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From the DVD Shelf: Josh Reviews American Graffiti (1973)

December 7th, 2012
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Hey, anybody remember when George Lucas was a great filmmaker?

It’s funny, all the recent hullabaloo over the sale of Lucasfilm to Disney has been treated, by most of fandom, as great news. Can you think of another occasion in which the sale of a beloved property from its creator/owner to a huge, soulless corporation was treated with such uniform glee as being GREAT news? This is a testament to how far George Lucas’ reputation has fallen. After living through the massive disappointment that was the prequel trilogy, most Star Wars fans — and I count myself among this list — have come to feel that George Lucas no longer had the ability to make a good Star Wars movie (or, for that matter, a good movie of any kind). Pretty sad, no?

It’s easy, now, to re-write history and take the point of view that George Lucas was NEVER any good and that everything that once seemed great about Star Wars was really because of his collaborators: people like Lawrence Kasdan, Irwin Kershner, and others. But for all that the original Star Wars film seems somewhat simplistic today when compared with the magnificence of The Empire Strikes Back (which, in my opinion, is one of the five greatest movies ever made), I think it’s a silly argument to suggest that the original Star Wars was anything short of a visionary, game-changing masterpiece, and while perhaps George Lucas can’t claim ALL the credit, he surely deserves the lions’ share.

All of this is a lengthy introduction to taking about Mr. Lucas’ 1973 film American Graffiti. Made five years before Star Wars, this is a marvelous film, one that surely stands as a strong argument in favor of the massive cinematic skills that George Lucas once possessed.

Set in 1962 in Modesta, California, and hugely inspired by Mr. Lucas’ experiences as a teenager, American Graffiti follows a group of kids on one momentous night at the end of their high school years. The kids are all part of the (now almost-forgotten) culture of “cruising” — driving around in their cars, looking for fun and/or trouble. The film plays to Mr. Lucas’ strength, as there are many long stretches with very little dialogue. The story is told primarily through the visuals (Mr. Lucas and his collaborators developed several ingenious ways to shoot the kids in their cars while they were speeding around the roads of Modesto) and the phenomenal rock-and-roll soundtrack.

About that soundtrack: the film has no score — the mood is set entirely through the careful selection of the over-forty songs that make up the soundtrack. (Don’t for a minute believe that Quentin Tarantino invented this technique!) The lack of a score might seem shocking when one considers the huge contribution that John Williams’ astounding score made to Star Wars and its sequels, though on the other hand it’s not surprising at all as both American Graffiti and Star Wars demonstrate Mr. Lucas’ clarity as to the huge role that the soundtrack plays to the success of a finished movie. It’s just that the two films use an entirely different type of soundtrack to achieve that end.

I unabashedly love American Graffiti. It’s winningly nostalgic without being mopey — quite the contrary, the film is rip-roaring fun, with a great amount of humor. The focus on cars, always moving forward, gives the film a propulsive energy that helps carry the viewer along through the various vignettes and sub-plots that together comprise the film’s story.

Credit also goes to Mr. Lucas for the wonderful team of young actors he assembled for the film. Most recognizable today are Richard Dreyfuss as Curt, the somewhat nebbishy young man debating leaving his home-town to pursue a life in the wider world, and Ron Howard as the popular boy at a crossroads in his relationship with his girlfriend. And of course there’s Harrison Ford as the tough young hot-rodder out to be known as the best driver around. Young Mr. Ford is a little stiff but still filled with fiery energy in his small role, and it’s fascinating to see this step on his way to his famous and hugely successful rascally screen persona. Mr. Dreyfuss and Mr. Howard are both fantastic, each breathing life into what could have been simplistic high-school stereotypes.

The surrounding cast might be a little less famous today, but they’re all great and deserving of praise. The other two members of the core four-some of friends with Steve (Ron Howard) and Curt (Richard Dreyfuss), are John, played by Paul Le Mat, the fiercest driver in the buch who nevertheless has a warm heart, and Terry (Toad), played by Charles Martin Smith, the nerd who just wants to get a girlfriend. The main girls in the film are also terrific. Best of the bunch is Cindy Williams (Laverne & Shirley) as Steve’s girlfriend Laurie. Laurie might be the most three-dimensional character in the film, so young but with a good head on her shoulders, in love with Steve but not willing to be taken advantage of or easily abandoned by him. Candy Clark plays Debbie Dunham, the beautiful girl who Terry somehow manages to pick up, and she’s terrific as well, naive and streetwise all at the same time. That same description could also be applied to Mackenzie Phillips’ Carol, the twelve-year-old girl who somehow winds up in tough John’s car. This could easily have been such an annoying character, and indeed Carol is of course hugely annoying to John at first. But he and the audience quickly see that young Carol is an interesting and likable girl, and her scenes with Paul Le Mat are some of the best in the film.

My only complaint with the film? The totally unnecessary and buzz-killing text piece at the very end of the film that tells us the mostly unhappy fates of the main characters. After such a fun film, it’s a stunning wet blanket to throw over the audience at the very end. It’s a complete tonal shift, and I don’t see what it adds to the story at all. It just sort of makes me as a viewer feel bad about all the fun I’d been having with these characters. In the special features on the DVD, Mr. Lucas talks about the debate with his collaborators as to whether to include that final text-piece, and I think they made the wrong choice. Oh well.

American Graffiti is clever and original in so many ways, from the film’s subject matter to the approach taken to filming all of the driving scenes (which make up a huge percentage of the film’s run-time) to the inventive sound-track. But more than that it is clever and fun and ALIVE in a way that really makes you wonder what the heck ever happened to this George Lucas.

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