This weekend, I re-watched George Lucas’s American Graffiti, which was released forty years ago this past August. 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. 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, second-wave feminism, 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).
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) 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.
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.”
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.
 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.
 And Modesto is only about ninety miles from Berkeley.
 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).
 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.”
 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.
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 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.