U.S. Intellectual History Blog

AMERICAN GRAFFITI and the Sixties in the Seventies

This weekend, I re-watched George Lucas’s American Graffiti, which was released forty years ago this past August.[1] Although I had seen the film three or four times before, it had been about a quarter century since the last time I had seen it.  I first saw it in the late 1970s or early 1980s at one of Berkeley’s great repertory film theaters – the UC, the Rialto 4, or the Northside – that, along with the Pacific Film Archive (the last surviving relic of that bygone age), played such a huge role in my cinematic education (and that of any cinephile growing up in the East Bay before the arrival of video rental).  Watching American Graffiti as a teenager, its setting of Modesto in 1962 seemed long ago and far away, as almost any time before one’s birth tends to when one is a kid.

But in fact, the film took place only eleven years before the year in which it was made.[2]  The film’s setting was, for Lucas, of great autobiographical significance. In 1962, George Lucas was, like two of the film’s principal characters, a high school senior in Modesto. Like another of the main characters, Lucas was obsessed with racing cars. That June, he had an accident that nearly killed him, which led him to give up cars, go to junior college, and, eventually pursue film-making.  But, from the perspective of 1973, Modesto in 1962 also sat just on the other side of the chasm that was the Sixties.  American Graffiti takes place in a world before the Kennedy Assassination changed politics, before the Beatles and the British Invasion changed popular music, and before the New Left, the counterculture, the Civil Right’s Movement,[3] second-wave feminism,[4] and the sexual revolution were felt in American society and culture (or at least in George Lucas’s version of Modesto).

As readers of this blog probably already know – and as a roundtable on the history of the Culture Wars at this year’s S-USIH Conference, which included among its participants three of our bloggers (Andrew Hartman, Ray Haberski, and L.D. Burnett), suggested – to a great extent the Culture Wars of the Eighties reflected a series of Seventies cultural conversations about the legacy of the Sixties.  It’s in this light that I want to consider American Graffiti today.

American Graffiti was one of the most important in a series of popular cultural reflections on the long 1950s that appeared in this country in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  Others included: Elvis’s comeback special (1968); the vocal group Sha Na Na, formed at Columbia University in 1969 just before appearing at Woodstock (they eventually got their own syndicated TV variety show, which ran from 1977 to 1981); the Broadway musical Grease (1971), which eventually became a film in 1978; and the TV shows Happy Days (1974-1984) and Laverne and Shirley (1976-1983).[5]

What all of these cultural products featured was more-or-less instant nostalgia for a past that was very close in time but seemed extremely culturally distant from the world of the long 1970s.  Though American Graffiti was a deeply autobiographical project for Lucas, it was sold as much more generalized nostalgia. “Where were you in ’62?” read the film’s principal tagline.  Audiences and critics connected with the film for just this reason.  After beginning his glowing review with a memory of his own first car, Roger Ebert reflected on the film’s setting in just this way:

When I went to see George Lucas’s “American Graffiti” that whole world — a world that now seems incomparably distant and innocent — was brought back with a rush of feeling that wasn’t so much nostalgia as culture shock. Remembering my high school generation, I can only wonder at how unprepared we were for the loss of innocence that took place in America with the series of hammer blows beginning with the assassination of President Kennedy.

The great divide was November 22, 1963,and nothing was ever the same again. The teenagers in “American Graffiti” are, in a sense, like that cartoon character in the magazine ads: the one who gives the name of his insurance company, unaware that an avalanche is about to land on him. The options seemed so simple then: to go to college, or to stay home and look for a job and cruise Main Street and make the scene.

What’s perhaps most striking about the film is that, until the end titles over movie’s very last shot, Lucas doesn’t even hint at the changes to come.  Because, in a sense, he doesn’t have to. (Spoilers to follow[6]) American Graffiti focuses on four young men in Modesto in 1962.  Steve Bolander (Ron Howard) and Curt Henderson (Richard Dreyfuss) have just graduated from high school and are enjoying their last night in town before flying off the next morning to go to college somewhere in the East….though, at the film’s start, Curt is getting cold feet.  Terry “Toad” Fields (Charles Martin Smith) is staying in town, but is delighted to be given Steve’s beautiful car to look after in the latter’s absence.   Finally, twenty-two year old John Milner (Paul le Mat) is living a kind of extended teen-age life as the town’s most famous hot-rod racer.  The film follows the characters over the course of the night, which they largely spend cruising around the town in cars.  Though Steve begins the night telling his girlfriend (and Curt’s sister) Laurie (Cindy Williams) that they should see other people in his absence, by the end of the film, he has decided to stay in town and cultivate this relationship. He can go to college in a year, he says.  After a series of adventures that include trying to locate a mysterious blonde (Suzanne Somers) in a white T-Bird (who might have said “I love you” to Curt through its closed window) and proving his manhood with the local Pharoahs gang, Curt eventually finds the inner strength to leave town and attend the unnamed college in the East.  Blessed with Steve’s Chevy Impala, Toad picks up Debbie Dunham (Candy Clark), whom he more or less successfully woos, despite lying to her, losing the car, getting sick on whiskey, and having his lies exposed.  And following an evening driving around and essentially playing older brother to the much younger Carol Morrison (McKenzie Phillips), John races Bob Falfa (Harrison Ford), who has been driving around town trying to meet John in order to beat him at his game.  Eventually Bob crashes his car, allowing John to win a race that he would otherwise have lost.  Though Bob and Laurie (who was riding with him) escape apparently unharmed, Bob’s car goes up in flames as dawn breaks.  The film ends with Steve, Curt, Laurie, and the latter two’s parents bidding Curt farewell as he flies off in a Magic Carpet Airlines plane to somewhere in the East.  Curt looks out the window of the plane and on the highway below, a white T-Bird seems to be driving in the same direction as the plane. The film ends with titles informing the audience what happened to its four, main male characters, about which I’ll have more to say in a moment.[7]

The entire film is scored to rock and roll, nearly all of which appears diegetically, both at the high school dance which Steve, Curt, and Laurie attend toward the film’s beginning, and booming from the various car radios throughout the rest of the movie, which all seem to be tuned to Wolfman Jack’s overnight show.  Interestingly, the music is not particularly focused on 1962 or even the early 1960s. Instead it includes songs from the entire early rock-and-roll era. Indeed, the film opens with Bill Haley & His Comet’s iconic “Rock Around the Clock,” a 1954 hit (which would also come to serve as the theme to the early seasons of Happy Days).   The music thus evokes not a year, but an era, and one about to come to an end.  One of the few conversations about music takes place between John and Carol, who define the closest thing to an extended on-screen generation gap.  Carol, who’s wearing a surfing-related shirt, praises the Beach Boys, for whom Wolfman Jack predicts great things before playing their 1962 hit “Surfin’ Safari.” ” I don’t like that surfing shit,” says John, “Rock ‘n Roll’s been going downhill ever since Buddy Holly died.”[8]

The lack of conflict around the youth culture on display in American Graffiti is one of the most notable things about the film. Parents are almost entirely absent (only Laurie and Curt’s parents appear, and then only at the very end of the movie to see their son off at the airport).  Other authority figures from the characters’ parents’ generation are few and far between. And when they appear on screen, they seem hypocritical or weak, like the teachers chaperoning the sock hop and the Moose Lodge members whom Curt encounters at a mini-golf establishment while the Pharaohs gang members with whom he’s riding steal money from pinball machines.   Cops are more serious authority figure, but they’re both younger and easily foiled.  That the main generation gap on screen is between the twenty-two-year-old John and the sixteen-year-old Carol (and that it involves the Beach Boys) suggests how established and stable is the movie’s version of Modesto youth culture in 1962.  Yes, Carol’s parents think she ought to avoid listening to Wolfman Jack, but they obviously represent no real bar to her doing so.

For a movie about rock-and-roll and youth culture, American Graffiti features remarkably little rebellion or anti-establishment sentiment.  Even the film’s most apparently anti-establishment acts, which are initiated by the Pharaohs and culminate with Curt helping to rip the rear axel off a cop car, are played to emphasize Curt’s dealing with his coming-of-age rather than as serious challenges to authority.  Playing with law enforcement is just what kids in Modesto in 1962 do.

Framing the innocence of Modesto youth culture are all the unstated changes that are to come. And part of the effectiveness of American Graffiti, I think, is Lucas’s decision not to foreshadow those changes until that final title card.  Lucas must have known that his audience all knew that change was coming.  That Modesto in 1962 is almost entirely unmarked by what we think of—and American audiences in the 1970s would have thought of–as the Sixties makes its so-near-and-yet-so-distant world all the more poignant.

And if the viewer somehow misses seeing the temporal divide that is, in a sense, the real subject of the film, there’s always that final set of titles.  Alongside pictures of the characters as they were in 1962 (though now dressed in jackets and ties) we are told that:

John Milner was killed by a drunk driver in December 1964.

Terry Fields was reported missing in action near An Loc in December 1965.

Steve Bolander is an insurance agent in Modesto, California.

Curt Henderson is a writer living in Canada.

Though all four appear to triumph over the personal challenges they face within the plot of American Graffiti, their fates prove to be tragic or ambivalent.  John, apparently through no fault of his own, ends up killed by an automobile, the fate he vaguely feared in the movie (and the fear of which led George Lucas himself away from hot-rods and toward movies).  Toad is killed in Vietnam.  Steve never escapes the world of Modesto, which seems much less exciting from the point of view of an adult (what could be more dull than being an insurance agent?).  And while Curt is a writer, his “living in Canada” would suggest, to audiences in 1973, that he was a draft dodger, whose life would have been fundamentally altered by the Vietnam War, if in a less tragic way than Toad’s.

Together, John, Terry, Steve, and Curt’s fates underscore the lost innocence that is at the heart of American Graffiti.  Modesto in 1962 is presented as a time when conflicts were local and manageable and challenges could be met and conquered. What was to come would not be so simple. Though we tend to think of the cultural conservatives of the 1970s and 1980s – real and imagined – as simply rejecting rock and roll and postwar youth culture entirely, American Graffiti and the other nostalgic Seventies invocations of the long Fifties present a milder, but in certain ways more culturally powerful, form of conservative response to the Sixties.

[1] It is still a vibrant and enjoyable little film, very much worth viewing.  It’s hard to remember that George Lucas was once just another of the New Hollywood directors, whose career took off with the enormous box-office success of this, his low-budget second film.  Lucas is now so defined by the behemoth that is the Star Wars franchise, for which he has been justly praised for world-building and creative marketing, and just as justly criticized for often indifferent writing and terrible directing, that the well-directed, modest, and, well, realistic American Graffiti is somehow even more surprising than it must have been in 1973 as a follow up to the director’s rather cold science fiction debut, THX-1138. The film is greatly helped by the participation of a couple of New Hollywood’s most extraordinary talents: the cinematographer Haskell Wexler, who served as a “visual consultant” for the film, and sound designer Walter Murch, who not only created the film’s innovative, largely diegetic, use of rock and roll, but apparently also suggested using Wolfman Jack’s broadcasts to link its stories together.  At any rate, American Graffiti led Andrew Sarris, who liked, but didn’t love it, to compare Lucas’s “directorial personality at this early stage” to Godard and Fellini.  I suspect that, since the release of Star Wars some four years later, he has rarely been compared to either one.

[2] And Modesto is only about ninety miles from Berkeley.

[3] Racial conflict—and, indeed, racial diversity—is notably absent from the world of American Graffiti.  Other than a couple of Asian and African American faces briefly glimpsed in the high school sock hop scene and a couple of (probably) Latino members of the Pharoahs gang (neither of whom has many lines), the large ensemble cast is entirely white. The only mention of race in the film comes when one character says that her parents won’t let her listen to the ubiquitous Wolfman Jack at home “because he’s a Negro” (in fact, he isn’t).

[4] Although American Graffiti‘s large ensemble class includes a number of women, the film’s story is built entirely around its male characters, for whom the female characters essentially serve as ethical tokens of a sort.  This probably had less to do with Modesto in 1962 (real or imagined) and more to do with Hollywood (even the New Hollywood) in 1973. As Pauline Kael argued in the New Yorker on October 29, 1973, “Using women (and not only women) as plot functions may be a clue to the shallowness of many movies, even of much better movies—American Graffiti, for example. The audience at American Graffiti appears to be ecstatically happy condescending toward its own past—how cute we were at seventeen, how funny, how lost—but for women the end of the picture is a cold slap. Set in 1962, American Graffiti compresses into one night the events from high school graduation to the opening of college in the fall. At the close, it jumps to the present and wraps up the fates of the four principal male characters—as if lives were set ten years after high school!—and it ignores the women characters. This is one of those bizarre omissions that tell you what really goes on in men filmmakers’ heads.”

[5] These last two series, in particular, bore a close relationship to American Graffiti. The pilot for the show, originally entitled New Family in Town was actually filmed for ABC in 1971 with the cast that would eventually appear in Happy Days.  ABC passed but repurposed the material for an episode of Love American Style the following year.  George Lucas, trying to locate people to play teenagers in American Graffiti, saw the pilot and hired former child star Ron Howard (who played Richie Cunningham in what would become Happy Days) as part of his ensemble cast in American Graffiti.  Eventually, Al’s Diner in Milwaukee would come to serve a similar role in Happy Days to Mel’s Diner in Modesto in American Graffiti. And Happy Days creator Garry Marshall would eventually borrow Cindy Williams, who had played Howard’s love interest in American Graffiti, to co-star in Laverne and Shirley.

[6] We Are Aware of All Internet Traditions ®

[7] These concluding titles have, of course, become something of a cinematic cliché, which would reappear in countless later coming-of-age movies. In fact, American Graffiti as a whole became a cinematic template. Barry Levinson’s Diner (1982), for example, is pretty unimaginable without Lucas’s film preceding it.

[8] This would have been a very familiar point of view to audiences in the early 1970s.

23 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. It’s an interesting philosophy of history question, whether a work set in the past should contain some indication of what happened after the period in which it is set, especially if the time after it is set was one of great dislocation and change, as is the case here. Or to put it another way, it’s a matter of narrative and perspective, viz., whose perspective is to be privileged, the characters’ or the narrator’s?

    I have no answer to the question. Oddly enough, though, I will be addressing it very indirectly this Friday when I present a paper on The Phantom Menace at the Northeastern Political Science Association conference. It’s weird how that works.

  2. It’s interesting to ponder the age ranges of viewers in 1973, and how this movie might’ve affected their views of 1973, 1962, and the 1950s.

    For instance, my father, who was in his early 20s when this hit the theaters, loves this movie. He has seemingly (a key word) been nostalgic for the 1950s nearly all of his adult life. For him the characters in the movie would’ve been high schoolers he would’ve looked up to as a junior high student. But my father’s experience as a high school student, and as a h.s. graduate, came in the heart of those tumultuous 1960s. He displays no connection to those events. They were almost too confusing to comprehend.

    The film, then, as Ben notes, can be seen as a kind of wishing away of that trouble—if it was not, precisely, nostalgia for the fifties itself. I wonder if a fair amount of subsequent fifties nostalgia isn’t about the 1950s at all, but rather about denial—a search for *any* place or time better than the 1960s, or better even the 1970s as Peter N. Carroll portrayed the decade (i.e. ten years wanting to be forgotten). My dad’s seeming appreciation for the 1950s, as well as that in the film, is something of a fetish for forgetting—one way to denial—rather than remembering.

    Anyway, thanks for the post. – TL

    • As I search around for things to think about, I keep coming back to visions of the pre-Sixties American past in the long 1970s. THE WALTONS and LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE, e.g., are also interesting in this regard.

  3. Ben,
    Thank you for this fantastic post. I especially like your closing thought, that Lucas represents “a milder, but in certain ways more culturally powerful, form of conservative response to the Sixties,” but I wonder if we could contextualize this not just in light of Lucas’s advancement of an autobiographically grounded vision of the sixties, but also as a more or less direct response to other New Hollywood films, especially Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show (1971) and Nichols’s The Graduate (1967). Both those films make a strong case for the necessity and inevitably of the Sixties upheavals, revealing a rottenness at the heart of, respectively, small-town society and the suburban bourgeoisie. Generational conflicts are absolutely foregrounded in both (in the form of an older woman and a young man), which strikes a diametrically opposite tone to your (excellent) reading of Graffiti.

    I guess what I’m trying to ask is, is there a way we can shorten the presumed distance between the conservatism of nostalgia and the conservatism of “backlash”?

    • Thanks for this, Andrew! I agree that one might very productively put a film like AMERICAN GRAFFITI in dialogue with a film like THE LAST PICTURE SHOW. As for the distance between the conservatism of nostalgia and the conservatism of backlash? Very interesting question (especially since backlashy conservatism very often features its own aggressive brands of nostalgia).

  4. Ben – Nice essay. It seems Ebert is unsure whether to see the film in generational or in historical terms. In the lines you quote, it looks like it’s his generation that experiences traumatic change most sharply. Yet farther on, he explicitly rejects the idea that reception is differentiated by cohort, and adopts a strongly historicist frame that analogizes historical periods and cultures as holistic formations, capable of sudden transformation. [You know The Structure of Scientific Revolutions was published in 1962.] Ebert writes –
    [I]it isn’t the age of the characters that matters; it’s the time they inhabited. Whole cultures and societies have passed since 1962. “American Graffiti” is not only a great movie but a brilliant work of historical fiction; no sociological treatise could duplicate the movie’s success in remembering exactly how it was to be alive at that cultural instant.

    In describing his watching the film as “[not] so much nostalgia as culture shock,” he uses an anthropological figure which originated in the 1950s and had become Alvin Toffler’s core conceptual analogy in Future Shock, a hugely popular book published a few years before Ebert’s review.

    History becomes a series of “cultural instants,” incommensurable wholes instantly transformed — call it the “Great Moment” theory of history. As Ebert says, “the great divide was November 22, 1963, and nothing was ever the same again.” Not an utterly unique, but certainly a transformative moment …like December 7, 1941, or September 11, 2001.

    Time is spatialized, and culture is temporalized; we exist at their intersection, where they collapse into one another. In 1962, not everyone was a high school kid, and many weren’t even born yet. But Graffiti’s cohort has certainly dominated our storytelling, memorializing and moralizing for a long time, making their memories ours, and the national history.

    As Ebert puts it, the film “acts almost as a milestone to show us how far (and in many cases how tragically) we have come.” Who’s the we? And, have we come any farther since he wrote those lines, whatever that might mean? Can I lose – or recover — my innocence watching re-runs of events that occurred before I was born? Do you remember where you were in 1973 ? 1983 ? 1993? 2003 ? or 2013? … I mean, when you watched the movie … for the first, or fifteenth, time? [Is this getting Prufrockian?]

    Does every heart vibrate to the same exhausted media fare? Are we all the same person? Are we slowing returning to history as individual biography writ large? Can we ever stop crying about November 22, 1963? How many of these stories should we fill our heads with?

    In a way, Ebert seems here to represent a historicism run amok, an effort to recover the lives of historical subjects, a celebration of difference and plurality. But, when memory and history seem determined to form into archetype, or better stereotype, when it seems that events exist only to give an aura of newness to forms that compulsively repeat, you have to wonder what’s up, and that perhaps history has ended [for now], and it’s our fate to live in an endless loop of shared re-runs of the loss of innocence, perhaps hoping to recover it. It’s very tiresome.

    • Can I lose – or recover — my innocence watching re-runs of events that occurred before I was born?

      Probably meant to be a rhetorical (or maybe Prufrockian) question, but on an individual level, no, obviously not. In ’62, when the movie is set, I was five yrs old and, though I had been born in the U.S., was living abroad at that point. Thus it’s not going to connect w me on the same level as it might w a member of Lucas’s ‘generation’. But that doesn’t mean I couldn’t imagine myself into the period, if the movie’s evocation is sufficiently compelling. (Analogously one needn’t have been a rebellious teenager in the ’50s to imagine oneself into the world of ‘Rebel without a Cause’.) But I do get why it can be tiresome to be treated to an orgy of nostalgia for an era one didn’t experience personally.

    • Does every heart vibrate to the same exhausted media fare? Are we all the same person? Are we slowing returning to history as individual biography writ large? Can we ever stop crying about November 22, 1963? How many of these stories should we fill our heads with?

      Heh. This Fine guy’s OK.

  5. Nice post (though I’m posting this comment before having gotten through the footnotes). I’ve never seen ‘American Graffiti’, so this was interesting.

    I’d be curious about your thoughts on the contrasts — though perhaps they’re simply too obvious — between a movie nostalgic for the ‘long 50s’, as ‘Graffiti’ is, and a movie like ‘Zabriskie Point,’ which celebrates aspects of ‘the 60s’ and was made in the middle of them (if I’m not mistaken — I haven’t rechecked the date). I saw it for the first and only time in 2008 and only a few scenes are still vivid (but that’s often the way I remember movies). I’d like to see it again actually.

    Btw, I get your reference to the ‘long 50s’ but not to the ‘long 70s’. Aren’t the 70s comparatively short? Though it’s debatable, “the sixties” as the phrase is generally used in the U.S. context lasts, I wd have said, until c.1973 (if not a year or two beyond). So “the 70s,” culturally and politically, is really just the mid/late 70s, I wd have said, maybe extending to 1981, but still less than a full decade. I guess this is not how the periodization goes in the literature most readers here are familiar with?

    • At least the way I use terms like “the long Fifties” or “the short Sixties,” the adjectives are intended to be restrictive. That is, they do not constitute declarations that, e.g. the Fifties were long or the Sixties were short, but rather that the period of time I’m talking about is longer (or shorter) than the calendar decade in question. Decades remain a useful way to talk about historical change, but the correspondence between historical epochs and a year’s penultimate numeral is usually loose.

      To turn more specifically to the ’70s: there certainly is a “short ’70s,” which is often said to begin, as you say, around 1973 and is usually said to end around 1980 (with Reagan’s election). But I think there’s also a longer ’70s, that begins at the start of that decade, or perhaps with the beginning of the Nixon presidency in 1969 (or even the RFK and MLK assassinations the previous year). At any rate, the more I read cultural criticism from the very early ’70s, the more I see American public intellectuals explicitly thinking about the meaning of the ’70s, trying to determine what the cultural and political changes they were seeing around them meant. Such writers certainly didn’t think they were living out the “long Sixties”!

      • I can agree with what I take to be (one part of) your last point: “the long Sixties,” used ‘declaratively’, is a retrospective historical judgment, and many writers *at the time* would have taken the turn of the decade and its early years as an occasion to start ruminating about “the meaning of the 70s.” I also understand your point that one can think in terms of “a longer 70s” if so inclined (though I think the case for it as a ‘declarative’ judgment may be problematic — depends partly on whether one is focusing on culture, economics or politics, I suppose).

        On the first point, i.e., that you use “short” and “long” in a purely restrictive, not declarative, sense: it seems to me the “restrictive” use necessarily carries a “declarative” implication. That is, it seems to me there would be little point in talking, for example, about “the long fifties” unless one were prepared to argue that it makes sense, for some ‘substantive’ reason, to think of “the fifties” as extending beyond the year 1960 to 1963 or 1964 or whatever. But perhaps I miss the point.

        To cite something I am a bit more familiar with: when
        Wallerstein, following Braudel, refers to “the long sixteenth century” in the first vol. of ‘The Modern World-System’, it’s b/c he thinks it makes sense, on some substantive grounds, to view c.1450-c.1640 as one epoch. I was assuming — perhaps wrongly — that roughly analogous judgments lie behind decisions to refer to “the long fifties,” “the long seventies,” “the short twentieth century,” “the long twentieth century,” or whatever.

        Anyway, the whole point is sort of peripheral to the post, which I did like.

      • That is, it seems to me there would be little point in talking, for example, about “the long fifties” unless one were prepared to argue that it makes sense, for some ‘substantive’ reason, to think of “the fifties” as extending beyond the year 1960 to 1963 or 1964 or whatever.

        Well in this case, the Fifties under consideration are George Lucas’s, not mine. More generally, one needn’t believe in such a substantive reason if, e.g., one happens to be writing about texts produced by people who believed in such a substantive reason.

  6. Ray – I don’t know for sure, but the framing figure might be traceable to Erving Goffman, Frame Analysis, 1974. He was an important sociologist from the 1950s to early 1980s, but virtually ignored in intellectual history..

  7. Ben —

    Great essay here.

    I’ve always wanted to write an essay called “The Fifties happened *after* the Sixties” (and perhaps its sequel, “The Sixties happened *after* the Seventies”?). For the record, I’m using Fifties to emphasize cultural reference here over the years themselves. It always seems to me that there was a kind of reorientation toward what “the Fifties” meant as a coherent cultural referent in the early 1970s. If we want to keep “the Sixties” at the center of things (and only if we want to, lots of questions to consider about that choice!), this consolidation of the meaning of the Fifties seems to have been a way of grappling with all the mid/late 60s challenges to Cold War norms: civil rights, the antiwar movement, counterculture, maybe most of all (as you suggest in your post) second wave feminism. How to reposition the Fifties as something different, out of time, lost, nostalgized? That seemed to be one of the projects in American Graffiti and similar cultural material.

    The actual story of Fifties-Sixties interplay is far more complicated. As a kind of micro-example, one of the best little moments in the film Festival Express is the quick shot of Jerry Garcia and various other countercultural rock superstars joyously taking in Sha Na Na’s performance (among shots of the crowds rioting to try to get in free to this 1970 concert tour of Canada). 1950s rock was never out of the picture in 60s countercultural rock: the bands kept playing Chuck Berry covers among their more artsy, weird, psychedelic explorations and of course Chuck Berry and other 50s rockers appeared on many of the double bills at the Fillmore Auditorium. These appropriations are not without their own serious issues, to be sure, but the point for now is to note the porousness of certain aspects of 1950s youth culture and 1960s counterculture. Somehow, by American Graffiti and early 1970s, these were being more strictly differentiated and separated even though, in practice, there were many continuities, both good and bad—or maybe better said, there were, all along, many recombinations occurring between perceived old and new forms and attitudes.

    Finally, I’m struck that the event haunting the final set of titles is not JFK’s assassination, but rather Vietnam. It’s the war, and the ways it touched everyone’s immediate, personal body and life, that seems to cast the shadow over American Graffiti’s look back at the Fifties—and it’s the war, we might say, that created the rupture—with all the suggested sorrows, nostalgia, and sense of loss—between the Fifties of American Graffiti and the Sixties that followed? Another kind of meditation and re-mediation on Vietnam occurred in the late 80s with all the Vietnam films (Platoon, etc.). That was also a moment when “the Sixties” was re-organized too in popular memory, I think (but that’s the topic of another post and conversation).

    Thanks again! See you at the hot rod races,

    • Ah, but it was Richard Nixon who won the day in ’68 and in a landslide in ’72. Those dirty hippies get all the ink and the screen time, but Nixon got the votes.

    • Thanks for this extremely rich comment, Michael! I agree both about (a particular version of) the Fifties as a distinctly Seventies construct (which made me think about the peculiar afterlife of LEAVE IT TO BEAVER in syndication in the ’70s) and about the actually complicated interplay of the Fifties and the Sixties…especially i/r/t rock and roll. Fifties rock remained important not only to many Sixties and Seventies musicians, but also to the first great generation of rock critics, who associated the music with a lot of things that predated the Sixties. The Velvet Underground’s “Rock and Roll” and the New York Dolls’ cover of Bo Diddley’s “Pills” (a song that itself comes from a rather different Fifties) are two great musical monuments to this interrelationship between the Fifties and Sixties (and beyond).

  8. Fast forward to 2015 and I just watched this movie last night on streaming. I had watched it several times before and enjoyed it, as I did last night. I don’t know how I missed it before, but none of the female characters were in the “what became of them” segment at the end of the movie! Wow and geeze! C’mon Lucas. I hope you have evolved some since then.

  9. Having read all the post I want to dumb it down some. To me, the movie struck a cord because living just south of Modesto there were elements that we practiced even into the late 70’s such as cruising, the absence of adult supervision in adolescence socialization, the racial make-up and the Vietnam War still fresh in our minds. Incidentally, the town I lived in was virtually all Whites and Latinos evenly represented with literally a token Asian, Black and yes that one foreign exchange student (German) sponsored by a local Rotarian. I suspect Lucas was doing what most film makers do today, they try to play to the largest audience as possible. At the end of the day, films are made to generate income. Coupled with Lucas some what failed attempt to edit the film himself, make this film appear oddly out of time linear sync. We have to remember that the media was in its infancy so mass exposure of US and world events was not prevalent in the general household as it is today. It wasn’t till CNN was launched in 1980 would the general public be painfully aware of, up until then, obscure world events. So the film took a micro view of a few characters in a small town encapsulated, but only at the end, in a micro-macro view of a sliver of the issues of the day circa 1963. Of the sound track, the song Green Onions to me was out of time. Although it was released in 1962, the song leaned more towards the 60’s than the 50’s only in the sense that it was more of a Soul Funk type of music that a few years later would come to epitomize the 60’s era vibe. All in all, as a kid coming of age in central California, I could relate to the movie, the characters, and the lack of certain cross sections of 1960s Americana. My coming of age years mirrored American Graffiti with the exception of the drag racing so close that I regard this movie as an autobiography of my own life to include going to war…the Cold War. All the elements were there for me, friends going off to college, struggling with the fact that I wasnt going to college, using a borrowed car, friends with girlfriends, getting an adult to buy us booze, picking up chicks on the strip, racing from signal light to signal light, cruising, messing with the cops, car clubs, 50’s music mixed in with “classic” Rock, having that one moment when you see the woman of your dreams and her being just out of your reach fading with the coming dawn, and yes…enlisting to go fight the Red hoard. Was it a poorly made movie with giant holes in the plot? Sure. Did it capture a bygone era of lost innocence? You betcha

    • Dear “Nobody,”

      It sounds like we grew up a few decades apart, but maybe not so far apart on the map. My dad grew up in a town “just south of Modesto,” and I grew up in a town just south of that, at a time when cruising the main drag was (and maybe still is) one of the only things to do on a warm summer night when the dusky purple sunset lingers in the west, and driving in you can smell the ripening peaches in the orchards outside of Modesto, or the grain fermenting in Purina silos on the railroad tracks in Turlock, or the onion dehydration plant in Livingston, or the tomatoes stewing through the graveyard shift in the cannery that backs up to Highway 99 in Atwater. It was a special kind of Nowhere. Some days I sure do miss it.

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