Fundamentally, American Graffiti is an underwhelming yet pleasant film. It promises a lot, but delivers little. Why this film would be described as a classic, why David Kehr would say this film ‘is almost beyond criticism’ is beyond me. Let’s delve a little deeper.
American graffiti follows a group of young Americans in a small Californian town, with some desperate to leave and others staying put. Friends Curt and Steve are to go to college, leaving their friends John Milner, a street racer, and Terry ‘Toad’ Fields, an innocent, clumsy character, back home. Steve also leaves behind his high school sweetheart Laurie. After Steve proposes an open relationship, their relationship descends from a classic American romance into an annoying dissonance with love, hate, and all things in between. This includes a highly non-consentual love scene, which has the desired effect of making the audience feel very uncomfortable. Steve lends Toad his car, giving him a new confidence to impress Debbie, a girl more experienced than him. John rides around town, picking up a very young Carol, with whom he bickers constantly, and finishes by beating arch rival Bob Falfa in a street race, but only after Falfa crashes.
Curt has doubts about leaving, whereas Steve is set on staying. As the film progresses, these positions change, as Curt gets involved with a gang called ‘The Pharaohs’ and Steve’s weird relationship with Laurie rises like a phoenix from the flames. Rather than regenerating from the ashes of its predecessor, this phoenix just didn’t really fancy all those flames and ashes.
This film could have followed the path of Beat writers, challenging the status quo, looking for meaning in a world of consumption and accumulation. It could have looked to the Berkeley students protesting the draft and civil rights abuses, acting on beliefs and with compassion and a definite idea of justice, of how the world should be. This film threatens to, but ultimately fails. Each character shows some rebellion. For example, Steve answers back to the principal at the dance, and young Carol rides around with John, yet naturally enjoys the safety net of living with Mum and Dad, for example. Each character has some rebellious trait, without actually rebelling.
From the very beginning, you are waiting for something big to happen. Other than a humorous scene when a Henry Kissinger lookalike shopkeeper shoots at a customer, demonstrating Director George Lucas’ taste for the abstract, there is little to be pondered about the world from the plot. Curt’s teacher hints at the possibility of some greater meaning; he dropped out of college because it was ‘too competitive’ for him, arousing the thought that maybe, just maybe, this film might actually get exciting. Its silence on the topics it is billed as evoking is deafening.
Director George Lucas may have shied away from critiquing the American society because of the experience of his first film. Lucas’ first film THZ 1138, an abstract and dystopian science fiction film, was not a success, and he was encouraged to do something more mainstream. By not developing any of the film’s themes or storyline, one is left thinking that there is something missing.
The plot works around several dichotomies. Clashes between tradition and authority with youth, ‘going steady’ and sleeping around, staying in town, and leaving occur throughout the film. Curt and Steve’s differing attitudes to leaving, and Steve and Laurie’s views on their relationship, are good examples of these clashes. These clashes don’t seem to evolve into anything any greater. Steve ends up a taking a year out and Curt goes instead, but one of them goes to college anyway. Steve and Laurie, for all their arguing, end up right where they started.
Potentially, Lucas could be suggesting that despite our yearning for meaning, our hopes and dreams, we have very little control over how things actually turn out. We can’t mess with father time. When John Milner wins the race having been behind at the time of the crash, he laments his demise over a hollow victory. We might change how we get to the future, but not what that future is.
The film’s ending reinforces this. We are told John Milner is killed by a drink driver, while Toad goes missing in action in An Loc, victims to circumstance beyond their control. Curt and Steve both experience relative success in life, despite slightly differing paths.
The nature of the film for me can be captured in the aesthetics. It is very well shot and the driving scenes are an excellent backdrop for the different storylines. Beyond this though, there is little substance, and as a so called coming of age movie, this metaphor runs through the heart of the film. Lucas created a very watchable, enjoyable film, but I think it is a shame that the plotlines were not developed further.
The screening itself was really good. We were provided with lots of information about upcoming events and clear context to the film. Artspace was a perfect venue, easy to find, and comfortable to watch in. The next event is September 16th at the Trend at 8:00, a Nostalgia Cartoon Night with cereal being served. I recommend it highly if you are after an enjoyable Wednesday evening.