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From Under A Rock: American Graffiti

August 5, 2017 | Posted by Michael Ornelas
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From Under A Rock: American Graffiti  


We all know George Lucas for bringing Star Wars and Indiana Jones into our lives, but today we’re looking at his third great contribution to cinema.

You only get one first time, and for some people, it comes later than it does for others. This particular column is about documenting the first viewing of a “classic” movie or TV show determined at the discretion of Aaron Hubbard and Michael Ornelas in alternation.

Last week Michael chose The Core. This week Aaron takes Michael out from under the proverbial rock to show him American Graffiti.

American Graffiti
Released: August 11th, 1973
Directed by: George Lucas
Written by: George Lucas, Gloria Katz, Willard Huyck
Richard Dreyfuss as Curt Henderson
Ron Howard as Steve Bolander
Paul Le Mat as John Milner
Charles Martin Smith as Terry “The Toad” Fields
Harrison Ford as Bob Falfa

Aaron Hubbard: American Graffiti was one of fifty classic films I told myself I would watch in 2017, which you can see on my Letterboxd account. I saw it early in the year and it made enough of an impression on me to want to add to this column’s watchlist.

Michael Ornelas: I don’t know if there’s something wrong with me at this point, but this is another highly-rated classic that I really couldn’t get into. I wanted to! I swear!
Creating an Atmosphere
Aaron: To me, the single biggest thing American Graffiti has in its favor is its cohesive tone and feel. The setting, the costume and makeup, the cars, the music… it all contributes to a singular vision of the 1960’s teen scene. Specifically, the cruising and rock ‘n’ roll culture that George Lucas grew up with in Modesto, California. While it isn’t exactly autobiographical, it is a first-hand account of what it felt like to live in the era.

Michael: The music was distracting for me and I didn’t really like the narrative structure. There’s nothing wrong with that style (jumping between multiple story threads), but I guess I felt a lot of the scenes felt too low stakes or uneventful to justify showing in the first place. Obviously that wasn’t the case for everything — I was very connected to Richard Dreyfuss’ story, as I felt the tension associated with unwillingly running with a bad crowd. I never really connected to the dude in the yellow car and his driving around the young girl, showing “will they/won’t they” vibes. More than anything it creeped me out.

Aaron: I disagree with you on Jim’s story. There’s never a question of “will they/won’t they”; it’s about a girl wanting to grow up too fast and Jim trying to get rid of his childhood by getting a literal child off of his back. Otherwise he could end up being the man child that Harrison Ford plays. The whole movie is essentially about characters either trying to grow up too fast or refusing to grow up when they need to. Toad is in over his head with the car, the girl, the alcohol and getting into a fight. Steve is throwing away a potential lifelong marriage, Curt is trying to wring out that childhood mischief a college-bound nerd would have missed out on.
Music Makes the World
Michael: The one constant in this film was Wolfman Jack’s DJing on the radio that carried through all the scenes. It was an interesting through-line for me, one that sometimes served more distracting than anything, but it undeniably locked in the time period. I feel like part of my disconnect with the film stemmed from sound mixing, and I couldn’t tell if it came from my copy of the film or from my TV setup (which doesn’t usually have this problem), but the music overtook the dialogue in several of the more active scenes (a.k.a. scenes where getting a microphone in a clean spot may have been more difficult such as ones where guys are yelling out of car windows while driving). It made it hard to focus and hard to invest in the presentation for me. This is not a knock on the actual soundtrack though, which was actually fantastic in my opinion.

Aaron: I was actually wondering if you’d gotten a bad copy or perhaps an original copy. The film had a few changes on its initial re-release, including a few cut scenes and most notably, a second go around with the sound mixing. I never had any issues hearing anything, so I feel like you might benefit from rewatching it in higher quality. If you feel compelled, anyway.

Michael: Yeah, perhaps a remastered version would be better. I borrowed it from my friend Steven who insisted on me watching his VHS copy because he’s…different. And in a way, nostalgic, so it’s appropriate.
Launching a Career
Aaron: My main purpose in watching this film was because I know it’s a very personal project of George Lucas, and I wanted a look into his psyche. But watching it, I could put myself in the shoes of the thirty somethings who flocked to see this, reliving their high school years in all of its bittersweet glory. And I do mean flocked; the film was made on a $770,000 budget and made $55 million on initial release. Re-releases were also successful; it was the 13th highest grossing film of all time in 1977, and is still 43rd of all time when adjusted for inflation. This movie spoke to its audience in a profound way, which led to George Lucas getting the financing for another little independent film called Star Wars. And we all know how that turned out.

Michael: I understand the sentiment of nostalgia and how it’s a marketable driving force, but times have also changed so much that the setting of this movie didn’t hit with me in a relatable way at all. Not that it was supposed to — it was designed exactly for the demographic that saw it when it came out. I get my own nostalgia catered to me with all the 90s properties that are resurging right now. So in a way, I shouldn’t be surprised by the success of this film. I’m happy it was so successful because like Aaron said, without it, there may not have been a Star Wars franchise.

Aaron: I’ve always found it easier to connect with this era than most people my age, I’ve found. My grandmother made sure that 50’s and 60’s rock was a steady part of my musical diet, and I’ve always enjoyed films set in this era. But really, I think that regardless of time and place, this is right at home with The Breakfast Club, Back to the Future and even films like Mean Girls and Edge of Seventeen. And if we’re honest, those films owe more than a bit to this one.

Michael: This film was a little off the mark for me, and the nostalgia factor was lost on me. I really wish I’d felt a connection because this is another one where I had really high hopes heading in. I almost want to say my ability to rate this is N/A, but I have to give it something. It was well-shot (nothing special though), well-acted, but overall just disinteresting to me.


Aaron: Having watched the film twice in the last seven months, I feel I’ve gained an appreciation for it beyond just “Hey this movie was culturally important.” The characters speak to me, in spite of overall hammy acting. It’s funny, it’s thrilling, and overall nostalgic and bittersweet. Perhaps not for everyone but I loved it.


Michael: I’m really bummed that this didn’t hit with me. I’m also in a spot right now where I’m taking in less and less narrative entertainment and largely watching the news and satirists about current events because the world is very messy right now, it seems to me.

Aaron: All the more reason for me to escape. Movies keep me sane, man.

What’s your take on American Graffiti?

Next week:

Michael: My next pick is a great movie with what I consider to be the best performance by a child actor maybe ever?
Aaron: I am really looking forward to this one based on reputation. We’ve put this off a few times.

Michael: And it is finally here. This is a favorite of mine, for sure.

What’s your favorite child acting performance?

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The final score: review Very Good
The 411
We're a bit split on American Graffiti, which is hardly surprising. People tend to either love the film or be indifferent to it. It's a good film that became great by capturing a spirit and atmosphere at the right time. For those who are dismissive of George Lucas as an artist, though, I feel this should be necessary viewing. He used to be a great director with a ton of promise.