Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Where Were You in ’62? American Graffiti

by Justin Thomas

A funny thing happened along my way to giving George Lucas his daily throttling: I watched American Graffiti again and decided against bashing in his brains.

Allow me to explain.

Even though I believe nostalgia is mistaken for belief in the quality of American Graffiti, I’m less inclined to berate the fans of the film or really take Lucas to task for it because of what it is. Nostalgia for that particular time – between the death of Buddy Holly and the death of JFK – seen on screen at the time of American Graffiti’s release – 1973 – would have been understandable and entirely welcome. But before the weighing in of why people should like American Graffiti even though it has more in common with a student film than Best Picture, a few reasons why American Graffiti smells of a student film.

Anyone spending any time watching movies knows precisely what will happen to Curt and Steve after their introductions. Steve is gung ho to go “back East” to school while Curt cannot decide whether he wants to go to school or not. Got that? One wants to go, one wants to stay and character arcs demand they change. I wonder how those storylines might conclude... Actually, I never wondered. That Steve would stay while Curt would go is practically tattooed on their foreheads in their introductions, regardless of what they say, and I knew it not because I have some sort of sixth sense but because they are hard stances early on and the demand they change leaves only one possible conclusion.

To get to their resolutions, we have the inevitable driving around of high school students where they have those insanely important conversations at those incredible locations where high school students have them. (Mine happened in corn fields but they were monologues, not conversations, because I had no friends.) While Curt and Steve do this, we know everything that happens will weigh on their eventual decision: Steve thinks he’ll be okay with leaving Laurie while Curt wants to experience Modesto not to say goodbye but to decide whether he’s okay staying there. It turns out Steve isn’t okay losing Laurie, and Curt loves Modesto, but the adventures of the night will be fodder for his future writing, not the thing to keep him home. There really are no surprises along the way with Steve and Curt.

There is terrible dialogue along the way, though. It’s doubtful the obituaries will list the dialogue writing ability of George Lucas in their leads because, well, he’s just plain awful. George Lucas' dialogue ideas through the pen of Lawrence Kasdan? Awesome. Like, totally. George Lucas dialogue on his own? Not awesome. A few choice examples, ripped out of context, for your enjoyment:

Why don’t you go kiss a duck?

You just can’t stay seventeen forever.

You grungy little twerp.

Well, get bent, turkey!

Your car is uglier than I am!

Okay, that last one is brilliant, but there are real dogs in the film. You know the score: you can type that sh*t, George, but you just can’t say it. Not for one second do I believe a high school student would use, “go kiss a duck” even in 1962. I understand replacing the “D” with the intended “F” would have ducked around with the film’s rating, but even then, find a replacement that can satisfy the ratings board while not sounding ridiculous.

At this point, we have American Graffiti featuring a story as subtle as taking a sledgehammer to a discarded toilet in a junkyard and pretty awful dialogue. In a nominee for Best Picture.

Curt and the woman in the white T-Bird is Lucas making movies, meaning Lucas hitting those magical movie moments certain to delight and entertain. We see her confessing love for Curt, then we see Curt chasing her for the rest of the night. The white T-Bird comes and goes, sometimes Curt sees it, sometimes he doesn’t, but it’s like a huge, huge shark Hooper chases but can’t catch to remind us, visually and blatantly, there’s something out there he wants. And naturally when the phone call happens after Curt’s visit with the Almighty Oz, I mean, Wolfman Jack, he never gets her name or any type of explanation. It’s precisely what a writer needs on his last night in his hometown. On my last night in my hometown, I ate at KFC and got sick.

American Graffiti, from a quality of story and storytelling perspective, is nothing more than a collection of a writer’s memories strung together through a pretty tame and overused story that utilizes movie making tricks rather than movie making technique. It’s not bad but it lacks any type of sophistication and is a film expected from a filmmaker not long out of film school, but that’s not the point with American Graffiti.

It evokes very well 1962 and hit screens in 1973. 1962, for the Baby Boomers, is their time when they came of age one year before JFK and three years before Vietnam. That’s the end of whatever innocence they were going to have, and in 1973, they’d been dealing with Vietnam for eight years and were still two years away from its conclusion. They were still decades from actually coming to terms with that conflict. Even though I wonder why people thought it was a good movie I do not wonder why they liked it, and that’s why American Graffiti will have significance so long as the Boomers survive.

George Lucas had an insane decade. In 1973, he made American Graffiti, in 1977, he made Star Wars, he was responsible for The Empire Strikes Back in 1980, Raiders of the Lost Ark in 1981 and Return of the Jedi in 1983. For those ten years, he could spin an idea and have it strike the movie-going audience more consistently than anyone else at the time. He was the one on the top of the mountain and it has to make one wonder what happened because he’s no longer there even when he spins out a new Star Wars property. My theory: Lucas was better when he didn’t have complete control and once he retreated to his ivory tower all was lost.

It’s a shame because there was a time when there was a way to get really magical things out of George Lucas. Magical and important things, but it appears as though that particular George Lucas exists, like the Vietnam War, only in the pages of history.

Oh, what a load of crap. He was good, now he’s not and I refuse to say anything positive about the Special Editions. Han shot first, dammit. It completely destroys Han’s arc for the sake of what? What the Hell were you thinking, George?

Where’s the Tylenol?

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