Film Review: The Sad, Funny, and Brilliant ‘American Graffiti’

Mel's Diner from American Graffiiti film

American Graffiti is a sad, funny, and brilliant film centered on four small-town California youths and one late summer night in 1962. The movie, with a script by Gloria Katz, Willard Huyck, and director George Lucas, features a soundtrack of late 50s/early 60s rock and roll that shows how well the music articulated, and simultaneously helped shape, the feelings of its adolescent listeners.

The frantic monomania of “Surfin’ Safari,” the comical sexism of “Chantilly Lace,” the tormented heartthrob of “The Great Pretender,” and the naive uncertainty of “See You in September” are among the film’s many well-placed musical illustrations.

Yet for all its nostalgia (street gangs, hot rods, etc., in addition to the rock), American Graffiti is much more than a period piece. Its intent is not merely to display an era, but to raise questions about its origins and effects.

Each of the film’s four young principals, together in the early evening as the story begins, goes his own way; there are occasional encounters in the hours that follow, but it is not until the next morning that all of them are again together in one place. By then, we know each of the four quite well and have a good idea of the forces that control him, even though he may not.

Curt, the most intelligent and philosophical of the four, is initially undecided about attending an Eastern college, for which he had planned to leave in the morning. A year earlier, his greatest ambition had been to “become a presidential aide and shake hands with President Kennedy,” but now that’s too simplistic a goal. He spends most of the night with members of the Pharaohs (a local gang), who threaten to tie him to a car and drag him through the streets. Though he has ample opportunities to escape, he chooses to prove himself to them, winning a chance to join the gang, which he doesn’t even want to do. In one strange scene, a middle-aged member of the town’s Moose Club tells Curt, “You’ll make a fine Moose,” after which the gang’s apparent leader says, “You might make it as a Pharaoh.” perhaps summing up his smalltown options.

At 22, John is the oldest of the quartet, but he’s the one who most wants to “stay 17 forever” and who would be content just to remain the town’s racing champ and drive eternally down Main Street. Though he wins an early morning drag race and says he’ll continue to “take ‘em all,” he doesn’t believe he will.

“Rock and roll has been going downhill,” he proclaims, “ever since Buddy Holly died.” John is beginning to realize, however, that it’s his ability to “stay 17,” and not the music, that’s really deteriorating. Stuck for most of the evening with Carol, a girl of about 13 who wishes she were older, John is embarrassed by her presence; yet there is a strange affinity between the two.

Good-looking Steve, like Curt, is supposed to leave for college in the morning and, as the film begins, it is Steve who’s more determined to break free from the town. But the security of his girlfriend Laurie’s adoration is too strong a magnet and by dawn, Steve decides to stay where he is.

A pitiful bungler who manages to get laughed at, cheated, physically attacked, drunk, and sick in the course of the night, Toad is paired with Debbie, a gum-chewing blonde whose main concerns are “getting some brew” and watching guys “peel out” in their shiny cars. After telling her that she looks like Connie Stevens, Toad picks her up, uses his Walter Mitty imagination to impress her with stories about himself, and goes to incredible lengths to buy her some “hard stuff” (bourbon).

Later, when John happens on the scene and saves him from getting beaten to a pulp by some local toughs (as Debbie tries to help poor Toad and a car radio plays “Teen Angel”), he sums up his tragicomic state by explaining, “I’ll die soon. It’ll all be over.”

A fixation with frantic and mostly directionless motion, shared by all the youths in the film, is emphasized by the rushed scene at Mel’s Burger City Drive-In (the kids’ main gathering place), where cars and cycles speed in and out, and where waitresses work on roller skates. The most frequent single image, however, is Main Street, where the kids cruise constantly back and forth, showing off their all-important automotive wonders: most of them seem to live in the cars, stopping only for traffic lights, quick hamburgers, and members of the opposite sex.

Blaring incessantly from every car is Wolfman Jack’s radio show. Almost totally a creation of the young people’s minds, the omnipresent Wolfman is their hero and his status is a sign of just how thin a thread his followers’ realities hang on.

“He’s my man,” says a Pharaohs gang member. “When I graduate. I want to be a Wolfman.” Later, when a caller asks for help in getting reunited with his girlfriend, the DJ, whose every word is a potent force, soothes with a simple, “I’ll put ya right together.”

The Wolfman gains his power from the aura of mystery that surrounds him, and nobody seems to know just what or where he is. Could he be black or is he white? Might he be broadcasting from across the Mexican border or from a plane circling directly overhead? Is he just outside of town or is he simply everywhere?

Not surprisingly, it is Curt (trying to get a dedication aired to a mystifying blonde who whispered she loved him before disappearing in her Thunderbird car) who finds the Wolfman. Alone in his studio, the famed personality is a sort of Wizard of Oz, pulling switches behind a locked door.

The DJ denies his identity, saying he merely operates the equipment for the Wolfman, who comes in occasionally to drop off taped shows and talk about the “great world out there.” Curt, who knows that he’s talking to Wolfman Jack, is left to wonder whether there really is anything “out there” worth discovering. He’s not sure, but, unlike John, Steve, and Toad, he has to see for himself.

Leaving for college in a “Magic Carpet Airlines” plane the next morning, he sees the town fade into unimportance as it shrinks in the window of the craft. As the plane rises, a last glimpse of the pursued woman’s Thunderbird on a highway below reminds us that taking one path means foregoing others. But Curt, who’d surprised himself with his own strength in his encounter with the gang, is strong enough for choices, and for exploring his most important fantasies until they become real to him.

Though the youths of American Graffiti look and speak like dozens of the people I grew up with, the fine dialogue and superb acting (mostly by unknowns) save us from stereotypes. These are startlingly real characters, especially to anyone who was a teenager in the late ‘50s or early ‘60s.

The tragedy is that (Curt excepted) they could not escape from their own myths and from the unrealities of an electronic culture that, by age 17 and 1962, had begun to envelop them.

John lived every word of the drag racing songs that poured from his car’s radio. Toad, who really had no interest in cars or booze, believed them necessary to lure his imagined “Teen Angel.” Steve, whose plan to go east and make something of his life had itself been a hazy romanticism, remained with his high school cheerleader, settling for an eternal dreamy dance to the Platters’ “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes.” Only Curt made it to Bob Dylan.

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