DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: American Graffiti

Thursday, 7 July 2011

American Graffiti

American Graffiti (1973) dir. George Lucas
Starring: Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Howard, Charles Martin Smith, Paul Le Mat, Cindy Williams, Candy Clark


By Alan Bacchus

What a remarkable trio of films directed by George Lucas in the 1970s. THX 1138, his first, though not commercially successful, is a magnificent low budget production in experimental science fiction. Star Wars, of course, was his third in 1977, and requires no explanation (yet). And in the middle stands American Graffiti, which was then one of the highest grossing and most profitable films ever made, as well as a multiple Academy Award nominee. These are three markedly different films in genre, subject matter and tone, but all still recognizable as Lucas’s unique vision. Sadly, he wouldn't direct a film of his own again until he started doing Star Wars prequels in the 2000s. But before 1977, Lucas was arguably the most exciting filmmaker of the 1970s.

In American Graffiti, George Lucas rewinds us to the early 1960s to an unnamed suburban town in Northern California where, under the warm dusk and night skies, teenagers cruised the streets as the primary form of socialization and courtship. Perhaps influenced by the seminal ensemble film by Federico Fellini, I Vitteloni (1951), Lucas follows four male friends over the course of one night on the last day of summer before everyone splits and goes away to college.

There’s Curt (Dreyfuss), a smart but conflicted young man torn between going to college to fulfill his parents’ dreams and prolonging this significant time of one’s youth. Ron Howard is Steve, the popular all-American kid who can’t wait to experience college life but needs to dump his girlfriend first. Terry (Martin Smith) is the meek nerd who still has one more year left in high school and gets the surprise of his life when Steve offers up his revered '58 Chevy Impala to use while he's away. John Milner (Paul Le Mat) has already graduated but never went to college. Instead, he stuck around to work as a mechanic riding the coattails of his former glory as a high school A-lister.

Each of the separate stories of these characters produces remarkably profound emotions of our own youth. Even today, which is much different than 1960 and 1973, the feeling that each of Lucas’s characters experiences about this moment between childhood and adulthood is so identifiable and strong.

While Lucas equally distributes his running time to the other characters, he seems to identify most with Richard Dreyfuss’s conflicted Curt. Dreyfuss’s quiet but powerful performance is magnificent, representing Lucas's window through which we can look back at our own youth. On numerous occasions he has to tell his friends that he’s questioning whether he’s actually going to leave the next day for college. And each time Dreyfuss looks away or hesitates in his dialogue it produces an emotional reaction for the audience.

Just as profound as the emotional journey for these characters is the look, sound and feel of Lucas’s vision. Watch carefully and notice the consistency in his compositions and his use of light across the three aforementioned films. Look at the magnificent reflections off his muscle cars cruising the night streets, an effective cue that reminds us of the play of light off Darth Vader’s black helmet in Star Wars or the faceless policemen in THX 1138. Ironically, the film doesn’t have a credited Director of Photography. Instead, Lucas used two separate cameramen under the guidance of ‘visual consultant’ Haskell Wexler.

It might be an overused term, but American Graffiti truly is a timeless film, invisible to age and impossible to forget. It’s one part of the remarkable legacy of influential and inspired films from George Lucas in the 1970s. Damn I miss him.

American Graffiti is available on Blu-ray from Universal Home Entertainment.


James McNally said...

One of my favourite 70s films that I actually saw when it came out. This film probably led to Happy Days, unfortunately, but as a standalone bit of nostalgia, it's great. And check out Richard Linklater's take on high school graduation, Dazed and Confused, which has a lot of similar echoes.

Alan Bacchus said...

Thanks James. Indeed Dazed and Confused is a very close cousin to Graffiti.