On June 26th, 1972 the world of the movies began to slowly unravel. Production began on American Graffiti, a movie helmed by USC wunderkind George Lucas. The movies was made in the small towns of Lucas’s youth, towns like Modesto and Petaluma and featured that true love child of American culture, the car. American Graffiti was a cinematic postcard to last days of true American innocence and naivete. The film was and is a subtle ballet of hormones, hot rods and rock and roll. It changed things, redefined thing, put power into a new generation .No one during the dark Marin County night, when the first action was called could predict that this movie would end up changing the direction of that most American of art forms, the movies.
American Graffiti was set in 1962 , the year the 1950’s ended. It would all begin to change in 1963 with the assassination for JFK, Martin Luther King delivering his ‘I Had A Dream’ speech, The Warren Commission, the murder of civil rights leaders and the all consuming British Invasion, these events alongside the waste of Vietnam war that would define a generation just coming on to the stage. George Lucas, whose first film was the cold and austere THX1138, set his second feature film right at the closing door of America’s final days of innocence when the world truly was it’s oyster. Lucas placed Graffiti in a teenage world still inhabited by icons like James Dean and Sandra Dee. . It is a world still innocent unaware of the trauma and upheavals that it will soon be facing.
The film takes place during the course of one night in a small Northern California community, Modesto, where Lucas grew up. The audiences witnesses a series of stories of the night, focusing on four friends Steve Bolander (Ron Howard), Curt Henderson (Richard Dreyfuss), John Milner (Paul LeMat) and Terry “The Toad” Fields (Charles Martin Smith) on their last night together, when Steve and Curt as supposed to head to an eastern college. The cog of their lives is Mel’s, a shrine to rock and roll , roll tuck leather and the clumsy manifestation of teenage angst. Throughout the film flood of memories are thrown at the audience courtesy of a thickly paid on rock and roll sound track. The music acts as both bard and time machine, drawing us into a piece of America that is no more.
This is probably the greatest portrayal of what it was to be young, full of promise and American.
With his character Lucas manages to avoid clichés, making his characters real and ensuring that each portrayal has a dollop of goodness and poignancy. . John Milner is the local speed demon, a drag racer and he is an icon , mentor and benchmark for all the other characters in the film, it is his orbit for .all the other characters in the film. Lucas chose to make Milner, though tough and a protector of his friends, a much more vulnerable almost sweet guy, a softie who spends the entire evening riding around with Carol (Mackenzie Phillips), a thirteen year old nerdy, somewhat annoying young girl. He could of easily provided us with a James Dean cartoon but he didn’t. There is a fatalist and honesty to Milner, Milner knows he is not going anywhere except another drag race and maybe an early trip to the graveyard.
Steve, played by director Ron Howard is in the end the most conservative of the group, the nice straight laced kid next door who will always do the right thing, often it is revealed to his own detriment. Richard Dreyfuss’ Curt is the intellectual of the group. He struggles with leaving, he wants to, yet he is so very hesitant to leave what he knows. Finally, there is the nerd, Terry “The Toad” a goofy kid, the dork of the group who spends the night with Carol, a Sandra Deesque blonde portrayed by Candy Clark. Terry is Lucas personified, a Lucas who would suffer the same fate as Terry if he did not find his passion in film.
American Graffiti manages to be nostalgic without the weepy sentimentality. The film is almost an anthropological monograph about a time, a place and a culture that starts disappearing that night as soon as Curt gets on a plane to journey to that far off eastern college. As the plane ascends into the sky, we know nothing will ever be the same.
Universal Studios put up $700,000 to Make American Graffiti. They hated it. There were plans to take the film and just use it as a movie of the week. However, various studio employees who had seen the film began talking it up, and its reputation grew through word of mouth. The studio dropped the TV movie idea and began arranging for a limited release in selected theaters in Los Angeles and New York. Universal presidents Sidney Sheinberg and Lew Wasserman heard about the praise the film had been garnering in LA and New York, and the marketing department amped up its promotion strategy for it, investing an additional $500,000 (equivalent to $2,697,526 in 2016) in marketing and promotion. The film was released in the United States on August 11, 1973 to sleeper hit reception. The film yielded worldwide box office gross revenues of more than $55 million (equivalent to $296,727,886 in 2016) It had only modest success outside the United States, but became a cult film in France.
Universal reissued Graffiti in 1978 and earned an additional $63 million (equivalent to $231,332,143 in 2016), which brought the total revenue for the two releases to $118 million (equivalent to $433,288,776 in 2016). The reissue included stereophonic sound, and the additional four minutes that the studio had removed from Lucas’s original cut. All home video releases also included these scenes. At the end of its theatrical run, American Graffiti had one of the greatest cost-to-profit ratios of a motion picture ever. It was the 13th-highest-grossing film of all time in 1977, and, adjusted for inflation, is currently the 43rd highest. By the 1990s, American Graffiti had earned more than $200 million (equivalent to $366,632,705 in 2016) [ in box office gross and home video sales. In December 1997 Variety reported that the film had earned an additional $55.13 million in rental revenue (equivalent to $82,249,297 in 2016).
American Graffiti made George Lucas a multi-millionaire and a name in Hollywood. Prompted by the success of Graffiti Lucas was able to find capital to begin work on his next film, a little picture called Star Wars. A film that re-defined the term blockbuster, shifted release patterns and would end of releasing a torrent of new digital technology on movie making.
Lucas has forcibly pushed the movie making towards the world of the computer and not of story structure. He has rejected story, and imposed that rejection on an industry that hangs on his every word. He has set in motion a trend that diminishes story, plot and character. As a result film is becoming more and more less interesting.
But looking back at American Graffiti and realizing it’s impact on this industry, it is easy to ignore majestic flow of light and steel that was celebrated on screen in a passionate and truthful manner, it is easy to ignore the humanity and frailty of the characters on screen and it is easy to forget that this greatest proponent of technological change in our industry was once a deft and passionate analog artist who truly loved movies.
To close off this rambling I will rely on quote written by Mr. Lucas to drive home the point. In the words of his classic antagonist, Darth Vader, “Don’t overestimate the power of this technological marvel. Its power is insignificant when compared to the power of the Force” Nuff said.