AMERICAN GRAFFITI is now so far in the past as a movie that it's mere presence as a film has become a familiar, even innocuous emblem of the very kind of nostalgia it so helped to celebrate. We take it for granted. Yet considered again, it still seems darkly daring, ostensibly celebrating a carefree time in everyone's collective past, but constantly reminding itself and the viewer that this too shall pass.
Set in '62, released in '73, George Lucas's second feature film looked fondly back on an era that was barely a decade in the past, but with hippies and free love and the Vietnam War in the interim, those ten years might as well have been one hundred or more. And now nostalgia as a force in TV and cinema has become so commonplace that it's hard to remember a time when the tone and style of this film wasn't perpetually with us. Yet AMERICAN GRAFFITI, in a very real way, created the way that we look at the past, at least cinematically, and on closer inspection, what's surprising is how dark the film's centre actually remains, its freewheeling tone constantly uprooted and shadowed by the uncertain future that awaits everyone once this night finally decides to be done.
Four friends -- the nerd, the student body president, the honor-scholarship academic, and the local street-racing thug -- wander around their small city during the evening before some of them will leave town. Heading on to colleg -- or not? Not much of a plot. More than enough.
Everyone trying to hook up with girls, or break up with girls, or cruisng around simply in search of some girls. A constant parade of Fifties and Sixties tunes serving as the soundtrack, the local DJ WolfMan Jack in a way our omniscient narrator. Storylines intersecting and colliding,crosscutting from scene to scene in much the same manner that Lucas would do in the first STAR WARS, four years to come. The suspense pretty much pertains to: Will Ronny Howard go away to university, or stay here at home with his girlfriend? Can Richard Dreyfuss put away his fears of the future long enough to hop on the plane that will take him to college? The night is mostly one of prank-making and leavetaking, hooking up and chilling out, all underscred by the decisions that will have to be made by morning's first light. The frivolosness hiding everything.
As fun as it is, as light as it is, as rollicking and adolescent as the events of the film prove to be, there also exists a simultaneous world of impending adult issues and regret that looms over almost every scene. When Dreyfuss pops out of the gymnasium of his old school to share a smoke with his former teacher, the instructor teases some mild sexual innuendos to the giggling girls he chats with, then tells Dreyfuss that he too once left town, but only for a semester, he couldn't quite cut it. We then see another female co-ed awkwardly tell the teach that she needs to have a word with him, and there is the palpable sense that this dude is a creep and a perv. Just outside the exit-door of the good-time innocence of this homecoming dance, where young boys and girls harmlessly bop and get down, there's another, darker engagement going on, tentative and hushed.
Other adults in the film -- from stick-in-the-mud high school teachers, to a sloppy drunk shambling into the liquor store, to a sleazy car salesman, to authoritarian cops, to the clueless game-centre manager and his Moose-Hall friend who do not seem to get that their currently being robbed, to the elderly couple who watch Terry The Toad violently heave his booze, all seem vaguely buffoonish and clueless, existing in another, simultaneously existing world that has no place in the rollicking uncertainty that our lead characters dwell in; they have no fears or fun, are already dumbly rooted in place.
Then there's John, the drag-racer, who right from the beginning is already not quite buying into the supposed nostalgic glow of this film. He mourns how happening the strip was only a few years in the past, how the chicks were better looking; he later mentions how he can't stand all this new beach music; he worries that he's no longer number one on the strip. Everything is not what it once was. Even in the midst of the movie's nostalgia, there are those currently longing for yet another shot at the past. In one of the film's best, quietest scenes, he wanders around an abandoned junkyard with Mackenzie Phillips, his geeky teenage companion, and for one of the few times in the movie, there's no music at all, just some softly blowing wind, and the darkened husk of those cars visible in the shadows, as John mentions a few of those who've been killed in drag races, and how close he himself come in the past to checking out of this life. It's a short, stark scene, and one that makes even more thematic sense when we finally get to see the last title card on the screen.
For it's this sudden,moving ending that puts everything in this film into its proper place. And, having seen the film once, when you watch it again, the whole movie takes on this rather sad and gloomy disposition amidst all the ensuing horseplay. After barely surviving a drag race featuring our hero John and a young Harrison Ford, as the wide morning sky finally makes itself felt, Cindy Williams rushes into the arms of her on-and-off boyfriend Ron Howard, who vows that he won't leave her behind, not now or ever. John worries that he had almost lost the race from the start, but Terry reassures him that he's still The Man, to which John reluctantly agrees. They all say good-by to Richard Dreyfuss at the airport, who's boarding the plane that will take him to college, away for good from this godforsaken place which he can barely let go of. Howard tells him that he'll join him next year, but we all know the deal. All the collective threads of the film quickly come together and tie themselves up.
As the plane takes off, Dreyfuss glances out of the window and spots far down below the white car that just might contain the dream-girl he's been searching for throughout the whole film -- the beautiful blonde goddess who he's followed all down the night, who he convinced Wolfman Jack to dedicate a song to, who that very morning talked to him on the pay phone and told him that she'd be cruising the strip again the next night, she could meet up with him then. She represents a dream a vision, what he wants but can't have. (And, tellingly, earlier in the film, the head of the Pharaohs, the gang that pseudo-kidnaps Dreyfuss, indicates that he knows the chick, and she's just s a prostitute -- a possibility which Dreyfuss does not want to even consider, that what we most long for could be had for a quick buck.) Just as the illusion of the all-knowing DJ was revealed to be as something as basic and pedestrian as a funny beareded man in a back room sucking down popsicles, so, too, is this girl in the car something else that must be disembodied, and finally just left behind.
I could go on and on about the plainspoken yet evocative visuals of the film, its gorgeous compositions as cars on the move (and the make) cruise to and fro, its dynamic colour schemes, its mixing of background sounds and conversations that augment and enhance the real sense of a town coming alive in the night, but it's that final image that keeps bopping into my brain, the one that features high school photos of each of our leads, with short text informing us that one of them went missing in 'Nam, and another died in a car crash, and another now sells insurance in Modesto, and another is a writer in Canada. It never fails to get to me, those words.
We've just spent a hell of a long night with these folks, and suddenly, it's over, and we learn that the drag race is dead, and the nerd somewhere lost in Vietnam, the student body president is a square, and the intellectual probably a draft dodger. It's the real world, the adult world, essentially annhilating most of the dogged romanticism that had been so carefully rendered. All in a less-than-thirty-second bluntness of an ending. It's what makes the movie, this ending, this abrupt transition from Dreyfuss staring out of the airplane window at the sun to the plainspoken reality of what they would all come to be, as we witness the airplane itself as a mere speck in the sky. It's extraordinarily sad, and surprising, and it's the honest brutality of this ending, in stark counterpoint with everything that we've just seen, that made this film stand out in my teens as a harbinger and warning of what adult life might someday mean.
And whenever I think on this conclusion (which is more often than I should), it makes me remember a night when I was fifteen, in Myrtle Beach, hanging out with a bunch of strangers that we met from Port Perry, Ontario, a gaggle of Canadian kids goofing around down in the States on Spring Break, and we stayed up most of the night in somebody's room, laughing about silly shit, and I knew then that none of us would probably ever hang out again in that way, that, if we were lucky, we would just remember it at some point in the future as simply another fun night from our youth, one where the clear sound of the ocean waves lapping the shore seemed to get ever harder to hear as the morning crept close.