Friday, March 25, 2011

1973 - American Graffiti

This week, I saw a preview screening of Source Code starring Jake Gyllenhaal. I enjoyed it - I love all movies, remember - but I feel compelled to comment on one aspect of the film that left me wanting. First, let me say that I'm all for suspension of disbelief. Part of what makes the movie-going experience so wondrous is the fantastical element. It's an escape. I get that. Not every movie needs to be a thinker. And Source Code certainly centres itself around a highly implausible concept. Which is perfectly fine. It is what it is and I accept that.

But here's a tip, Hollywood. The attempts to justify implausible concepts with nonsensical science talk is probably unnecessary. You're really just adding to the implausibility. As a self-confessed science nerd, I find it less convincing when you try to cement the crazy idea in reality. The whole point is that it's not reality, so there's really no need for a scientific explanation. Charlie Kaufman didn't bother inventing some complicated theory of alternative physics to explain why a door behind a filing cabinet leads to John Malkovich's consciousness. He knew that it was a wacky notion and no amount of scientific analysis would make it any less insane, so he cleverly let the idea stand for itself.

And here's another tip. If you do decide to set up some scientific rules for the world of this narrative, it's probably a good idea not to ignore them during your resolution. Verisimilitude. Look it up.

Yesterday, I watched the first in our look at the Best Picture nominees from 1973...

American Graffiti
George Lucas
George Lucas, Gloria Katz, Willard Huyck
Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Howard, Paul Le Mat, Charles Martin Smith, Cindy Williams, Candy Clark, Mackenzie Phillips, Wolfman Jack, Bo Hopkins, Harrison Ford
Academy Awards:
5 nominations
0 wins

One night in 1962, four recent high school graduates cruise the streets. Steve (Howard) is heading off to college the next day and attempts to break the news to his girlfriend Laurie (Williams) that he wants to see other girls while he's away. Curt (Dreyfuss) has all but decided to forgo the college experience much to his friends' disgust. He spends the night chasing down a mysteriously gorgeous blonde woman he spies in a passing car. Terry the Toad (Smith) takes Steve's car cruising and manages to pick up a beautiful woman named Debbie (Clark). And Milner (Le Mat), the James Dean of the bunch, goes cruising for women but ends up stuck with a 12-year-old girl instead.

The similarities between American Graffiti and iconic television sitcom Happy Days are almost too uncanny to ignore. Apart from the obvious similarity in the time periods of both productions, they also feature the same star. Ronny Howard (as he was known then) found himself starring on the small screen show within a year of his leading performance in American Graffiti. George Lucas selected Bill Haley and the Comets' popular Rock Around the Clock to play over the opening credits to his film. And before the famous Happy Days theme song was written, the producers used the very same Rock Around the Clock to open each episode of the first season. Then there's Cindy Williams. In American Graffiti, she plays Howard's girlfriend, though she is probably better known for her co-starring role in the Happy Days spin-off Laverne and Shirley. In another coincidence, Richie Cunningham and Shirley Feeney go on a date in an episode of Happy Days.

These similarities are augmented by the episodic nature of the film's narrative to lend a distinct television show feel to American Graffiti. Many scenes play out like a comedy sketch, complete with a punchy conclusion, and the whole story takes place in just one night. Additionally, the four main characters, for the most part, lead separate subplots, only coming together at the beginning and the end. Consequently, we jump back and forth between each of these distinct storylines, in much the same way as an ensemble sitcom.

Irrespective of this small screen feel, American Graffiti is just plain fun. The lifestyle of this subsection of society is portrayed with much fondness by Lucas, who lends his own nostalgia of the time to his audience. The riding around all night in cars - or cruising, as it was known - looks incredibly entertaining, particularly the oddly dangerous activity of carrying on conversations with drivers of adjacent cars. Not to mention the prevalence of young girls gladly hopping into cars driven by complete strangers. (Did that really happen?) Adding to the nostalgia is the toe-tapping music. I didn't even grow up in the 1960s, but hearing all those rock and roll hits somehow made me long for days gone by.

Richard Dreyfuss in his breakout role is superb, even though he looks a bit too old to have just left high school. (He was 24 during shooting.) Another star in the making, Harrison Ford delivers a fine performance  as a cocky drag racer. Keen viewers will recognise Kathleen Quinlan (credited here as Kathy) in a small role as a friend of Laurie's. And that's Suzanne Somers as the girl of Curt's dreams. Also note the license plate of Milner's car, a reference to Lucas' earlier movie, THX 1138.

1 comment:

  1. Where were you in '62? I guess I'm one of the few around here that can answer that. In the summer of '62, I was in a small vacation town out on Long Island. I was 15, which meant no car yet. We had dances and beach parties, the ever-present transistor radio, but no cruisin'. When I first saw American Graffiti in 1973, I smiled throughout. Young George Lucas had invented contemporary nostalgia.

    American Graffiti covers 12 hours from dusk to dawn, where a lot happens, yet nothing much changes. People end up pretty much where they began. Except for the film's protagonist, Curt. He has a vision, both with platinum blond in a T-Bird, and with his future, on which he is wavering, but ultimately, like the T-Bird leaves the town behind. By the end of the next year, everything will change - President Kennedy will be assassinated, The Beatles will invade, Vietnam will explode.

    Although the movie takes place in 1962, much of it feels like the late 50s, from the music to the cars to characters like Paul Le Mat's Milner to Bo Hopkins leader of the Pharaohs.

    This is to me, Lucas's most satisfying film. His groundbreaking Star Wars series stars adults, but is aimed for the teenage audience. Graffiti is about teenagers, but aimed at adults. His penchant for using only one take has an air of improvisation, yet it is easy to see that it is often just the actors flubbing their lines. All did fine work, especially the trio of actresses. Lucas's collaborators should be mentioned. His wife, Gloria Katz for her work on the screenplay to Verna Fields terrific editing to Haskell Wexler's impressionistic sand paper grained cinematography.

    All in all, a formidable contender for the best of 1973.