Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Up All Night: American Graffiti


First films made by some fledgling American directors have been about the pain but also the necessity of leaving home. Think of Peter Bogdanovich's The Last Picture Show (1971), Barry Levinson's Diner (1982), and George Lucas' American Graffiti (1973). The origin of all these films is usually overlooked. It was Fellini's I Vitelloni (1953).

After successfully transposing his student short, THX-1138, to a more sizable budget feature film in 1971, George Lucas turned away from the future to the past. While some may think that it can't have been all that hard in 1973 to recreate one summer night in 1962, it must've seemed like ancient history to Lucas. While redolent of the period, American Graffiti also contains sad hints of the obsequious time in which it was made. The rueful end titles announce that Terry ("Toad") Fields was reported MIA in Vietnam, and "Curt Henderson is now a writer living in Canada".(1) During the Vietnam years, ROTC meant "Run Off to Canada".

American Graffiti (2) dramatizes twelve hours in the life of a California town (Modesto) at the end of summer, 1962. The tagline was "Where were you in '62?" I was four years old in Albany, Georgia. The film is not just another plunge into treacly nostalgia. It brings the time and the place to life with subtlety and imagination. For me, it remains George Lucas' best film.

"Cruising" is the activity in which every young person in the film engages. And nearly all the film's action, after the "sock hop" at the high school is over, takes place on the nocturnal streets of the town. The beauty of the passing old Chevys, Buicks and Lincolns, as they seem to revolve around a center like a record on a spindle, is a fascinating and enduring image.

But the genuine stroke of genius for the film was hiring Walter Murch, who created, with Lucas, a soundscape as rich and detailed as the imagery. In interviews, Murch spoke of "worldizing" the soundtrack:

The acoustic treatment of worldizing it, so that it seemed to be something that existed in real space. The idea was that every teenage car in this town was turned to the same station, and, therefore, anywhere you went in the town, you heard this sound echoing off the buildings and passing by in cars.(3)

Lucas' fascination with Wolfman Jack and his large collection of vintage records gave him an opportunity to create with Murch a radio show that was typical of the ones he heard at the time. They hired Wolfman Jack and recorded a two hour show, and interspersed the music, along with the dialogue scenes and incidental sounds. Purchasing the rights to all the songs was a large portion of the film's $775,000 budget.

As the night deepens, the action slows and the songs on the soundtrack become ballads. Just as the dawn is breaking, John Milner wins the long-anticipated race, Carl talks with his blonde dream girl on a pay phone for the first and last time, and Steve and Laurie are reunited as Steve resolves never to leave her and go off to college. The end titles tell us that John was killed by a drunk driver the following years and Steve became an insurance salesman in Modesto.

The hero of Fellini's film, Moraldo, spends the film coming to the difficult decision, and awaiting the right opportunity, to leave his friends and family behind in his small town. When he finally does so, he gazes from a window of the train at the passing town and images of his friends, asleep and oblivious of his leaving, pass before him. American Graffiti ends with Curt boarding a plane and leaving Modesto for college. He listens to a radio as Wolfman Jack signs off, and notices far below on a deserted highway the white Thunderbird.


(1) Because he didn't want to prolong the titles, Lucas left out the names and fates of his female characters, prompting Pauling Kael to accuse him of "chauvinism".
(2) Among the titles that the studio (Universal) flirted with in post-production was Another Slow Night in Modesto.
(3) The entire Murch interview can be found
here.

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