There was a brief period in my life (let’s call it, oh I don’t know, “most of college”) where I concerned myself more and more not with exploring what kinds of pop culture I liked, but with figuring out and exposing myself to the kinds of pop culture I should like (not to mention distancing myself somewhat from things I liked, but was ashamed to admit to liking). I’m pretty well over that now, as you no doubt can tell. I mean, sure, the whole point of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die project is a large dose of that notion of should - to some extent, at least. It’s actually not called 1001 Movies You Must Love, after all. It’s a large sampling of movies that it makes sense to be conversant with, because they loom large in either mass popularity or technical achievement or insider influence or whathaveyou. Case in point, I would argue, would be 1973’s American Graffiti.
Now, given that I’m comfortable once again owning up to loving the things that I love, there are a couple of reasons why American Graffiti had actually been on my “gonna get around to it one of these days” list for way longer than I’ve been doing the 1001 Movies Blog Club. It is of course infamous for being the movie George Lucas did right before he did Star Wars. I’m no George Lucas apologist and I am thoroughly familiar with the shortcomings of his signature saga, particularly its unnaturally extended lifespan. But once upon a time, Star Wars was the biggest thing in my world, and I fully expect to share it with my kids someday for what it is: an exciting, slick sci-fi fairytale. Lucas the auteur may have steadily unraveled over time, but there used to be something I liked about him, and maybe actually going backwards through his filmography would be a positive thing.
The other reason I could see myself being well-disposed to American Graffiti is that it’s a musical. Kind of. By certain definitions of the term. And I’m not sure which is more likely to earn hipster derision these days, being an avowed Star Wars fan or loving musicals, but either way I would put myself in both camps, willingly and happily. So there you go, with my street cred neatly obliterated, let’s talk about the movie.
I’d like to talk about it, truly, but there’s not that much of a movie there to talk about. It’s a slice of life piece set over the course of a single night in 1962 in a single town in California, specifically within the cruising car-crazy youth culture. A couple of high school buddies are supposed to leave for college in the morning. Steve (Ron Howard) can’t wait to shake the smalltown dust off his heels, gives his hot rod to one of his younger friends, and then spends most of the night trying to determine what’s going to happen to him and his one-year-younger high school sweetheart. Curt (Richard Dreyfuss) is having second thoughts about leaving the comfortable familiarity of youth behind, and vainly pursues a mysterious blonde until the break of dawn. A greaser named Milner (Paul Le Mat) is the champion drag racer of the scene, inadvertently picks up a young female passenger, Carol (Mackenzie Phillips) in his hot rod after unsuccessfully hitting on Carol’s older sister, and is sought out for a race by a cowboy named Falfa (Harrison Ford). (The cast of the movie is kind of ridiculously wall-to-wall future stars.)
Basically everybody drives up and down the streets of Modesto all night and listens to the radio. That’s about it, but that’s where the “musical” characterization enters into it, because the DJ-assisted soundtrack never lets up, and every song is not only a hit from the early 60’s, but a hit that managed to stand the test of time well into the 70’s. American Graffiti may legitimately be the first jukebox musical, except there’s no effort to incorporate the songs as part of the narrative delivery-mechanism rather than simply setting the scene, nor are there any characters singing the songs instead of hearing them in the background. But as pure nostalgia-driven pop-culture recycling, it’s utterly relentless. Fortunately, I also happen to enjoy golden oldies, but I can see reactions to this film swinging wildly depending on the presence or absence of a similar predisposition.
The overarching nostalgia is in fact so pervasive that it washes everything out to the point where it’s a tapestry of pleasant fuzzy memories with almost no conflict whatsoever. (Spoilers ho!) Steve and Laurie stay together, and Steve ends up the one who decides not to go to college for a year or so (maybe). Curt never finds the blonde but does ultimately get on the plane to head east for his freshman year, although not until after he spends a good chunk of the night being menaced by members of the Pharaohs gang, who prove to be toothless and harmless. Milner and Falfa race, Milner wins, Falfa crashes his car, but everyone walks away from it in one piece. And so on. The only elements of consequence allowed to sneak in are during the brief epilogue when the four main characters (including Toad, the boy who temporarily inherits Steve’s car) get a line of text each indicating how their lives proceeded after that night, and two of them died young. Just in case anyone missed the symbolism, I’ll underline it: in 1962 the world was in a perfect golden age as established in the Fifties, then the Sixties started for real and it all went to hell, sigh.
My wife and I like to repeat a joke (from Community, of course) about how it’s easy to get baby boomers on your side by appealing to their well-known self-regard. Clearly, making American Graffiti in 1973 was a genius move on George Lucas’s part, as it was a hangout film which was essentially about its own audience that reinforced how wonderful everything was back in the day. I may roll my eyes at it a little, but I can’t argue with the logic of it. And honestly, I don’t think it was really a calculated, cynical move on Lucas’s part. His affection for the period, his attachment to the joys of his youth, is completely genuine. American Graffiti is a movie with its heart on its sleeve, a heart that happens to be wearing backwards-looking rose-colored glasses, which is a terribly mixed metaphor but so it goes.
As the apocryphal stories go, the soundtrack for American Graffiti supposedly marked the moment in Hollywood where Music Supervisor became something that every major motion picture production had to have. To me, at least, that’s comparable to the fact that Star Wars marked the moment where movie merchandising from action figures to shower curtains became the most important revenue source attached to blockbusters. And thus does George Lucas loom large, even though he’s more remembered (or reviled) these days for tinkering too much with his old favorites (including not just Han Solo but Indiana Jones) and other many and varied creative missteps. He’s literally a victim of his own success, because the brief moment during which he was pushing boundaries in productive ways earned him such ungodly sums of money that he can afford to do whatever he wants until the day he dies, and no one can ever say “that was your last botch, you’re cut off.” Which simultaneously makes me feel sorry for him and makes it impossible to feel sorry for him. Still, it’s nice to look back at a simpler time, when all he wanted to do was make a movie that … looked back to a simpler time.