Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: American Graffiti (1973)

*This post is a part of The Film Experience's series Hit Me With Your Best Shot.*

Nostalgia can be a powerful thing. It can be intoxicating, reflecting on a past that we wish we could back to, a past that we too often idealize to reflect the innocence we knew in childhood that was tarnished by adulthood. The best nostalgia-laced films (for example, this film's spiritual successor, Dazed & Confused) don't just look back on a time period with wishful-thinking (and perhaps wish-fulfillment); rather, they touch on what it was really like to be that age, especially adolescence, when you're a walking cocktail of volatile emotions.

Before he got lost in a galaxy far, far away, never again to find his way into a film that involved neither stars nor wars, George Lucas co-wrote and directed American Graffiti. Set in the summer of 1962, it follows the escapades of four friends - Steve (Ron Howard), Curt (Richard Dreyfuss), John (Paul Le Mat), and Terry (Charles Martin Smith) - as they spend one last night together before Steve and Curt are scheduled to leave for college. Lucas presents a vision of what it was like to be young and clueless in that era, driving your car down the main drag in town either looking for a race or girls (or, in a perfect world, both).

If you've ever been between the ages of 16 and 20 (and suspect most of you reading this have), you'll recognize a number of things here from you're own youth. Take, for example, Steve's conversation with Laurie (Cindy Williams) at Mel's Drive-In early in the movie: his "we should see other people to strengthen our relationship" proposal is exactly the kind of bullshit logic that makes perfect sense at that age, when you don't have any real relationship experience. Same goes for John's tough guy act, which quickly falls away when he's actually challenged by an authority figure.

Even with the help of co-writers Gloria Katz and William Huyck, Lucas' tin ear for dialogue comes through every once in a while. Though each storyline comes to a logical conclusion, not every one feels  essential: Terry's exists mostly for the comic relief of a dweeb like him impressing beauty queen Debbie (Candy Clark, in an oddly-Oscar-nominated role). And more time could have been spent on Steve and Laurie's crumbling relationship, which is collapsing at a school dance. As they argue, their names are called out as class superlatives, leading to this delightful shot:

All eyes are on high school royalty, the spotlight hits, the crowd separates, and here they are, having it out with each other. If you had an argument with your significant other at that age, you know how that feels.

But the real heart and soul of the film is Curt, who's struggling to decide whether or not he actually wants to leave town or not. It's not because he doesn't think he'd do well at university, nor is he really even thinking about the long-term future; like anyone else about to move away from home, he's scared of being on his own, of the unknown that lies ahead. Over the course of the night, he goes from choosing not to leave, pursuing a mystery blonde in a Thunderbird, being roped in with a gang known as the Pharaohs, to finally boarding his plane and taking off. It's a tumultuous run of emotions, and Dreyfuss plays them all with just the right balance of pathos and carefree-ambivalence. I'm not sure if this was intentional or not, but at the dance, when Curt is pulled aside for a discussion with a former graduate, the scene is bookended by to signs behind the him. The first, announcing the possibility of leaving:

And the second, the possibility of returning (or even staying):

It seems so inconsequential that I'm fairly certain Lucas didn't set up the shots this way, but it is interesting to note thematically.

My choice for Best Shot, though, is a fairly simple and quiet one (literally: it's one of the few seconds of the film not dominated by the film's overbearing collection of early-'60s pop hits). Curt is wandering through the halls of the high school alone, and comes across his old locker. He smiles, then attempts to open it...

...but it doesn't budge. His face falls a bit, before he continues his stroll. But for that one moment, it seems to dawn on him the way it dawns upon us all: once you leave, you can never really go back.

P.S. I didn't have any room for this anywhere else in this post, but Harrison Ford shows up in this thing wearing a cowboy hat.

He challenges John to a race that doesn't quite live up to the hype, but for whatever it's worth, he displays a lot of the cockiness that would define his later roles.



wonderful piece. love the mention of the signs which i did not notice and i love details like that.

Fisti said...

This was my runner up shot! Love the subtle obviousness of it all!