Film / American Graffiti

"The whole strip is shrinkin'. Ah, you know, I remember about five years ago, it'd take you a couple of hours and a tank full of gas just to make one circuit. It was really somethin'."
John Milner, being nostalgic in an already nostalgic movie

Think Dazed and Confused set in The Fifties (or pre-hippie-era Sixties if you want to be technical about it).

American Graffiti is a 1973 Coming Of Age film based on director George Lucas's memories of growing up in the 1950s and early '60s, and he thus manages to cram in as much Popular History as possible. Of course, he was one of the first to do this. The film was produced by Lucas's friend and fellow filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola, who was just coming off his success with directing The Godfather.

Set in small-town California in 1962, it follows a bunch of teenagers as they spend the last night of summer vacation goofing around, getting into trouble and contemplating their futures while listening to Nothing But Hits. No, there really is no plot. Get over it.

A huge (and unexpected) hit for Universal, American Graffiti established Lucas's box-office bona fides, kicked the already-existing '50s nostalgia boom of The '70s into high gear, and provided the template for countless teen comedies to follow. The film is also notable for its Ensemble Cast of soon-to-be famous young actors including Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Howard, Cindy Williams, Suzanne Somers, Mackenzie Phillips and Harrison Ford. Also featured is famous radio disc jockey Wolfman Jack playing a version of himself.

The movie has a lesser-known sequel, 1979's More American Graffiti, which was set in The '60s and supposedly "made all of ten cents".

This film provides examples of:

  • American Title: Graffiti, of the American variety.
  • Anachronic Order: Extreme aversion, as Lucas actually filmed all of the scenes in chronological order. Ron Howard took this as a slur on their professionalism until Lucas explained that he wanted the characters to look increasingly tired as the night went on.
  • As Himself: Wolfman Jack.
  • Author Appeal: George Lucas was really into cars as a young man.
  • Author Avatar: Curt Henderson basically stands in for the teenaged George Lucas.
  • Based on a True Story: George Lucas' life as a teenage gearhead in Modesto.
  • Berserk Button: When Laurie rebuffs Steve's advances in the car, he irritably tells her, "Don't be so damn self-righteous with me, after all that stuff you told me about watching your brother." She doesn't react well.
  • Between My Legs: At one point we get a shot of this with Toad and Debbie.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Possibly leans to Downer Ending when the "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue tells us what happened to the four main characters.
  • Can't Hold His Liquor: Toad, who at one point gets violently sick in an alley behind a bar.
    Man: He mustn't have been used to drinking.
    Debbie: No, likes to drink. He told me.
    Old Woman: On his hands and knees like that… He looks like a dog, doesn't he? Looks like old Ginger.
    Old Man: Sicker'n a dog, that's for sure.
  • Cool Big Sis: Horribly averted (or at least subverted) with Carol's big sister Judy. Seriously, even granting that it was a more "innocent" era, who lets their younger pre-teen sister ride off with some strange older guy?
  • Cool Car:
    • Pretty much all of them. Even Curt's Citroën, which is sort of presented as The Alleged Car in the context of the film, looks impossibly boss at this late date.
    • Toad's Vespa might be seen as a Cool Bike.
  • Cool Old Guy: The omnipresent DJ Wolfman Jack, who gives Curt some advice towards the end.
  • Creator Cameo: When Wolfman Jack makes an on-air prank call to Pinky's Pizza, the voice on the other end belongs to George Lucas.
  • Cult Soundtrack: This film helped to spark a big interest in "oldies" music, and the accompanying soundtrack album reached the Top 10 on the Billboard chart and eventually went triple-platinum.
  • Date Rape Averted: Variation. John Milner wasn't interested in Carol. But in order to get her address so he could bring her home, he faked coming on to her.
  • Don't Do Anything I Wouldn't Do: Terry jokingly tells Curt this when seeing him off at the airport at the end.
  • Draft Dodging: Possibly hinted at with Curt in the epilogue.
  • Embarrassing Nickname: Terry "Toad" Fields.
  • End of an Era:
    • The film is happening just as The '60s are rolling into view and The Fifties, with their cruising early rock-'n'-roll culture, are fading in the rearview mirror.
    • John's tour of the junkyard with Carol pointing out the wrecks of previous fast cars that dominated the nightlife.
  • Extremely Short Timespan: The whole film takes place over the course of a single night.
  • Faking the Dead: Toad, in More American Graffiti.
  • The Fifties: Set in 1962, but the fashions, music, etc. reflect the 1950s, since real-life aesthetics and attitudes of course don't follow actual decades.
  • Freudian Slippery Slope:
    Debbie: That's bitchin' tuck-and-roll! You know, I really love the feel of tuck-and-roll upholstery.
    Terry: Yeah? Well, get in and I'll let you feel it...I mean, you know, you can touch it...uh...I'll let you feel the upholstery.
  • Glory Days: Milner, at age 20 or so, is already beginning to verge on this. Lampshaded by Steve when Curt expresses second thoughts about going to college: "Do you want to end up like John? You just can't stay seventeen forever."
  • Hassle-Free Hotwire: Toad attempts one of these to retrieve Steve's stolen car, but it backfires when the thieves catch him in the act. He eventually gets the keys back after after John beats the thieves up.
  • The Hero's Journey: Seriously, if you follow Curt's storyline — spending the entire night trying to find a beautiful mystery woman — you'd be amazed at how closely it hews to Campbellian tropes. Up to and including the meeting with Wolfman Jack as a magus figure presiding over the teenage nightlife and who grants Curt the chance to meet that mystery woman.
  • High-School Dance: Choreographed by Toni Basil, of later "Mickey" fame.
  • If We Get Through This: In More American Graffiti, Joe tells Toad he's going to make him a Pharaoh when they get back home from Vietnam. Then Joe is killed by a sniper's bullet.
  • Ironic Echo Cut: Curt distracts an arcade owner with small talk while the Pharaohs take the money from his pinball machines. After they leave:
    Joe: You just might make it as a Pharaoh yet, boy!
    Owner: Someday he'll make a fine Moose.
  • Irony:
    • At the beginning of the film Steve is eager leave town and go away to college, while Curt is dragging his feet. But when the plane takes off the next morning, guess who's on it and who ends up staying behind?
    • The oldest of the four guys - John - ends up with the youngest girl during the night.
  • I Take Offense to That Last One: When John calls Carol a "grungy little twerp," she objects to being called "grungy". When the police pull him over, she threatens to tell them John raped her unless he apologizes for calling her grungy.
  • Leave the Camera Running: Legend has it Lucas fell asleep during some of the night shoots and the cameraman kept filming not knowing when to stop.
  • Life Will Kill You: John Milner and Joe Young, in More American Graffiti.
  • Love at First Sight: What happens to Curt when he sees that Blonde in the T-Bird... and she wordlessly mouths "I love you" to him. He then spends the rest of the night trying to find out why she said that, and if she meant it.
  • Make-Out Point: The spot by the canal where the kids go to, as Wolfman Jack puts it, "watch the submarine races".
  • Malt Shop: Mel's Drive-In.
  • Mooning: A young woman flashes her bare ass at Toad while out on the strip.
  • May–December Romance: It starts off creepy and wrong, but the relationship that builds between John and Carol ends up being genuine. Unfortunately, both of them know their age difference means it would never work out.
  • My Girl Is Not a Slut: Curt refuses to believe it when Joe tells him the Blonde in the T-Bird is a prostitute.
  • Nerd Glasses: Worn by Toad.
  • New Year Has Come: More American Graffiti intersperses events from New Year's Eve 1964, 1965, 1966 and 1967.
  • Nice Hat: Bob Falfa's white cowboy hat.
  • No Communities Were Harmed: While the name of the town is never given, it's meant to be a stand-in for George Lucas' own hometown of Modesto, California. (The film's Working Title was Another Slow Night in Modesto.) However, most of the shooting was done in Petaluma and other Bay Area locations.
  • No Name Given: The official, credited name of Suzanne Somers' character is "Blonde in T-Bird".
  • Nothing But Hits: The whole movie is scored from end to end with late-'50s and early-'60s pop hits. Notably absent is Elvis, whose licensing proved too expensive. (As it was, a large chunk of Lucas' budget for the film went toward acquiring music rights for the soundtrack.) Later Lucas would finally afford the rights to use an Elvis song, "Hound Dog" in the fourth Indiana Jones movie, set in 1957.
    • One notable featured act is The Beach Boys, whose "Surfin' Safari" is heard on the radio and even discussed by John and Carol. Showing the changing culture of the era, the jaded and older John hates their surf music and bemoans what has happened to rock and roll since the 1959 death of Buddy Holly, while the younger Carol thinks they are "boss". Ironically enough, many people nowadays tend to think of surf music (and by extension, all rock music from before The British Invasion) as just another type of "'50s music" (when in reality there were only three surf songs released prior to 1960, and they were more like doo-wop anyway).
    • Justified, as these songs were still only a few years old in 1962 and received occasional airplay on the radio (the "golden oldies" phenomenon) and American Bandstand.
  • Random Events Plot: After introducing the main characters, the movie follows them through their various individual experiences during the night, none of which have much to do with one another.
    • Curt, despondent about leaving town for college and a future he can't grasp, becomes enamored with a mysterious Blonde Girl in a T-Bird and spends the night tracking her down.
    • Steve gets into a fight with his girlfriend Laurie (who is also Curt's sister) about their impending separation as he's due to leave for college in the northeast US and she's stuck for another year of high school in California.
    • Steve loans out his stylish car (an Impala) to Toad for the night, with the promise of letting the Toad "borrow" it while Steve is away at college. Toad promptly loses the car while trying to impress a local girl Debbie, and the two spend the night in various misadventures trying to steal the car back.
    • John heads out for another night of cruising "the strip" to find guys daring to drag race his hot rod. Trying to get a girl to ride with him, he inadvertally gets stuck with a dorky 12-year-old girl Carol who quickly gets on his nerves. He then runs into out-of-towner Bob Falfa (Harrison Ford!) who's eager to challenge John to a race, but wary cops and having Carol in the car puts a hold on that plan...
  • Shout-Out:
    • Milner's license plate number: "THX 138".
    • At one point a movie theater can be seen with the marquee advertising Coppola's Dementia 13. (Technically an anachronism, since that film didn't come out until 1963.)
    • Curt watches The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet on a TV in a store window.
    • During his radio show, Wolfman Jack crank-calls a guy named Floyd and recites a few lines from George Herbert's 17th-century poem "Love (III)" to him.
  • Shrouded in Myth: The Blonde in the T-Bird. Everyone Curt runs into seems to have seen or heard of her, but none of them can give an honest answer of who she really is.
  • The '60s: When the movie really takes place. It's just the style of the New Frontier has yet to replace the cruising culture in that part of the country and it's too early for Beatlemania.
  • Small Town Boredom: Why Steve is so keen for he and Curt to leave for college.
  • Source Music: All of the music in the film is presented diagetically, save for The Beach Boys' "All Summer Long", which plays over the closing credits. (Just as well, since that song actually wasn't released until 1964.)
  • Suspiciously Similar Substitute: With Dreyfuss opting out of More American Graffiti, we're introduced in that film to Curt and Laurie's previously-unmentioned younger brother Andy.
  • Teacher/Student Romance: It is implied at the school's dance that one of these is occurring between a male teacher and a female student, but since the characters aren't really important, it's never delved into.
  • That Came Out Wrong: When Milner and Falfa are engaging in Snark-to-Snark Combat about their respective cars, Carol yells out to Falfa, "Your car is uglier than I am!", before realizing, "That didn't come out right."
  • That Nostalgia Show: To the late '50s and early '60s, when George Lucas was a teenager.
  • The Unintelligible: The intercom speaker at Mel's, when Toad tries to make an order.
  • The Unreveal: We never find out who the blonde in the T-Bird is, and we never learn why she said "I love you" to Curt at that stoplight.
  • What a Drag: The greaser gang known as the Pharoahs talk about tying Curt to the bumper of their car and dragging him around for the crime of sitting on the hood.
  • "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue: Given some of the characters' fates, it's a Downer Ending as well. All these events are shown, in detail, in the sequel:
    • John Milner ends up having a car crash on New Year's Eve (originally June) 1964.
    • Terry "Toad" Fields joins the Army and is reported missing-in-action in December 1965.
    • Steve Bolander is still living in Modesto, and is an insurance agent.
    • Curt Henderson is now a writer living in Canada.
  • White Gangbangers: The Pharaohs appear to be a mixture of white and Latino kids.