' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: American Graffiti (1973)

Friday, January 25, 2013

Friday's Old Fashioned: American Graffiti (1973)

What really got me were the character postscripts just before the closing credits. Movies, particularly movies centered around coming-of-age quests, enjoy utilizing this device. Movie ends and, by extension, the quests of the respective characters end, except then the movie provides a brief coda on top of the coda by telling us what the respective characters went on to do long after the conclusion. Typically these postscripts are less serious and more humorous (think: “Animal House”), a way to let the audience release a few more laughs and get ready to face the night with a smile.


But the character postscripts in “American Graffiti” are strikingly serious. For its duration it is a mostly joyful, humorous, romantic, nostalgia-tinted examination of Eisenhower-Era Anytown, U.S.A. Nearly every second is coated with one joyous pop tune of the era or another and, thus, the movie always feels rambunctious and alive. And then, at the very end, one of our characters flies away – literally, aboard a jetliner – and the pop songs vamoose and, suddenly, wham! The character postscripts. One character would get killed by a drunk driver just a couple years later. Another character would go on M.I.A. in Vietnam three years later. One character would become, gulp, an insurance agent, perhaps the worst fate of all. The fourth and final character would become a writer, but by then the heartbreak had already consumed me.

The setting is a classic endless summer night in 1962. Steve (Ron Howard) and Curt (Richard Dreyfuss) are set to depart for college in the faraway northeast the following morning. Steve is gung-ho to get going, so much that he has few pangs about casting his longtime gal Laurie (Cindy Williams). Curt, however, is having second thoughts, frightened of the future. John (Paul LeMat) and Toad (Charles Martin Smith), the street racer and the nerd, meanwhile, are almost resigned to the fact their future is the present.

Together the gang goes off alone, one by one, on some sort of youthful escapade. Curt finds himself caught up with a threatening gang before, oddly, accidentally, endearing himself to them. John scoops the loop in search of an out-of-town drag racer (Harrison Ford, nostalgically reminding us of the wonderful time when his acting was not simply frowny-face gruffness) only to pick up an unexpected passenger in the form of Carol (Mackenzie Phillips) who he spends all night trying to ditch until he finally ditches her and realizes he actually had a pretty nice time. Toad borrows Steve’s hot rod which aids him in picking up a righteous babe (Candy Clark) with whom he kinda, sorta scores - not really - before the hot rod gets stolen and sends them on a quest to get it back.


The latter day George Lucas is often prodded for his insipid, unsubtle storytelling (and I am one of the prodders) which makes it all the more stunning to witness the storytelling craft on display in his second feature film (for which he earned an Oscar nomination for directing). Working with co-writers Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck, he never forces the characters’ fates but rather allows their decisions to come to light through the film’s narrative.

More than that, though, the film really is not about anything specific as far as the grand scheme. It is about a time and a place and a few kids on the cusp of real life who do not realize they are on the cusp of real life because, of course, they are kids.

I suppose this is why the character postscripts resonate so strongly. Here is a quartet living for today - or, more accurately, for tonight. And then, in the blink of an eye, it is tomorrow.

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