Getting back into the 70s again after a few movies from the early/mid-1980s, American Graffiti is another movie that, for many, is considered a classic that is representative of a bygone era of American pop culture. And, like Fast Times at Ridgemont High, this is one that I’d been told I should see for a long, long time before I finally made it a point to sit down and watch it. As I mentioned last week, American Graffiti differs from FTRH in that it attempts in a later decade to recreate the zeitgeist of a time already passed. And now, writing about it nearly forty years later, in some senses the entire decade gap between the date depicted in the movie and the movie’s release can almost feel arbitrary. But then, less than five years later, George Lucas would be releasing Star Wars, which really does feel like a different era. But enough of all that, let’s talk about American Graffiti.
In a way that reminded these young eyes of the much laterDazed and Confused, American Graffiti follows the lives of a handful of teenagers over the course of a single evening. The events that transpire in that time offer a snapshot into the lives of each of the characters: where they’re coming from , what’s important to them, and where they might be headed. In capturing that snapshot of the main characters, the film also offers a glimpse at what the surrounding society at the time was like, in this case being a feeling of Southern California mid-century Americana, complete with Mel’s Drive-In and hot rods.
The cast of characters in this face some of the challenges very common among middle-class teens: Curt is trying to decide whether it’s a good idea to go away to college or whether some better possibility exists, Steve struggles with his sense of commitment to his high-school sweetheart Laurie as he plans to leave for school with Curt, Terry “The Toad” strives to overcome his geeky nature and attract girls with the help of Steve’s Impala, and Milner inadvertently ends up playing babysitter to an eager young girl who seems to be crushing on him.
These story threads weave around the city and surroundings of Modesto and draw in a variety of compelling plot points, most of which are centered on the love interests of the respective main characters. The trajectory of Curt’s evening is set by an encounter with a mysterious blonde in a T-bird, which leads him to spend his time trying to find or reconnect with her, having interactions with both greasers and a popular radio DJ along the way. Toad manages to meet up with a good-looking rebellious type who seems to be interested, much to his surprise. The film’s climax comes as Toad and Steve watch the dramatic race on Paradise Road, when John Milner and the man driving Steve’s girlfriend Laurie around test each other’s manhood.
American Graffiti is definitely a fascinating movie for getting a look at what American teen culture was like in the early 1960s. Being West Coast and somewhat middle-class, the movie certainly doesn’t capture all of the nuances of society during that time period, but it does offer a nice look at one particular segment of the population and also manage touch on themes that transcend the place and time. Whether that can measure up to “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” is a matter of opinion.