There’s a lot of ire thrown in George Lucas’ direction. Star Wars meant a lot to many, many people and a great many felt the franchise was best served when Lucas only had tertiary input into it (otherwise known as the Lawrence Kasdan Effect). It would not have been such a drastic response had people seen Star Wars as a fluke. Throw a hundred darts and at least one is going to bulls-eye, correct? Star Wars was Lucas’ bulls-eye? Not so fast.
There would be no Star Wars if, after the crushing defeat of THX-1138 producer Francis Coppola didn’t tell Lucas to go off and do something warm and fuzzy. Enlisting the help of another set of friends and American Zoetrope collaborators Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz (Indiana Jones & The Temple Of Doom, Howard The Duck), Lucas set to recalling the cruising culture of the early 1960s. The result is the unlikely combination comedy/drama/”mockumentary” American Graffiti. Yes, I said “mockumentary,” not because there was comedic mockery afoot, but because of Lucas’ desire to capture rather than sculpt. On several occasions during the shoot for Graffiti’s nightime car cruises, there was no script per se; just constructed moments where the actors were free to ad lib and it was up to an able cinematographer to capture it. Initially it was to be Jan D’Alquen and Ron Eveslage, but apparently they were having difficulties with the Techniscope process as they were attempting this guerilla-style grab-n-shoot format. Another Lucas friend and Zoetrope acquaintance Haskell Wexler (Medium Cool) came on board.
The characters are built up around a series of archetypes with the most serious being the “Steve and Laurie Story.” Longtime boyfriend and girlfriend are at the point of a break, with Steve (Ron Howard) looking to a future away from his rather sleepy, dead-end California town. Laurie (a pre-Laverne and Shirley Cindy Williams) sees this as a direct rejection of her. In a way it is. She represents the first footstep of a domesticity Steve is beginning to chafe against.
A little more comedic is the Curt Henderson story wherein Curt (Richard Dreyfus, looking almost nothing like the grizzled shark researcher he’s play in Jaws only a couple years later), also infected with the spirit of adventure and wanderlust spies a sweet young thing during a cruise around town. That search, the 1960s version of a mystical walkabout, finds Curt catching up with his sudden dreamgirl, played by Suzanne Somers. It doesn’t go all that well for him. As the evening progresses he is drawn to the DJ on the radio, the infecter of dreams, the shaman if you will. That takes Curt to a radio station out on the fringes of nowhere, right by the Mexican border. Surely this guy has got the answers and can straighten out this internal conflict. When Curt does finally meet his Coyote Spirit, it is in the form of legendary disc jockey Wolfman Jack, playing it straight and informing the crestfallen Curt that nobody really has the answers. We’re all just doing our best and hoping it works out.
The most comedic arc is with Charles Martin Smith as Toad who has scored a hot chick. Toad is, as the nickname indicates, toadish, bookwormy, impressing nobody as he careens into trashcans on his Vespa scooter. But on this night he has managed to engage the attentions of Debbie (Candy Clark), and she is ready to go provided Toad can get her good and tanked. This leads to mishaps at the liquor store, mishaps in parked vehicles, and mishaps in the woods. You can guess a lot of these but both Smith and Clark are utterly charming as two socially mismatched types who let urges get in the way of common sense.
The final primary story arc involves cruiser John Milner (Paul Le Mat) who has wound up being a babysitter for the young Carol, a pre-teen Mackenzie Phillips, which is the mark of death for a cruiser. How are you going to be the envy of the other hot rodders and score hot chicks with a kid in your passenger seat? Not cool. Even worse, this attention has drawn Milner into the orbit of hotshot Bob Falfa (a cowboy hat-wearing cruiser played by Harrison Ford in the first of many Lucasfilms). Falfa likes Milner’s car and thinks his machine can beat it. Only one way to know for sure and that’s to put it all on the line in a drag race for pinks — title of ownership to the winner of the race and the loser goes walking home. Milner doesn’t really want to risk it, but Carol won’t keep her mouth shut and digs his hole deeper and deeper.
Lucas has stated on occasion that, although the movie is wall-to-wall filled with hits from the ’50s and ’60s (or as Milner opines, “that surfer shit; it’s killing rock ‘n roll”), and the colors are bright and shiny, and the actors are all young and attractive, the movie is about death, or the cliff-edge of it. This is the last gasp of an innocent age. Car culture is at its peak and would never be nearly as important in the lives of teenagers and young adults. Getting into cars with strangers doesn’t seem to end with muggings out here. Presidents don’t get shot in motorcades in broad daylight, and the notion that America has all the answers and you can make it if you dare hasn’t been tamped down by responsibilities and financial constrictions. This film is, in a lot of ways, another George Lucas fantasy, only this one is captured before it all goes straight to hell.
An on-screen epilogue reveals that Milner was killed by a drunk driver in December 1964. Steve, having forsaken his dreams of escape to stay with Laurie, became an insurance agent. Curt became a writer and moved to Canada. One assumes from that particular point that he did so as a conscientious dissenter to the Vietnam War. Toad was not so lucky, reported as m.i.a. in Vietnam in December 1965. As a meta-commentary to the rise and fall of the age of American innocence, American Graffiti makes a very subtle point. The Vietnam Was was still raging after all, and you can imagine how an audience might feel, after having taken this ride all night with your new friends, to find the one you sympathized with and aligned with most wound up likely dead and unrecoverable in a foreign land, in a war you might have felt deeply conflicted about. This turn was just a little knife-slit at the end of the party, but I guarantee that for many in that audience it left a scar. It was supposed to.
Back to the main point, this warm and fuzzy diversion proved to Hollywood that Lucas was capable of more than the cold, dehumanized world THX-1138 illustrated. American Graffiti opened August 1, 1973 and was a blockbuster hit. It showed that he was capable of introducing characters people could love and care about. It also proved his love for the archetypes — the dreaming wanderer, the rebel, those born to responsibilities and sworn to uphold them, the hapless bystanders swept up into the events, and the shaman/guru/Jedi — and how they could be recast in different ways and still have that intrinsic connection. And this is why people had, especially during the prequels but also just before it with the Special Editions, given up on Lucas to an extent. It became about the machinery and the re-purposing of the raw materials, and the feeling that the form had become more than the function so long as it made for a cool toy to sell to the kids of the kids. As cool as the ’57 Chevy was, or the landspeeder, it was no longer about the freedom or the expression of youthful escape. It was a marketable shape. It was a collection of digits congealing on a screen like blobs of mercury rolling together.
With all the talk now about Star Wars Episode Seven with Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, and Harrison Ford (him again) apparently signed on under J.J. Abrams, and the influence of Lawrence Kasdan at the peripheral edge, these characters are no longer the rebellious youth with the righteous cause or the wild children looking for sex and booze and moonlit good times while Elvis and Bill Haley play on the radio. They are the establishment, likely trying to keep the galaxy together as their kids navigate it recklessly. One can only hope that Abrams can recapture in it not the spirit of the original Star Wars Trilogy, but the spirit of American Graffiti, where the adventure really began.