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American Graffiti (1973)

by on 2011/09/20

“You’re just mentally playing with yourself.”

* * *

Didn’t I just review this movie . . . or at least one a whole lot like it?

Yes, I did. That piece was called Dazed and Confused, and it took place in the same era when American Graffiti was produced. Despite a generation’s gap, they are very similar. If I’d known how close they were I would have reviewed a few “palate cleansers” between them.

Set in 1962, Graffiti was inspired by the phenomenon of cruising, rock and roll music, and director George Lucas’ youth. Cars were big, disc jockeys were celebrities, jukeboxes were common, and the British had yet to invade. Against this backdrop, another ensemble wrestles with the future ahead of them. A last dance marks the end of high school, and the future lies in wait.

The group is less diverse than you’d expect, though it splits the difference between Dazed and The Breakfast Club. There’s a fantasizing bookish type (Charles Martin Smith), a thuggish greaser with a heart of gold (Paul Le Mat), an everyman with a selfish streak (Ron Howard), and doubtful wanderer (Richard Dreyfuss).

Make no mistake: while women are present, these stories are not theirs. In parallel, four nominal plots exist to explore the males’ views of their changing world. As in Dazed, they are united by cars, lust, violence, and pranks. They look distinctive, and act differently, but all feel very alike.

Given this production shares concepts, locations, music, and talent with TV’s Happy Days, a sense of deja vu is unsurprising. And yet I was reminded of other properties: Archie comics and Grease. What if Archie grew up? What if Grease got a musical-ectomy? The response to either could be American Graffiti.

In truth, the experience is more tonal than narrative. We’re immersed in the sights and sounds of the late Fifties and early Sixties. What “happens” is of less consequence. The various threads chronicle minor conflicts: a car is stolen, rivalries escalate, girls are pursued, and a needy gang clamours for new members.

None of the tales are especially compelling, however. Separately, they’re slight and insufficient; together, they form no greater gestalt. The pace does pick up somewhat in the end, and I won’t spoil an enjoyable later scene, but it took so long to get to that point, I had started watching the clock.

Instead of an arc — or four — I felt as if I were watching a two-hour montage of incidental footage cut to the feature’s true focus: the songs. Not quite stock footage, but close.

Even the dialogue did little to win me, despite the respect it receives. The script is heavy with exposition, with characters describing to each other past events with which they should already be familiar. I understand the intent, but it rarely catches my ear this much. I wondered if the writers themselves were aware of the “clunking”. Ron Howard’s character seems oddly self-aware when he says, “You make it sound like I’m giving dictation.”

Speaking of which, anyone who’s read our Fish Called Wanda review will know what I think about textual epilogues. Enough said.

The net result feels like Dazed and Confused, with more substance and subtext, but less edge or interest. I found myself having an epiphany as I muddled through this audio/visual pastorale: was there any surprise Lucas had benefited from the mythological studies of Joseph Campbell? Marrying the director’s aesthetics with the professor’s heroics gave action to one, and exposure to the other. This slice of Americana suggests a creator who could benefit from narrative structure.

Today it has become almost fashionable — and certainly easy — to critique George Lucas. Still, American Graffiti shows a lot of promise, and is easily the most unique and personal work of his career. It may not be his best overall, but it conjures the most convincing reality. Ultimately, I doubt I’d see it again. I’d rather get ahold of the soundtrack.

As I said to our boiler room B-movie queen, it was good . . . I just didn’t like it much.

* * *

Rated PG

112 minutes

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