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American Graffiti

Thoughts on a film directed by George Lucas

Watch it as you might watch a "Star Wars" movie; as an adventure populated by alien cultures and customs that are fascinating to us precisely because they're so different from our own. The past here is not a foreign country, but a distant planet drifting in orbit. The planet Americana.

Against a twilight blue sky, the neon lights of Mel's Drive-In restaurant take on the appearance of a flying saucer. A vast space station giving refuge to weary rebels battling, not across the stars, but along the two-lane blacktop of suburban California. They stop here to refill and refuel, making connections, getting into fights, before climbing back into the leather-lined cockpits of their supercharged land cruisers, to speed away into the night.

American Graffiti [George Lucas, 1973]:

Like Lucas's later film, Star Wars (1977), American Graffiti taps into something mythical. The story, a loosely connected series of character-based vignettes set over the course of one night and the following morning, is slight; its characters not so much having to grow and develop, but merely overcoming a particular obstacle that in its own way will have a profound impact on their still young lives. However, it's also loaded with symbolic connotations relating to the idea of "home"; to the themes of responsibility, honour, heroes and disillusionment. The kind of disillusionment that only comes with age and experience.

Many consider the film's perspective on the 1960s to be a symptom of nostalgia. I'm not sure I agree. While Lucas and his co-writers, Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck, present the time and place without criticism, they don't sugar-coat the period in expressions of sentimentality. By using documentary techniques, observing and recording the interactions between characters as if creating an anthropological study on a culture facing its inevitable extinction, Lucas allows the toxicity of the period to settle on the surface. The sexism and crass dismissal of sexual harassment, the one-upmanship between men and the general ignorance of social, political or environmental issues facing the wider world, are not endorsed by the filmmakers, but merely observed. They're symptomatic of the culture and environment that Lucas is evoking, and a key reason why this world that the film depicts and preserves, frozen as it is here in time, has subsequently vanished.

It is in this aspect of the film that American Graffiti once again parallels the experience of Star Wars, and why Lucas's depiction of 1960s Californian adolescence feels as alien to many of us as scenes taking place on the planet Tatooine, or on the observation deck of the Death Star. Even by 1973 when Lucas directed the film, he could recognise that the culture he was depicting had already disappeared into memory. Changing attitudes, war, cultural revolution, technology and other factors, had brought an end to the kind of lifestyles and experiences that American Graffiti depicts.

In this sense, the film is as much about the destruction of a universe as the interplanetary space-battles of the "Star Wars" saga. Because the world depicted here is the universe in miniature; its impending destruction is evoked throughout by the small moments of desolation and emptiness that Lucas depicts; the kind of apocalyptic, void-like existence of the small town and the lives trapped in cycles of repetition broken only by moments of madness. The air of encroaching tragedy that awaits not just these characters but the country itself, is reflected in the dead-end presentation of the world - the way nothing seems to exist outside of the perimeter of this town and its main street, highways and surrounding scrublands - and in the cynicism of those closing title cards, which end the film on an intentional note of disappointment.

American Graffiti [George Lucas, 1973]:

At no point does the world of the film feel connected to the wider world that exists outside it. Televisions provide a literal window onto current events, but beyond this the characters are preserved within the void, as if like relics to a forgotten civilisation, trapped beneath the glass of a museum-piece display.

Lucas's career as a director is defined by two individual trilogies. The second is the "Star Wars" prequel trilogy, consisting of the films: Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999), Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002), and Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005). Here, Lucas weaves a self-contained saga that nonetheless connects back to his earlier films, but can be watched individually. Seen without wider context, the three films tell a moving, intelligent and cohesive story about innocence corrupted and destroyed, about political manipulation and abuses of power, about the manipulations and machinations that lead to war and about the destruction that war brings to civilisations trapped within the cycle of it.

The first trilogy however is not sustained but is spread out across three separate films that each maintain a thematic connection. This "trilogy", in the loosest sense, begins with Lucas's debut feature-length film, THX 1138 (1971), continues through to American Graffiti, and ends with the original Star Wars (later subtitled "Episode IV – A New Hope"). Each of these films is about the end of innocence (or more specifically the end of ignorance), about the growing consciousness of the world and what the world really is, and about characters imprisoned by the worlds that they inhabit.

The characters in Lucas's early work are oppressed but often don't realise it until much later in the film. They yearn for escape, but also recognise that they've become so enmeshed within the fabric of their society that the choice to remain or flee becomes something close to life or death. From here, the films, each with their own style and their own appeals to individual genres, go off in different directions, but they're united throughout by the struggle of each character to survive. For the character of THX and for Curt in the film in question, survival is simply getting out; finding the wherewithal to cut the ties that bind, to strike a blow for freedom and emerge into the blinking sunlight of the following day.

However, there are also several smaller but no less important details that connect these films and reinforce the idea that each of these narratives are now depicting alien worlds divorced from the everyday reality that we live, creating a kind of echo that perpetually reverberates from the past into the future.

Star Wars [George Lucas, 1977]:

In Star Wars, the journey of Luke Skywalker effectively begins when he sees a beautiful young woman relay a message that he can't understand. In attempting to find this woman, he's caught up in an adventure far greater than himself.

American Graffiti [George Lucas, 1973]:

The same thing happens to Curt in American Graffiti, although the context is slightly different.

Star Wars [George Lucas, 1977]:

The aerial procession of the X-Wing fighters as they drift through the blackness of space seems a logical continuation of...

American Graffiti [George Lucas, 1973]:

...machines of a different nature, where lines of cars cruise through the night-time streets in search of adventure. Also: note the licence plate on the hot-rod and its obvious nod to Lucas's previous film.

In each of these three films, Lucas is interested in the theme of disillusionment; in the way the myths and traditions that we accept and embrace as part of our early experiences eventually turn out to be deceits or manipulations. The way Star Wars breaks apart its mythmaking is too complex to go into here, unfolding as it does across its two subsequent sequels, Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (1983), but think about how the very foundations of Luke Skywalker's life and the conception of who he is and where he comes from is completely turned around by the course of the trilogy.

In both THX 1138 and American Graffiti, it's more a pulling back the curtain to reveal the truth behind the legend; something reminiscent of a certain scene in the eternally influential The Wizard of Oz (1939). This is most apparent in Curt's visit to the radio station and interaction with the mythical DJ "Wolfman" Jack. Throughout the film, the teenagers speculate on the origins of the mysterious Wolfman, who becomes a symbol of generational identity, authenticity, the counterculture and rock and roll rebellion. However, as Curt wanders into the radio station after hours, he's confronted not by the myth, but by the reality. Not a legend, but a man like any other.

The Wizard of Oz [Victor Fleming & King Vidor, 1939]:

In The Wizard of Oz, the revelation that the wizard is not some all-knowing supernatural overlord but a flesh and blood human-being manipulating events via the use of a machine, resonates with the ultimate unmasking of the villainous Darth Vader; revealing how the legend or mythology surrounding the character had been carefully cultivated in order to instill fear, authority and control. We see a prelude to this in the scene between Curt and the character eventually revealed to be "Wolfman" Jack.

While much of American Graffiti bursts with a restless energy, buoyed throughout by an almost constant soundtrack of 60s pop, doo-wop and rock music, the scene between Curt and the "Wolfman" has an eerie stillness to it. It allows the film to slow down, to step back from the hot rods and the hijinks, the comic misunderstandings and the larger than life vignettes, and take a moment. By allowing the pace to slow and the atmosphere to become silent with anticipation, the scene immediately strikes the viewer as significant, and it is. It represents a coming of age moment for Curt; the yellow brick road has led him to this apparent Emerald City situated on the edge of town. He wants to meet the Wizard, to ask him questions. But getting a glimpse behind the curtain to the reality of who the character is, awes him. The mythology is gone, chased away like shadows by the rising sun. The dream is over.

Here, Lucas and his camera operator film Curt as a reflection on the glass surface of the recording booth. At this point his own transparency and the transparency of the rock and roll myth that he and his friends have constructed is revealed. We're able to see through Curt, literally and figuratively. We see through his insecurities, his fear of leaving behind this world that has defined his life and his sense of self since birth, as well as leaving behind the state of innocence, or ignorance, that the town and its isolation from the wider world has instilled.

American Graffiti [George Lucas, 1973]:

Looking back on 1962 from the perspective of 1973, Lucas knew that the potential future of this world was bleak. From here, the hermetic naiveté of the American dream (let's not call it a state of "innocence", as many of these characters are toxic, their attitudes unsympathetic) was about to be exploded by the realities of presidential assassinations, Government corruption, a groundswell of support for African American activism, the women's movement, and opposition to America's involvement in the war in Vietnam.

In American Graffiti, the distillation of the country and culture was able to manifest itself in the depiction of a small American town. By the 1970s however, this was no longer the case. The world became bigger, more complicated, presenting not just one experience, but a multitude of experiences from people of different races, cultures, genders, backgrounds, persuasions and histories. The planet Americana would cease to exist. We start to see this shift occurring in Star Wars, with Lucas acknowledging that the hermetic worlds of both THX 1138 and the film in question were being replaced by something bigger, less homogenous, less defined by a solitary cultural identity. To put it plainly, the future of Star Wars only reinforces the perspective of American Graffiti as something belonging to the past. Even by 1977, the writing was on the wall.

It's here where I think the implications of the title become clear. By titling his film American Graffiti, Lucas is equating both the film and the period it depicts to a hieroglyph; something that has been expressed by a previous age, generation or cultural epoch, that exists now as a remnant scrawled or scratched onto the brick wall of history. As the world continues to grow and develop, changing so much through advancements of technology, through debasements of war, through travels and settlements, the vanished world of American Graffiti seems small.

Fired like a distress beacon from a planet facing obliteration, the film, like primitive cave paintings, Egyptian pictograms, street art or initials written in once-wet cement, seems intended to say that this generation was here; that they existed.


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