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Movies Everybody Should See – American Graffiti

Once a week here at TWBT we will be discussing a movie we agree everyone should see at some point in their lives. For the most part we will try to avoid the really obvious choices (The Godfather, Citizen Kane, Die Hard, etc) as their reputations are such that if you are at all interested in film you’ll already have seen them, or you will be aware you probably should. In certain cases an obvious classic may be discussed if we think we have something new to say, or just really want to talk about it, but by and large we are looking at films the casual film fan may not have seen. This list will run the gamut as we’ll be looking at older films, foreign films, genre films, cult films, exploring the whole diverse world of the movies.

This weeks entry is…

American Graffiti.

George Lucas is always going to be the Star Wars guy. The guy that inspired generations with his tales of brave knights and daring rogues and space battles in the original Star Wars trilogy. He’ll also be known as the guy that pissed off those same generations with his prequel trilogy. His legacy will always be Star Wars, and that is not a bad legacy to leave behind. The only shame of it is that Star Wars casts such a huge shadow that people tend to miss his early, more personal films THX 1138, and his actual best film (says the admitted non Star Wars fan): American Graffiti.

The film follows a group of teenagers in 1962 as they cruise around main street looking for love, trouble, a race, or just a place to eat on the night before some of their group leave for college. The film isn’t much interested in narrative pull but is instead looking to evoke a specific vibe of a time and place, and of life as a teenager.

It’s about the music, the scene, the cars, the clothes. It all screams late fifties, early sixties. But for me what makes it such a great film, and this is where I disagree with some critics including Roger Ebert, is that it is not so specific that its nostalgia only works for those that experienced that time and place first hand, but that it works as a time machine for us all, drawing parallels between the lives of characters growing up in the early sixties and our own teenage years. It might focus on a very specific time that had its own unique style and sound, but the broader experiences of the characters make it universal (at least to those of us who grow up in the western world).

If you were a teenager in the sixties, seventies, eighties, nineties, noughties, or are one right now, chances are much of you spare time was spent hanging around with friends, not doing a whole lot other than drinking and hoping to spend some time with a member of the opposite sex, or driving to some place where you could drink and spend time with a member of the opposite sex. You danced, and laughed, and talked utter shit, and thought everything you did was of huge importance, and that your moment would last forever. Does that sound similar to your experience? Then this film will work for you, regardless of the decade you grew up in.

The characters in American Graffiti are all recognisable (and not just because most of the actors went on to have huge careers). These are people we met, knew, were, or were friends with. There’s the high school couple that thought they were going to be together forever coming to the conclusion they might not be, there’s the cool kid with the gorgeous car, there’s the guy trying to fit in with the tough kids, there’s the nerd (guess which character I relate to) getting his moment with a pretty girl, and there is the guy considering putting off college because everything is just easier and without expectation where he is. All of these characters’ stories are enjoyable (though Ron Howard and Cindy Williams as the couple in trouble is the least engaging) and are often very funny, but Lucas also manages to tap into a very honest feeling of melancholy. John, the character with the cool car, mines this feeling most effectively. He has spent years cruising around the strip racing whoever was mad enough to try him and never losing. But suddenly he’s older than everyone else around him. The girl he picks up is a child compared to him, and it freaks him out. He knows his car won’t be the fastest forever. He chose the shortest road and is struggling with the fact that he has come to the end of it already. His friends are going off to college, but for John, there is nowhere else to go. All of the characters know that change is coming, and for some of them it won’t be for the better.

It’s here the film works on multiple levels, as the film, being made in 1973, knew what was just around the corner for the country and the American people of 1962 beginning with President Kennedy’s assassination. For some the film may read as a love letter to a more innocent time in America, and that is certainly embedded within the movie, but for most of us (especially those watching outside of the States) it will take us back to those days when every road seemed open to us, that the love of our lives could be driving by at that very moment, when the trivial was life and death, and when the music never seemed to stop playing.

American Graffiti may not look like your teenage life, it may not sound like your teenage life, but it feels like your teenage life. It is a fun, nostalgic trip back to your formative years, and it is a classic and that is why it is a movie everybody should see.


Further viewing – If you liked American Graffiti you should check out…

Not More American Graffiti. Do not watch this. Not good.

The obvious choice is Dazed and Confused but I want to talk about that here at a later date so maybe wait until then. Or watch it now and be prepared for that discussion when it eventually gets here!

Come back next week when we will be discussing another movie everybody should see with An American Werewolf in London.

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