Sunday, July 5, 2020

Don't Make a Scene: American Graffiti

The Story: I still believe that American Graffiti is the best film directed by George Lucas (despite the elephant in the galaxy). One can certainly argue that it isn't the most imaginative (although at the time of its release, there wasn't a a big rush on 50's nostalgic films—and it would inspire quite a few) but its story of high school graduates on the cusp of changing their lives on one fateful night is the tightest, most complete, all-around film that the director has created and supervised.

It shows up in even minor scenes as the four male leads go off on their nocturnal quests of various types. For Richard Dreyfuss' character Curt, it's to decide if he wants to go back East to college, leaving California and his past behind. He is pushed and pulled by various conflicts: he is scared to leave home, he wants the adventure, then the night works its magic—there is a blonde (she was revealed to be Suzanne Sommers) in a white T-bird that he becomes infatuated with even though he knows nothing about her, his buddy Steve (Ron "Ronny" Howard)—"Mr. Prom King"—is pushing him to go (along with him is the plan).

Then there is the counsel of the wise-men he meets along his journey's path—one of whom, his friend and mentor Mr. Wolfe (Terry McGovern)—a spot-on name—former teacher of his, who advises in two ways of the "do as I say, not as I do" school: he went away to school, couldn't hack it (for whatever reason) and came back to Modesto to teach at his old school and (apparently) seduce students as the awkward encounter that ends their discussion attests. Curt will leave their talk disheartened and no wiser than before and it will take a pilgrimage to Lucas' version of the Voice of God to set him on the proper life-arc.

Yeah, it's a movie about cruising teenagers—but it's where they're cruising to (in '62) that makes the movie special and a classic. 

And Lucas' best movie.

The Set-Up: It's nostalgia time for last year's class as their school is holding a final dance before the start of the next year's terms. Curt Henderson (Dreyfuss) is set to catch a plane for back East tomorrow morning, but, back in the day when you could cancel a ticket and get a refund, he's thinking of not going. And he's got all night to decide.

The Stroll music floats from the gym down the empty hall. Curt walks along with his hands in his pockets. One last trip down the grey, locker-lined corridor. 
He slows and stops by locker 2127. He smiles a little, then flips the dial of the lock. Once to the right--back to the left--then to the right again. 
Curt hits the handle. It doesn't open. Changed already. 
He shrugs and goes off down the hallway. 
Curt walks in the background, behind the line of kids clapping as one couple Strolls down between them. Then Curt hears somebody call him. 
MR. WOLFE (off) Hey--Curtis! 
Curt wanders over toward a young teacher, Mr. Wolfe, who is surrounded by a group of admiring (and grade-seeking) girls. Mr. Wolfe wears ivy league clothes and is about twenty-five, not much older than his students. 
MR. WOLFE Curtis, come here. Help me, will you? I'm surrounded. 
GIRL You won't dance? Come on. 
MR. WOLFE No, really, I'd like to, but I can't. I mean, if old Mr. Simpson came in here and saw me dancing with one of you sexy little-- excuse of you young ladies, he'd have my rear end. 
GIRLS Aahhh. 
They all giggle. Mr. Wolfe shrugs at Curt and heads for a door. Curt follows him and they escape from the girls into the night. 
Curt and Mr. Wolfe come out of the gym. Mr. Wolfe sees a couple of guys skulking around in the shadows smoking cigarettes and laughing. The music has changed to "See You in September." 
MR. WOLFE Hey, Warren. Come on, gentlemen, back inside. Put 'em out. Let's go. 
CURT (grinning as he pulls out a pack of cigarettes) Kids...Want one? 
MR. WOLFE (taking one from the pack) All right. Hey, I thought you'd left. 
CURT No, not yet. (looking for matches) I have no matches. 
Mr. Wolfe takes out a pack of matches and lights both their cigarettes. They walk down a chain-link fence, past dark, venetian-blinded classrooms. 
MR. WOLFE Brother, how do I get stuck with dance supervision? Will you tell me that?...You going back East?
MR. WOLFE Boy, I remember the day I went off. Got drunk as hell the night before. Just-- 
CURT Blotto. 
MR. WOLFE Blotto. Exactly. Barfed on the train all the next day. 
CURT (grinning) Cute. Very cute. 
CURT  Where'd you go again? 
MR. WOLFE Middlebury. Vermont. Got a scholarship.
CURT And only stayed a semester. 
MR. WOLFE (smiling and nodding) One semester. And after all that, I came back here. 
CURT Why? 
MR. WOLFE (shrugging) Decided I wasn't the competitive type. I don't know...maybe I was scared. 
CURT Well, you know I might find I'm not the competitive type myself. 
MR. WOLFE What do you mean? 
CURT Well, I'm not really sure that I'm going. 
MR. WOLFE Hey, now--don't be stupid. 
MR. WOLFE Go. Experience life. Have some fun, Curtis. 
Then a voice calls from the shadows. 
JANE (off) Bill? 
They turn and see a girl coming out of a doorway. Mr. Wolfe looks at Jane, one of his students, but doesn't say anything. 
JANE I mean--Mr. Wolfe. Can I speak with you a minute. (She smiles at Curt.) 
JANE Hi, Curt. 
CURT Jane... 
He looks at Mr. Wolfe, who seems a little embarrassed. Then, Mr. Wolfe sticks out his hand. 
MR. WOLFE Anyway--good luck, Curtis. 
Curt shakes his hand. 
CURT Yeah...I'll see you. 
CURT Thanks a lot. 
Curt walks back toward the gym. 
Looking around, he sees Mr. Wolfe standing in the shadows with the girl, talking intimately. 
Curt turns away and goes off.

American Graffiti

Words by George Lucas, Willard Huyck, and Gloria Katz

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

American Graffiti is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Universal Home Entertainment.

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