American Graffiti (1973) [1973 Week]

(some spoilers)

American Graffiti is an odd movie, I think, not particularly bad, but also not really exciting. There  isn’t that much of a plot and, I would argue, not that much character development to go on. Which doesn’t make the movie bad, but for a coming-of-age movie I found it was lacking a bit of “coming”. Some characters are indecisive and in the end make a decision, but this one night the movie covers doesn’t completely change anyone’s life. Of course it’s George Lucas’ movie before Star Wars, but since it was a hit back in 1973, that doesn’t really matter for its importance and attitude. It really depends on your interest in its setting, more than in its message, I guess. So, let’s focus on that. I mean, why talk about a movie from 1973 that's set in the 60s?

The movie shows the youth of the 50s and 60s, cruising in their cars, listening to their music and everything else that defines their lives at the time. It feels almost obsessive the way the movie shows all of that, especially the car and the music. The songs just keep on playing all the time, non-stop and 90% of the movie happens in or around cars. So, the movie is nostalgic, but again, almost extremely nostalgic. All the characters in the movie cling to their lives and they mostly fear change (with a few exceptions). The main character, Curt (Richard Dreyfuss, really a good as an almost 30-year-old teenager), is the one who is afraid of leaving for college and although he leaves in the end, we don’t really see why he decides to do it. Throughout the movie he chases a dream, a beautiful woman in a white car who drives around town, and chasing dreams seems to be what everyone is about, definitely more than reality. Steve (Ron Howard) is tired of his relationship to Laurie (Cindy Williams, like a twin of Zooey Deschanel) and wants to explore other options. John (Paul Le Mat), aimlessly drives through town, accompanied by 12-year-old Carol (Mackenzie Phillips). Terry (Charles Martin Smith) borrows a big car to have a shot at a girl (Candy Clark). It’s all men chasing something and for the most case they don’t get it. The women mostly assist the men on their quests, no matter if it benefits them. It’s not a completely perfect world, really, as the nostalgia doesn’t romanticize too much, but it also doesn’t show many inner conflicts or the conformist pressure of that time either.

Is it possible to wonder about the strong nostalgia in that movie and not think about why Lucas or many people were longing for “the good old days” of the 50s and 60s? And thinking about what people had been through in 1973, it’s not so surprising. I mean, I see the 60s and 70s as a time where an opportunity for change was really there, but I also see the nightmare many people went through. Vietnam alone must have made people wish they were teenagers back in the 50s again, where wars were harmless, no one cared about black people and everything was “nice.” Today, most movies about the 50s would focus on the way everything had to be in order, about the authority and gender inequalities. But in 1973 all of this seemed to be far away and hard to see. The movie emphasizes this by its most effective moment, the last 5 seconds before the credits. Curt flies off to college and then the fate of the four main characters is written out. John is killed by a drunk driver (the world seems to become unfair), Terry is killed in action in Vietnam (the incomprehensibility of that war, taking the life of the most harmless of all the boys), Steve has become an insurance agent (giving up any idealism for a career) and Curt is a writer in Canada (fleeing to the arts and fleeing from the draft). The movie seems so semi-innocent that these fates hit you and bring you back to the reality of its time. It’s like a sign saying “That’s it for escapism, folks!” I wonder if not more could have made out of this to make the movie a bit more than boys’ adventures while stalling the future. Still, taken altogether, this movie gives us a deep insight in the year of 1973, wanting to escape the hopelessness and confusion. But escaping to “good old times” never works because this is neither possible nor did they really exist as we like to imagine them. It’s nothing more than chasing dreams, not changing anything.