****/**** Image A- Sound A Extras B+
starring Richard Dreyfuss, Ronny Howard, Paul Le Mat, Charlie Martin Smith
screenplay by George Lucas and Gloria Katz & Willard Hyuck
directed by George Lucas
by Jefferson Robbins The skeleton key to George Lucas's American Graffiti isn't in its setting--the cruising culture of exurban southern California, 1962, as witnessed by young participants with the '50s at their back and Vietnam ahead. Instead, it's disassembled and scattered throughout the text, oblique until it becomes obvious. There's the front-seat monologue recited by Laurie (Cindy Williams) for the benefit of her drifting boyfriend Steve ("Ronny" Howard): "It doesn't make sense to leave home to look for home, to give up a life to find a new life." It sounds like her own reverie, but in fact she's quoting an offscreen speech by her college-bound brother Curt (Richard Dreyfuss), who earlier in the film has a hushed alleyway talk with the "cool" teacher (Terence McGovern) who washed out of an artsy New England school and came back to shape young minds in his diesel-scented hometown. This teacher's name, as it happens, is Mr. Wolfe. It's not so much that you can't go home again as that home changes under your very feet. The instinct to cling to its first incarnation--Curt's fondling of his old school locker, John Milner's (Paul Le Mat) continued mingling with high-school kids at roughly age twenty--is really a hope that you'll find something just as valuable in the wider world you know you must face.
That's the overt text. The subtext in this ne plus ultra of teen cruising odysseys is an underdog triumph that's not necessarily felt in terms of dramatic reversal. No oppressors receive their comeuppance, unless you count hot-rodder Bob Falfa (Harrison Ford), and he's just a farm kid looking to score some tail and earn his bones against Milner's reputation as king of the drag racers. The heroes of American Graffiti are squares to their core, and by slow subversion they win over the other characters they encounter. "Wimps get all the snatch," Curt assures the toughs of the Pharaohs greaser gang who've more or less abducted him, and by the end of their night together--during which Curt's inside track with the Loyal Order of Moose gets the gang out of trouble--they aren't sure he's wrong. Curt's invincible tonight, given that he's lately been eyefucked by an anonymous dreamgirl (Suzanne Somers, easily mistaken for Teri Garr), the golden representation of all he might abandon if he leaves for college as planned. Laurie manages to so thoroughly call Falfa's predatory bluff that he's reduced to serenading her with "Some Enchanted Evening." Steve, who's proposed an open relationship while he and Laurie are away at college, retreats to monogamy when confronted with a come-on from diner waitress Budda (Jana Bellan). Terry the Toad (Charles Martin Smith, great from his stiff little walk to the embarrassed semaphore of his blinking eyes) gets to drive the hot car, gets to roll around with hot girl Debbie (Candy Clark, the forgotten treasure of this film), and gets pulled out of hot water by friends in high places. And Milner, whose conservatism lies in his refusal to embrace the new (four-year college, The Beach Boys) over the classic (his Ford Coupe dragster, Buddy Holly), welcomes dorky, vigorous youth into his car in the form of Carol (Mackenzie Phillips), who perhaps pushes him to some better understanding of himself before he ejects her with candy-coated threats of rape. Like Jedi, the nerds don't get revenge, but they do get right with themselves and their peers.
American Graffiti is the film that gives the lie to those broadsides that say Lucas is a mere technocrat, that he has no feeling for character, that he's emotionally cold, visually staid, and hostile to actors and their craft. That's part of what makes the movie so maddening, considering his mercenary mishandling of his own legacy with the Star Wars prequels. We see here the Star Wars visual palette begin to take shape in one needlessly long establishing shot (recently prettified with a Coruscant-esque skyline by Lucas, who's otherwise left the film unaltered since a 1977 reissue restored some four minutes of deleted footage): the cars parked in front of Mel's Diner as night falls, neon and fluorescents playing across their bonnets like the obsidian floor of the Death Star hangar. But under those lights and that fetishization of cars and shiny surfaces, there are people at play and in negotiation with their individual needs. They're all together there, idling in Mel's parking lot and motoring up the strip, but they're also apart. Under "visual consultant" Haskell Wexler's cameras, the microcosms that comprise a gathering place are fruitfully explored; and with Walter Murch's golden ear for sound, the insistent scatting of Wolfman Jack across a battery of car radios generates a shared reality. There's a humanism, an understanding of what mattered to these kids in their time and place, at work here, in addition to a commendable act of distilling the end of youth down to one night in one American town. The vintage music on the soundtrack is to American Graffiti as Kenner toys were to Star Wars--that is, the value-added merchandise that sold more than three-million double-LPs--but the song selections twist some screws: The closing choice of The Beach Boys' "All Summer Long" clearly announces that Milner's time is past.
You could argue, as many have done, that Lucas's real gift in his early years was choosing good collaborators, who could save his bacon when he muffed a shot. For American Graffiti, he had Wexler intermittently behind the camera, Murch running sound, Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz polishing his rough script, Verna Fields and then-wife Marcia Lucas in the editing room, and Francis Ford Coppola signed on as producer. That's a pretty strong safety net. Many of the compositions, even those that take place outside of cars, show a touch Lucas has not displayed before or since (low angles on two-shot conversations, the graceful pullback through the dancers at the sock hop), which could probably be attributed to Wexler. I'm delighted by Curt's meeting with Wolfman Jack, wherein the infamous DJ emerges first as a silhouette in the engineering booth, incognito. By scene's end, in the moment he learns this superhero's true identity, Curt is the one in shadow. Whose fingerprint is that? Lucas famously did most of his directing in the editing room, leaving the actors with minimal guidance but also generous room to dance. It displays a degree of trust in their discipline, and luckily they're up to the challenge: One of the most crucial exchanges--between Toad and Milner, the coda to the near-fatal drag race--is an improvisation. Assessing Lucas's total output, it's tempting to suggest this habit of delegation and reliance on post-production technology (first the flatbed editor, then Industrial Light & Magic) became his creative undoing despite making him vastly rich. In his naturalistic, streetlight-washed reminiscence of the summer of '62, however, it all works.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Universal steers American Graffiti to its first Blu-ray release with a "Special Edition" that takes forever to spin up (and crashed my player when left on pause) but rewards with an even-handed treatment of the Techniscope source. A 35mm format Wexler, in the extras, refers to as "the poor man's anamorphic," Techniscope uses only half the height of a four-perf frame, essentially producing a widescreen image at the resolution of 16mm. The comforting documentary-style grain of the nighttime cruising shots is most evident whenever one of the mounted external cameras peers into Milner's darkened car, and almost never distracting. Where the presentation falls down is in its (over)reliance on edge enhancement, so severe at times it makes the foreground actors look like cutouts of themselves against a Mel's Diner backdrop. The halo effect that usually accompanies this digital cleanup is surprisingly understated, yet the sharpness of objects definitely calls attention to itself in this 2.35:1, 1080p transfer, supervised by Lucas himself. The attendant 2.0 DTS-HD MA track is best in the cruising sequences as Wolfman Jack washes out of every automobile. Though a two-channel mix, it's still vibrant and nostalgic, given the fact that it's a stereophonic treatment of music originally recorded and broadcast in mono. There's a lived-in paperiness to Murch's soundmix that makes even the dialogue sound a bit like it's coming through on AM radio...and that's not a bad thing in this context.
"The Making of American Graffiti" (78 mins., SD) is probably the best possible inside-out assessment of the picture's genesis. Lucas, his collaborators, and most of the stars remember the script, the shoot, and the fallout, and it's clear this was a story dear to Lucas's heart: A Modesto gearhead and drag racer in his youth, he survived a June 1962 wreck that made headlines reproduced here. Tellingly, Lucas says he was drawn to cruising as an anthropology buff, viewing it as "a uniquely American mating ritual." With that analytic viewpoint, he needed someone else to put the heart of the story on paper, recalling that after THX 1138, "I swore I'd never write another script for the rest of my life." He completed his own first draft in a mere three weeks, but Katz and Huyck did the final rewrite, expanding particularly on the human moments like the Steve and Laurie love story. Katz says she pressed Lucas to reveal what happened to the female characters in his famous epilogue cards--wise advice for a film where the ladies are as tough-minded as the men trying to get into their sweaters--but Lucas demurred on account of running time and lack of space in the frame. Howard, a child TV star who's now a filmmaker you may have heard of, discloses how baffled he was at first by having to improvise in his screen tests for Lucas, while Ford says he was reluctant to take the part of Falfa because "I was in the middle of a very successful carpentry career." (One of the things I love about Ford is that I genuinely cannot tell if he's just being droll.) Everyone looks good--Candy Clark and Cindy Williams are darling, and Le Mat cannot possibly still have that much hair. It's unjust.
Twenty-three minutes of the original screen tests (SD) fog out the faces of applicants who weren't cast, like a somewhat hyperactive auditioner for the part of Terry the Toad trying to riff with Dreyfuss, Le Mat, and Howard. The test that puts future "Happy Days" co-stars Howard and Williams together for their slow-dance scene at the sock hop is a dandy piece, showcasing Williams at her earnest best, but it's also heavily featured in the "Making of" extra. The screen test for Le Mat and Phillips shows that their overlapping rhythms were natural and in place from the start, although she plays it more sullen and less forthright than in finished film. Charles Martin Smith is Terry the Toad; nothing more need be said. The three-minute theatrical trailer is on board as well, in standard-def. The thing I'm dying to understand, which none of these extras tells me: What does the phrase "American Graffiti" mean? Maybe the movie itself is the definition.
Universal seems inordinately proud of the gewgaws attached to this BD, many of them festooning the main menu, making too much noise and slowing down the load time. There are two supplements under the "U-Control" menu category, the first a picture-in-picture commentary with Lucas trying to divide his attention between the movie running in front of him and the camera that's recording him. It's awkwardly shot, and the director-impresario has a hard time playing observer and host at the same time...to the point where he flubs Toad's name and calls him "Toby." Too, it includes a line that will give Lucas haters the most reductive ammo they could ever need: "I loved making this movie because I got to listen to all the music. I got to fool around with all the cool cars." (Proof he's a cold fish! the Internet cried.)
"The Music of American Graffiti" provides pop-up info on the titles, artists, and publishers for all 39 songs on the soundtrack. Viewers are invited to select songs and submit them to iTunes as a personal music playlist, presumably so they may then pay to download them. Any menu button you press is accompanied by the sound of a camera shutter--why?!--but that annoyance can be dismissed if you do a little exploring. A promo "ticker" for other Universal releases runs across the menu's upper-right corner like an HLN crawl, connecting you to BD Live plugs for Dante's Peak, The Blues Brothers, Animal House, Conan the Barbarian, Conan the Destroyer, The Eagle, ad nauseam. It's optional, but not until you figure out that it's called the "ticker" and that the toggle is on the lower left of the screen. Confused? There's a "How To" user guide to instruct you in the disc's features. Originally published: July 18, 2011.