American Graffiti (George Lucas, 1973)

“Someone wants me. Someone roaming the streets, wants ME… Will you turn the corner?”

Re-Introduction

This was one of my first posts on my blog and it has a very special significance. Shortly before I became a teacher, I applied for one-month work-experience for BBC Films. Amongst many other application procedures, I was asked to write a review of a film – and this was it. What is important is how I was offered the placement! Unfortunately, I had to review my funds and check whether it was possible to pay rent in a flat in London – having just put down a huge deposit – work unpaid for a month and buy food to live. Turns out, that ain’t cheap – and I had to turn down the work experience. Again, this feeds nicely in the build up to the analysis’ I am writing on Star Wars on Man, I Love Films. Not long now and, considering how the band of teenagers in Star Wars – Leia, Luke and Han – contrast nicely with the teenagers in American Graffiti, it is worth noting how American Graffiti and THX 1138 together shaped what became Lucas’ masterpiece: Star Wars.

Early Days Lucas

Through reading Peter Biskinds Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, I have recently watched George Lucas’ American Graffiti.The film focuses on the story of four teenage boys following their recent graduation from school – Steve, Kurt, Terry and Milner. The film is set over one night in a homely, small town (influenced by Bogdonavich’s The Last Picture Show perhaps?). We watch, and follow, each character as they change during this single night.

Kurt is the character that we primarily follow through the movie – as he starts the night considering whether he will go to college the following morning. Steve and Kurt have planned ‘for months’ the travels to University. Steve is keen to go to college and discusses with Kurt why – contrasting at the climax of the film, whereby Steve decides to stay for his girlfriend and Kurt decides to continue on to begin college alone. Terry’s plot begins as he is given Steve’s car. Terry – the cliché geek – picks up a girl who realises Terry just might be the man for her. He comes up against problems such as vomiting after drinking and dealing with the theft of the car throughout, concluding with the girl explaining how the night was ‘really good’. Ironically, Milner who is seen as the class stud with his fast car and ‘unbeatable’ track record of races ends without a girl at the end of the film. Milner, without planning, picks up a young teenager called Carol. Her attitude to life strikes Milner and a bond is formed whereby it Milner realises that he himself is getting older and should begin to consider how he should tackle the next roads of life – this is made more apparent by his realisation that he was losing the race at the finale of the film.

The Influence on Me

The ‘coming-of-age’ programmes/films that I watched were Dawson’s Creek and American Pie. American Graffiti has the fascinating ‘small-town’ element of Dawson’s Creek, while having a comedic tone – akin to the American Pie films. The use of a small-town in American Graffiti contrasts with the contained and lonely aspect of teenage life. The range of characters also meant you could relate to different aspects of each character. These aspects pulled me into the film and got me personally involved.

The film was made hot-on-the-heels of Mean Streets and the soundtrack carries the narrative throughout the 99 minutes run time. The opening of the radio sounds scrolling through the various stations – before stopping on ‘The Wolfman’ – reminding me personally of Tarantinos Reservoir Dogs, whereby the characters keep harking back to K-Billys super-sounds-of-the-seventies throughout the film.

I felt that the roles of Kurt and Steve could have been more passionate as the two characters appeared to be ‘drifting’ along with no real sense of direction. This may have been the intended case – Steve telling his girlfriend that they should see other people when away did see quite thoughtless. Milner and Terry’s stories were more involving as the two had clear ideas of what they wanted – and although it did not necessarily pan out – the characters would act accordingly. The focus on cars and vehicles is another aspect that I personally didn’t enjoy – even though I am quite sure that these cars are a strong metaphor for the characters stories. Kurt appears to be the only character that does not drive and I feel that this might be an important factor to bear in mind – as he is the only character who gets out of the town and reaches his dream goal of writing.

Originally Published on 2nd June 2009 alongside THX 1138 and republished on 25th May 2011.  
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5 comments

  1. A wonderful film from George Lucas that does make you think: he could do other movies than space operas so why didn't he? It is also infuriating that Lucas didn't make more films of this quality. Arguably, you could say this is his finest achievement, certainly from a character perspective.

  2. Thanks Dan. I think with Lucas and AMERICAN GRAFFITI and THX 1138, it is clear he has a very artistic streak … but I think the american dream is not so much about art, but about MONEY. Enter STAR WARS…

  3. Something that I find odd with George Lucas is that he probably has more freedom than any other filmmaker to make any film he wants, and yet he keeps choosing more Star Wars. I want him to make another THX – something small scale, artistic, yet big in ideas. Making a film like that today would cost pocket money to someone like Lucas.

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