Tuesday 26 July 2011

American Graffiti (1973)


Once again in this journey through my movie collection we have come across a director digging into his own youth for his filmic work. Greg Mottola went back to the 80s for Adventureland, Cameron Crowe went to the 70s for Almost Famous, and now George Lucas is heading back to his youth in the early 1960s for his tale of growing up, making out and trying to figure out just what it is a young person wants to do with their life. It’s a time of rock n’ roll music, drive thrus, cruising the streets with your friends in American classic cars. His film was American Graffiti.

Curt (Richard Dreyfuss) and Steve (Ron Howard) have gotten into college and are due to leave in the morning, so they decide to spend their last night of summer riding through the streets and remembering old times. However, Curt is having second thoughts about leaving, while Steve tries to patch things up with his girlfriend before leaving.

American Graffiti may actually be probably the most important film in George Lucas’ career... now here’s why. When Easy Rider was released in 1969 and became the instant hit and seminal classic that it is, it showed a different way of making films. Studios saw that they could make films for cheap and potentially reap great rewards. Universal Studios decided to follow through on this and, hoping to recreate the same conditions that Easy Rider was apparently made under, opted to give five young filmmakers a chance to make a movie under the rules that each film be budgeted as $1,000,000 or less, directors would be given final cut and that the studio would not interfere in the filmmaking process. This was an incredible opportunity. Lucas himself had made one feature film in 1971, his sf cult classic THX 1138, but it was a bitter experience. The studio behind it, Warner Bros., hated it and demanded their seed money back from Lucas’ partner Francis Ford Coppola, who had produced the film under his company American Zoetrope. The money was repaid, but doing so nearly closed down Zoetrope, forcing Coppola to take on another project for the money, The Godfather. Meanwhile, Warner Bros. wanted to make changes to THX 1138, cutting five minutes from the film before releasing it. The film was quite unsuccessful, with Warner Bros. blaming the downbeat nature of the film, and Lucas blaming the studio for tampering with the project. This experience effectively taught Lucas two things: 1) Always have complete control of the film; and 2) Downbeat films aren’t terribly successful.

As such, when Universal began rounding up projects, Lucas made his pitch. He, along with Gloria Katz and William Huyck, wrote a script that was a nostalgic look back to the early 60s and a celebration of everything about the period. There would be classic cars, young people doing young things, humour, memories and a huge amount of rock n’ roll music. Essentially, Lucas wanted to make an upbeat financially successful movie. Now, by 1972, they had already produced four films – Peter Fonda’s The Hired Hand, Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie, Milos Forman’s Taking Off and Douglas Trumbull’s Silent Running. Universal were somewhat hesitant about giving the last shot to Lucas, who only had one feature under his belt, which was not a success. Concerns were only assuaged when Coppola, fresh off of the monster hit that was The Godfather, came on a producer. Once more, Lucas was given a shot at the big time.

The production itself was littered with problems. A crewmember being arrested for drug possession the day before shooting started; camera troubles put the schedule off on the first day; their filming licence was revoked because of complaints from local businesses; a fire halted filming; members of the cast and crew were injured or fell ill; and cars would break down. It was troubled to say the least. Even upon screening the finished product, Universal exec Ned Tanen, a notoriously aggressive individual, took a real dislike to the film. A compromise had to be reached whereby the studio could suggest changes to the film, much to the annoyance of Lucas. Nevertheless, it was released in 1973 to widespread acclaim and was even nominated for Best Picture. The reason it did so well, as Lucas well knows, is that the film made people happy. Where THX 1138 was a downbeat financial disaster, American Graffiti was an upbeat success. People loved seeing it and reliving an aspect of their youth, or seeing the youth of the previous generation. It had the music people love, fresh-faced young people, and generally resonated with people in a way that they will always enjoy. People love to look back on their younger years and remember their friends, their old haunts, the good times.

I say that American Graffiti may be the most important film in Lucas’ career because it taught him the value of a film with high positive emotion behind it. People want to feel good and there are fewer better ways than a real feel-good movie. To evoke a world that people can get lost in, with characters they can identify and connect to, with it all ending in a huge surge of happiness and positivity. Plus, the importance of having complete control over the project… really, this was all the information that Lucas needed to avoid Warner Bros. and Universal and take his next project to 20th Century Fox. Make no mistake, without American Graffiti, there would be no Star Wars.

This is all well and good, but… what’s the film actually like? Is it really any good? The truth is… yeah, kind of. Lucas clearly put a great deal of love into the film. His characters do have that ring of familiarity to them, like you knew some of them when you were at school. The music is so much a part of the film that it evokes the period effortlessly, and there are some really great songs in there. Some of the performances are also great, like Dreyfuss, Charles Martin Smith and Mackenzie Phillips. I particularly liked Phillips since she is easily the funniest thing there. Her attempted drive-by zinger of, “Your car is uglier than I am… that didn’t come out right.” is golden.

On the other side of things, it does feel quite long. It is meant to take place over a single, very long night, but the various storylines and subplots weigh the film down somewhat, which makes it drag. Also, Ron Howard and Cindy Williams aren’t terribly convincing. I do believe that they would be having relationship troubles, but mainly because I don’t buy them as a couple to begin with.

Ultimately, whilst I do get the classic status of American Graffiti and certainly like some aspects of it, I can’t really say that it’s a particular favourite of mine. Its nostalgia and warmth are clear to see, but it’s a nostalgia and warmth for a very particular time and place that is just too far removed from me to connect. I can understand small strands of it here and there as a more general experience of youth and looking to the future, but the diners, the cruising, the whole youth culture of that period just seems too foreign to me. However, that’s really more my problem than the film’s. As it is, it’s a film clearly made with love and evokes that period wonderfully. I just can’t say it carries itself over to me that much.

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