Thursday, September 28, 2023

Review: "American Graffiti" is Still Crusin' to Rock 'n' Roll 50 Years On

TRASH IN MY EYE No. 45 of 2023 (No. 1934) by Leroy Douresseaux

American Graffiti (1973)
Running time:  110 minutes (1 hour, 50 minutes)
DIRECTOR:  George Lucas
WRITERS:  George Lucas and Gloria Katz & Willard Huyck
PRODUCERS:  Francis Ford Coppola and Gary Kurtz
CINEMATOGRAPHERS:  Jan D'Alquen (D.o.P.) and Ron Eveslage (D.o.P.)
EDITORS:  Verna Fields and Marcia Lucas
Academy Award nominee


Starring:  Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Howard, Paul Le Mat, Charles Martin Smith, Cindy Williams, Candy Clark, Mackenzie Phillips, Wolfman Jack, Bo Hopkins, Manuel Padilla Jr., Beau Gentry, and Harrison Ford

American Graffiti is a 1973 coming-of-age, music-driven, comedy and drama film directed by George Lucas.  Lucas, who co-wrote the screenplay with the husband and wife team of Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, based the story on his experiences in the cruising, and street-racing, and rock 'n' roll cultures of his youth.  American Graffiti focuses on a group of teenagers and their adventures over the course of one summer night in 1962.

American Graffiti opens in the Summer 1962.  The location is California's central valley, apparently in and around the city of Modesto.  There, through a series of vignettes, we watch as a group of teenagers enjoy the last evening of their summer vacation.

For recent high school graduates and friends, Curtis “Curt” Henderson (Richard Dreyfuss) and Steve Bolander (Ronny Howard), this is their last night in town before they board a plane the next day and go “back east” for college.  Steve doesn't believe that he can achieve the goals his wants by staying home, even if leaving means parting from his girlfriend, Curt's sister, Laurie (Cindy Williams).  However, Curt, who has recently received scholarship money from a local business group, isn't sure that he wants to leave.  Besides, tonight, he wants to chase the mystery woman who has caught his eye, a blonde driving a white Ford Thunderbird.

Curt and Steve's two friends are also having a big night.  The first is John Milner (Paul Le Mat), the central valley drag-racing king.  He has just learned that someone wants to challenge him for his crown, a confident ladies' man named Bob Falfa (Harrison Ford).  Meanwhile, the second character is the unpopular, but well-meaning Terry “The Toad” Fields (Charlie Martin Smith), who has just come into possession of Steve's car.  He is supposed to protect it until Steve returns from “back east” for Christmas.  Tonight, however, Terry hopes the car will help him land a date.  Meanwhile, in the background, the popular disc jockey, Wolfman Jack (himself), plays an array of rock 'n' roll hits.

As “DVD Netflix” prepares to shutdown, I've been racing to catch up on certain films that I have never seen or have not seen in a long time.  I recently decided to sample some films in which 2023 is the fiftieth anniversary of their original theatrical releases.  That includes such films as Walt Disney's Robin Hood, (hopefully)Woody Allen's Sleeper, and the Bruce Lee classic, Enter the Dragon.

As a kid, I was aware of American Graffiti long before I ever saw it.  I was and still am a huge fan of American Graffiti director, George Lucas's most famous film, Star Wars (1977).  So, as a kid, I read every article I could find about Star Wars, and they often mentioned his two earlier feature-length films, THX-1138 (1971) and American Graffiti.  [I also vaguely remember the release of the sequel, More American Graffiti.]

I also knew that a few film and television stars that I liked had starred or appeared in American Graffiti, specifically Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Howard, and Harrison Ford.  Besides that fact that American Graffiti was a George Lucas movie, Ford was the other reason I most wanted to see the film.

I finally first saw American Graffiti on television, and though my memory is hazy on the facts, I'm sure I saw it at least a few years after the release of the sequel.  I remember liking it, enough that I planned on watching it again.  Decades later, this recent viewing is the first time that I've seen the film since that first viewing.

I still like it a lot.  I'm still a fan of Ford, Howard, and Dreyfuss, and along the way, I became a fan of some of its other young stars, including Charles Martin Smith, Cindy Williams, and the recently-deceased Bo Hopkins (1938-2022).  The truth is that I'm crazy about the Hollywood icon, Harrison Ford, and, as for as I'm concerned, any movie with Ron Howard and Charles Martin Smith as actors is cinematic porn.  [Both Howard and Smith are also film directors.]

Watching the film this time, I was initially annoyed by Lucas' method of telling this story in a series of vignettes that constantly moved from one character to the next.  The film essentially has four plots that revolve around one of four characters, Curt, Steve, John, or Terry.  It took me nearly half the film to realize that the vignettes allow Lucas to depict and to reveal each one of these four young men's goals, conflicts, and fears.  This depiction of their inner selves makes them more interesting to me.  Not only did I root for them, but I also wanted to know more about them.  I wanted to know what was going to happen to them, both in the immediate and far future.

American Graffiti apparently helped launch a wave of nostalgia for and interest in the culture and times of the 1950s and early 1960s or at least an idealized, trouble free, white-washed version of it.  The film apparently renewed the ABC network's interest in what would become one of its most popular sitcoms, “Happy Days” (1974-84).  That long-running and popular television series also presented an idealized, trouble free, white-washed version of the 1950s and early 1960s.

Thus, as much as I enjoyed this viewing of American Graffiti, and as much as I'm interested in its characters, I done with it.  I'm not done with its lovely soundtrack – played in the background so that both the characters and audiences can hear these early classics of rock 'n' roll.  These musical recordings make this special night in the summer of 1962 really special.  Still, American Graffiti is an ode to George Lucas' memories.  It is a cinematic dream he fashioned from the varied experiences of his privileged youth.  I don't really relate to it the way I do other films that are also far from my experiences – such as The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) or Licorice Pizza (2021).

I wouldn't call American Graffiti a great film, so much as I'd call it a unique and important American film.  Why is it important?  Well, American Graffiti is a prime example of the fantasies that the Hollywood dream factory can make of real moments in time.  It's George Lucas' story – his story – presented as a fairy tale about one unforgettable night that will never be repeated.

8 of 10
★★★★ out of 4 stars

Thursday, September 28, 2023

1974 Academy Awards, USA:  5 nominations: “Best Picture” (Francis Ford Coppola and Gary Kurtz), “Best Actress in a Supporting Role” (Candy Clark), “Best Director” (George Lucas), “Best Writing, Story and Screenplay Based on Factual Material or Material Not Previously Published or Produced” (George Lucas Gloria Katz, and Willard Huyck), and “Best Film Editing” (Verna Fields and Marcia Lucas)

1975 BAFTA Awards:  1 nomination: “Best Supporting Actress” (Cindy Williams)

1974 Golden Globes, USA:  2 wins:  “Best Motion Picture - Comedy or Musical” or “Most Promising Newcomer – Male” (Paul Le Mat); 2 nominations: “Best Actor in a Motion Picture - Comedy or Musical” (Richard Dreyfuss) and “Best Director - Motion Picture” (George Lucas)

1995 National Film Preservation Board, USA:  “National Film Registry”

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