Thursday, May 14, 2015

AFI Top 100: #62 "American Graffiti"

The classic cars of American Graffiti (1973)

Sometimes there are movies that I must admit have value, but that I could care less about watching. This week's film, the supposedly quintessential "teen" movie of the 1970'sabout the early 1960'scomes in on the AFI Top 100 list at #62 and falls directly into that category. Directed by a little-known guy named George Lucas, American Graffiti is the story that, on the surface, reads a bit like a "Seinfeld" episode in its apparent lack of plot or focus. But like many people discover, there's a lot going on under the surface as it explores how teenagers from the same place can do and experience the same things, but be driven by different dreams. For me, however, I've always had a difficult time connecting with the film, its tone, and more than anything, its characters.

Taking place on a single night in the summer of 1962, a group of high school friends and recent graduates come together to cruise around their small Southern California town one last time before two of them head off to college. Curt (Richard Dreyfus) and Steve (Ron Howard) are the lucky ones about to escape their small town, while the rest of their friends, consisting of greaser and drag racer, John (Paul Le Mat), dopey wannabe Terry (Charles Martin Smith), and Steven's unsatisfied girlfriend, Laurie (Cindy Williams), are all still too busy looking in the rear-view mirror to have any idea what's ahead. On this final night of joyriding, the friends find themselves sliding in and out of each others' experiences, discovering a little bit about themselves along the way.

The car culture of the film is represented as a kind of status symbol, the ability to drive around a group of friends all night, or pick up a girl, or jump from one car to another, solidifies your place in the grand scheme of the teenage experience, at least in the small world of these teens. And for these friends, it becomes very clear that their statuses aren't quite on the same level. When Terry is asked to look after Steve's car, and John finds himself looking after a young, irritating tomboy (played by a spitfire Mackenzie Phillips), it causes them to look closely what's most important in life, now that they're about to be adults.

I'm going to cut to the chase. This movie is boring, and it shouldn't be. In fact, a lot happens that would normally be considered riotous fun (i.e. pranks on police officers, robbery, gang activity!), but instead of highlighting the shenanigans of youth, it's all framed in a strangely dismal, laissez-faire manner. Perhaps it's meant to represent the frivolity and indifference of youth. That's all well and good, but it cripples the movie at times, as characters lose focus and interest in whatever they're doing so frequently, as a viewer, I never feel with them. I'm not included, which makes me not care, which in turn, makes the whole thing totally "un-fun."

The only real passion I feel from anyone in the filmyes, even including Terry and his desperation to show a girl a good timecomes from Dreyfus. I wish more of the movie had focused on him. In a way, his story line felt like it could have served as a sequel to his character's story in Stand By Me. The film does a disservice to spend so little time with Curt, exploring who he is as a person. His interactions feel the most genuine, and he's a shining light in a story that doesn't work to give its characters anything of real substance to work with. He was also the only person that seemed to face any potential consequences, not only by the events of that night, but from the choices he makes for his future.

This film is often referenced as the best movie about teenagers ever made, and I couldn't disagree more. It's a vehicle (literally) to showcase the best songs of the era, and for that, it should be commended. The soundtrack is like no other, and there is never a song that isn't playing on a car radio, whether its a car we're in, or one that's passing by. Lucas envisioned a glossy music video that could convey the feeling of being young during that time, but by incorporating a script, he doesn't do his story any favors. The introduction of the automobile was directly correlated to the rise in the cultural concept of the "teenager." That is the basis of what American Graffiti attempts to explore, but it's not focused enough to really make an impactor say anything transcendent. This nascent culture of "cruising" (meaning to drive around but never really go anywhere) as a means of social and romantic exploration held so many opportunities for character development, drama, and comedy, but it all mixes together too unevenly.

Does American Graffiti deserve to be ranked as it is on the AFI Top 100? I've been wrestling with this prettily heavily. My instinct says "no" because it's a film I don't particularly like. It's not bad. But I don't like it. That being said, it's very important. The use of music, the actors, even the director and the career he went on to have (Star Wars was released four years later)... all of it is hugely significant when you talk about the movies that make up American Cinema.

I know that I don't have to love a movie to think that it's worthy of praise. And most people are on the other side of the spectrum than me when it comes to this one. Sometimes it really is enough to see a movie just to experience a young, pre-Han Solo, Harrison Ford as John's drag-racing nemesis... or a silent Suzanne Somers as the unattainable blonde of Curt's dreams. But really, watch this movie for the soundtrack, and watch Grease for a much better time.

Rating:  ★★½ / 5 stars

[Watch the Trailer] | [Read More AFI Top 100 Reviews] | [images © Universal Pictures]

Check back next week for #62 on the list, Sullivan's Travels — or better yet, have your own viewing party and watch along with us!

1 comment:

  1. Hi. What about the '57 Buick ?
    That car wasn't seen in the movie !


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