Category Archives: American Graffitti

A couple of high school grads spend one final night cruising the strip with their buddies before they go off to college.

American Graffiti: How Time Flies When You’re Cruising

About a decade before George Lucas created that galaxy far, far away, where Jedis wield lightsabers against the "Dark Side," he directed a low-budget film called American Graffiti that defied low expectations and exploded with profitable success. This coming-of-age film is about teenagers not all marching well into adulthood in the summer of 1962. While the plot does not sound terribly exciting, there are several reasons that this movie resonated so strongly with its audiences.

The Class of '62

One reason is the time setting: 1962. I would know. I graduated from Northside High School in 1962, and our motto was, “We cover Dixie like the dew; Hooray for the Class of '62.” That puts both George Lucas (who was born the day after I was) and me, at the exact same age as the characters in American Graffiti. Like Curt and Steve, I was leaving the nest and heading for college in the fall. Along with most of America, my family and friends were surfing the wave of the prosperous and peaceful ‘50s. World War II, which was two decades behind us, was not even an active memory, as my peers and I were not born until its end. Yes, we all heard our parents talk about the "Great Depression" and saw firsthand how it influenced how they lived, but all we had ever really known was peace and stability. The big scandal? Elvis Presley gyrating his pelvis on TV!

What happened to those times? JFK was assassinated in 1963, and our nation plunged into shock. Before it could really recover, young men were being drafted to fight a war in some obscure country halfway around the world. People started to protest. Drugs were discovered. Hippies started appearing. Rock ‘n Roll gave way to Rock. John Lennon said that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus ("More popular than Jesus,” 2016).

Ripple effects continue

Another shocking assassination—Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis. Man walked on the moon! The mid to late 1960’s truly shook things up, and the ripple effects continue to this day in 2016. People are more politically aggressive than ever. Drugs are everywhere. Some people deem it appropriate to wear hoodies regardless of the weather, as well as jeans riding so low that their underwear shows. Music has gone places that would make Elvis Presley look like a choir boy. Mass shootings are happening often enough for Americans to think, “Not again!” Now, NASA is more about politics than outer space. Man has never returned to the moon.

American Graffiti touches a nerve

When American Graffiti was released in 1973, enough time had passed for it to touch every nostalgic nerve in the audience. American Graffiti gave us the chance to escape into a time that wasn’t complicated—a time when riding in a car up and down a street was considered an exciting pastime.

But in our era, it was more than just a pastime. It was called "cruising," and it was uniquely American.  Cars were a big part of the culture then. Teenagers would cruise to seek out peers, romance, and to see-and-be-seen. In Atlanta, the popular cruising destinations were the Varsity and a drive-in on Peachtree called Rusty’s.

Ready for cruisin'
Jayne, Judy, and Lucy: Ready for cruisin'

It had been over 50 years, but I got to experience the joy of cruising again recently when Jerry Hassebroek suggested that he, Pam, Judy, Jayne, and I cruise down Elk Avenue in Crested Butte, Colorado in his "Pimpmobile." (We were there for the Crested Butte Film Festival.) Crusing in the Pimpmobile was a joy that only those our age would understand, including George Lucas.

George Lucas' aspirations

George Lucas was fixated with cars, and originally aspired to be a race car driver, but a terrible wreck in June of 1962 caused him to pursue other interests such as filmmaking.

George Lucas also wanted to explore man’s relationship to technology and machines. By making cruising a major theme in American Graffiti, he accurately portrayed how cars shaped the social lives of young adults. In anthropology-speak, cars actually played a role in the mating rituals of the 1950’s and ‘60’s.

By putting "Wolfman Jack" in the cast, who was a famous disc jockey of the time, George Lucas made another point about how technology influences man. Technology enables a man to feel closer to a public personality than his own next-door neighbor—a phenomenon that we saw through the 1980’s and 1990’s with Princess Diana, and which we continue to see today with Facebook and all forms of Social Media.

American Graffiti is a time capsule in itself. Having an interest in anthropology, George Lucas simply intended to document his own era in the movie, and as a contemporary, I will say that he succeeded.

REFERENCES

Lucas, G. (Director). (1973). American Graffiti [Motion Picture] USA: Universal Pictures.

More popular than Jesus (2016). In Wikipedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/More_popular_than_Jesus

American Graffiti: To Write or Rite of Passage?

American Graffiti (1973) is a coming-of-age film directed by George Lucas, and one of the most profitable blockbusters of the twentieth century. Set in Modesto, California in 1962, it contains four story lines of teenage angst and comedy. Can you decide the significance of the title?

What is Graffiti?

What exactly is "graffiti"? It's the plural of graffito, a noun from mid-nineteenth century Italian, meaning drawing, writing, or scribbling on walls, usually in public places. It probably traces its etymology back to Vulgar Latin through Greek, meaning "to write."

Ancient Graffiti
Ancient Graffiti

Graffiti is also an art term, a form of decoration in which designs are made by scratches through an outer layer of plaster or glazing to reveal a ground of a different color below. While such art has been found in Pompeii and ancient Roman ruins, graffiti is currently a pejorative term because of its association with vandalism. Vandalizing public or private property, e.g., via toilet paper or eggs—or by drawing on buildings—is often perceived by teenage perpetrators as neither art nor unlawful behavior, but as a "rite of passage."

In the title American Graffiti, however, the term graffiti also suggests "glib, funny, and immediate," a correlation with the comic side of the film. Producer Francis Ford Coppola, along with other big dogs involved, did not want Lucas' title used, but George prevailed, and it was etched in stone—American Graffiti.

Who's Who in this Movie?

The four distinct story lines in this film are all mal-centered. Watch how the lives and exploits of Curt (Richard Dreyfuss), Steve (Ron Howard), John (Paul LeMat), and Toad (Charles Martin Smith) all coincide to advance the plot and outcome. Other stars in this venerable movie include Harrison Ford—our beloved Han Solo; Candy Clark, who earned a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for this, only her second film; Cindy Williams of "Laverne and Shirley;" Mackenzie Phillips of "One Day at a Time;" and the iconic Wolfman Jack. There was a sequel, More American Graffiti in 1979 directed by Bill Norton, which was a box-office disappointment (Erickson, 2003).

After American Graffiti, all the actors continued to work in the film industry and each has led an interesting life. Paul LeMat, hot-rod, smooth-talking John in the movie, was a boxer and won service medals in Vietnam. He was married with three children, then divorced. As of 2008, his former wife, Suzanne dePasse, is the only African-American woman nominated for a screenplay Oscar.

Ron Howard (Steve, in love with Laurie—Cindy Williams) starred in "The Andy Griffith Show," "Happy Days," and others. He is now a director and the father of Bryce Dallas Howard, who played the role of bitchy "Hilley" in The Help.

Richard Dreyfuss
Richard Dreyfuss as Curt

"People who commit adultery must die. Everyone knows that. Any movie tells you that"—a direct quote from Richard Dreyfuss who played the role of thoughtful and intellectual Curt (“Richard Dreyfuss Biography,” 1990). Dreyfuss has been married three times and has three children. He has starred in major films including The Goodbye Girl, Jaws, and Mr. Holland's Opus. He was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War and is frank and open about his past drug use. He is a Civil War re-enactor and lives in San Diego.

Wolfman Jack for President
Wolfman Jack for President

Wolfman Jack plays himself in American Graffiti. A Brooklynite named Robert Weston Smith, Wolfman was the son of an Episcopalian editor of "Financial World," and became a disc jockey and manager of radio stations--some in Mexico that broadcast across the US border. Smith died of a heart attack in North Carolina at age 57. He had one wife, Lou, whom he adored. George Lucas liked Smith and thus gave him a portion of the profits from the movie. Smith said he was grateful for those royalties from American Graffiti, which benefited the "Wolfman and Wolfwoman."

REFERENCES

Encarta world English dictionary (1999). (Microsoft ed.). New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Erickson, H. (2003). More American graffiti. Retrieved from https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/more_american_graffiti/

Lucas, G. [Director]. (1973). American Graffiti [Motion Picture] USA: Universal Pictures.

Lucas—George, & plans, his future career (2016). George Lucas. In Wikipedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Lucas

Norton, B. [Director] (1979). More American graffiti [Motion Picture]. USA: Universal Pictures.

Paul Le Mat (2016). In IMDb.com. Retrieved from http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0494432/

Richard Dreyfuss (2016). In Wikipedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Dreyfuss

Richard Dreyfuss Biography (1990). In IMDb.com. Retrieved from http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0000377/bio#quotes

The compact edition of the Oxford English dictionary (1985). London: Oxford University Press.