Universal // 1973 // 113 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Ike Oden (Retired) // May 23rd, 2011
Where were you in '62?
High school graduates Curt (Richard Dreyfuss, Jaws), Terry "The Toad" (Charles Martin Smith, The Untouchables), John (Paul Le Mat, Puppetmaster), and Steve (Ron Howard, The Shootist) begin their evening together in the parking lot of Mel's Drive-In. Curt is conflicted about heading off to college, despite the fact he's received a $2,000 scholarship. Steve, meanwhile, is trying simultaneously to romance and break things off with girlfriend Laurie (Cindy Williams, The Conversation) before heading out with Curt. Terry is given Steve's car to take care of and uses it to make a pass at good time girl Debbie (Candy Clark, Zodiac). John takes his hotrod out on the town, only to accidentally pick up jailbait Carol (Mackenzie Phillips, One Day at a Time) and be pursued by rival drag racer Falfa (Harrison Ford, Raiders of the Lost Ark). In the morning, they must decide their future, but until then, why not cruise the strip and see what happens?
For a few minutes, let's forget Star Wars and all things related to Jedi, Wookiees, and trashcan droids. Before he took audiences back a long time ago and a galaxy far, far, away, George Lucas took us back to 1962-era Modesto, California in American Graffiti, one of the finest coming-of-age films ever made.
American Graffiti is the perfect marriage of style and story. The film is a time capsule of pre-Vietnam, pre-British Invasion Americana. Its characters are timeless teen archetypes most of us have encountered at some point during our adolescence -- jocks, dorks, prom queens, girls-next-door, geeks, bullies, greasers, etc. American Graffiti is populated by these types, but effortless writing and performances transforms them into three-dimensional characters we don't just relate to, but we get to know them intimately.
Every actor in the film went on to noteworthy careers, but few of them would sync such energetic performances with such a lively film, a career maker if there ever was one. The performances are honest and genuine, despite the fact almost none of the characters in the film were teenagers when the film was made (Ford had two kids when they started shooting). While contemporary teen fare is often marred by twenty/thirty-somethings passing themselves off as sixteen-year-olds, every actor in Graffiti makes a natural, genuinely memorable impression on the viewer.
The writing feels equally spot-on. Lucas, a writer/director often criticized for espousing archetype and arc over character and story, services every aspect of Graffiti's narrative, juggling a crackling ensemble cast, diverging storylines, and a period setting with the grace and ease of a seasoned professional. There's no doubt this has something to do with the contributions of co-writers William Hyuck and Gloria Katz. Nonetheless, Graffiti feels purely George Lucas, especially in terms of structure and direction.
The quality of the film is especially staggering considering the fact it was his second film. The film's style feels like the brazen experimentation of a newcomer, shooting the film entirely in a low light that emphasizes neon colors and realistic shadows. While the film's cinematography credit is shared between three D.P.s, the jukebox lighting and spontaneously hand-held composition is widely credited to "effects advisor" Haskell Wexler (Medium Cool). While American Graffiti is riddled with hot rods, drive-in fast food joints, and a never-ending barrage of rock n' roll music, it is the neon disease cinematography that brings Graffiti's night time world to life.
Ultimately, the characters' stories give the film its timeless quality. Adulthood looms over the characters of Graffiti, who grapple with their collective future throughout their teenage misadventures. While every character is given a set motivation and series of goals (following Lucas' typically strict adherence to Joseph Campbell's The Hero's Journey), the film streamlines each teen's storyline in a simple, evocative way.
Much like its spiritual grandchild, Dazed and Confused, Graffiti is very much a "hang out" sort of film. We spend time with the protagonists, rather than simply watch them jump through hoops from one scene to the next. Of course, they do jump through hoops (slapstick, situational, and otherwise), but they do so with motivation, creating a genuine relationship between the viewer that shifts gears between laughter, nostalgia and melancholy with the smoothness of a well oiled machine.
In short, American Graffiti is nothing less than a living, breathing meditation on youth and innocence. In the "teen" subgenre of film, American Graffiti is as perfect a movie as you're likely to find.
The DVD is just short of perfection. This is the second significant DVD issue of American Graffiti by Universal. I was always satisfied with my Collector's Edition, but George Lucas saw fit to supervise a new transfer.
I thank him many times over. The picture looks damn fine. It isn't perfect. A bit of edge enhancement seems evident, and many of the darker shots give way to compression-based artifacting. Nonetheless, it feels like a significant improvement on the original transfer, a very sharp picture with fine dark and neon colors that make the film even livelier.
While more tech obsessed DVD buyers might balk at a lack of 5.1, the Dolby Digital Stereo services the film very well. It's a clear track that finely packages the film's rollicking vintage rock soundtrack without overtaking the dialogue levels. For a stereo track, it's about as good as you'll ever get.
The extras included here are comprehensive. There aren't a lot of them and they won't exactly blow your mind, but they're substantial and informative. That's all you really need, isn't it?
Ported over from the original DVD is a feature length documentary, The Making of American Graffiti, which includes input from every party that worked on the film, including Lucas, Dreyfuss, Ford, and producer Francis Ford Coppolla (The Godfather). It explores everything from Lucas' post THX-1138 daze to casting, filming, and reception. It's divided into chapters for easy skimming (I wish all featurettes did this) and holds up very well for a "talking head" documentary.
The newer, shinier feature is a George Lucas commentary track. While Lucas will never be mistaken as an animated orator, he does a fine job here, putting new perspective on much of the material presented in the documentary while also sharing some autobiographical tidbits. If you like George Lucas and you're interested in his approach to filmmaking, this is a fine resource.
A requisite trailer for the film rounds out the set.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (French)
Running Time: 113 Minutes
Release Year: 1973
MPAA Rating: Rated PG