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Film / American Graffiti

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"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

American Graffiti is a 1973 coming-of-age comedy-drama film directed by George Lucas, based on his memories of growing up in the late 1950s and early '60s—and thereby managing to cram in as much of that era's Popular History as possible. (He was, of course, one of the first to do this.) It is the first film to be produced by Lucasfilm. Lucas's friend and fellow filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola, who was just coming off his own success directing The Godfather, produced the film along with Gary Kurtz.

Set in small-town California in 1962, the film follows several teenagers as they spend their last night of summer vacation goofing around, getting into trouble, contemplating their futures, and 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-well-known young actors, including Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Howard,note  Paul Le Mat, Charles Martin Smith, Cindy Williams, Mackenzie Phillips, Suzanne Somers, Harrison Ford, Kathleen Quinlan, and Joe Spano. 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 according to Lucas "made all of ten cents".

Your tropes came out uglier than I am! Oops, that didn't come out right.

  • 20 Minutes into the Past: The film released in 1973 and is set in 1962.
  • Actually Pretty Funny: John and Carol can't help but laugh after being the victims of a water balloon prank, even as Carol swears revenge. And at least one of the girls who pranked them also laughs rather than getting scared or angry when John and Carol retaliate by spraying whipped cream on their cars' windows and letting the air out of their tires.
  • Affably Evil: A liquor store robber bothers to swipe a bottle of whiskey for a recent casual acquaintance along with the money.
  • AM/FM Characterization: Carol likes The Beach Boys. John doesn't share her enthusiasm, stating that "Rock and roll's been going down the tubes ever since Buddy Holly died".
  • American Title: Graffiti, of the American variety.
  • As Himself: Wolfman Jack.
  • Author Appeal: George Lucas was really into cars as a young man.
  • Author Avatar: Curt Henderson, John Milner, and Terry "The Toad" Fields represent different stages from George Lucas's younger life. Curt is modeled after his personality while attending USC, while Milner is based on his teenaged street-racing and junior-college years (along with other hot rod enthusiasts he'd known from Modesto's Kustom Kulture scene) and Toad represents his nerd years as a freshman in high school, specifically his "bad luck" with dating.
  • Auto Erotica:
    • Toad and Debbie make out in Steve's Chevy.
    • Steve tries to have sex with Laurie in her car, but she doesn't want it.
  • 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 Sudden Downer Ending when the "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue tells us what happened to the four main characters.
    • Curt notices the white T-Bird driving on a road as his plane flies overhead, and can only smile wistfully at the lost opportunity to meet the mysterious blonde.
    • A dark foreshadowing for John Milner, who is killed in an offscreen car crash in the sequel.
  • Butt-Monkey: Toad
  • 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, he 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-universe, 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.
  • Cool Teacher: Played with in the person of Mr. Wolfe. He acts like a cool teacher, shooting the breeze with the kids, talking about the fun he had when he was their age—but he's a little too eager to tell Curt about all the drinking he used to do. He makes a comment about how the girls at the dance are sexy, which starts to cross the line from cool to creepy. And one of the girls urgently takes him aside and they're seen engaging in whispered conversation, implying Teacher/Student Romance.
  • 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 isn't interested in Carol. But in order to get her address so he could take her home, he fakes 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 living in Canada 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 '50s, with their cruising early rock-'n'-roll culture, are fading in the rearview mirror. On a larger scale, the assassination of John F. Kennedy the following year is widely seen as the clear point after which America as a whole grew far more cynical and passionate about social issues.
    • In-universe, 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/morning.
  • Fake Band: Herbie and the Heartbreakers, played by '50s tribute band Flash Cadillac and the Continental Kids (now just known as Flash Cadillac).
  • Fake Radio Show Album: The soundtrack album has several DJ bits from Wolfman Jack interspersed among the songs, similar to the movie itself.
  • Faking the Dead: Toad, in More American Graffiti.
  • The '50s: Set in 1962, but the fashions, music, etc. reflect the 1950s, since real-life aesthetics and attitudes of course don't follow actual decades.
  • Flipping the Bird: Done by Debbie to a guy who tries to pick her up in one scene, and by Bobbie to Curt in another.
  • 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.
  • George Lucas Altered Version: There have been two minor alterations to the film since its original release, both of which have carried over to subsequent editions.
    • The 1978 theatrical re-release added two minutes of previously-deleted scenes back into the film, and remixed the soundtrack into Dolby Stereo.
    • For the 25th Anniversary VHS and DVD edition in 1998, the opening shot of the movie with Mel's Diner and the opening credits was given a digital sunset sky by Industrial Light & Magic, replacing the overcast sky featured in the original version of the film.
  • Get Out!: Steve, Curt, and Toad are all ejected from various cars in this manner.
  • 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."
  • Greaser Delinquents: The Pharaohs are a greaser gang.
  • Hair of Gold, Heart of Gold: Debbie, a pretty blonde girl, is the first person to really show kindness towards Toad.
  • 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 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: Laurie and Steve turn up at their high school's freshman hop and are compelled to do a "spotlight" dance with each other, though Steve has already graduated and they're on the verge of breaking up. Said dance was choreographed by Toni Basil (of later "Mickey" fame).
  • Hourglass Plot: Curt is having second thoughts about leaving to go to college and Steve is pressuring him to go. In the end, Curt is the one who ends up leaving to go to college while Steve ends up staying put.
  • Ironic Echo Cut: Curt distracts a couple of arcade owners with small talk while the Pharaohs take the money from the 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 to 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.
    • On a meta level, the film's tagline ("Where were you in '62?") is pretty funny if you know where George Lucas himself was during that year: laid up in his bed for months after a near-fatal car accident.
  • 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 tried to rape her unless he apologizes for calling her grungy.
  • Kavorka Man: Mr. Wolfe, the Cool Teacher Curt shares a smoke with and talks to outside the high school dance, is first seen surrounded by admiring girl students (and even implied to be in a relationship with one) despite the fact that he's not particularly handsome.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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. (One of the film's Working Titles was Another Slow Night in Modesto.) However, most of the actual 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".
  • Nostalgia Filter: Considered one of the first movies to play on this trope, where a generation looks back a decade or two to remember how things were when they were teens.
  • 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 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, in that these songs were only a few years old in 1962 and would have still received occasional airplay on the radio (the "golden oldies" phenomenon) and American Bandstand.
    • One of the songs that Flash Cadillac and the Continental Kids (in character as Herbie and the Heartbreakers) perform at the high school dance — "She's So Fine" — is not a vintage oldie, but an original tune (albeit in a deliberately retraux doo-wop style) written by the band.
  • One Crazy Night: Some teens go out cruising on the last night of summer, and have a series of adventures that involve Auto Erotica, grand theft auto, drag racing, major life decisions, and a mysterious beautiful blonde.
  • Police Brutality: The second film features scenes of police officers attacking Vietnam War protestors.
  • Pom-Pom Girl:
    • Laurie is a pleasant varsity cheerleader whose only moments of snappiness and acting out come from feeling hurt by her boyfriend.
    • Vicki from the sequel is a college cheerleader who stopped cheering for the school to cheer anti-war slogans at peace protests, complete with pom-poms and a Peace symbol painted on her shorts.
  • 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 attempting to track her down, in the process getting himself involved with a street gang called the Pharaohs.
    • 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 (a '58 Chevy 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 to thieves while trying to impress local girl Debbie, and the two spend the night in various misadventures trying to find the car and get it 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 inadvertently 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...
  • Scenery Porn: The combination of the cameras used to film it, the classic cars, neon street signs, and time period architecture all make for a very nice nostalgic visual treat.
  • 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 through a TV store's 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.
    • Falfa sings "Some Enchanted Evening" to Laurie at one point when she won't talk 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 original plan was that she was a figment of Curt's imagination, but there wasn't enough money in the budget for the special effects to pull it off.
  • 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.)
  • Sudden Downer Ending: The Bittersweet Ending is kicked up a notch with the Where Are They Now epilogue, which reveals that of the four protagonists, two would suffer tragic early deaths soon after the story, one in a car accident and one in Vietnam.
  • Take That!: Is the result of Francis Ford Coppola stating that George Lucas couldn't do a simple mainstream movie when Lucas was making THX 1138.
  • Teacher/Student Romance: During the high school dance it's implied 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.
  • Totally Radical: There's a lot of inappropriate usage of "boss."
  • Unbuilt Trope: While it has a lot of funny moments, the film could act as a thorough deconstruction of nostalgic teen flicks, especially Grease:
    • The cool drag racers are a Jerk with a Heart of Gold and a straight-up Jerkass, and both of them are losers whose lives are going nowhere (Milner, at least, is self-aware enough to know this.)
    • Milner, the sympathetic cool drag racer, doesn't have a hot girlfriend. Instead, he ends up having to babysit an awkward 13-year-old girl who annoys the stew out of him.
    • The mysterious DJ on the radio turns out to be... an ordinary middle-aged guy (albeit one who has some wisdom through his experiences).
    • One of the main characters and his girlfriend are going through a rough patch, and it's portrayed in a mature and realistic way.
    • There are no Jerk Jocks or Alpha Bitch characters with any real screen time. The nerdiest character idolizes the drag racer, who shows a lot of Big Brother Instincts to the nerd. The Nice Guy main characters have Jerkass tendencies from time to time. And much as John and Carol get on each other's nerves, they end up teaming up to pull a prank on a group of jerks they encounter, and by the end of the movie they've gotten to like one another.
    • The climactic drag race lasts all of fifteen seconds, and ends in a near-fatal crash.
    • The main hero doesn't get the girl; he never even learns her name.
    • It's made very clear that the protagonists will not always be together. In fact, this is probably the last time they'll all be in one place at the same time.
    • Remember, this was made five years before Grease was released. Although the original musical hit theaters in 1972, Lucas' film was already in late pre-production by then.
  • 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.
  • Vanity License Plate: John Milner's '32 Ford: "THX 138".
  • Watch the Paint Job: Steve Bolander's '58 Impala. At the beginning of the movie, Steve goes into excruciating detail explaining to Toad how to take care of it while he's away at college, including the brand and viscosity of motor oil to use and the notepad in the glove box with all the relevant info recorded. Halfway through that night, Toad goes and gets the car stolen by leaving the keys in it. It's soon recovered, though, and Steve winds up taking it back before the night is over.
  • Wham Line:
    • After the drag race, John tells Toad, "I was losing, man. He had me!"
    • And the epilogue has one hell of a Wham Line: John Milner was killed by a drunk driver in December 1964.
  • 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.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: In contrast to the male leads, we're not told what ultimately became of Laurie, Debbie, or Carol. (At least not until the sequel.)
  • "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.