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Review: American Graffiti (1973)

American Graffiti (1973)

Directed by: George Lucas

Premise: In the summer of 1962, teenagers cruise the streets of Modesto, California for one last night out while pondering their futures.

What Works: American Graffiti is a piece of nostalgia, capturing the teenage years of the early half of the baby-boomer generation. But unlike many pieces of nostalgia, this film remembers the past in a far less romanticized way. Where Gone with the Wind recalled the pre-Civil War American south as a place of cordiality and sophistication with no traces of the horrors of slavery and Forrest Gump removed drug abuse from its portrayal of the counter cultural movement, American Graffiti retains a layer of teenage vulgarity that maintains its authenticity. It’s not over the top or shocking (this is not a Larry Clark film) but the picture’s dealings with sexuality, teenage angst, and burgeoning adulthood avoids sentimentality. Instead, the film transitions the characters, and by extension the culture, from the optimism and naiveté of youth and the post-war era and into a much more complex and even dangerous world. The film splits its story into different narratives, following four teenage boys, each going through his own odyssey of self discovery. Curt (Richard Dreyfuss) and Steve (Ron Howard) prepare to leave for their first semester of college and each deals with separation anxiety, with Curt debating if he should go and Steve trying to negotiate his relationship with his girlfriend (Cindy Williams). At the same time, Toad (Charles Martin Smith) gets a date with the girl of his dreams (Candy Clark) and John (Paul La Mat) cruises the strip with a precocious youngster (Mackenzie Phillips). Each character takes a very different journey and they don’t all arrive in the same place emotionally or intellectually but they do cross into some new understanding about themselves and about the world. As a piece of cinema, American Graffiti is recognized for its use of sound and especially music, which calls upon pre-Beatles rock and roll that is distinctly American and situates the film in a specific time and place. The film also uses radio personality Wolfman Jack to fill in the background sound, and his banter and the musical selections do a lot to give the film its period feel and to provide a running commentary on the events going on at any particular moment. As a New Hollywood picture, American Graffiti is more optimistic than many of them but it also displays the kind of experimentation with narrative form that came to characterize the period. The film is shot in a documentary style and lacks a score, relying on the source music. This, along with the naturalistic performances by the cast, makes American Graffiti a terrific cinematic experiment.

What Doesn’t: The film gets a bit long in places and the women of American Graffiti, except perhaps for Mackenzie Phillips, are largely left as flat periphery characters for the males to lust after. The film is primarily about the young men, but the film’s treatment of the female characters is still a sore point.

DVD extras: The “American Graffiti Drive-In Double Feature” DVD includes a documentary and a trailer as well as the sequel, More American Graffiti.

Bottom Line: American Graffiti is a film about the transition from youth to adulthood both for the individual characters and for the culture and it is a terrific bit of nostalgia that remembers this particular moment in American culture in a way that truly preserves the period rather than replicate in some Leave It to Beaver fantasy. The film’s use of sound and split narrative continues to influence films from Fast Times at Ridgemont High to Crash to Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist.

Episode: #217 (December 7, 2008)