A film review by Craig J. Koban

 

RANK: #3

AMERICAN GRAFFITI jjjj

35th Anniversary Retrospective Review

1973, PG, 112 mins.

 

Curt: Ricky Dreyfus / Steve: Ronny Howard / Laurie: Cindy Williams / John: Paul Le Matt / Bob Falfa: Harrison Ford / Terry The Toad: Charles Martin Smith / Carol: Mackenzie Phillips / Joe: Bo Hoskins /  Wolfman Jack: himself

 

Directed by George Lucas / Written by Lucas, Gloria Katz and Williard Huyck

George Lucas will always be remembered as one of the unqualified pioneers of popular escapist cinema.  Movies like the STAR WARS sextet and the INDIANA JONES quadrilogy effortlessly transport spectators until the point where the films' stories work by working on us.  Instead of passively viewing these films, we almost inhabit and feel a part of the experience of the events that unfold in them.  That’s the cornerstone of some of the greatest works of the cinema – they are, at their most simplistic levels, experiences that transcend the stories and characters. 

The richly textured and detailed universes of STAR WARS and Indy Jones are among the greatest of all escapist films, but Lucas’ own multi-Oscar nominated AMERICAN GRAFFITI – released in 1973 and predating all of the other films previously mentioned – is also in the grand tradition of films that we vicariously view.  Instead of transporting viewers to galaxies far, far away, GRAFFITI is ultimately a modest time capsule period piece of the recent (by 1973 standards) past.  The universe of the film will be familiar to anyone that lived during it: What Lucas does - and does which such filmmaking economy and precise execution - is to hearken back to the feel, landscape, and sights and sounds of early 1960’s teen life of a small Californian town (very similar to the Modesto that he grew up in as a youth).  

The paramount theme here is the fragility of the socio-political fabric of American society during the bright years of President Kennedy’s New Frontier, which promised a hopeful future for all.  “Innocence” best encapsulates the period – the people were different, the music and culture was more simplistic and naïve, and nihilism was vacant.  Like STAR WARS, Lucas shows a world both familiar and foreign:  He gives us a kaleidoscope of suburban American life well before the cultural influence of the Beatles' British invasion and, more crucially, the ominous period where political figures like JFK, his younger brother Bobby, and Martin Luther King were assassinated.  Polarizing events and calamities like the Vietnam War and Watergate were just a stone’s throw away as well, which would also have unalterable effects on the American psyche. 

Today, STAR WARS is clearly Lucas most viewed and cherished of films, but GRAFFITI just may be his most poignantly told and ardently personal.  In 1973 Lucas was barely a blip on the radar of Hollywood and hardly the multi-billionaire independent filmmaking emperor that he is today.  In the early 70’s he was a former USC film student, who tried – much like his film student colleagues of the times, Steven Spielberg and Francis Ford Coppola – to represent a new breed of fiercely creative filmmakers.  Lucas' first foray into the big budget film world almost proved to be his Waterloo.  1971’s dystopian futuristic thriller, THX 1138, was a gigantic flop for Warner Brothers, despite the creative flair of its twenty-something director and writer.  Realizing that shaping a career based on heavy handed morality sci-fi tales of oppression may not be his ticket to the limelight, Lucas was inspired by his mentor Coppola to create something “lighter” and more easily digestible. 

The inspiration for GRAFFITI came from three primary obsessions of Lucas’: the hot rod car, the mating rituals of “cruising”, and his love of classic rock n’ roll.  Seeing that there was an untapped market to make youth oriented dramadies (which certainly were not a dime a dozen then as they are now) Lucas set out an ambitious screenplay that had a then revolutionary approach: Tell a series of stories involving multiple characters in disjointed vignettes and seamlessly integrate them all together with a non-stop classic rock soundtrack that would act as a Greek chorus for what transpired on screen.  This approach, for its time, was bold, experimental, and very risky.  Although the aesthetic choices Lucas envisioned then are more than commonplace today (films with multiple storylines and wall-to-wall music are everywhere now), many studios balked quickly at Lucas’ pitch.  At the time, the young filmmaker had a five-page story treatment and barely $500 in the bank.  He made the rounds to seemingly every studio in Hollywood, all of which thought that a teen oriented, avant garde film was too esoteric for modern audiences of the time. 

Realizing that he needed some star-studded muscle to convince studios of the validity of his project, Lucas turned to Coppola (then hot of the success of the first GODFATHER film) and asked him to serve as Executive Producer, which he did.  With Coppola on board, Universal Pictures decided to fund Lucas’ story.  With some go-ahead financing, Lucas also gained script assistance from fellow film school pals Gloria Katz and William Huyuk (who would later go on to write the second INDIANA JONES film for him in 1984).  Primarily drawing inspiration from his massive collection of 45-rpm singles, Lucas crafted every moment of the film’s script with musical cues.  Because of this, GRAFFITI became the very first film to ever have a large soundtrack of rock tunes, which seems par for most teen high school films today.  The cost of licensing the songs was one of the primary reasons for the film’s rejection by most studios, many believing that it would cost half a million dollars (in actuality, Lucas and company managed to option all 75 songs for under $100,000, an astronomical bargain). 

Amazingly, filming commenced with relatively no input or interference from the studio, which is astounding considering how much of a directorial novice Lucas was.  They initially gave him $600,000 for a budget, which was subsequently bumped up to $775,000 (still a remarkably low sum for the early 70’s).  Filming began on June of 1972 in San Rafael, California, but problems soon began here.  The production was eventually kicked out of the town (most likely because of the noise of a 30-day-plus graveyard shooting schedule), so Lucas and company were forced to relocate to nearby Petaluma.  The only studio interference Lucas did get during the shoot was to rename the film (the studio offered 65 alternative titles, all steadfastly refused by Lucas).  

Lucas’ initial choices for photography GRAFFITI also proved very difficult.  Originally conceiving the entire film to be shot with only two cameraman and no formal cinematographer (as he did with THX), Lucas wanted to eliminate the sheen and polished look of studio films and instead opt for a more naturalistic, cinéma vérité, urban documentarian style.  Unfortunately, these choices made the film almost impossible to light properly, so Lucas got aid from friend and cinematographer Haskell Weskler, who came up with time saving and cheap innovations to still provide the aesthetic look Lucas wanted while not sacrificing image clarity and quality.  The result is curiously one of Lucas least elegant looking – but beautifully and naturally choreographed – films.  

Other dilemmas on the shoot proved to be debilitating.  A key crewmember was arrested for growing pot, several key members of the cast (which included a very young and rowdy Harrison Ford, Paul Le Matt, and Bo Hoskins), proved to be rambunctious partiers at their local hotel where they stayed during the shoot.  The actors themselves often complained about Lucas’ lack of creative input in their performances (a common criticism that has dogged the director all of his career).  People on the crew also questioned the legitimacy and worth of Lucas’ attempts to film a love ballad to music and the teen cruisin’ lifestyle in such a dramatically unorthodox manner. 

Lucas did have supporters, namely in his producer and friend Coppola, and also in the form of Walter Murch, who proved to be absolutely instrumental for the film’s music and editorial choices.  The partnership of Murch and Lucas proved to be GRAFFITI’s ace in the hole, as the film is such a wonderfully realized auditory universe.  The film has a soundtrack for the ages that manages to infer a nostalgic attachment for time while commenting on the events in the film, but Murch also sought to make GRAFFITI's sound sonically realistic.  This, combined with the extravagant eye candy of the roadsters that populate Lucas screen, made GRAFFITI feel so alive and naturalistic. 

The film’s story itself was also a landmark achievement in the history of the medium, one of the first to tell multiple storylines overlapping one another and finally coalescing to a final conclusion.  The script all takes place during the events of one hot summer night in a small Central Californian town, just as school is about to begin in September.  Instead telling stories about high schoolers, GRAFFITI instead deals with recent graduates and the choices they make after graduation.  We see all of the characters at various points in their post-high school life.  We have Curt (played by a young and energetic “Ricky” Dreyfus), arguably the one teen that thinks and ponders his future the most, and with the most apprehension.  Whereas most of his friends are ready for college, Curt is not sure he’s ready to move on to bigger and brighter things. 

We also meet his BFF Steve (played by “Ronny” Howard), a quintessential All-American boy that seems destined for greatness.  He also has desires for the college lifestyle, but this former student president is unsure that leaving behind his steady girlfriend (Cindy Williams) is the best choice.  Steve and Curt’s other friend, Terry “The Toad” (played very humorously and affectionately by Charles Martin Smith), is the prototypical nerd with big glasses, a bad haircut, which has a really hard time scoring with babes.  Perhaps the freshest aspect of the film is that he later meets a blonde bombshell (played memorably by Candy Clarke) that develops a touching romance with him.  There are three remaining key figures, the first being aging hot rodder John Milner (Paul Le Matt, with a lot of cocky and cool bravado) who inadvertently is forced to spend the night cruising with a not-quite-legal young teen (Mackenzie Philips) and his dragging adversary, Bob Falfa (played in a very early performance by Harrison Ford, who has never played such a smug and arrogant loser before or since).  Falfa and Milner are in their twenties, but still seem convinced that they need to live by a 18-year-old boy mentality and code of the street ethics.  The final character worth mentioning is Wolfman Jack himself, played by the real Wolfman, who is a constant and ubiquitous presence on the radio waves. 

AMERICAN GRAFFITI has been called a Generation X slice of life film before that label had any meaning.  That is a worthwhile observation (films about youth as far ranging as DAZED AND CONFUSED and CLERKS owe the film’s teen centric focus a debt).  The finest aspect of the film is its fresh and almost effervescent outlook on the times and culture that the characters inhabit.  The film has often been slammed for having a storyline that seems to meander and never gels to any dramatic crescendos.  Yet, those critics fail to see that the sheer delight of watching GRAFFITI is not in the sense of being lost in a captivating storyline, but rather being whisked away and feeling like you’re living in the moment with Lucas’ teens.  The structureless plot is actually a necessity to accurately portray a night in the life of these youth, which often meant frequent trips to Mel’s Drive in, a lot of nonsensical banter and conversations, the obligatory beer runs with fake ids, and, yes, lots and lots of aimless cruising.  All of this artifice goes to show how perfectly Lucas captures a fragment of time in the past when things looked bright and limitlessly enticing, especially before the tragic events of what was to come in American culture. 

For all its simplicity, Lucas does manage to evoke on everlasting and significant theme with a startling image of a young and gorgeous blonde woman driving an immaculate T-bird.  When Curt gets a fleeting glimpse of her he feels that she is the perfect embodiment of femininity, the epitome of an elusively gorgeous woman.  Lucas’ handling of her (played by Suzanne Summers, who would later became famous on TV) is intriguing:  she speaks only a small handful of lines and is often glimpsed from afar.  Near the film’s conclusion she is shown in her white T-bird driving solemnly down a highway, almost as a symbol of the purity of the early 60’s leaving society.  Is she a real woman…a goddess (as Curt thinks she is)…an angel…or some other ethereal presence?  The film cheerfully tantalizes us with the possibilities. 

It is clear from the get go that Lucas envisioned something unique and special with GRAFFITI.  This, of course, made the editing of the film strenuous (Lucas’ first cut was nearly four hours and was ultimately toned down to 112 minutes).  Early test screenings of the film were enthusiastically greeted by filmgoers, but Universal Pictures inexplicable forced Lucas to edit out four minutes of content (?) to make the film more readily digestible.  This is a crucial development for the mergence of George Lucas as an independent filmmaker:  Universal’s dubious handling of an already great film made the filmmaker highly distrusting of Hollywood, and the ripples of this early relationship in the wake of filming GRAFFITI can still be felt today. 

Nonetheless, when GRAFFITI opened in late summer of 1973 it became an overnight smash.  It received universal critical praise and overwhelming audience support (it went on to gross a then incredible $115 million dollars, which still makes it one of the most profitable films of all-time).  The film was also an Oscar darling, nabbing five nominations, including two for Lucas (for Screenplay and Director, his first of two nominations in each category, he would also be nominated again for both four years later for STAR WARS).  Today, the film still retains its legacy as one of the more integral works of the 1970’s.  The AFI recently voted it #62 on its list of Greatest American Films and, most notably, the film received its highest honor by being deemed “culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant” enough to be placed in the US’ National Film Registry.  From the 70’s onward, teen oriented films laced with wall-to-wall music became a legitimate genre, and other genre films also used Lucas’ pioneering choices to tell their stories.  TV was also affected, with shows like HAPPY DAYS – one of the most popular in TV history – seeing the light of day in GRAFFITI’s wake.  The film's then unknown cast - Ford, Dreyfus, and Howard - all went on to become enormously successful actors and, in Howard's case, one of Hollywood's most bankable filmmakers.

Perhaps the biggest legacy on the film was how it changed the man behind the camera.  GRAFFITI made Lucas an overnight millionaire and his newfound respect, affluency, and status as a major filmmaking player allowed him to peruse his next film, a space fantasy with Flash Gordon trappings that would go on to become a part of the cultural lexicon of the last 30-plus years.  Without the success of GRAFFITI there would have been no STAR WARS and without that 1977 space opera the whole landscape of popular summer entertainment would have been drastically altered.   In short, Lucas achieved the impossible with two small budget 1970’s films: he considerably reevaluated and reinterpreted how films were envisioned, made, and marketed.  The long-standing influence and importance of these films is hard to refute. 

Even if one overlooks AMERICAN GRAFFITI's place in cinema history, the film – even 35 years after its release – still remains one of the more charming, inventive, and entertaining travelogue pictures of all time.  It was exemplary for how it precisely placed its finger on the pulse of energy and spunk of a time in American history before listlessness and a genuine loss of innocence occurred, which began with a presidential assassination in November of 1963 and would further be rocked by other radical changes in American society.  AMERICAN GRAFFITI lovingly tells a story that chronicles a cheerier and more optimistic time in America before - as the famous lyrics in Don McLean’s AMERICAN PIE stated - “the music died.”  The film asked viewers in its advertising where they were in 1962…maybe as a way of allowing for fond reflection…and even maybe as a manner of recalling a time that seemed untainted by social-political strife and scandal that irrecoverably altered a nation.  On those levels, AMERICAN GRAFFITI is both a joyous American classic…and a distressingly sober wake up call. d a somber wake up call.

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