July 20, 2010

#62: American Graffiti

"One, two, three a-clock, four a-clock rock..."

Movies like American Graffiti, George Lucas' 1973 ode to his teenage years, are a dime a dozen now. God, what did movies about the waning days of high school look like before this one? And would we have Dazed and Confused, Can't Hardly Wait, Superbad, etc.? Maybe not. Much of the story, set in 1962 in Modesto, CA, is based on Lucas' own experiences and does a superb job transporting us to a very specific era, cruising 10th Street in a T-Bird.

Company: alone, home from a road trip and kind of exhausted

Cuisine: Double Stuf Oreos and Sprite Zero. I am the champion.

First off, on a warm August night, we're introduced to a bunch of dude-bro friends, including Curt (a 26-year-old Richard Dreyfuss, only a couple years away from winning his Oscar in 1977), a disillusioned graduate, debating whether or not he'll leave for college the next day; Steve (a young Ron Howard, then Ronny Howard, still babyfaced and looking like Mad Magazine), also ready to head to college but unsure whether he should dump his girlfriend in favor of college playtime; and "The Toad" (Charles Martin Smith, in a role that was first offered to Bob Balaban ... makes perfect sense), a dweeb without a chance at romance, entrusted with a fancy car for the evening. These all sound like prototypes now but I'm not really sure there was a precedent for a movie like this. On this list? The Last Picture Show for sure, which I preferred for its melancholy and sexual energy. But American Graffiti has a lot going for it.

Like that Bogdanovich picture from two years earlier and Easy Rider, Graffiti was one of the first films to avoid a traditional film score in favor of a running soundtrack of popular music (directly pre-Brit invasion), which supposedly caused many studios to turn down producing it before Universal picked it up. Lucky them: its shoestring budget and little-known stars didn't stop the movie from earning buckets, probably because of its appeal toward a younger crowd. I didn't find the story all that interesting (I've seen it before, in all those movies mentioned), but the performances and relationships merit mention.

Richard Dreyfuss has such an easy, warm presence onscreen -- I haven't seen much of his earlier work but it made me think of the grace and calm he brought to Mr. Holland's Opus 22 years later -- and he's only 26! He already seems mature far beyond his years, and gives Curt (the sensitive one of the bunch) a drive and a passion for life. We wouldn't care so much about the blonde in the Thunderbird if we didn't care about Curt, and we do.

"The Toad" is lucky enough to come upon a bombshell/weirdo who's kinda into weirdos (ain't that the way?) in Debbie (Oscar nominee Candy Clark ... not sure about that nomination, she was fine but just that), and the two spend the night being weird, trying to get adults to buy liquor for them, losing the car, getting lost, etc. In the end, she "had a really great time." This doesn't actually happen in real life, but that's what movies are for. :)

"It doesn't make sense to leave home to look for home."

And Ron Howard is conflicted and a little heartbreaking as Steve, a popular student whose equally popular girlfriend Laurie (Cindy Williams) reprimands him quietly while the two spotlight-dance at the hop. Again, you've seen this scene before; you just haven't seen it in its (maybe) first incarnation. Both actors handle this awkward relationship so gracefully.

Ow ow!

Lucas has a steady hand on all of this, and directs the film as a series of vignettes, cutting in and out of these stories as they progress through the night. I'll admit I haven't seen the Star Wars trilogy straight through, so I don't know much about his directing style, but he has an able hand here, balancing all the stories and keeping the film moving along toward its inevitable conclusions (including one that involves a supah-young Harrison Ford).

Maybe the most tender and touching relationship is that of John (Paul Le Mat), the stud cruising 10th who inadvertently picks up a girl much too young for him (Mackenzie Phillips). Their relationship is strained and uncomfortable: he's repulsed by her, mostly because she's like a little sister to him; she's clearly smitten with the guy but makes up for his rebuttal by acting the part in full. There's such a sad sense of longing here, that maybe it would work out in another universe where she's older or he's younger, that they're right for each other in different times. I could see a whole movie happening about this relationship, and it's the one I kept hoping to see come back. Their final scene before he drops her off is so touching. That's what will stick with me.

There's something about summer in the 70s nostalgia that really gets me. Blame it on Dog Day Afternoon. Or maybe Nashville (coming up on this list). Whatever. It's a thing. I'll examine it some day and diablogue about it.

Next up: one I know so little about I don't even know who's in it. Sullivan's Travels (not to be confused with that of Gulliver) is coming shortly.

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