For me, Lucas has yet to top "American Graffiti." Made for under a million dollars and filmed mostly at night using a skeleton crew (albeit one headed by Haskell Wexler), it showed just how ingenious Lucas could be when he was strapped for cash. It has the structure and froth of a Shakespeare comedy with the values and budget of an AIP teen flick.
Seemingly aimless, "American Graffiti" follows four storylines of small town kids on the last night of summer before heading to college. Curt (Richard Dreyfuss) has a scholarship to a big university but is reluctant to go, and spends the night bounced around by local toughs, and diverted by his quixotic pursuit of a phantom blonde in a white Thunderbird. Steve and Laurie (Ron "Ronny" Howard and Cindy Williams) are a couple in transition. Class President and Head Cheerleader, they're the Royal Couple of the Sock-Hop. But Steve can't wait to head out of town to conquer new territory, and Laurie-still in high school-knows she'll lose him when he goes. John (Paul LeMat) is a high school drop-out and legendary hot-rodder endlessly cruising the streets of town, looking for the next race. And Terry (Charles Martin Smith) lives a rich fantasy life (that's a kind way of saying he's deluded) where he can imagine himself everything that he's not.
Lives intersect, couples form and break apart, lies are told, misunderstandings abound (to really make it Shakespeare all you'd need is a set of twins), while the majority of kids drive endlessly in circles--not going anywhere, but hoping to, and if not tonight, there's always tomorrow. They're not going anywhere.
In the background are the constant echoes of rock n' roll pouring out of car windows and reverberating down the hallways and back-alleys, broken only by the howls and shrieks of the common thread in their lives, Wolfman Jack. All the kids have their Wolfman myths and he acts as sage, seer, siren and Master of Ceremonies for the evening's adventures. He's also the Fool and "The Man Behind the Curtain." Ultimately the long night's journey leads to his door-step, and in disguise dispenses his wisdom to the seeker.
One thing Lucas always knew was how to make a curtain call and "American Graffiti" is his best. As Curt flies off to college, he is left two signs of passage: the white T-bird reappears one last time to remind him what he's giving up, while locked away in his plane, the sounds of the radio station that have buoyed and sustained all the characters throughout the night fades to static. For the first time in the film there is no music and in the silence that creates, broken only by the drone of the plane we're told the rest of the story. Terry "goes missing" in Viet Nam. Steve is an insurance salesman in town. John is killed by a drunk driver. Curt's a writer in Canada. After that punch in the gut, Lucas unsentimentally hammers it home with one of the cheeriest songs in the Beach Boys catalog--"All Summer Long," dismissed earlier in the film as "surfing shit." Lucas turns the future into a sobering fate--the film is set in 1962. The next year would signal the end of the innocence of the 50's and "American Graffiti" is a sweet farewell to trivial concerns and living in the past.
Lucas has said that he based the boys on different aspects of himself in high school--the intellectual, the nerd, the sosh' and the JD. Lucas' lesson in this, and all of his work seems to be "Advance or Die." It's the lesson of "Graffiti." It is certainly the basis of the story of Anakin Skywalker. So what became of Lucas? Did he follow his own advice? Well, you could say he went to the future with "Star Wars," but he set it in the far-away past. Then he built an Empire of his own...in his hometown.
The Trailer for "American Graffiti"--in the style of Beach Blanket movies
"American Grafitti" touched me two ways. I had already been inspired by Lucas' first film, THX-1138 with its inventive sound-scape, to seek out his work and the work of his sound editor Walter Murch. "Grafitti" was their second collaboration and pretty much sealed my fate for going into sound work. Listening to it now, it's crude and has a lot of holes and bad edits, but the innovations are just as unique 30 years later and just as inspiring. On top of that, the unglamorous portrayal of a radio disc jockey's life (yet romantic in its anonymous/ omnipresent effect on a community) made me think "I could do that!" and I started my sound career spinning discs at a radio station. My last job as such was at a station with a glass window that looked out on the town's "loop." Sort of like watching "American Graffiti" in reverse. That was KEDO-AM in Longview, Washington--long ago bulldozed.
Wolfman Jack explains it all for you, baby
Anytime Movies are movies I can watch anytime, anywhere. If I see a second of it, I can identify it. If it shows up on television, my attention is focused on it until the conclusion. Sometimes it's the direction, sometimes it's the writing, sometimes it's the acting, sometimes it's just the idea behind it, but these are the movies I can watch again and again and never tire of them. There are ten. This is Number 8.
IV: -Only Angels Have Wings
V: The Searchers
VIII: American Graffiti