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Empire Magazine Greatest Movies List - #264: American Graffiti

The name George Lucas is most often associated with Star Wars, which has become part of pop culture since the release of the first film in the franchise decades ago. Yet before the massive success of his beloved fantasy series he had already achieved a fair amount of success in the United States with his second directorial effort, American Graffiti (1973). Like many filmmakers who feel nostalgic about their childhood, Lucas set the movie during the era of his teenage years, the early 1960s. Today it is a period piece, but I imagine back in 1973 it was a great flashback for many audience members. Also of note, it features up-and-coming talents such as Ron Howard, Richard Dreyfuss, and a young man by the name of Harrison Ford.

Before watching the movie, I sort of read the book. Back in the mid-1990s when I was living in Peru one of my school assignments was to read a biography and talk about it in class. In the library I saw a book called Skywalking: The Life and Films of George Lucas. As I was starting to become a full-fledged film fan I thought this could be a great way to make my homework more entertaining. It certainly made for a captivating read and I was sure to share some of the production anecdotes of American Graffiti in class, such as tales of Harrison Ford urinating in an ice machine at a hotel. About ten years when I had moved back to Canada I finally saw the movie when it was playing on TV. I already knew how it would end because of the book, but still thought it made for an interesting piece of American culture, and movie culture as it was Lucas’ first major hit. Plus, it was fun to see Harrison Ford on screen knowing some of the stuff he did off screen.

American Graffiti takes place over the course of one night and focuses on four California teens who have recently graduated from high school. Curt Henderson (Richard Dreyfuss), Steve Bolander (Ron Howard), John Milner (Paul Le Mat), and Terry “The Toad” Fields (Charles Martin Smith) are all facing the rest of their lives and like many teens in any era they are dealing with it in different ways. On their minds are thoughts of leaving for college, staying home, and whether their relationships with their girlfriends will survive their decisions.

While mulling their life choices the boys set out to do what kids did in 1950s America did when they had time on their hands: drive out to the local Drive-In restaurant, go cruising for girls and go street racing with their colourful cars. Here was a time when kids actually went outside and did things to have fun. None of these kids had cellphones, Facebook, Twitter, or, thank god, Google glasses.

If you wanted to find someone, you had to actually go out looking for them, which is what Curt spends most of the evening doing. After seeing a beautiful blonde woman (Suzanne Sommers) in an equally beautiful white car, he sets out on a quest to find her even though people tell him she is either a prostitute or a trophy wife. To send her a message he goes to the local radio station where he meets real-life radio DJ Wolfman Jack, who was quite a big deal at the time.

Those kinds of cultural references along with the accurate portrayal of its young characters are what helped made this one of the biggest films in America at the time. It helped make Lucas a household name before he would change the movie landscape four years later with his tale of a galaxy far, far, away.

Times and technology have definitely changed in spectacular ways since that night in 1962, but the choices the characters face before their lives change have not. As a coming of age story, American Graffiti will always remain relevant, and as a movie it marks the first step for actors and filmmakers who would shape the cinema landscape for decades.


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