American Graffiti (1973): Social Center and Periphery

In George Lucas American Graffiti, Modesto’s moral center is not a type like Sam the Lion, the old-time moralist in “The Last Picture Show,” but Wolfman Jack, the disk jockey, whose show unifies the town’s kids.

The disk jockey, as a profession and the town’s moral focus, has provided a new cultural symbol in youth films. (Jack Nicholson played a disk jockey as well in Bob Rafelson’s “The King of Marvin Gardens”).

Wolfman interacts with each member separately, and each youngster perceives him in different way. He serves as a secret friend to each one of them. Wolfman is not seen much, but his presence his felt through the music he chooses for them to listen. “The Wolfman been everywhere and he seen everything,” people say in admiration, “he got so many stories, so many memories.” As the community’s expressive leader, Wolfman later arranges for a (telephone) interview between Curt and the unknown blonde he falls in love with, thus helping fulfill latent dreams. The nondiegetic music in American Graffiti suggests that all the kids, no matter where they are, are listening to the same radio program. The offscreen music performs narrative and ideological functions, cementing the otherwise narrative’s episodic structure and interweaving the adolescents’ crisscrossing paths.

Modesto is a self-contained entity; there are no excursions out of town. The action itself is confined to one long hot summer night, from sunset to sunrise, during which the adolescence of four male youngsters comes to a dramatic end. Modesto is the kind of town that changes image and personality; the alternation of day and night sequences captures this variable quality. During the day, one sees on Main Street a line of used car-lots, small shops, department stores, and greasy spoons. At night, one sees the flashing, neon-lighted signs, and an endless parade of cars, some customed, others lowered. The town looks much more “glamorous” at night; Haskell Wexler’s excellent cinematography emphasizes the town’s dazzling kaleidoscopic feature at night.

The narrative’s real star is not human, but an object–the car and the lifestyle it embodies. These adolescents don’t seek Nature to regain their emotional balance, solve their identity crises, or make love. The car is a symbolic substitute for Nature, providing emotional security, physical protection, and comfortable environment. It serves as a metaphor to America’s innocence and naivet in the early l960s, when isolationism in foreign politics was still strong. Significantly, most of the interaction in American Graffiti takes place through the cars’ windows, but it is rich communication, including exchange of provocations, flirtatious remarks, and insults. A convenient shield, the car’s window is the only window to the real, outside world.

Director Lucas described his film as “a metaphor of what we once had and lost.” The movie presents that era’s complacency and apathy, along with its political naivet and insularity. Instead of making explicit statements about the past’s superiority to the present, the nostalgia is put in historical perspective, allowing viewers to decide for themselves their attitude toward those years. This is one portrait of America’s past, American Graffiti seems to say, and it’s up to the viewers to determine how this particular past has shaped–or led to–the present.

The four protagonists are high school graduates at a turning point. Their crucial dilemma is staying in town or going to college. Curt (Richard Dreyfuss) and Steve (Ron Howard) are about to go to college, but Curt is hesitant about it. “I was thinking I might wait a year,” he tells Steve, “go to city.” As in other movies, the kids are aware of the town’s possibilities and limitations. “You can’t back out now!” says Steve, “We are finally getting out of this turkey town, and now you want to crawl back into your cell.” The radio station’s manager concurs with Steve: “No offense to your home town here, but this place ain’t exactly the hub of the universe.” The manager’s frustration derives from his realization that “there’s a whole big beautiful world out there…and here I sit sucking Popsicles.”

The narrative ends with Curt’s departure to college out East. His plane takes off while the soundtrack plays “Goodnight Sweetheart.” What were the options of small-town kids at the time: go to college, run away to the Big City, or stay in town and live a complacent and stifling life. However, with all his ambition to pursue his studies, Curt’s departure from town conveys the price, the loss of intimate friendships he will never experience again. (In Stand By Me (l986),
Richard Dreyfuss played another writer who, looking back on his life, realize he never had the same intimate friendships he had as a teenager). But he also knows that if he stayed in town, his life could have turned worst.

The fate of the four friends is printed on screen, and it is shocking because it violates the former nostalgic and pleasant mood. The viewers are suddenly thrown off balance, from a fantasy-dream to a newsreel. The cards tell that John Milner was killed by a drunk driver, in l964. Terry Fields was reported missing in action in Vietnam, in l965. Steve Bolander is an insurance agent in Modesto. And Curt Henderson is a successful writer who went to Canada (because of the draft). Feminist critics pointed out the narrative’s sexist bias, charging that the filmmakers obviously did not find it necessary to report what has happened to its female characters.