I don’t know where to start. The most flippant place to start–the most colloquial–is with George Lucas… specifically, what happened to the George Lucas who made American Graffiti. But it’s not just Lucas. Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck didn’t go on to write anything close to Graffiti–the conversations in the film, the dialogue, is exceptional, some of the finest I can think of. But Lucas’s composition is exalted with itself. The scene at the hop with Ron Howard and Cindy Williams arguing, Lucas’s delight at getting the other couple next to them into the shot is clear. The scenes with the cars it’s obvious, but Lucas is enthralled with filmmaking all throughout American Graffiti. It’s Lucas playing with that big electric train set, something almost no filmmaker ever does.
For a film with the cinematographers listed in the end credits, American Graffiti is beautifully lighted. I first saw the film when I was in my early teens and to this day, all my memories of teenage late nights are in the film’s day-for-night lighting. The street scenes are amazing. The scene with the police car is fantastic, but Paul Le Mat and Mackenzie Phillips’s entire ride is probably the best. It’s all just so perfectly executed–and only made better by the exceptional editing.
Starting the film this time, I tried to remember who got to be the de facto protagonist. Narratively speaking, it’s Richard Dreyfuss, but only because of the conclusion. During, it kind of roams. It’s never Charles Martin Smith, which is fine, since he and Candy Clark’s arc is probably the most amusing of the film. The Ron Howard arc is the most serious, with the Le Mat and Dreyfuss arcs sort of alternating in between. The most affecting arc has to be the Le Mat and Phillips one, just because their acting is so great. And Le Mat giving Phillips the tour of the hot rod graveyard–and of his own psyche–is one of the film’s defining scenes. Lucas, Katz and Huyck manage to do so much muted, so much in just two lines of dialogue.
With the postscripts, American Graffiti reveals its biggest surprise–the reality outside the one night of the film’s present action. Seeing it as a twelve year-old, I understood a bit of the Vietnam presence, but not for Dreyfuss’s character. With the soundtrack, the music going on the radio, American Graffiti cocoons itself. The postscripts, which come a few seconds later each viewing–with each viewing, the subjective takes over the clock’s ticking and I always hope this time they won’t fade in.
The acting’s all excellent, with Dreyfuss, Le Mat, Clark and Phillips the best. Bo Hopkins is also an essential component, just because he makes Dreyfuss’s adventures seem both threatening and, well, fun. Some of Dreyfuss being the protagonist is intentional, but a lot of it is just Dreyfuss’s command of the screen. The scene with Wolfman Jack, for example, is not a supporting character scene. To some degree, Howard gets left at the drive-in, but he kind of needs to be, since he’s the least likable character. As for Harrison Ford’s small role… he’s good, but it’s kind of unbelievable he eventually became a leading man (as he defers to Le Mat in all their exchanges).
I could waste time–on the last paragraph–speculating on what went wrong–because something certainly did–with George Lucas following this film, but I don’t want to. I don’t even want to make it in as a parenthetical. The best thing about American Graffiti is how it truly does get better with each viewing.
Directed by George Lucas; written by Lucas, Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck; directors of photography, Jan D’Alquen and Ron Eveslage; edited by Verna Fields and Marcia Lucas; produced by Francis Ford Coppola; released by Universal Pictures.
Starring Richard Dreyfuss (Curt Henderson), Ron Howard (Steve Bolander), Paul Le Mat (John Milner), Charles Martin Smith (Terry ‘The Toad’ Fields), Cindy Williams (Laurie Henderson), Candy Clark (Debbie Dunham), Mackenzie Phillips (Carol), Wolfman Jack (XERB Disc Jockey), Bo Hopkins (Joe Young), Manuel Padilla Jr. (Carlos), Beau Gentry (Ants), Harrison Ford (Bob Falfa), Jim Bohan (Officer Holstein) and Jana Bellan (Budda).