Just forget the words and sing along

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Fishing in the Discount Bin - American Graffiti

We're rolling right along with Fishing in the Discount Bin.  Today, we get to one of the films that George Lucas made before he became "the Star Wars guy"...American GraffitiThis entry is originally dated May 25, 2012.  

Finally! I get to finish the "My Dad's Favourite Movies" double feature I started all those weeks ago! Finally had some free hours tonight to sit down and watch "American Graffiti."

I know my Dad always rolls his eyes whenever I fire up "Star Wars" again, but little does my Dad know that "Star Wars" has a very strong connection to "American Graffiti". Both sprang from the mind of George Lucas. As the legend goes (and I know this for a fact because I watched all the bonus materials on the Blu-Ray before I had a chance to watch the film), Lucas just finished his first film, the sci-fi tale "THX-1138." (Which I also have on DVD and will be getting around to eventually). After the cold, sterile bit of sci-fi. Lucas's friend and mentor Francis Ford Coppola challenged Lucas to make something "warm and fuzzy." So, like most folks, when looking for something warm and fuzzy, Lucas turned to his youth, and his evenings going cruising. In his research, Lucas discovered that cruising is a mainly North American thing. And, in the late-60s, with the rise of the counter-culture movement and hippies and such, it was an activity that was becoming passe. So he was going to make a movie about teenagers going cruising.

But you know, this being Lucas, some technical innovations were made. Lucas got heck back in the day for its non-linear storytelling. We've got four main characters, following 4 different story arcs, and we cut to each one throughout the film. Four stories happening simultaneously. And also, the music. "American Graffiti" doesn't have a conventional film score. Instead, all of the background music is comprised of more than 40 era-appropriate rock songs that Lucas personally selected himself. The only song that doesn't fit the era is the Beach Boys tune that plays over the end credits, which came out two years after the film supposedly takes place. But since it plays over the end credits, most folks give it a pass.

And yes, even with a movie like this, Lucas couldn't resist making a few special edition tweaks. For its release in 1973, the studio ordered 5 minutes worth of footage cut from the film. When "Star Wars" hit and became huge and turned Lucas into the most powerful man in Hollywood, he went back to the studio and ordered that 5 minutes put back in. And then, in 1997, when DVD started becoming a thing and Lucas made the Special Editions, and "American Graffiti" was being prepped for its DVD release, Lucas changed the film's opening. I remember reading about it way back in 1997, when it all went down. Lucas said he'd never been happy with the opening scene, as the film takes place over one night, but they filmed the opening scene on a cloudy day, so it just seemed off. So, Lucas sent the film over to ILM, and in the opening scene, they digitally removed the cloudy sky, and replaced it with a glorious sunset. I tell ya, Lucas just can't help himself.

The film takes place in 1962, following a group of recent high school grads in the late summer/early fall, as their teen years are about to officially end. Two of our group of four are about to head off to college, so the get together for one last night of cruising.

The first of our group is Steve, played by Ron Howard. Howard made this film after he was no longer a child star from "The Andy Griffith Show" and before he was a teen idol on "Happy Days." Steve is one of the two about to head off to college, and he's eager to leave this town in the dust and see the world. But there's the matter of his girlfriend, Laurie, played by Cindy Williams. Yes, Shirley from "Laverne and Shirley." So Steve proposes to Laurie that they...open up their relationship so they can see other people while they're apart. Following the old cliche about women, Laurie says this fine, when it's really not. Needless to say, they spend their last night together mostly arguing.

Then there's John. It's never made clear, but John strikes me as the kind of guy who's been out of high school for a year or two, but still hangs out with the high school crowd to re-live his former glories. He spends his nights cruising in his yellow Deuce Coup, looking for others to drag-race with. An attempt to pick up girls winds up getting him stuck with Carol for the night, who is as young as you can get for a teenager before it gets creepy. Needless to say, this cramps his style, but he eventually warms up to this youngster and starts learning a certain degree of maturity. Meanwhile, all throughout the night, John is pursued by Bob Falfa, looking for a race. Falfa is played by a before-he-was-famous Harrison Ford. And, the name "Bob Falfa," comes from the same high school bully that Lucas named Boba Fett after.

We also have the saga of Terry the Toad. Steve, in anticipation of leaving for college, gives Toad his beloved Chevy Impala. With a hot car like this, Toad goes on the prowl for hot chicks, and soon captures the eye of the gorgeous Debbie. Toad keeps talking himself to impress her, but, like all great romantic comedies, his house of lies soon comes crashing down.

But the final arc, the one that always sucks me in, is Curt. Played by Richard Dreyfuss, in his first major role, Curt is the other one heading off to college, but he's starting to have some very serious doubts about doing it. He's getting very tempted to just stay in his hometown and settle down. Then, while out cruising, a hot blonde in a Ford T-Bird pulls up next to him at a red light. She's played by the legendary Suzanne Sommers. This mystery woman makes eye contact with Curt, and whispers the words "I love you." And for the rest of the night, Curt becomes obsessed with finding her. And this is where the film becomes inspirational for me and the career I've chosen. Everyone in the film has their car radio tuned into the Wolfman Jack show. So in order to find his mystery girl, Curt eventually ventures to the radio station at the edge of town and pleads with the Wolfman to send a message out to the woman. And the Wolfman gets to impart some sage advice about leaving town and seeing the world while he's young and still can.

In fact, on the DVD bonus features, Lucas talks of the importance of the Wolfman in the film, and how people tend to elevate radio announcers to "fantasy figures." I like that...I like being someone's fantasy figure.

The last time I saw "American Graffiti" was...it was actually the movie they showed on the plane when I was heading to Japan to spend my year in Kumagaya. In the place, in that situation, Curt's story really resonated with me.

It had been a while since I'd seen it...I forgot how funny it is. It really does have some great laugh out loud moments. Some parts of it do seem cliched, but you've got to wonder if it only seems cliched because it was cutting edge at the time, and so many others have ripped it off since.

But still, it's a great movie, a touching movie, and a funny movie. And a lot more accessible than the other in my "Dad's favourites double feature," MASH.

One last thing before I go. I announced on Facebook I was finally watching this tonight, and a Facebook friend brought up the little-remembered sequel "More American Graffiti." Never seen it myself. Apparently, it's dreadful. The only thing I know about it is Lucas brings it up on the bonus features on the "Episode I" DVD. In the featurette, Lucas is showing Spielberg the new battle droid. Lucas says, "Sometimes, I'm not so sure making more Star Wars movies is a good idea. I mean, no one remembers I made American Graffiti 2." Spielberg looks at Lucas with a stunned look. "YOU MADE AMERICAN GRAFFITI 2?" asks Spielberg. "Yeah...yeah, I did," Lucas reluctantly admits.

Oh, Lucas. If only you'd learned your lesson.

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