Sunday, November 8, 2015
"Fuck the future!" said Tony Manero in SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER. "No, the future says 'fuck you'"! replies his boss at the paint store, all too aware of where a lack of planning, of forward thinking can lead. The characters in 1973's AMERICAN GRAFFITI, set in the early 1960s, are about to enter the Rest of Their Lives. It covers a night in which several teens are wracked with indecision over their paths. What does one do if your plan is set but then something catches your eye just hours before your departure? Curt (Richard Dreyfuss), already unsure of his decision to leave his small California town to attend college on the other coast, sees a vision: a blonde in a Thunderbird. Did she say "I love you" through the glass? Does this change everything? Or is it a mere distraction, a test?
Steve (Ronny Howard) is also set to blow town for college, but his girlfriend Laurie (Cindy Williams) wants him to stay and build a life with her. John (Paul Le Mat) broods and seems content with sticking around and working on his car. Terry, dubbed "The Toad" (Charles Martin Smith) is a skinny, socially awkward young man headed for Vietnam. He spends the long evening with the spunky Debbie (Candy Clark), an odd pairing. Everyone cruises the night away, many in ultra cool muscle cars and hot rods. Toad, however, is borrowing Steve's Chevy Impala. A burger joint called Mel's Drive-In is home base. There are other characters played by Mackenzie Phillips, Kathleen Quinlan, Bo Hopkins, and a pre-stardom Harrison Ford. Suzanne Somers is the girl in the T-Bird. Wolfman Jack's voice is heard on the radio and he even has a cameo.
As with many films of this type, plotting is far from precise, or even really thought about. This is a snapshot in a group of young lives, an important, eventful evening that will linger in memories and seal fates. AMERICAN GRAFFITI is refreshingly loose and while it will stir nostalgia for some (mainly those who lived through this era), the film is not a gooey, teary, gauze lensed love poem. Writer/director George Lucas - who based the film largely on his younger days - maintains a near objective account of the action. Orchestrated, but in such a way that everything feels spontaneous, as such a night with teenagers of any time period would. Rick Linklater would create his own, similar type of film about high schoolers in the '70s, DAZED AND CONFUSED, twenty years later.
And AMERICAN GRAFFITI appropriately feels like a dream, with events that are believable and recognizable yet feel slightly unreal. A big part of this is the film's use of music. Always heard through someone's radio, often at a distance. Sometimes the indistinct sounds float in the background as characters walk along roadways or lean against cars. There is no score, just incidentals. It's a stylistic choice in itself, and the movie would not be the same without it.