Favorite Scene Theater: American Graffiti (1973)

To celebrate the end of summer, here’s the cinematic heart of AMERICAN GRAFFITI, George Lucas’s 1973 sleeper success about his youth in the suburban drift of Modesto 1962. I’m assuming y’all have seen the film and if not, please step away from the blog to watch, then come back and discuss. Francis Coppola told Lucas to make a warmer film than the steely, brilliant THX-1138 (1971) so he dipped into his cruising memories to fashion a naturalistic yet metaphoric tale of the final night for a group of teens preparing for the world outside high school and the jukebox streets of Modesto, innocent prelude to the turbulent 60’s. Co-written by Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck, the film was reluctantly financed by Universal, and produced by Zoetrope, shot by legendary cinematographer Haskell Wexler  though he requested the title  “visual consultant” and whose influence here is unmistakable. Lucas used his excellent verite style to drive home the era’s reality, and the multi-cast, non-linear script was considered quite daring, especially by Universal, who hated the film (!) and suggested taking it to TV. Coppola threatened to buy the movie back after the ecstatic preview screening and the executives wisely backed off, resulting in a massive critical and audience success, the most profitable film in Hollywood history at the time on a cost to box-office ratio, and a slew of Academy Award nominations, including Lucas for Best Director. I saw this when it was re-released in 1978, and it had a quiet powerful effect on me, especially the film’s impactful coda followed by the Beach Boy’s elegiac, “All Summer Long.” Here’s my favorite scene, with suburban dreamer Curt trying to get a radio dedication on the air to a fleeting muse. Wolfman Jack deserved an honorary Oscar for his gentle performance while Richard Dreyfuss perfectly expresses the impatience of youth in the face of mystery and beauty. I love how Curt’s reaction shot at the end is kept in shadow, testament to the art and subtlety of this American cinema masterpiece.

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25 Responses to “Favorite Scene Theater: American Graffiti (1973)”

  1. “Wolfman Jack deserved an honorary Oscar for his gentle performance and Richard Dreyfuss perfectly expresses the impatience of youth in the face of mystery and beauty.”

    Nailed it!

  2. Yes, yes and yes. After the above clip, I re-watched the end, and my adult eyes shed a tear for those friends of mine I saw there. Great movie.

  3. cool little write-up christian. i haven’t seen this movie in ages – first as a kid, perhaps also in ’78 that sounds about right, i remember relating to the mackenzie phillips character and her puppy love crush – but i’m fairly sure i have it on VHS so it’s time to have a search thru the antiques

    • christian Says:

      It’s time for you to bust out a DVD maybe — has the Blu-Ray evolution bypassed your grotto? I think you’d be first in line…

  4. weirdly i’ve never seen ‘AG’ on dvd here, but i’ve just ordered the blu-ray online for $15 (i remember seeing it on blu when it was first released here some time ago, but it was $52 – i remember distinctly because i’m a bit of a spendthrift and i had a mental conniption fit at the $52 price sticker. by that time i’d made a pact with me, myself and i to stop purchasing blu-rays at the new release price because i was spending the gdp of a small country on bloody blu-movies – because they are my preciousssss – but my non-existent scottish heritage had me packing my bags and going on a guilt trip with each purchase of one of those shiny blue jewels, so i nipped that nonsense in the bud)

  5. another gem. for me, it is one of these ultimate american movies that set a mythology comparable of to the work of emerson, giving an idea of your country that was at the same time hyper real and hyper dream, an in between, frozen forever in a perfect mood. the first i did when i came to LA was to eat at a Mel’s. i love the way those dinners are now the souvenir ruins of the movie spirit. i, felt like an archaeologist, yet, stranded in commercial la la land. the movie had a huge impact on me as a young boy, because of the anger, the resignation, the perfume of an era we loved as kids (happy days style) yet very hard and full of frustrations. i still consider lucas, despite his latest cinematic output, as a true movie genius. i d kill for another lucas personal movie.

    • christian Says:

      Leave it to a Frenchman to explicate the mysteries of America;]

      It would be great to see Lucas take on a smaller more experimental film.

  6. An ecstatic ode to youth, but ultimately a melancholy masterpiece. This is the Lucas film that fans should worship.

    • christian Says:

      It’s a perfect prelude to STAR WARS – and I didn’t know it made more money on its 1978 re-release than the first-run…

  7. having now watched this on my shiny new disk in the weekend, i remembered it surprisingly well, except for (SPOILERS) …

    the depressing and weird little faux documentary-style ‘what happened to the lads?’ yearbook pic-y epilogue that i had no recollection of, for some reason.

    if i had to pick it, it would have said the final image of the film is curt watching the white car from the plane window, which is how i remembered the finish..the brief written summary of how half the main characters (except the women, never mind them) in john and terry had karked it was quite an unwelcome little downer — sort of reminded me of the finale of ‘stand by me’ (funnily enough narrated by dreyfus) and the revelation of chris chambers’ death, tho AG’s epilogue is even briefer and off the cuff and ‘tacked-on’ feeling – as if their characters were based on real people who had died – leaving me with a ‘wtf?’ empty sensation after spending one crazy, revealing night with the gang…

    (i’m paranoid about revealing spoilers even for old flicks, ever since some guy got annoyed with me at a party in the 90’s for spoiling the ending of ‘the omen’, DONNER’S one — i was like, what’s the statue of limitations on spoilers, surely movies from the 70’s are exempt)

    • sorry, that would be ‘statute of limitations’ of course, doofus typo, ‘statue of limitations’ sounds like something my boy would say thinking he’s clever

      • christian Says:

        SPOILERS AHOY:

        “the depressing and weird little faux documentary-style ‘what happened to the lads?’ yearbook pic-y epilogue that i had no recollection of, for some reason. ”

        Which is odd since it’s the most powerful moment and the sobering reminder that the pop innocence of Mel’s was transitional especially juxtaposed with the opening melancholic pop notes of “All Summer Long” – this is one of the great American film endings. The screenwriters wanted cards for the women as well but Lucas said it was too long. Pauline Kael didn’t go easy on AG based on this. I accept in context that the plot is centered around these local dudes tho I did want to find out what happened to Candy Clark…of course, if you saw the fascinating sequel, you know. And the of-course career of Bob Alfalfa.

  8. crap, i just lost everything i wrote. quick attempt at reconstruction:

    i don’t know what my damage is not remembering that epilogue, perhaps i blocked it out. weird.

    thinking about it, i think the problem for me is that (unlike you c) it wasn’t powerful for me, it felt unnecessary and tacked on and force-fed and ‘false’ somehow…over the course of one night we get a glimpse into the lives of these kids, their anxieties and joys and loves and angst, the relationships and conflicts of their little world, the opening of one door as another one closes; the film ‘finishes’ with a melancholy sense of a future unknown and wide open, possibilities beyond limitations. based on the story i just saw, i already could imagine that john might very well meet a sticky end in his drag racing car, that toad would likely be killed in vietnam, and the white-bread boys would lead fairly mundane white-bread lives. i guess i don’t want it spelled out for me in such a brief, blunt, pat after-the-fact fashion – that i’d witnessed lives already lived and died – it felt weird to me. i realise i may be the only person on the planet who feels this way about the epilogue tho!

    • christian Says:

      I can understand that but I think the close is like an objective post-high school yearbook page and while melancholy in the extreme, leaves one pondering. Pauline Kael felt the same way as you, so that’s two;]

      • that’s a bit of a relief!

        (maybe in the great beyond kael and i can have a little whinge session/vent our spleens about the AG epilogue)

  9. “i’d kill for another lucas personal movie.”

    Sounds good in theory, but I doubt he’d have much to say. I have a strong feeling that guy no longer exists.

  10. And while we’re on the subject, doesn’t GL have one the the strangest filmographies ever? From THX to Graffiti to you-know-what. I suppose you could say the same of Coppola, but he’s made so many films that the lack of a pattern becomes the pattern. He’s Mr. Eclectic. But Lucas…who IS this guy?

    I’d like to visit an alternate world in which STAR WARS never got made, just to see what the rest of his career would have looked like.

    • Or at least where it wasn’t a marketing success. When you look at SW through the original “Joseph Campbell-vision” lens, it’s remarkable, and really rather brilliant. I think it’s telling that Lucas didn’t direct the other two of the original trilogy – I think he had every intention of letting them make themselves with some overarching supervision by him, and use the money to pursue his original intent of being a Coppola. But also, I think George is a normal guy, and under the circumstances of exceeding success and fan-adoration, he decided to stick with his own comfort instead of challenging himself to evolve, because frankly, no one else was challenging him, or has. (total speculation based on zero actual fact)

      • I forgot to reply to Frank’s post but my opine is that THX-1138, AG, and STAR WARS are a unique trilogy from dystopia to utopia, each reflecting similar themes. Including the Lucas auteur image of two vehicles speeding neck in neck, a shot used in each of his films. As far as I’m concerned, if you only had these three films under your belt you could kick back afterwards…

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