Saturday, 30 June 2007
American Graffiti (1973) dir. George Lucas
Starring: Richard Dreyfus, Ron Howard, Paul Le Mat, Candy Clark
Remember when George Lucas was a good filmmaker? Seems like so long ago. Let’s go back to “American Graffiti”, Lucas’s second directorial effort, an ensemble nostalgia film about growing up in the early 1960’s. Graffiti started the successful careers of many of its stars including Harrison Ford, Richard Dreyfus, and Ron Howard. It was a personal film about Lucas’s youth and the passion that went into making it is visible on screen. It’s a terrific film that stands up to most of the “Star Wars” films.
The year is 1962 in suburban California. The film takes place over one night and follows a group of recently graduated high schoolers for one last romp before they each head their separate ways. Much of the action happens in around the precious cars that the kids drive up and down the main drag. A high school dance is worked into the mix where Steve and Laurie (played by soon to be ‘Happy Days’ costars, Ron Howard and Cindy Williams) are on the brink of breaking up; Curt Henderson (Richard Dreyfus) gets lost from the group and is taken on a wild ride with a group of local thugs led by the veteran heavy, Bo Hopkins; Terry The Toad (Charles Martin Smith) finds first love with Debbie Dunham (Candy Clark); and John Milner (Paul Le Mat) befriends a 13 year old who jumps into his hot rod car for an adventurous ride.
The metaphor of the transition from youth to adulthood is echoed in the setting. 1962 was two years before the British Invasion and before the psychedelic swinging 60’s. John Milner references the uncertain future when he says “music’s been going downhill since Buddy Holly died”. This somberness foreshadows the ending which comes as a tonal surprise. Innocence is behind Lucas’s characters and the future will never be same. “American Graffiti” then becomes the photo album of his generation.
Graffiti has the innate naturalism of an intensely personal or autobiographical film. Like “Mean Streets” or “Dazed and Confused”, or even “Fellini’s 8/12”. All these films have a natural organic flow that plays interrupted without obvious plotting or story beats. The beats are there, but with natural performances and dialogue we forget we’re manipulated by a story. That’s why the ending of “American Graffiti” resonates, because we actually get to know these characters as people.
At first glance, “American Graffiti” may not resemble “Star Wars” or “THX 1138” at all, but on close examination Lucas’s brilliant eye is always present. His static compositions are very similar to his other films, and the glowing and reflected lights of the street and the cars are a beautiful site. Its clear George Lucas knew how to frame a shot, how to edit and how to direct actors.
It’s a shame Lucas lost his touch. In the 80’s he obviously concentrated his efforts on producing, and forming ILM. It would have been nice to see what other films he could make without the mask of CGI of the new “Star Wars” films. Sadly, I don’t think we’ll ever know. Though we may have lost George Lucas forever to the dark side, I sure hope he has it in him to surprise me. Enjoy.
Buy it here: American Graffiti (Collector's Edition)