AFI Countdown Challenge #77: American Graffiti

George Lucas is known primarily for his work involving fast-paced adventure stories.  As a director, he’s best known for Star Wars, and while he hasn’t directed too many movies beyond the adventures of various Jedi Knights, he did do a couple others.  His first feature was a remake of his film school project, the dystonian THX 1138.  And then there’s American Graffiti.   At first glance, American Graffiti would seem to be an odd choice for Lucas.  It is neither a zippy adventure nor a science fiction story of any kind.

And yet, it really does fit into Lucas’ general wheelhouse.

Here’s the thing:  American Graffiti doesn’t follow much of a plot.  Four friends hang out one night in Modestro, California in 1962 the night before two of them are to fly out of town to start college.  Now, by giving them this one last night, you’d think the four would hang out together.  Instead, they more or less split up for the night and have separate adventures before reuniting again the next morning for a climactic drag race.

So, who are these guys?  Well…

  • Curt (Richard Dreyfuss) is having second thoughts about leaving in the morning and spends the night looking for a very specific woman, an attractive blonde (Suzanne Somers) he sees in a Thunderbird.  He runs afoul of some greasers and finally convinces Wolfman Jack (as himself) to give him some help.  Though he does get to briefly talk to the anonymous woman by phone, he ultimately decides to take the flight out of town the next day after all.
  • Steve (Ron, billed as “Ronny,” Howard) is quite confident about leaving the next day and suggests to his longtime girlfriend Laurie (Cindy Williams) that they see other people while he is out of town.  She doesn’t really want that, the two fight, and eventually they reunite and Steve opts to stay behind for an extra year.
  • Terry the Toad (Charles Martin Smith) is a short, bespectacled nerd who, given Steve’s classic car to watch over, goes cruising and picks up a blonde girl.  He plies her with a pile of lies, but when he eventually fesses up that it isn’t even his car, learns Debbie actually had fun with him anyway, so he manages to get the girl anyway.
  • John (Paul Le Mat) is the local drag king who manages to get a young girl in his car while out cruising (it’s complicated and rather innocent) while on the lookout for a new hotshot drag challenger, Bob (Harrison Ford!).  He spends the night trying to get the girl to go home and win the race he will have with Bob at the end of the movie.

As it is, the four go off, have a series of misadventures, and then when John finally gets that race with Bob, a race that wrecks Bob’s car and shakes up Laurie rather badly (no one is killed), Curt decides to go and Steve decides to stay.

Yeah, this movie came out before Happy Days, but it sure doesn’t look that way with these two hanging around.

So, why do I think this movie falls squarely without Lucas’ wheelhouse without a single Ark of the Covenant or hyperdrive in sight?  Well, it’s simple.  Though this movie is a result of a challenge from Lucas frined Francis Ford Coppola, the thing that comes out most to me is that Lucas has made a name for himself by recycling the joys of his youth.  Indiana Jones and the Star Wars films owe a large debt to movie serials and old Westerns of Lucas’ childhood, and just about everything about American Graffiti clearly owes a debt to Lucas’ own teenage years.  The soundtrack is wall-to-wall “golden oldies,” the cars are brighter, and the Modestro strip is just so exciting.  There’s a sock hop, a popular drive-in, and talk of meeting President Kennedy.  These are kids with their whole lives ahead of them, and while they may not be sure about many things, they know roughly where they are going and have some optimism to go with it…except perhaps for John, who believes Bob would have won that drag race had Bob’s car not suddenly flipped over.  John alone might be feeling adulthood creeping on.

And yet, despite a largely happy ending for all involved, a quick caption at the end tells us two of these guys will die within the next decade:  John killed by a drunk driver and Terry going MIA in Vietnam.  Steve is still in Modestro, working as an insurance agent.  Curt is a writer living in Canada.  Hardly a great ending for anyone aside from maybe Curt.

But Lucas is and has been in the nostalgia game for practically his entire career.  And he’s not bad at it.  It’s just where he works best.

And then I have to wonder:  where might Lucas have gone were it not for his greatest success?  Star Wars, more than anything else he’s done, defines who he is and what he has done since obviously.  Maybe American Graffiti isn’t the greatest work of its type, but it is surely a different animal than most of Lucas’ better known work.  It’s a crowdpleaser before he made nothing but crowdpleasers, working in a more experimental style with character work over narrative.  He’s juggling four stories at once, and mostly pulls them all off.  We get to see what makes each of these guys tick to one degree or another, particularly Curt who is probably the author surrogate.  What might have happened had Lucas made more movies like this and never considered the Force as something to commit to film?

And where might out modern motion picture be if he hadn’t?

As it is, I see American Graffiti  as more of a “what might have been” over whatever the movie itself is trying to accomplish.  It’s the odd man out in Lucas’ filmography that shows where his talent might have gone had it not been for Star Wars.

NEXT UP:  It’s time to go back to Charlie Chaplin as the Little Tramp tries to romance a blind flower girl in 1931’s City Lights.

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