American Graffiti, by Albert W. Vogt III

Name one movie that George Lucas has directed other than Star Wars.  Before you go to the Google machine, I will tell you: THX 1138 (1971).  Yet, because no one has heard of that one, we will talk about the sixty-second movie according to the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 greatest American films of all time, American Graffiti (1973).  Growing up as a Star Wars and Indiana Jones fan, I used to think Lucas was a genius.  To a certain degree, AFI agrees as Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977) is number thirteen in their rankings.  Also, while not directed by Lucas, number sixty-six, Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), has his cinematic fingerprints all over it.  Having three entries is definitely an accomplishment.  Then he had to go an make the Star Wars prequels the way he did.  I now consider him a hack.  While I have yet to see THX 1138, with my recent viewing of American Graffiti I have watched nearly everything he has to offer.  The guy has a style, and today’s film is perhaps its apotheosis, even more so than his more famous works.  This is not meant as a compliment.

It is the early 1960s in American Graffiti, but it might as well be the 1950s, and it is somewhere, California, I suppose.  You know what?  Have you ever seen Dazed and Confused (1993)?  American Graffiti is basically that movie, but set in an earlier time period and with far less drug use.  If that is not a clear enough description, then I will continue, though please do not blame me for making a mess of the proceedings.  Take every drive-in diner you have ever seen from this era and that is where our main characters meet.  You have Steve Bolander (Ron Howard) and Curt Henderson (Richard Dreyfuss), high school best friends about to go off to college the next day.  They are soon joined by Steve’s girlfriend Laurie (Cindy Williams) and another of their group, John Milner (Paul Le Mat), the owner of a souped up yellow hot rod.  Working at the diner is the hapless Terry Fields (Charles Martin Smith).  This seems to be a near nightly gathering, yet this one has a different feel being the last one for Curt and Steve.  Curt is having his doubts about leaving, and Steve is telling him that they need to get out into the world to explore it.  To that end, Steve tells Laurie that while he is away at college, though he plans for them to continue their relationship, they should see other people because they are now adults.  Laurie is hurt by this suggestion, but she pretends to play it cool.  At any rate, there is a sock-hop going on in another part of town, because, of course, we have to cram in one more period-appropriate stereotype.  Everyone goes but John and Terry.  And thus commences a scattering of all our principles characters as they disperse around town at random trying to figure out their lives.  I guess this is the point, anyway.  There is a seemingly endless loop of car rides through the streets, all with 1950s rock n’ roll playing in the background.  This is why I brought up Dazed and Confused, which has a remarkably easier plot to follow than this one.  Put differently, it is less complicated to have a dozen or so people trying to find weed than five attempting to divine a purpose for their lives.  The latter of these pursuits is a weightier subject, so I guess this is why American Graffiti is on AFI’s list.  You may think that I have deviated from giving you a synopsis of the film, but that is not true.  This is what goes on for nearly two hours.  Still, to give this more form, I will run through the previously named characters and briefly describe their literal comings and goings.  Steve briefly recommits to Laurie at the sock-hop before they break up when he tries to pressure her into sex.  Curt spends the night with a local gang called the Pharaohs committing a series of petty crimes.  After kicking Steve out of her car, Laurie is eventually picked up by a local street racer named Bob Falfa (Harrison Ford).  John Milner spends the entire night cruising around town with a twelve-year-old girl named Carol (Mackenzie Phillips), who he has to essentially threaten to make out with so that he can learn where she lives to take her home.  Finally, there is Terry.  Before leaving the diner and as preamble to his leaving, Steve gives Terry the use of his car.  Taking it out for a spin, Terry manages to lure the beautiful Debbie (Candy Clark) into the front seat by lying about it being his vehicle.  He keeps on lying to her until by the end of the night, having lost and retrieved the car, been beat up, and shown his cowardice at every turn, he admits that his only mode of transportation is a broken-down Vespa.  Yet, she says she has had a good time and wants to see him again?  I was baffled.  Anyway, the film loops back to the diner almost as if nothing has happened, even though a whole lot of nonsense has taken place.  With Laurie alongside, Bob challenges John to a race outside of town.  Everyone is on hand (save for Carol and Curt) to witness Bob’s hot rod lose control about halfway through the sprint, going off the road and rolling a few times.  Steve frantically runs to the wreck and finds a miraculously unhurt Laurie.  They kiss and make-up.  It is also the final argument he needs to convince him to not go away for school and to stay with Laurie.  Thus, instead of a send-off committee for Steve, they are there to say their goodbyes to Curt.

As American Graffiti was ending, I began to have hope that I had finally seen a film from the 1970s that did not make me feel sad.  Then again, it is not set during that decade.  At any rate, any thought of happiness I had faded when, in a postscript before the end credits roll, they talk about what happens to the characters.  While Curt and Steve go on to live normal lives, John dies in a drunk driving accident and Terry goes missing in action during the Vietnam War.  So, great, not really a happy ending after all.  Before I began watching this film, I noticed that it is described on Amazon Prime as a “coming of age” story.  I suppose that works as a descriptor, though typically such tales last over the period of a few days rather than one confusing night.  It is certainly a shorter time period than what Catholics are told to take in order to discern their vocation, which is essentially what these characters are attempting to do.  Will Curt and Steve be college students or stay local?  Will Laurie accept Steve?  Will John remain a greaser or, um, fall in love with a pre-teen?  It gets cloudier the further you go down the cast of characters.  Yet, that is the whole reason for spiritual discernment, to take the time to make God’s will a little clearer.  It is not an exact science.  Even some of the greatest saints known to the Church wrestled with these ideas their entire lives.  Thus, I find it hard to believe that any definitive decisions are made over the course of one strange, difficult to follow evening.

Throughout this review of American Graffiti, I harped on a few questionable themes.  They are, to be somewhat fair, taken out of context.  While they are presented in a relatively innocent form, I am not sure how you get around the relationship that develops between Carol and John.  Therefore, if you want a real “coming of age” movie that covers roughly the same time and place, skip this one and go watch The Sandlot (1993).


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