Thursday, 1 April 2021

American Graffiti (1973)


American Graffiti

It is the Easter Holiday and I have done something incredibly exotic for these Corona times, which is to go to Germany to spend the holidays with my family in law. Crossing a border these days is apparently a super dangerous affair with an amazing amount of paperwork… You have to want to do it.

Anyway, I brought with me “American Graffiti”, the next movie on the List and what a holiday treat that was. Blowing it up on a badass television in high definition from a Blu-ray disc only enhanced the experience. This is delicious stuff.

“American Graffiti” is George Lucas memoirs of his youth in Modesta, California and is as such a love letter to the youth culture of the early sixties. Young people cruising up and down the street in their cars, listening to the music of the time and worrying about their future. Apparently, Lucas based this movie on a number of characters he knew when he himself graduated from high school.

In the course of a single night, we follow four stories, which to some extend intersect, and in each of them the guy in focus achieve some sort of clarity on his life. That sounds very profound, but the stories are unforced and easy and quite believable.

The guys are Curt (Richard Dreyfuss), Steve (Ron Howard), John (Paul Le Mat) and Terry “the Toad” (Charles Martin Smith).

Curt is supposed to leave for college in the morning, but is having second thoughts about going. His adventures of the night include spotting a pretty blonde in a passing car, getting picked up and almost pressed into membership of a local gang and finding (and meeting) the mysterious radio DJ Wolfman. Through this Curt finds his resolve for what to do.

Steve is also set to leave for college in the morning, but have a fallout with his girlfriend Laurie (Cindy Williams) along the line of “I think it would be okay if we see other people”. Laurie gets pretty upset and throughout the night Steve and Laurie are alternately together and apart in a complex dance. Steve also finds his resolve on what to do.

John Milner is the local drag racer, driving a home-made construct of a car. By chance he ends up having the under-age Carol (Mackenzie Phillips) in his car, which forces him to find his responsible side, moving in the course of the night from being the reckless drag racer to the responsible big brother type.

Finally, Terry, the local geek, has an absolutely insane night which include getting an awesome car, picking up a pretty girl (Candy Clark), getting an armed robber to get him booze, getting sick from the booze, loosing the car, hiding from the mysterious goat killer and getting beaten up by some tough guys. Crazy night, but also very maturing.

The narrative of four stories in parallel is pretty standard today but was completely new ground in 73. Despite this it works flawlessly and was, I suppose, quite an eye-opener. So was the storyline which does not move towards a particular climax, but instead take the characters through a development and process them as evolved beings on the other side. This combination apparently was difficult for the studios at the time to swallow, but I guess it helps having the director of “The Godfather” as producer (Francis Ford Coppola).

The big draws to me though were the ambience and the cast. Lucas managed to draw almost iconic imagery of the early sixties with wall-to-wall music and a documentary like depiction of the youth culture. By letting the actors improvise and be relaxed about their roles he also managed to make the dialogue and acting unforced and natural which is in start contrast to the theatricals of earlier youth movies.

And then there is the cast. This is where young actors like Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Howard and Harrison Ford (as the drag racer Bob Falfa, who is challenging John) became names in their own right. This was if not their breakthrough then the pivotal boost of their careers. Watching them here was just magic and the amazing thing is that all the other young actors in the movie were just as great to watch.

I had a great time watching American Graffiti. This worked 100% for me and I can only recommend it. A classic coming of age story in a brilliant wrapping.



  1. This is the movie to point to when people say Lucas can't write dialogue. It actually makes some of his terrible dialogue that much more frustrating.

    1. Lucas did everything right in American Graffiti, but he also did have excellent assistance on the scriptwriting plus he allowed the actors to improvise a lot more than usual. I doubt this was the case on Star Wars.