Sunday, May 4, 2014

Don't Make a Scene: American Graffiti

The Story: "I read the script and I said 'This is a Wolfman Jack' movie" said "Wolfman Jack" née Robert Weston Smith, neglecting the 50-odd characters that also inhabited the script. But that's the thing about being Wolfman Jack—you tend to see the world through a lycanthropic Jack-ness.

Like all of Lucas' films, American Graffiti is a quest movie, with the seeking hero running through it looking for two things: a blonde in a white T-bird, and the answer to whether he should leave town and go off to college. To the first end, he seeks guidance from the community's Muse: Wolfman Jack, subject of speculation, myth, and admiration. Nobody knows Wolfman Jack and nobody's seen Wolfman Jack, but everybody thinks they know him. He is the ethereal voice coming out of their car-radio's, playing the soundtrack of their lives. Wolfman Jack is Joseph Campbell's trickster guide by the side of the road of troubles. He pretends to be someone he isn't* and ends up giving the Ultimate Boon to the hero. He is Curt's Wizard, Muse, Teacher, and Master.

This was George Lucas employing Joseph Campbell's "Myth" breakdown before reading Joseph Campbell. Although he would become more literal about it with his "Star Wars" films (and that's all he's directed since), its all apparent in American Graffiti as well, better disguised and ultimately more satisfying, more relatable.

For a teenager in love with radio and sound, this scene was magical. Instead of inspiring me to see the world (which is more satisfying), it led me to a career in radio and audio production, where I could hide in plain hearing for my early adult life. The romance of being "the voice on the radio" and Lucas' inherent understanding of its place in the lives of kids (back then) and of the "Man Behind the Curtain" mystery of it was so enticing, I missed the pathos inherent in the scene and the lesson that was intended.

It was a boon to Robert W. Smith, too. Given a percentage point in gratitude for his help in getting the film made, the incredible profit margin of American Graffiti—made on the cheap and reaping huge box-office returns—made him comfortable for life. But he kept working, his reputation growing, thanks to his efforts in building on the mystique of this movie. And the rest of the story, well, I'll let Wikipedia tell it:

"Wolfman Jack died of a
heart attack in Belvidere, North Carolina, on July 1, 1995. The day before his death, he had finished broadcasting his last live radio program, a weekly program nationally syndicated from Planet Hollywood in downtown Washington, D.C. Wolfman Jack said that night, "I can't wait to get home and give Lou a hug, I haven't missed her this much in years." Wolfman had been on the road, promoting his new autobiography Have Mercy!. When he got home, he entered his house, hugged his wife, said "Oh, it is so good to be home!" and died in his wife's arms."

The Set-Up: It is a dark time in Modesto, California. Night, in fact. Curt (Richard Dreyfuss) is trying to make up his mind whether he's going to go off to college...really go off to college...or just stay home and go to community for a couple years. One influence is a mysterious blonde in a T-bird (Suzanne Somers) who tempts Curt all night, just out of reach. To get in contact with her, he seeks the one who knows all, Wolfman Jack, to relay a message to her, but all he finds is a technician at the radio station.


Note: The written script differs a bit from the film's continuity as seen. Script parts ommitted are in red. Dialogue ad-libbed on-set are in yellow.

The little Citroen bumps along a lonely dirt road, winding its way through dark peach orchards and wizened grape vineyards. Curt watches the deserted landscape when suddenly, the radio increases in volume and he turns it down. Then it begins to roar and distort eerily as the signal becomes more powerful. Then Curt sees it.
He stops the car and gets out. He stands looking at an isolated white frame house hitting in the moonlight.
Curt looks up at a spidery radio antenna that rises toward the stars, its black wires humming in the stillness.

Curt starts up the gravel walk to the door. Under the glare** of a naked spotlight, he sees a small intercom which plays soft Rock and Roll. He hesitates, then pushes a buzzer. He pushes it again and finally a voice comes over the intercom.

VOICE (V.O.): Yeah, who is it?

CURT: It's--I want to talk to the Wolfman.

VOICE: The Wolfman ain't here.

CURT: I know, but I got to get in touch with him. I got something to give him before--

VOICE: We don't take no deliveries after eight. Come back tomorrow.
CURT: No, I can't. I want to ask him something that--

VOICE: Dedications by phone is Diamond 75044. Wolfman Top 40 is Box 13, Chula Vista. Wolfman Sweatshirts is Wolf Enterprises, Bakersfield. 'Bye.

CURT: Listen, I got a right to talk to him. I listened to him every night for as long--for twelve years almost. I know him and it's personal and it'll only take a minute and I bet Wolfman would be upset if he knew a friend couldn't get in touch with--

A buzzer interrupts him and the door opens an inch. Curt pushes it open slowly--no one is there. A little scared, he goes inside and closes the door.

Curt walks slowly down a dark eerie corridor, passing strangely lit rooms with electronic generators, humming dynamos and glassed-off booths filled with flashing electronic apparatus.
Curt goes through this other-worldly maze until he comes to a small, dimly lit control booth. A figure inside is barely visible through the reflections in the double glass windows. The figure turns and walks up to the window. Curt backs off a bit. A face stares at him--long hair greased in a ducktail, a short chinbeard. Then he speaks, his voice filtering strangely through a hidden speaker.

MANAGER: What do you want?
Through the window, Curt can be seen but no sound is heard.
MANAGER: Pull the red switch.
CURT: I'm looking for a girl.
MANAGER: Aren't we all. She ain't here.
MANAGER: Come on back to the booth. You just go 'round the back.
CURT: Thank you.
MANAGER: This way.
Curt walks around through a few more glass doors and ends up in the booth with the manager.
The manager sits down and leans back, turning a fan to blow on his large chest. He's a large, friendly looking man; he wears a Hawaiian shirt. He sucks on a popsicle. Curt stands awkwardly.

MANAGER: Hey, have a popsicle. The ice box just broke down and they're meltin' all over the place.
MANAGER: You want one?
CURT: No. Thanks. Listen, ah...
MANAGER: Have a popsicle.
CURT: Are you the Wolfman?
MANAGER: No, man. I'm not the Wolfman.
Manager: Wait a minute.
The manager leans forward and picks up a spool of tape. He holds it up as a magician would for audience inspection, then puts it on a machine. A record is about to end. As it does the manager punches some buttons and the record segues into a Wolfman howl and then the distinctive Wolfman voice takes over. The manager adjusts the monitor volume down and sucks his popsicle.
WOLFMAN (V.O.): Who is this on the Wolfman's telephone?
DIANE (V.O.): Diane.
WOLFMAN: How're you doin', Diane?
DIANE: All right.
The station manager smiles at Curt, who is watching the tape and blinking lights of the large console.
MANAGER: That's the Wolfman.
CURT: He's on tape. The man is on tape.
WOLFMAN (V.O.): Do you love me? Say you love me, Diane.
CURT: Well, ah--where does he work? I mean, where is the Wolfman now?
MANAGER: The Wolfman is everywhere.
CURT: But I got to give him this note. Shit!
MANAGER: (taking it from Curt) Here, let me see the note. (he reads it) Hell, that's just a dedication. All I gotta do is relay it. And it'll be on the air tomorrow, or Tuesday at the latest.
CURT: No, no. See, this is very important. I may be leaving town tomorrow, and it's very important that I--damn it, that I reach this girl right now.
MANAGER: You don't know whether you're gonna leave town or not?
CURT: Well, I'm supposed to go to college back East tomorrow. And I don't know if I'm gonna go.
MANAGER: Wait a minute. Have a popsicle.
CURT: No, thank you.
MANAGER: Sit down a minute.
Curt sits down, undecided about leaving and upset about not being able to get in touch with the lovely creature he saw earlier that night.
MANAGER: Listen, it's early in the morning.
CURT: Damn!
MANAGER: Now, I can't really talk for the Wolfman. But I think if he was here he'd tell you to get your ass in gear.
MANAGER: Now, no offense to your home town here, but this place ain't exactly the hub of the universe, if you know what I mean.****
MANAGER: And well--I'll tell you this much--the Wolfman does come in here now and then, with tapes, to check up on me, you know, and when I hear the stories he got about the places he goes. Hell, here I sit while there's a big beautiful world out there, don't ya know. Wolfman comes in last time talking about some exotic jungle country, handing me cigars he says was rolled on the naked thighs of brown beauties. The Wolfman been everywhere and he seen

Manager: He got so many stories, so many memories.
Manager: And here I sit sucking on popsicles.
Curt looks at him a moment.
CURT: Why don't you leave?
MANAGER: Well, I'm no kid anymore. I been here a long time. And the Wolfman-- well, the Wolfman gave me my start and he's sorta become my life. I can't leave him now. Gotta be loyal to the Wolfman, you understand. And I like it!
Curt nods and stands. The manager swivels around and punches some buttons, putting on a commercial.
He turns back.
MANAGER: I tell you what. If I can possibly do it tonight, I'll try to relay this dedication and get it on the air for you later on.
CURT: That'd be great. Thanks. Really.
MANAGER: Just a minute. (whistles) Hey, it's been a pleasure.
CURT: Thanks a lot.
MANAGER: really.
CURT: I appreciate it.

He shakes the manager's hand, then wipes it on his pants.
MANAGER: Sorry, sticky little mothers ain't they?
CURT: They really..six or seven of them, right?
MANAGER: I know, I got a whole refrigerator full.
CURT: Thanks a lot.
MANAGER: See you later.
CURT: Appreciate it.

Curt goes out the door. He starts back out through the maze of windows and electronic machines. Echoing throughout the rooms, the Wolfman's raucous voice follows Curt. The Wolfman howls and Curt turns.
Through the maze of glass, shifting like prisms, he sees the station manager sitting by the mike--howling! Then, he laughs and howls again, starting to sing a song called "Bluebirds on My Dingaling,"* pounding out the rhythm on the console.

Wolfman: Rock on, baby, we're gonna do it right here. Rock and roll yourself to death, oh mercy!
CURT: Wolfman...
Wolfman: Gimme some more, my my!

He backs away, leaving the Wolfman, who's on his feet now, screaming out the end of the song, dancing by himself in the little glass room, from which his voice radiates out through the night and around the world...

American Graffiti

Words by George Lucas and Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz

Pictures by Haskell Wexler, Jan D'Alquen, Ron Eveslage and George Lucas

American Graffiti is available on DVD from Universal Home Video.

* As would Obi-Wan Kenobi before Alec Guiness asked that the elderly Jedi Knight's character stay consistent, and as does the initially enigmatic Yoda.

** This entire section of the script was not used—it appears it might not have been filmed—as Curt breaks into the station by jimmying the lock with his pocket-knife.

*** "Heart and Soul," actually. When Curt pulls up and enters the station, the song is "Crying in the Chapel." And when Wolfman talks to him about the world, the music is "Daddy's Home." Of course, the music is a very important sub-text in "American Graffiti."

**** Luke Skywalker: "If there's a bright center of the Universe, this is the planet that it's farthest from." Sound familiar?

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