Drivers’ Cinema: American Graffiti (1973)
George Lucas is best known for writing and directing the Star Wars movies as well as conceiving and producing the Indiana Jones series. No small feat indeed, but between his first sci-fi film THX-1138 (based on his thesis short film while he attended USC Film School) and Star Wars, Lucas made something smaller, more poignant, and perhaps more personal to him – American Graffiti (with the assistance of collaborators Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz). Set on a single day and (mostly) night in a small, anonymous American town it is the story of four friends – John, Steve, Curt, and Toad – celebrating the final day of summer.
There is no single main character. Instead, there are four separate stories that we follow through the night, and by sunrise the characters come together knowing they have each other to rely on. Always. Each of these stories works by itself incredibly well, and the film as a whole has a depth that still resonates today. This ensemble cast included future superstars Ron Howard, Charles Martin Smith, Richard Dreyfuss, and Harrison Ford (in a small roll) portraying what life was like for youth in America in the early sixties. Curt (Dreyfuss) and Steve (Howard) are scheduled to leave for college in the morning, but Curt is having second thoughts. And while they spend the night getting sidetracked by more pressing issues (women and mischief), they keep returning to the dilemma of impending adulthood and responsibilities.
The other two other friends who aren’t leaving for school, John (Paul Le Mat) and Toad (Smith) also have an interesting evening in store. John, the local drag strip champ is unexpectedly forced to squire around a young girl while waiting for a showdown with Bob Falfa (Ford), a rival drag racer. Toad, looking for a different kind of action, borrows Steve’s car and then successfully parlays it into picking up a girl. Unfortunately, he then has trouble living up to the expectations set by the car, a then very impressive ’58 Chevy Impala.
While American Graffiti is a story about people, it’s also very much a story of a particular time, and about cars. There’s the aforementioned Impala, a ’55 Chevy Shoebox, ’58 Ford Edsel, ’51 Mercury Eight, and even a Citroen 2CV (which must have time-travelled back to 1962, as the model featured wasn’t available until 1966). And of course there is the iconic yellow ’32 Deuce Coupe, built by its owner to be the baddest machine on the road. For the characters in American Graffiti these cars represent the freedom to go cruising, pick up girls, and have various adventures and misadventures while trying to work out what to do with their lives. It’s a timeless story about growing up and that brief period when you’re on the cusp of adulthood. While the details may be dated, the themes still resonate.
All the facets of the movie work incredibly well – the dialogue, the look of the film, the clothes, the incredible soundtrack (forty well known hits from the time…which would cost a fortune to license today), and of course the classic cars of the period. Driving has been a rite of passage for youth all over the world. It may differ in some ways from what is portrayed in American Graffiti – the cars change, the clothes are different, we have smart phones and social media. But we still drive around on a Saturday night looking for fun and distraction. The more things change, the more things stay the same.
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Image Sources: selvedgeyard.com, smallcinema.re-dock.org, theiapolis.com