“American Graffiti” (1973)

I am currently enrolled in a film introduction class, during which I am required to write a response to every film we see. Last week, we watched one of my favorite films American Graffiti. I will be posting my responses after they’ve been handed in and graded. So, American Graffiti is the first.

Directed by George Lucas
Universal Pictures
United States, 112 minutes
Starring Ron Howard, Paul Le Matt, Richard Dreyfuss, Charles Martin Smith

American Graffiti is the essential film about growing up. It is unlike any film about the topic of high school students getting ready to – or not to – go off to college. From the style to the premise, George Lucas is able to prove that this subject material lends itself to more than raunchy comedies.

The film takes place over one 12-hour period, dusk to dawn, so the lighting is an integral part. One of the best examples of this is during the climax when Curt (Richard Dreyfuss) meets Wolfman Jack. After leaving, thinking that he just handed off his note to a random DJ who was not the Wolfman, he turns and sees that the man was him. The camera cuts to a shot of Curt smiling, but the only thing lit is the wall in the radio station behind him, so the viewer ends up only seeing a black void where he is. He is lit just enough for the viewer to sense that he gets that he had just been played.

This highlights another one of the successes of the film – it is just so subtle. It goes along with the documentary style of the picture. When Curt suddenly runs off to try to catch the blonde in the white T-Bird, the camera is almost surprised by the action. It catches up, but can’t get there fast enough, making Curt look like just a blur. Things like this just happen in the tiny California town of American Graffiti, whether the camera wants it to or not. There is no flag that some important emotional moment is going to come up. Harrison Ford’s car crashes and does a spiral before finally slamming into the ground and the viewer is only given one angle of the scene. Lucas doesn’t milk it. The only reason we are shown the explosion of the car is because it happens just before Laurie runs out to embrace Steve. Again, this is something that just happens like the camera was caught off-guard.

Music, provided by Lucas’s own 45 collection, is also incredibly important. It puts you in the state of mind. Over the Universal and Lucasfilm logos, we hear the tuning of a radio and, accompanying the first shot of Mel’s Diner, the loud blast of the first note of Bill Haley & The Comets’ “Rock Around The Clock”. The entire film is built on the sound coming from the radios of the cars as they cruise around. The audience realizes this immediately, but Milner’s decision to suddenly kill The Beach Boys’ “Surfin’ Safari” confirms it. The songs chosen set the mood for each sequence, from the hilarious appearance of a girl group song when Toad gets into the scuffle with the people who had stolen Steve’s car to the use of Booker T. & The MGs’ “Green Onions” before the drag race begins.

Finally, what makes the film is the editing. Lucas loves to tell his stories just by editing (one can get dizzy with all the editing in THX-1138) and he does it so well in American Graffiti. The four stories are perfectly intertwined so that as something really interesting is about to begin in one, it cuts to another. This is what keeps us watching and caring about these kids for close to two hours. The ending is perfect as well – there is no better way to end this film than with the plane taking off. It shows that even if Curt is the only one physically going to college, all of them are moving on in their own directions.

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