Tuesday, June 29, 2010

American Graffiti

Movie Review: American Graffiti

Director: George Lucas

Reviewed: June 28th, 2010

jamesintexas rating--**** (Highest Rating)

My neighbor Jim Pitrak (a freshman at Kansas U) loaned me his car during my senior year in high school for a semester. The car was a red Nissan half-back Sentra, we called it the ****box, and I loved driving to school with that car, picking up friends with the car, going out on dates with my first girlfriend with that car. I was not someone who drove a great deal in high school. I was on my bike mostly or driven by Jim in that halfback (once in the trunk on a particularly crowded trip to Dunkin' Donuts). I could tell you, though, what most guys on the Cross Country team drove, how they drove, who was the wild man that you didn't want to be in a car with on a Saturday morning Sunday trip to Newton Park. Driving defines a person during their teenage years, and American Graffiti, George Lucas' self-admittedly anthropological study of cruising the strip in 1962 in a small California town, captures the high school and post-high school feeling perfectly. It has a truth to it that is powerful and timeless. In a car, you can search out what you're looking for, even when you're not sure what it is.

The film is a sonic delight. From what I understand, Lucas's use of wall-to-wall music from this time period (pre-British Invasion) was landmark and much-imitated after this film. It seems like every song I grew up hearing on Friday Night Fifties on WJMK with DJ Dick Biondi is in this film. Growing up in a house that always had the radio on, I get the central conceit of having hilarious DJ Wolfman Jack tie the film together. Every teen cruising has his or her radio tuned to the Wolfman who provides comic relief through bits with callers and cues up the greatest hits of the day.

Curt (Richard Dreyfuss) and Steve (Ronnie Howard) are two high school graduates engaging in rituals familiar in July-August in many American cities: the last night before the departure for college, perhaps out of city or out of state; the passing off of a beloved car to an underclassman, in this case, Terry the Toad (Charles Martin Smith); the decision of whether to stay or go; the question of continuing or ending a high school relationship. John (Paul LeMat) circles around their evening in his souped up car, a guy who has an auto shop in town, is a bit older, and seems resentful that the two are getting out of town. Laurie (Cindy Williams) is Curt's sister, dating Steve, and unsure of what the future holds for her, especially since she faces the dilemma that she is starting her senior year while her boyfriend is leaving. The performances are all fine with Dreyfuss being the central figure on his quest to figure out himself.

Lucas follows each character throughout memorable moments in the evening, getting into trouble, rumors of a guy in a bitchin' car trying to take down John in a race, gang members who threaten violence, sock hops, late night diner conversations with girls that coulda been the one, trying to buy alcohol, a car getting stolen, throwing up, and a wonderful scene in the radio station as Curt tries to find Wolfman Jack to get a message to a woman in a white T-Bird that is haunting his evening, always eluding him.

I loved this film. I'm not sure why it had eluded me, but I want to talk to my parents and friends about it. I'm saddened (in a way) that George Lucas has hidden since the Star Wars films because he seems so sure of himself behind the camera here, the screenplay so well-constructed, the music so well-chosen.

The connections and references to American Graffiti are omnipresent: Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Star Wars, Dazed and Confused, Superbad, Stand By Me, etc... Lucas's camera takes us into the lives of these kids and captures these moments. There's an innocence to the times that is slightly shading darker as the film ends: hints of the Vietnam War and the futures of the main characters.

At one point in the evening, three of the main characters ponder a question that haunts the film. It is something to the effect of, "Why do you have to leave great friends behind to make new great friends?", something akin to "Why do things have to change?" The struggle of defining yourself amidst the change and deciding when to hold on to something and when to leave is the crux of this film.

It is the crux of our lives too.

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