Saturday, January 19, 2008

"American Graffiti"

My first (and only) published movie review was one that I wrote in January 1974 for the monthly newspaper of Will Rogers Intermediate School in Fair Oaks, California. The paper had always been called “The Whiplash,” but for reasons that are now lost to history, that year we decided to call it “The Pony’s Expression.” The review was about three paragraphs long, and the subject was American Graffiti.

I remember that my parents practically had to drag me to see it – at the time, 13 years old, I could think of nothing more boring than seeing a movie about what things were like when my mom & dad were my age (a bit older, actually, but within shouting distance). Of course, I was wrong – I loved the movie, and have probably watched it at least 50 times in the 35 years since I saw it for the first time.

As to where American Graffiti stands in the pantheon according to the critics that matter, I have no idea. It got great reviews at the time; it was nominated for the Best Picture Academy Award; it was a huge hit; and it spawned years of nostalgia for the 1950s (even though it was set in 1962) that resulted in “Happy Days” and God knows what else. Today it is not ranked in the top 200 of all time on the Internet Movie Database, but it does have a high rating. As far as I’m concerned it’s a great movie, as well as a cultural artifact that has held up remarkably well.

As everyone must surely know by now, American Graffiti was the movie that put George Lucas on the map. Based on what came afterward this seems remarkable to me today – that a director best known for leading a cultural shift in film which led (or helped lead) to the era of special-effects, actors be damned blockbusters had as his first huge hit a low-budget movie, with mostly unknown actors, that was driven by a great screenplay, a great soundtrack, and a remarkable set of performances that can stand along with any ensemble performance of the past 50 years. I’m not sure what happened between 1973 and the second trilogy of Star Wars movies, but at some point during that period Lucas either lost (or decided it didn’t matter) the ability to coax memorable performances out of his actors. Sure, there are exceptions, but certainly there can be no one from the cast of the last trilogy that is going to point at those films as their best or most memorable performances.

In American Graffiti, the performances make the movie. With a group of lesser actors, American Graffiti could easily have become the Porky’s of its generation. How much Lucas had to do with those performances is hard to know – I suspect it was very little; that it was really just extraordinary luck in casting. But whatever the reason, the bottom line is that the film features an extraordinary group of actors, who turn in a remarkable set of performances.

The story is simple enough – it’s the last night of freedom before the school year begins, and two recent high school graduates – played by Ron Howard and Richard Dreyfuss – are preparing to leave for college, back east. One is certain that he’s ready to leave the comfort zone of home; the other is plagued with doubts as to whether he’s making the right choice. Over the course of one memorable night, what happens to each of them has a profound effect on their choice, which becomes one that essentially sets them on the course of what their life is to become.

But that sounds so deep – and this is anything but a deep movie. From that backdrop, Lucas seamlessly melds together a series of 1950s clich├ęs – the drive-in, cruising down the strip, the sock hop, the tough gang, the hot-rod racer, the dorky kid with the huge glasses, and the bratty younger sister (among others) – which, fueled by what is perhaps the greatest rock ‘n roll soundtrack ever to grace a film, becomes something which is much, much greater than the sum of its parts. It’s hysterically funny, and from the first scene where Toad nearly impales himself trying to park his Vespa, the movie never wavers, never flags – it’s just perfect.

My kids have come to love it as much as I do, and since it is currently appearing on Comcast’s On-Demand feature (in widescreen, no less!), we watched it twice during the holidays. Some random thoughts and favorite moments:

• Steve (Ron Howard) and Laurie (Cindy Williams, who absolutely nails her role as the clingy girlfriend) are arguing on the dance floor, oblivious to what is going on around them, when the emcee announces the spotlight dance and they are suddenly bathed in blinding light. Laurie stops in mid-sentence, grabs Steve around the neck, and basks in the glow of those around her.

• Toad, in a brief encounter with a tough guy (played by a very young Joe Spano), tries to defend his new friend, leading to this classic dialogue:

“Hey punk, you want a knuckle sandwich?”

“Uh, no thanks, I’m waiting for a Double Chubby Chuck.”


• Bo Hopkins, playing one of the Pharoahs (Fay-Roes, he pronounces it), to Curt, played by Dreyfuss:

“You know Gil Gonzalez?”

“Uh, no…I don’t think so.”

“Well, that’s his car you got your butt parked on.”

• The performance of Paul LeMat, as the hot-rod driver, who manages to infuse his character with a life’s worth of weary wisdom. He knows his world is essentially over, symbolized by the appearance on the radio of the surf music that he hates with a passion. But he is obligated by expectations that he will remain the King of the Strip, and so he keeps plugging on, even though it is no longer much fun.

• Toad’s barfing scene, which is one of the more surreal scenes in the movie. I mean, it must be 4 in the morning by this point, so what is that old couple doing out in the first place? Makes absolutely no sense, but that just adds to the hilarity. And Debbie (Candy Clark) standing there, absolutely sincere in her defense of Toad, telling the amused onlookers, “Oh no…he drinks all the time; he told me so.”

• Harrison Ford singing “One Enchanted Evening.”

• The Wolfman Jack scene, which is one of the great movie scenes of all time, in my book. The Wolfman isn’t really acting in this scene; he’s just being himself, shrouded in mystery, broadcasting nothing but the best rock ‘n roll from coast to coast. Wonderful.

I could go on and on, and maybe in a later post, I will. But for now, let’s just say that American Graffiti is one of the best - a movie to cherish, and never get tired of.

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