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Film: American Graffiti

"The whole strip is shrinking. 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' 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 High School-age kids (and a couple of college-bound recent graduates) 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 hit for Universal, American Graffiti established Lucas' box-office bona fides, kicked the already-existing Fifties nostalgia boom of The Seventies into high gear, and provided the template for countless teen comedies to follow. The film is also notable for its cast of soon-to-be famous young actors like 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 Sixties 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 Avatar: Curt Henderson basically stands in for the teenaged George Lucas.
  • Berserk Button: When Laurie rebuffs Steve's advances in the car, he irritatedly 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 must not have been used to drinking.
    Debbie: No, likes to drink. He told me.
    Old Woman: On his hands and knees like thatÖ 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, who lets their younger pre-teen sister ride off with some strange older guy?
  • Cool Car: Pretty much all of them. Even Curt's CitroŽn, which is sort of presented as The Alleged Car in the context of the film, looks impossibly boss at this late date.
  • Cool Old Guy: The omnipresent DJ Wolfman Jack, who gives Curt (Richard Dreyfuss) some advice towards the end.
  • 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.
  • Embarrassing Nickname: Terry "Toad" Fields.
  • End Of An Era: The film is happening just as The Sixties are rolling into view and The Fifties - with its cruising early rock-n-roll culture - 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.
  • 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 is beginning to verge on this.
  • 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 he's 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.
  • 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.
  • 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
  • The Merch: There's a line of American Graffiti die-cast model cars. Selections include a Dodge Aries.
  • Mooning: A young woman flashes her bare ass at Toad while out on the strip.
  • My Girl Is Not a Slut: Curt refuses to believe it when Joe tells him the Blonde in the T-Bird is a prostitute.
  • 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 Fifties 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.
    • Possibly to compensate for the fact that the film took place in the early sixties, but pretty much was the fifties; The Beach Boys (who came to prominence in the early '60s) are heard on the radio and even discussed by John and Carol. Showing the changing attitudes of the early '60s, the jaded and older John hates their surf music and bemoans what is happening to rock after the 1959 death of Buddy Holly, while the younger Carol thinks they are "boss".
      • Ironically, that had the opposite effect. Many people now think of surf music (and by extension, all music from before 1964) as '50s music (when in reality there were only 3 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.
  • 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.)
  • The Sixties: 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.
  • 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 Nostalgia Show: To the late '50s, 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.

Sullivans TravelsAFI's 100 Years... 100 Movies ( 10 th Anniversary Edition)Cabaret
AmarcordFilms of the 1970sThe Baby
City LightsAFI's 100 Years... 100 MoviesRocky
The Adventures of Robin HoodJustForFun/Tropes Examined by the Myth BustersBatman
The StingAcademy AwardThe Exorcist
Quick Draw McGrawThe FiftiesBack to the Future
Across the UniverseThe SixtiesApollo 13
CabaretNational Film RegistryThe Conversation
All That Heaven AllowsCreator/UniversalAmerican Pie

alternative title(s): American Graffiti
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