American Graffiti Movie Review

The Star Wars prequels have tarnished his rep a little, but give him his due --- George Lucas once understood the possibilities and limitations of film like few others. Lucas' second feature film, American Graffiti, was a self-assured gem that established him as a major director (though a lot of studios still didn't want to bankroll Star Wars, proving that studio execs weren't any smarter in the seventies than they are now).

A cinematic collection of slightly exaggerated memories from Lucas' senior year in high school (1962), Graffiti was well-timed; it caught a wave of fifties nostalgia that would crest with Happy Days, Grease, etc. While the iconoclasm of the sixties and seventies would continue to take youth culture in a very different direction, Graffiti helped spark a cultural backlash (or at least a flashback) after the free-love/acid-rock/anti-war era.

The autobiographical Graffiti was perhaps an easy film for the young director to make, but it's still a good film, and nothing good is ever easy. The storyline is fairly thin, but it is as it was -- a faithful depiction of drag racing and drive-ins, boredom and lust, the anxieties and dreams of small-town America in the early 1960s. The weekend rituals of Lucas' teenage hotshots and losers are set to an awesome soundtrack, the pop/rock & roll that was always on the radio in the early sixties -- a diverse continuum which included the Beach Boys' SoCal harmonies, Chicago R&B, Northeastern doo-wop and Texas rockabilly (so different from the Balkanized formats of today's radio). The songs which constantly play in the background in Graffiti are perfectly chosen and capture the moment when the musical tastes of white and black America finally merged.

The film gets the details mostly right, and the parade of classic cars demonstrates that Lucas was a true gearhead who once considered car racing as a vocation. Most important, Lucas's direction and pacing are (or at least were) flawless. With its large cast of young and hungry actors, Graffiti launched several careers (not only Ford but also Dreyfuss, Cindy Williams, Suzanne Somers, Kathleen Quinlan, and others).

Lots of people have sneered at the American culture of the fifties and early sixties -- examples are too numerous to mention, from opinion makers like historian David Halberstam to films like Pleasantville -- and we are supposed to believe it was a time of naiveté and paranoia and injustice. Well, screw 'em. The fifties and sixties were the last time when cultural aspiration was still cool, and to someone growing up today, the difference between then and now seems huge, and unfavorable. It was an era of dreams and possibilities -- Chuck Berry and Miles Davis were reinventing music and MLK was leading the civil rights movement during the same years that the first heart surgeries were performed and von Braun was building the rockets to the moon. The average Americans depicted in Lucas' film were unaware of all the ground that was being broken, but they shared the confident attitude and restless spirit of the time. American Graffiti is a successful tribute to an era of optimism and competitiveness which was bitchin' -- and now seems very far in the past.


Comments

American Graffiti Rating

" Excellent "

Rating: R, 1973

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