Revisiting American Graffiti
Weekend before last, I fell into a Charlie Rose-induced internet chasm. After watching him interview Kenneth Branagh on his 2014 MacBeth stage production and Maureen Dowd on her recent book on politics, I found myself revisiting Charlie’s 2015 interview with George Lucas.
I hate it when experienced and professional interviewers I admire fail to ask what seem to be the most obvious of tough questions. It drove me nuts a few months ago when Terry Gross interviewed Gloria Steinem again but failed to even mention her comment earlier in the year, made to Bill Maher, about how young women who had chosen to support Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton were only doing so to meet boys. Say what, Gloria? Terry didn’t even ask.
Charlie is great too, but while reviewing his wide-ranging interview with Lucas, I was still struck by his failure to even mention Lucas’s misadventures in Star Wars prequel-land or the director’s stubborn refusal to release unaltered, optimized versions of his original theatrical trilogy, for which so many millions of us who grew up with these films have been clamoring for decades.
What really stood out to me in the interview this time was the pivotal nature of American Graffiti (1973), a film I barely remembered having seen, an unexpected hit that gave the unknown director of the quietly subversive sci-fi student film THX-1138 (1971) the keys to Hollywood. Of course, Star Wars happened next. Without Graffiti, it might not have.
Set in 1962, American Graffiti is a loosely plotted slice-of-life wherein Lucas fondly remembers his suburban California adolescence, paying homage to his love of classic American cars and 60s teenage cruising culture through the lens of a single night in the life of several teenagers, one or two of whom are leaving town for college the next day. The film begins at (and repeatedly returns to) the neighborhood drive-in — the local hangout that attracts all the kids with its bright-light beacons, roller-skating waitresses, 10-cent Cokes, burgers, fries and the omnipresent allure of chance encounters with other teenagers.
The locus of the film’s activity, the surrounding streets at night and the drive-around-in-circles-to-see-and-be-seen culture of cruising provide the backdrop. Hot rods abound, while the underage pursuits of illicit alcohol, sex, smoking and creepy teachers lurks around the edges of one last sock hop on the high school gym floor. Rock and roll permeates nearly every frame, accompanied by the croaky voice of Wolfman Jack, an actual period DJ.
An 18-year-old, pre-Happy Days Ron Howard stars as a class president/prom king on his way to college, with a pre-Lavergne & Shirley Cindy Williams as his girlfriend and prom queen, and then-unknowns like Richard Dreyfuss and Harrison Ford as a reluctant recipient of an out-of-state college scholarship and an interloping challenger for the local drag-racing crown, respectively.
Graffiti also features a well-meaning greaser with the fastest hot-rod in town who is trying to ditch an underage girl with whom he is unexpectedly stuck, a geek in a borrowed car on a mission to meet any young lady who will give him a chance and a few hoods in a local gang of menacing ne’er-do-wells who try to recruit Dreyfuss in one of the film’s most entertaining sequences.
Of course, Lucas’s next film, Star Wars (1977), devoured his life, setting him up for a lifetime of great wealth but devouring anything else that ever made a plea for his attention, contributing to the failure of his first marriage and robbing him of his desire to direct another film for decades, though in the interview he says he consciously chose fatherhood over filmmaking. I’d love to see a Lucas-helmed documentary take on these years of his life, a personal, behind-the-scenes look at making the first trilogy with his own insights on these seminal years, but I doubt he will make one, so for now we’ll have to settle for Elstree 1976. So much has been written about his intentions for so many years and from so many perspectives; I really hope one day Lucas decides to write a memoir and clear the air, presenting his side of the whole story of his career.
With Graffiti, a decade removed from the film’s setting, Lucas is clearly wallowing in nostalgia, reminiscing from personal experience, but he’s also mourning his perception of a generational loss of innocence at the tail end of an era that transitioned with President Kennedy’s assassination in 1963. By the time he was making Graffiti in the early 70s, the civil rights era had ended with the violent deaths of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Fred Hampton, Robert Kennedy, the Kent State students and so many others.
Vietnam commanded the attention of Americans, particularly young socially engaged filmmakers like Coppola and his producing pal Lucas, who once aspired to make an impact with a progressive social message, as did so many directors in the golden era of 1970s Hollywood filmmaking. Both were committed at different times to making Apocalypse Now, perhaps the most visceral and effective critique of American involvement in Southeast Asia ever made, inspired in part by Nathanial Hawthorne’s 1899 novel, itself a lost of innocence/end-of-an-era treatise, The Heart of Darkness.
Though Lucas transitioned to mythmaking space operas for kids, Richard Linklater continued this slice-of-life style of cinema with his “this is what the kids were up to before everything changed” films like Slacker (1991) and Dazed and Confused (1993), where nothing is explicitly linear and everything is about temporarily capturing a sense of time and place that no longer exists. As Linklater has said, “the most unique property of cinema is how it lets you mold time, whether it’s over a long or a very brief period.” Linklater continued to explore variations on temporal themes in Boyhood (2014) and in his Before trilogy (1995, 2004, 2013), saying that “if cinema was a painting, time would be the paint itself.”
Lucas’s picture indeed seems painted in time, fixed through a bumper-mounted viewfinder and revealing a reality that almost seems otherworldly today. Building a film around little other than a fond nostalgia for a bygone era can be fun for a while, but it’s always in danger of lingering too long and losing the attention of its audience.
In American Graffiti, this isn’t a problem. If there is an overarching narrative, it’s a sufficient collection of sub-plots that collectively serve an overall impression of the shifting of an age. This is the last chance for our group of suburban Californian white kids to live in the safe and relatively predictable world they’ve grown accustomed to, and things will never really be the same for any of them by the time the night is though.
Things were never the same for Lucas after American Graffiti, either, and it’s interesting to imagine what kind of filmmaker he would have become without having to shepherd Star Wars along its epic, multi-generational, multi-billion-dollar journey to become a global juggernaut. We can never go back, but American Graffiti is a nice reminder of what life was once like for many Baby Boomers of my parents’ generation, and in Lucas’s capable hands, it feels authentic.
Originally published at www.hardbarned.com on November 15, 2016.