An increasing number of older films are enjoying a revival thanks to studios re-releasing them in high definition. Like any profitable incentive initiated by a corporation the results can be mixed landing along the statistician’s favorite shape the bell curve. Most will fall in the middle and a few on the far left side reserved for the worse possible flick. This leaves us with the illustrious films that occupy the extreme right; the most significant films in cinema. A special edition Blu-ray of one such masterpiece has just found such a new release; ‘American Graffiti’. This film re-defines the coming of age movie and launched the careers of a generation of actors propelling them into the limelight and starting them to their A List status. It also took a young director from cult classic to international sensation and eventually one of the most influential filmmakers of his generation. Like most movie enthusiasts I’ve seen this movie in every release format from Neighborhood Theater through video tape and eventually DVD. It has already held an honored place in my collection but after watching this new Blu-ray edition the other editions are about to become retired. After numerous viewings this release has made me feel as if I was seeing it for the first time. The increased resolution in both the video and audio has made this classic movie even more exciting an experience. For a film approaching its fortieth anniversary this movie has retained its place in our social consciousness as well as its continued impact on the cinematic arts. The legacy of ‘American Graffiti’ will undoubtedly out live us all continuing on as a piece of Americana beloved by all. The movie represents a slice of life that millions of teens have experienced. Those of us growing up in urban settings may not have much firsthand experience with spending an evening driving around but the sense of freedom from parental oversight and need for the type of social interaction depicted here is indeed universal. in one way or another we all sent through a period of what the adults would perceive as aimless wasting of time but for us it was fulfilling the vital need to explore the place we live and cope with the transition to becoming adults ourselves.
For many American teens a rite of passage is obtaining their driver’s license. This little piece of paper that fits snuggly in your wallet marks the dividing line between the parental dependency of childhood and the first taste of adult independence. One way that this is typically expressed is spending evenings with your friends driving up and down the local main street, an activity popularly referred to as ‘cruising’. The film starts in what many consider the golden age of the country, the early sixties. For as group of friends newly graduated from high school the film depicts a night like many others yet at the same time one that will be looked back on as a pivotal moment in their young lives. Such a group of friends, Curt Henderson (Richard Dreyfuss), Steve Bolander (Ron Howard), John Milner (Ron Howard) and Terry "The Toad" (Charles Martin Smith) Fields gather as usual at the local teen hangout, Mel’s Drive-In. Curt has received a two thousand dollar scholarship to college but remains reticent to go. He is tempted to go off with Steve. During his trip Steve plans to loan his 1958 Chevy Impala to Toad, something the young man is understandably excited about. Also uncertain about Steve’s impending departure is his girlfriend Laurie (Cindy Williams) who happens to also be Curt’s younger sister. The group decides to split up for awhile with Toad and John cruising while the other attends the local sock-hop. On their way there Curt happens to spot an attractive blonde in a 1956 Ford Thunderbird who mouths ‘I Love You’ to him as they pass. This will set him on a quest for the evening. This is interrupted by the intercession of the ‘Pharaohs’, the local group of Greasers who push Curt into an initiation prank, chaining the real axel of a police car. Steve and Laurie argue and split leaving John to give a ride to Carol (Mackenzie Phillips) an obnoxiously annoying teenybopper who has a crush on him.
Looking back on this film with a modern perspective you might think it contains just about every conceivable teen flick archetypes. What has to be kept in mind is this is the movie that established these characters were a significant part of what established the definition of these epitomes. It also started a trend in popular entertainment embracing the nostalgic days of the late fifties and early sixties. This was a time of relative domestic quite nestled between the paranoia of the McCarthy Communist hearings and the rapid frequently turbulent social change of the civil rights movement. This was George Lucas’ second feature film released after his enigmatic dystopian cult classic ‘THX-1138’. The critical acclaim this movie received provided Lucas with the reputation as a filmmaker that combined with the financial power necessary to ensure investment in future projects made his subsequent films possible. That includes one of the most culturally influential film franchises in history; Star Wars’. In fact the casting of Harrison Ford here made it possible for his inclusion in both ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Indiana Jones’ placing Ford in some of the most lucrative movies in history. Many of the cast members here went on to long and much lauded careers in film. For those who like to play degree of separation games this cast connects the luminaries of the industry.
The style employed by Lucas here is easy going emulating the feel of a night of cruising. The sense of freedom and excitement is not played out on some grand scale but accurately reflects the experience of teens on the verge of becoming adult members of the community. There is a strong central narrative here but what is most appealing about the construction of the movie is how incredibly well the side plots are woven together, the overall feel imparted by this movie is one of bringing into audience into the front seat for a return to a carefree time.