By John H. Foote
At the conclusion of American Graffiti (1973) as the plane carries Curt high into the heavens, college bound, the faces of the characters we have just spent two hours with flash onto the screen, their futures briefly discussed. With melancholy and deep sadness, we learn that one of the friends will die in a car accident, killed by a drunk driver, his worst fear. Another will be reported missing in action in Viet Nam, and knowing him we wonder how he ever ended up in that war. Still another is a writer living in Canada, no doubt a draft dodger, while another is selling life insurance. Knowing their future brought something crashing home about the film.
It was about us and every generation of teenager to follow. Anyone who had ever been a teenager, which is all of us. Small town, big city, 1962, 1972, 2018, it does not matter, watching this film it becomes apparent with crushing power, we knew these kids, hell, we were those kids.
The cultural impact of American Graffiti (1973) has not likely ever been properly measured. Yes, it dealt with the past, 1962, the last complete year of innocence for Americans, the following year their handsome, youthful President would be gunned down in Dallas, forever creating a gap between the young and the establishment. Together, the kids, namely John, Steve, Curt and Terry would be impacted by what was to happen in the years to come, their fates punctuate a sense of lost innocence that lies at the very heart of the film. Something terribly precious was lost when President Kennedy was assassinated, some of which we did not know until years later, but it marked the beginning of the end of an innocence that will never return.
And look what came out of the film, look what followed!! The soundtrack became one of the greatest selling records in history, once again bringing life to fifties and sixties music, causing the youth of the seventies to look back to the Beach Boys, Buddy Holly and Bill Haley. Television jumped on the bandwagon with two hit series set on the fifties and sixties with cast members from the film, Happy Days, and Laverne and Shirley, each possessed of an innocence that was long gone yet oddly intoxicating. For a short time in the seventies, sixties dress became popular, it was as if we longed for a different time, a time when there was truly was innocence, when we could trust our leaders, when life was not yet marred with death.
American Graffiti (1973) has always been a much greater film than it was given credit for being. Far and away the best film of its year, no other movie of its time spoke to the audience with such familiarity, with such knowing. In some way, large or small we had gone through what those kids go through in the film, all of us needing to belong, to be loved, to be needed. One of the characters so loved what he was as a teenager, he has simply refused to grow up, at twenty-two he still hangs with the teens, and of course he is their God. Watch the quiet longing in his eyes when he speaks of the past, just five years earlier, a lifetime to him.
We meet the kids on the last night of the summer, that last great weekend, when school goes back, when friends are heading off to colleges, when life is on the cusp of change. As the light of the day fades, the neon lights come on, the headlights are turned on, the windows come down on the cars and the tunes get turned up. It is cruisin’ time. Up and down the streets the kids drive, looking for friends, making new friends, avoiding the police, having a good time. They are so diverse in so many ways, but united in one thing, youth. They are young, their whole life is still ahead of them, and they have no idea what to expect. That we gain insight into their lives at the end of the film feels like we are invading their privacy, that we are peeking into things we have no right to know anything about.
George Lucas is best known for Star Wars (1977). That will always be his claim to fame, the movie that announced his arrival as a filmmaker. However, his best film will always be American Graffiti (1973). The film introduces the kids at the beginning as they converge for the last might of the summer at the local burger shack. Girls on roller skates serve the cars, setting the trays on the rolled down windows, some diners choose to eat in the building. Standing against his car is Steve (Ron Howard) the class President, the all-round nice guy, liked and respected by all. On his scooter arrives Terry the Toad (Charles Martin Smith) a geeky little guy liked by the group but who struggles with the ladies. Curt (Richard Dreyfuss) rolls in to talk to Steve who cannot talk because Laurie (Cindy Williams) arrives shortly after John Milner (Paul Le Mat) pulls in. At twenty-two, John is older than the group, still driving his yellow hot rod Deuce coup, still the fastest car in the valley. The kids are drawn to John, but aware of what he is to them, that he is still living as a teenager, afraid to grow up.
Over the course of the long night, Steve will come to terms with his fears of going to college with Curt, Terry will meet the girl of his dreams, the kooky blonde with heart Debbie (Candy Clark), while Milner will be the butt of a joke, saddled with a precocious thirteen-year-old, Carol (MacKenzie Phillips) who over the course of the night he realizes despite the nine-year gap could be his soulmate. They seem to have more of an understanding about each other than any of the other couples. So much changes through the night, just as it does when you are a teenager, your entire life could be altered in a single action.
As the cars come and go in the warm night, the sounds of the times blare on the radio show of Wolfman Jack a renegade DJ who spun tunes and became a sensation. Music is a soundtrack to life, to all our lives, and that was never more evident for the first time than here. Lucas’s camera crawls through the night to the hop dance, into the washrooms and hallways of the school the kids are leaving behind, on the streets where the cops patrol, in and out of the moving cars, finally, to Paradise Road where Milner will race Falfa (Harrison Ford) the cocky new talent who has been looking for him all night.
In that final scene as the plane climbs ever higher into the sky, and those still images of the cast pop onto the screen in front of us, revealing their fates, we feel the loss. We think of Toad lost in Viet Nam, perhaps killed trying to help someone, a kid who never should have been sent. We think of Milner perhaps seeing the headlights cross into his lane, knowing his number is up, resigned to it because he always knew death waited for him on the highway. We think of the others learning of his death, the sadness they might feel, forever seeing their friend as we do, young. It as though Lucas caught them in a still photograph for the rest of time.
The film was a smash hit despite the fact Universal did not wish to even release it. Francis Ford Coppola, the producer whipped out his cheque book and offered to buy the film from Universal and release it on his own, so great was his confidence. Realizing they might be wrong, Universal did release it, with little hope for much success. To their shock the film was a massive hit bringing in over seventy-five million dollars on a $750,000 budget, an extraordinary smash hit. Critics loved it, placing it on their year end ten best list and the film was nominated for five Academy Awards, though it won nothing.
The staggering success of the film allowed Lucas to make his dream project, Star Wars (1977) though not for Universal who he felt had betrayed him, tried to humiliate him.
The performances remain exquisite, perfect. Richard Dreyfuss gives a lovely mature performance as the intellectual Curt, who understands more than anyone his youth is over, once he gets on that plane he leaves everyone behind. Ron Howard is very good as Steve, the conflicted good guy, who spurns college to stay behind for love. Best of all are Paul Le Mat, Charles Martin Smith, Candy Clark and Mackenzie Phillips.
Le Mat is haunting as a hot rodder who knows his time to grow up has come, he understands he is no longer sixteen, but man, what a thing to let go of, being the king of the road for so long. The wistful looks in his eyes when he talks of the past are lovely and sad because we gain insight into how he clings to them, and yet knows they are gone forever. The Oscar nomination he richly deserved but did not get might have altered the course of his career. You can find him on Facebook these days, promoting his novels and griping about what did not come to pass for him.
Martin is terrific as Terry, the geek of the group, the little guy, likely lousy at sports but a decent and loyal friend. He strikes gold with Debbie, the ditzy but heart of gold blonde he picks up through the night, proceeding to lie to her about, oh everything. But Debbie is smarter than she looks, and by the end of the night she realizes Terry is a good guy, a good thing for her to have in her life and makes clear she will see him again. There is a beautifully chemistry that bounces between them all night long, each actor brilliant. Clark was the lone nominee from the actors, a well-deserved nod for supporting actress.
Mackenzie Phillips deserved to be nominated too for her performance as Carol, smitten with John, age their obstacle. When he walks her through the auto graveyard he is likely revealing more of himself than any of his friends know, and though Carol is too young to realize that now, I imagine in the future, perhaps learning of John’s death, she will remember.
As the gleaming cars glide through the night, Del Shannon sings about the Little Runaway, the past envelopes us, rolls over us like warm water, and for two hours we are transported back to a simpler time. Flashes of our own youth move through our minds.
A brilliant film.
Again, we knew those kids, we are those kids. Lucas was not celebrating youth, he was mourning the loss of innocence of youth. As a director, he was never better.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.
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