Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Anytime Movies (Transplanted): American Graffiti

While I have a few reviews "in the works," It's as good a time as any to re-boot (actually transplant from the old movie blog) a feature I started years ago, when it was suggested I do a "Top Ten" List.

I don't like those: they're rather arbitrary; they pit films against each other, and there's always one or two that should be on the list that aren't because something better shoved it down the trash-bin.

So, I came up with this: "Anytime" Movies.

Anytime Movies are the movies I can watch anytime, anywhere. If I see a second of it, I can identify it. If it shows up on television, my attention is focused on it until the conclusion. Sometimes it’s the direction, sometimes it’s the writing, sometimes it’s the acting, sometimes it’s just the idea behind it, but these are the movies I can watch again and again (and again!) and never tire of them. There are ten (kinda). They're not in any particular order, but the #1 movie IS the #1 movie.

What's George Lucas' best film? For most, it's probably Star Wars (I'm sure there's some poor soul out there who likes Radioland Murders). There's a lot to like about his charmingly scruffy homage to the Buck Rogers serials. But one wonders what direction his career might have gone if he hadn't felt the need to exploit that first "Star Wars" movie as much as he did. It seems the more he explained about his initial concepts the worse the movies got, and the more rich and famous they made him, the more elephantine and fossilized they became.

For me, Lucas has yet to top
American Graffiti. Made for under a million dollars and filmed mostly at night using a skeleton crew (albeit one headed by Haskell Wexler), it showed just how ingenious Lucas could be when he was strapped for cash. It has the structure and froth of a Shakespeare comedy with the values and budget of an AIP teen flick.  Seemingly aimless, American Graffiti follows four storylines of small town kids on the last night of summer before heading to college. Curt (Richard Dreyfuss) has a scholarship to a big university but is reluctant to go, and spends the night bounced around by local toughs, and diverted by his quixotic pursuit of a phantom blonde in a white Thunderbird. Steve and Laurie (Ron "Ronny" Howard and Cindy Williams) are a couple in transition. Class President and Head Cheerleader, they're the Royal Couple of the Sock-Hop. But Steve can't wait to head out of town to conquer new territory, and Laurie-still in high school-knows she'll lose him when he goes. John (Paul LeMat) is a high school drop-out and legendary hot-rodder endlessly cruising the streets of town, looking for the next race. And Terry (Charles Martin Smithlives a rich fantasy life (that's a kind way of saying he's deluded) where he can imagine himself everything that he's not.
The Village Square
Lives intersect, couples form and break apart, lies are told, misunderstandings abound (to really make it Shakespeare all you'd need is a set of twins), while the majority of kids drive endlessly in circles--not going anywhere, but hoping to, and if not tonight, there's always tomorrow. They're not going anywhere.

In the background are the constant echoes of rock n' roll pouring out of car windows and reverberating down the hallways and back-alleys, broken only by the howls and shrieks of the common thread in their lives,
Wolfman Jack. All the kids have their Wolfman myths and he acts as sage, seer, siren and Master of Ceremonies for the evening's adventures. He's also the Fool and "The Man Behind the Curtain." Ultimately the long night's journey leads to his door-step, and, in disguise, dispenses his wisdom to the seeker. 
The Siren
One thing Lucas always knew was how to make a curtain call and American Graffiti is his best. As Curt flies off to college, he is left two signs of passage: the white T-bird reappears one last time to remind him what he's giving up, while locked away in his plane, the sounds of the radio station that have buoyed and sustained all the characters throughout the night fades to static. For the first time in the film there is no music and in the silence that creates, broken only by the drone of the plane we're told the rest of the story. Terry "goes missing" in Vietnam. Steve is an insurance salesman in town. John is killed by a drunk driver. Curt's a writer in Canada. After that punch in the gut, Lucas unsentimentally hammers it home with one of the cheeriest songs in the Beach Boys catalog--"All Summer Long," dismissed earlier in the film as "surfing shit." Lucas turns the future into a sobering fate--the film is set in 1962. The next year would signal the end of the innocence of the 50's and American Graffiti is a sweet farewell to trivial concerns and living in the past.
The Knight-Mentor
Lucas has said that he based the boys on different aspects of himself in high school--the intellectual, the nerd, the sosh' and the JD. Lucas' lesson in this, and all of his work seems to be "Advance or Die." It's the lesson of Graffiti. It is certainly the basis of the story of Anakin Skywalker. So what became of Lucas? Did he follow his own advice? Well, you could say he went to the future with Star Wars, but he set it in the far-away past. Then he built an Empire of his his hometown.

The Trailer for "American Graffiti"--in the style of Beach Blanket movies

American Grafitti touched me two ways. I had already been inspired by Lucas' first film, THX-1138 with its inventive sound-scape, to seek out his work and the work of his sound editor Walter Murch. Grafitti was their second collaboration and pretty much sealed my fate for going into sound work. Listening to it now, it's crude and has a lot of holes and bad edits, but the innovations are just as unique 30 years later and just as inspiring. On top of that, the unglamorous portrayal of a radio disc jockey's life (yet romantic in its anonymous/omnipresent effect on a community) made me think "I could do that!" and I started my sound career spinning discs at a radio station. My last job as such was at a station with a glass window that looked out on the town's "loop." Sort of like watching American Graffiti in reverse. That was KEDO-AM in Longview, Washington--long ago bulldozed.

Wolfman Jack explains it all for you, baby!

I'd just done a "Don't Make a Scene" segment for American Graffiti and was looking forward to writing new "insights" on this film, but reading it again, no, I pretty much covered them all. Not that American Graffiti is that simple—it's just that given Lucas' skimpy out-put, there's not a lot of complexity in his ouvre. It is interesting that Lucas goes the Joseph Campbell route in this film before he actually read "The Hero with a Thousand Faces" and used the "seeker's path" for the construction of Star Wars. He was already using it here and doing variations of it for the four Lucas-aspects, each with different fates (a cautionary tale, indeed). He also uses the cross-cutting on different fronts that would be his staple in the "Star Wars" films, but interestingly in his first Star Wars (A New Hope) and this film, there is no cross-cutting at the end, everyone is melded into the final story-line, buttoning everything up nice and neat. 

He wouldn't do that again.

American Graffiti
To Kill a Mockingbird
Bonus: Edge of Darkness

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