old Dragnet theme and the first time I saw them I found them amongst the most chilling final seconds I've seen.
    Mind you I'm biased when it comes to all thing American graffiti.

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  9. Actually, it's my problem with the graphics at the end. I don't want to know these things about these guys--I like them, and want to have my own fates for them, particularly Terry the Toad.

    And I did overlook the Wolfman, which is a big oversight on my part. His scene in the film is one of my favorites.

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  10. Have you seen American Graffiti 2 ?
    It features all the original cast apart from Richard Dreyfuss, and focuses on each New Year's Eve in the five years following the original film.
    I won't spoil it for you if you haven't seen it, but Terry The Toad's fate isn't as cut and dried as it appears!

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  11. I haven't seen AG2, although now I sort of want to. I like Charles Martin Smith (Toad), and love seeing him pop up in films.

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  12. @SJHoneywell - Bob Falfa beat me to it. I was going to say the same thing about Toad.

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