[Originally published in Movietone News 27, November 1973]
American Graffiti begins with a shot of Curt, a recent high school graduate, driving up to Mel’s Drive-in, and it ends with Curt watching a white Thunderbird from his airplane seat as he goes off to college. Structurally speaking, therefore, the film revolves around him and his problems as he tries to decide whether or not he’s really going to get on that morning plane and leave behind him his familiar southern California hometown and its ways of life. But in between these two structural goalposts, it’s very hard at any given moment to assign Curt or anyone else the role of principal protagonist, since Lucas deliberately and very effectively plunges us into the seethingly mobile and unstable world of smalltown late adolescence à la 1962, whose coalescence and flux he creates through dispersion of characters and intrigues, crosscut to join them back together. The method is both daring and difficult since so many sets of characters pursuing their various goals could very easily get out of hand, resulting in real narrative chaos. But Lucas and his editors triumph handily over the perils and end up creating an admirably controlled narrative that describes a chaotic evening without ever descending into chaos itself.
Lucas follows four basic couples or sets of partners, intertwining their activities through the evening to create a picture of simultaneous diversity and similarity. One couple is composed of Curt’s sister Laurie, “this year’s head cheerleader,” and his friend Steve, “last year’s class president,” who plans to leave with Curt for college the next day. As a relatively old, stable. and highly respectable couple in the high school community, they must attend the Freshman Hop to invest it with the high school establishment’s blessings. Since they have just broken up, however, neither of them feels terribly jolly or radiant as they lead a dedicatory dance. While feigning cheerleaderly and top-girl-by-dint-of-having-the-class-president-nailed-downish false abashment for the sake of her peers, Laurie does a collected and well-organized castration number on Steve as they dance, ticking off incident after incident to prove how aggressive she has been in comparison to his frightened passiveness, how she has been the complete engineer of their romance, and how it never would have got off the ground without her. As the evening progresses and they each wander into separate adventures, Steve’s self-doubt and insecurity increase so effectively that he ends the night by renouncing any future away from home, promising instead to remain there with Laurie.
While Steve and Laurie form the picture’s “adult” couple (or so they keep telling themselves as they pop fries and down Cokes), the remaining groups are less easily labeled. Take Terry and Debbie, for example, who provide most of the film’s overt comedy. Terry—short, gawky, bucktoothed, and very unsuave despite his best intentions—reaps the magnificent windfall of Steve’s car, and immediately sets out cruising the main drag to pick up a boss chick. To his prolonged amazement, he manages to pick up Debbie, a perfectly sprayed, very cute blonde Barbie doll who seems to be a full head taller than he. Despite her lacquered, plastic appearance, Debbie quickly shows herself to be ready for anything, emerging from all their nightmarish adventures totally unruffled and completely resourceful. Terry, on the other hand, ends the evening dead tired, covered with bruises and fistmarks, splattered with blood, smeared in his own alcoholic puke, with all his brag stories to Debbie punctured and proven false. Terry the self-styled Tiger ends up Terry the real-life Toad, yet Debbie tells him quite sincerely how much she has enjoyed the evening, “and if I’m not doing anything tomorrow night, why don’t you give me a call?”
Cruising, to a large extent, is what the film’s about—on the surface, at least. And although poor Terry goes through hell when he finally realizes his life’s dream by acquiring bitchin’ wheels and a boss doll, his friend John the supercruiser finds himself in an equally odd and unusual situation. Although no one says so, John has studied his Jimmy Dean movies closely, and knows precisely what it takes to be the cool king of the road. And although John and his dragster (whose license plates, incidentally, say THX-138, the titles—almost—of Lucas’s first two films, one an expansion of the other) have reigned supreme for some time now on the town’s main drag, things are beginning to change. For starters, John’s attempts to pick up a hot number abort abysmally, and he ends up with a tomboyish twelve-year-old. Carol’s not very charming, but she’s very capable—quite clever enough to keep herself in the front seat of John’s car while, despite John’s acute embarrassment and fear for the loss of his reputation, they form a genuine and definitely unspoken affection for each other. Things are no longer what they used to be for John; he knows without being able to articulate it that he’s starting to get too old for his high school lifestyle. Later that night, he sees the evidence even more clearly as he loses a drag race on a lonely country road. Although Terry assures him he has won, he knows full well that it’s only a technical victory, and that the end is in sight for him.
Curt, the class philosopher, spends the night searching for a magic presence—perhaps a muse, perhaps a siren, perhaps a will o’ the wisp—in the form of a beautiful blonde who early in the film smiles radiantly upon him from the glowingly lighted interior of her white T-bird, and silently whispers “I love you” to him through two separating panes of auto window glass. Since he has left his wheels—a wonky washboard of a Citroen 2CV that nobody in this car-centered society could conceivably think of as chic—back at the drive-in, Curt is quite significantly, symbolically, and practically immobile. In the hands of the gods of immobility but in a totally mobile environment, he is carried along almost helplessly from one situation to another, through partings, initiations, illuminations, recognitions, and realizations. And through it all, in the back of his mind, his Angel beckons to him: “Now that you’ve seen me,” she seems to say, “dare you leave?” But despite all the temptation, despite all his friends’ backsliding, despite his fears and doubts, Curt does decide to leave. As his plane takes off, there, on the road below him, speeds his Angel in her white T-bird. Where she’s going, we can’t tell. Whether it’s a coincidence, a last temptation, a farewell, or a hello, we can’t say. But one thing’s for sure: she’s headed in the same direction as Curt.
This sort of very appealing magic pervades the film from beginning to end. If the kids and their fluctuating joinings and separations are like so many Athenians walking through the woods in a midsummer night’s dream, the fairies and sprites and creatures of the air are there too, to serenade them and till the night with their disembodied presences. During the course of the evening, close to a half-hundred songs swirl half-heeded at best through the atmosphere surrounding our young friends, and a magical monster king of the fairies in the person of Wolfman Jack, a mysterious howling philosophical recluse disc jockey omnisciently comments in throwaway and totally unheeded lines on the action that he presumably cannot see from his isolated studio-transmitter, eventually even granting Curt his wish to be put in contact with his vision.
On this structural framework composed of couples, Lucas weaves a woof of the Wolfman and his music into a warp of cars and cruising, creating one of the most densely, nubbily textured pictures I have seen in a long time. And through its textural warmth, through its tenderness and affection for those kids and their problems, through the comedy and even through its highly touted nostalgia, one also sees more somber figures in this tapestry, figures that speak of waste and dead ends, of impotence and sterility, of dreams died aborning, of a false mobility that masks genuine entrapment, of a land so barren of anything save cars that our friends trace an inflexible line towards the film’s brief coda, in which we learn that the only one of the young men who escaped some sort of death did it by leaving the country.
Direction: George Lucas. Screenplay: Lucas and Gloria Katz & Willard Huyck. Cinematography: Ron Eveslage, Jan d’Alquen. Visual Consultant: Haskell Wexler. Art Direction: Dennis Clark. Editing: Verna Fields, Marcia Lucas. Production: Francis Ford Coppola.
The Players: Richard Dreyfuss, Ronnie Howard, Paul LeMat, Charlie Martin Smith, Cindy Williams, Candy Clark, Mackenzie Phillips, Wolfman Jack, Bo Hopkins, Harrison Ford.
Copyright © 1973 R C Dale