Directed by George Lucas
*the more I think about it, the more this might be one of my favorite movies.
American Graffiti is a high school story set in the small town of Merced, California on one night in the early 1960s. It follows a group of friends as they cruise the town, race cars, try to pick up women and stress over the future. It’s the last night before Steven (Ron Howard) and Curtis (Richard Dreyfuss) are set to leave for college somewhere on the east coast, but Curtis has decided that he might not go anymore. Steven is dead set on going, even proposing a break with his girlfriend Laurie (Cindy Williams). Steven is ready for the future. He wants to spread his wings and fly, see the world, make new experiences, etc. Curtis argues that they have everything they need right here in town, so what’s the rush to go out and replace current friends with new ones and current experiences with promised ones?
The film then takes place over the course of the following night, like a case study of small-town, young life and the pros and cons of this tiny world they’ve made for themselves. In a sense, the world of the film is the entire world. It’s a microcosm (that’s a word I like to use but have a feeling I’m not using correctly) or the real world. Steven and Laurie are like the President and the First Lady as they are called upon to take the first slow dance at the school dance that night. The boys have their strong group of friends including what you would call a nerd and a bad boy and whatnot.
Parents don’t seem to exist here, at least not in this moment. The kids run the town. They’re 17 years old, and they act as if that means they’re already adults but also as if it gives them the freedom to mess up and have an excuse. They live in this bubble both in space (the isolated town) and in time (the space between childhood and adulthood). They are old enough to drive cars recklessly across town but too young to buy alcohol or live on their own. They’re animals on a 10 foot leash who are convinced they have access to the whole world but only because they’ve ever gone 9 feet from home.
Over the course of the night, the friends experience a myriad of adventures, ranging from Woody Allen-esque screwball comedy to law-breaking shenanigans that feel like they have real stakes to a early morning sunrise car race that results in one vehicle rolling over and exploding. It’s a wild night, and in the end Steven decides to recommit to his girlfriend, Laurie, choosing to stay in town, and Curtis decides to leave and go to college. The two pals switch places, and when the film ends you don’t get the sense that either is being judged right or wrong. Though it seems to us foolish to simply choose not to attend college when given the chance, it still feels like each character took time with their decision and came to a not ill-conceived conclusion. At the same time, the more I think about it, the more egocentric, cocky and naive Steven feels in retrospect.
He’s an interesting character, so I’ll start there. Steven looks like a kid I went to school with. Not one, but several. He’s slender and well-dressed. Parents probably like him, and his fellow students get along with him too. He has authority, really. He’s in control, but every character looks like they could beat him up if they so choose. He’s like the guy who never learned how to be tough because he never had to learn. He always had an older brother or two who would look out for him and introduce him to the right people. Everything was given to him on a silver platter and he turns it down.
Steven, like Curtis, is given the opportunity to go to college, and he doesn’t think twice about it, at least when we first meet him. Curtis considers not going only because he’s learning to question the world and what he wants from it. Steven doesn’t question anything. He’s been told to go to college, so he says he’s going to college, thinking it’s something he decided to do when really he never gave it any thought. His acceptance to some east coast school gives him the perceived freedom to be a bit of an asshole. He tells Laurie they should see other people because it would be unrealistic to keep things as they are when he’s thousands of miles away. This hurts her in a way that makes the audience feel sorry for her, but Steven is blind to her pain. He’s very self-involved and doesn’t consider how his decisions have any effect on anyone else.
Later, at the dance, Laurie points out how she had to ask Steven out, she had to make the moves on him the first time, and she has had to hold his hand through every step of the relationship. Steven never chose this, and he’s not choosing for himself to go to college. Visually, Steven dresses the way a ‘good kid’ in the 60s dresses. His shirts is tucked in, his pants are pressed, his hair is perfectly combed. He doesn’t know what it means to choose.
In the end, Steven does choose. He decides to stay in Merced with Laurie, much to her relief. They embrace, and it feels like a happy ending, particularly since he ran up to her right as she emerged from Bob Falfa’s (Harrison Ford) about-to-explode car following the sunrise race. On the surface it feels like he rescued her, but what you really see, in the context of the rest of the film, is a jealous kid who only values his girlfriend after he sees her with another man who is in many ways the opposite of him. Bob Falfa is an older guy, confident and cool and aggressive while wearing a cowboy hat. Even if his self-image is based on movies and media he chooses to consume, it’s still a choice. When Bob’s car crashes and burns, it seems like a sign: he’s wrong, bland Steven is right.
So when Steven chooses Laurie and Merced, he’s still not really choosing. He’s acting on impulse and on the fear of watching her with another man. He’s returning to what he’s always known. The only choice Steven makes is to keep everything exactly as it is. Interestingly enough, there is a ‘where are they now?’ text at the film’s conclusion, treating these characters as if they were real. Two characters, we learn, died only a couple years later (one in a drunk driving accident and another in the war). Then we’re told that Steven is an insurance agent in Merced while Curtis is a writer living in Canada.
It’s a bit of a dark joke, and this final text really surprised me. It took this comedy and made it somehow real. The film was released in 1973, only ten years after the year the story takes place. Still, it feels very nostalgic, like this film was made 30 years after the events of the film took place. The point is, I think, that this film is about a moment in time that has abruptly ended, perhaps by the desensitization, violence or awakenings of the later 60s.
You’re not 17 forever. Steven’s choice landed him a boring job and a life of little fanfare, though I suppose that shouldn’t be considered a prison sentence. It only stands out in comparison to the text that says Curtis is a writer in Canada. Here’s where I should talk about Curtis.
Richard Dreyfuss is inherently likable, I think. He’s great in Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and another Spielberg film, Always (1989). In each of these films, Dreyfuss is witty, assertive, confident, etc. In American Graffiti he feels like the smartest kid in town. He gets himself into some trouble, but he looks like he’s living. Whereas Steven dresses the way a good kid is supposed to dress, Curtis’ hair is loose and bordering on shaggy (by early 60s standards), and his checkered shirt is untucked. He lives for comfort and not by any rules assigned to him.
Curtis sets his sights on a mysterious woman, and he’s proud of his attraction to her. He has an idea of what he wants in life or at least what life might contain. Steven once had his eyes set on college because he had made an assumption about life and what it promised. Curtis thinks he doesn’t want to go to college because he knows what he wants, and he’s convinced it’s right here in town, embodied by this mysterious woman.
In the end, it’s not the woman he wants, but what she represents. He has to go to college, as he realizes, because what she represents is out there, not right here. As Curtis flies away the next morning, he sees the white Thunderbird cruising along the highway below him. It’s important that he sees her leaving just as he is leaving. There was nothing for him in Merced.
So now the more I think about it, maybe Steven did do the right thing just as Curtis did. Curtis thinks what he wants is right here, but he realizes it’s beyond this small town. Steven thinks what he wants is out there, but he discovers it’s right here. They both make the choice that’s right for them. I just liked Curtis a hell of a lot more. While Steven spent his time wallowing in self-pity, Curtis did things and experienced new things.
The final thing I want to touch on (though I feel like there is a lot of stuff I haven’t yet brought up), is the Wolfman. He is the local radio host, and everyone listens to the Wolfman. He is like a God to them. When we see one kids listening to the Wolfman on a radio, we are shown a series of shots of other people listening to the same program. Even the Pharaohs, the intimidating local gang that picks up Curtis, listens in awe to the program just as the more innocent kids do.
Eventually Curtis makes his way to the radio station in an effort to give the Wolfman a message that he will read for the mystery woman in the thunderbird. The Wolfman holds all the answers, and he helps convince Curtis that he should go off to college.
The film effectively ends with the race between Bob Falfa and another kid, John (Paul Le Mat). John has the fastest car in town. He’s the bad boy if there is one. His hair is greased back, he wears plain white t-shirt, and he has a pack of cigarettes rolled up in the sleeve. But he’s a pretty nice guy. He finds himself sharing a ride with a young girl, and they develop a nice sibling-type friendship. He’s the guy Bob Falfa looks for, wanting to challenge to a race.
When they ultimately race, John wins but only because Bob crashed his car. It’s a violent end to the race, and I felt it had to represent something. Maybe it’s just an effective visual for the death of this kind of innocent, isolated small-town living.
A lot of things feel like they end in this film. The Wolfman is built up as this mythological character (one person says they heard he broadcasts from Mexico) only for us to see that he’s just a guy eating popsicles in an ordinary radio station. Steven and Laurie’s relationship feels like the ideal small-town romance, only to be broken by his own ego. When they end up back together, it doesn’t feel ideal anymore. Finally, John, the fastest car in the Valley, admits he didn’t truly win the race because Bob was winning at the time of his crash. He is no longer the fastest. At the same time, Bob’s confidence and swagger vanishes when his car explodes. He is shaken and silent.
I have a feeling that George Lucas saw a lot of himself in Curtis. He was born in Modesto, a similarly small California town, and he would have been about the same age as these kids at this time. Curtis had to get out because George himself got out. He made a name for himself, and with American Graffiti he was able to reminisce about a brief moment in the world and in his own life. He simply blended the two and made a movie that was about the entire world as he knew it at the time.