I've lost track of how many times I've seen American Graffiti. The first time I saw it I liked it, but I had no idea it would eventually become one of my favorite films. In my book it is George Lucas's best work—way better than Star Wars, whether new-and-improved or not (and I like Star Wars).
In some ways American Graffiti is the opposite of Star Wars. Star Wars is epic and fantastic. American Graffiti is modest and unassuming. It is fiction, but George Lucas could claim "Everything in this movie happened to me exactly as you see it," and none would doubt it Maybe this is part of the reason I can watch it again and again—no straining to suspend disbelief.
The time is 1962—we'll come back to the significance of this. The setting is Anytown, USA (never explicitly named). The events of the story take place over the span of a single night, and revolve around four characters (all on the cusp of adulthood, more or less):
Steve Bolander: the all-American boy (played by Ron Howard, very familiar to those of us who grew up watching the Andy Griffith Show. Come to think of it, Ron Howard will always be the all-American boy).
Curt Henderson: probably Steve's best friend. His wise-cracking nature is traditionally associated with the Hollywood sidekick type. (Steve and Curt are set to leave for college on the morrow—but will they? This is about as intense as the movie gets when it comes to suspense.)
Terry Fields: still in high school, also known as "Toad"—you might call him a nerd, although I have a feeling he doesn't do well enough in school to qualify.
John Milner: Not a bad guy, really, but you wouldn't want your daughter dating him. We gather that he graduated from high school—or left it at any rate—a few years ago, but continues to spend his time doing the same things—fixing and racing cars.
The story revolves around these four (male) characters—this is clear—but each has a prominent female counterpart.
Laurie Henderson is Steve's girlfriend (and Curt's sister). She has another year of high school to go. How Steve and Laurie will handle their impending separation is one of the film's main issues.
Debbie Dunham gets picked up by Terry and spends the rest of the evening and night running around with him. She apparently goes to a different school, with somewhat different customs as regard bleaching of hair and male-female interactions. This proves to be a mixed blessing for Terry.
Carol gets picked up by John—a little too hastily, as he fails to notice she is only about fourteen years old. He would like nothing more than to send her home, but she refuses to go without seeing a good time first.
And, finally—the blonde in the white T-bird is Curt's opposite number. We never learn her name. Curt catches a glimpse of her at a stoplight—she appears to mouth the words "I love you"—and then tries vainly to track her down for the rest of the night.
It makes me wonder whether Lucas was familiar with the works of James Branch Cabell, because the blonde in the white T-bird is a perfect embodiment of Cabell's character Ettarre—an ageless female ideal whom all men long after but none can attain. We catch glimpses of the T-bird several times through the story, but never get another good look at the blonde—although we do hear her voice near the end of the story. Other characters offer contradictory explanations of who she is. One might almost question whether she is real or a dream (although the movie doesn't suggest she is anything but very hard to track down).
Let's consider the time period of the story. 1962 was effectively if not mathematically the end of the relatively peaceful and prosperous 50's. There's even a reference to President Kennedy. The characters' world is about to face upheaval, but they don't know that.
Except—I like to think that John Milner, supposedly the least intellectual of the four main characters, seems to intuit that in some sense their days are numbered. First there's a bit of byplay between John and Curt at the drive-in, where Curt laments how the town's strip has fallen from its glory days.
And then later, there's a moment when John pulls out of the garage. John is king of the town's hotrodders and he removes the header plugs from his car in preparation to race the newest challenger (played by a young unknown named Harrison Ford):
Attendant: Expectin' some action?
John: Yeah. Think so. There's some punk lookin' for me.
Attendant: Why the hell do they bother? You've been number one as long as I can remember.
John: Yeah... it's been a long time, ain't it?
You need to see it to see what I'm talking about (and even then you might not see what I see) but for me It's been a long time carries an overtone of change in the wind.
And then finally, almost at the end of the movie, John is distraught after the forementioned race takes place:
Terry: No, you creamed him, from right off the line. The guy never had a chance.
John: Shit, Toad. The man had me. He was beating me.
Terry: John, I don't know what you're talking about. It was the most beautiful thing I've ever seen. That guy, he might as well get a wheelchair and roll himself home. Man, you got... you got the bitchinist car in the Valley. You'll always be number one, John. You're the greatest.
John: Okay, Toad. We'll take 'em all.
But it's clear that John is unpersuaded. In his heart he knows that his era is coming to an end.
A very creative touch is the treatment of music. The soundtrack almost never stops, one 50's hit after another. We hear characters listening to the radio, but the music carries on even when we cut away to another scene. Sometimes it fades in and out, but essentially it pervades the story from beginning to end. You get the idea that this was the soundtrack of their lives. Only at a couple of moments of special tension does the music cut out and we hear only sound effects.
Also a tour de force whose value lies in not calling attention to itself is the lighting and photography. Movies of a certain era are recognizable by the fact that any environment—a cave, a dungeon—is brightly lit by multiple artificial light sources. Most of the action in American Graffiti takes place outdoors at night, and everything looks quite natural. Artificial lighting was used, but carefully and subtly disguised.
For a movie made on a shoestring budget, American Graffiti is remarkably rich in secondary characters—way too many to list them all, but I have some favorites. Special status is given to the Wolfman, the local DJ. Throughout the movie we hear him on the radio, introducing songs and making prank calls. Clearly he is a local hero. Like the blonde in the T-bird, he is the subject of contradictory and preposterous stories about his amazing lifestyle. And so it is that when he finally appears on screen near the end of the story, his words carry oracular significance (and are sound advice).
I also have a soft spot for the Pharaohs, a gang of toughs who make Curt an unwilling companion for much of the evening. That Lucas himself went through a "hood" phase is clear from his affectionate treatment of the Pharaohs. Although not above jimmying open a pinball machine to empty it of quarters, they can be sticklers on other issues. For example, here's the leader Joe explaining to Curt why the gang must mete out to him some unspecified but ominous punishment, for scratching the hood of another gang member's car:
Joe: Here—bend down, look here. See that? Right across there—see?
Curt: I guess so—yeah.
Joe: You scratched it, man. Where do you get off sitting on Gil's car, huh, man?
Curt (buffing with his sleeve): I'm sorry. It's not much of a scratch. I don't think he'll even—
Joe: It ain't the size that's in question here. It's the principle.
I can never hear anyone say "It's the principle" without flashing back to Joe and Curt.
The final shot of the movie is a plane disappearing into a featureless blue sky. I always feel a perfect sense of closure when I see it. And then we see four vignettes describing the destiny of the four main characters (some say this is where the device originated). Sure enough, some of them are touched by the turmoil to come.