Journal: Drivers' Cinema: American Graffiti (1973)

Drivers’ Cinema: American Graffiti (1973)

By Benjamin Shahrabani
February 12, 2014
8 comments

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.

To buy the DVD on Amazon, click here.

To search for the movie poster on Ebay, click here.

Image Sources: selvedgeyard.com, smallcinema.re-dock.org, theiapolis.com

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Indy Buchan-Hepburn
Indy Buchan-Hepburn

One of the best Movies ever made..and Today it still amazes and astounds

Everything from the unique characters to the refreshingly simple story line and beautiful cars make this movie a MUST SEE!

Marios Pappas
Marios Pappas

What a great movie…! Brings so many memories from my last day at my hometown, before going to the Military Academy. I left behind my family, friends and girlfriend too… Everytime I watch this film, bittersweet memories evoke. These were good times…

Ray Beltran
Ray Beltran

A lot of the cruising scenes (and some others) were shot in my hometown of Bakersfield, CA. Chester Avenue, to be exact. It’s fun to see the stores I used to frequent when I was a child when watching those scenes. At the north end of Chester before crossing the Kern River that would lead into Oildale (where my home was) was the Garces Circle, a round-about that made getting back onto the strip a piece of cake. Back and forth, Friday and Saturday nights. One of my friends started a FB page “I Cruised Chester”. Quite popular.

Love this film.

Keith Kenitzer
Keith Kenitzer

One of the highlights of our summer is getting the projector out having movie night outside at our house watching American Graffitti. It is the ultimate summer flick and anyone that loves cars and good 50’s and 60’s music.

Jim Bair
Jim Bair

One of my all time favorites. Everything just works in this movie. George Lucas slipped in an homage to his “THX-1138” film by putting the yellow California plate numbered THX 138 on Milner’s deuce coupe.

Jonny Midnight
Jonny Midnight

Great movie. I try to watch it whenever it is shown on TV.

jolocho
jolocho

Other movies get called car movies because of a chase scene or the hero drives an exotic, but few like American Graffiti are actually centered on driving (or parking) throughout the length of the film.

It also kickstarted Happy Days.

Gary Groce
Gary Groce

Don’t forget about Suzanne Summers cruising in the 57′ Thunderbird. Loved the scene as the dawn is just coming and the 2 cars are lining up for the street race with the sound of Booker T playing “Green Onions” on the Hammond organ. Here was our little piece of American Graffitti in Portland Or….. “The Speck” http://stumptownblogger.typepad.com/.a/6a010536b86d36970c0162fd2dc40e970d-pi