Skip to main content

I said, “Go kiss a duck”, marblehead.

American Graffiti
(1973)

(SPOILERS) George Lucas’ massively influential and hugely successful nostalgia-fest, set in an America just far enough away and not really so long ago at all but increasingly heading that way with every passing year. I’ve never really cared too much for American Graffiti, even as I can appreciate Lucas’ instinctive ability to tap a rich seam (generational yearning for yesteryear, million-dollar soundtrack of bygone hits, new/old through combining then-current filmmaking acumen and social attitudes with classical tropes). Many of the similarly themed – nostalgic or otherwise period pieces or navel gazing – it spawned were superior: The Wanderers; Diner; The Big Chill. And then, of course, there’s it’s direct responsibility for Happy Days. And worse, the maturation of little Ronnie Howard, now a directing “legend”.

American Graffiti’s a case, however, where I cannot really take issue with the Academy’s predilection (well, it was a predilection) for recognising at least a smattering of big earners in its annual back-slapping fest. If the year’s Best Picture Oscar winner The Sting was more representative of the kind of thinking that saw The Towering Inferno nominated the following year (a little classier, but let’s not kid ourselves), American Graffiti and The Exorcist were both innovative and original works that entirely justified their presence. Graffiti received five nominations (Picture, Director, Candy Clark as Supporting Actress, Original Screenplay and significantly Film Editing). It won none.

Set in 1962 – in my head, it’s the 1950s, probably because of Happy Days – on the eve of several characters leaving for college, Lucas offers a series of rites of passage: buying beer; joining a gang; racing cars; splitting with the girlfriend; getting a girlfriend; getting into a fight; getting into trouble with the cops. All oft-drawn on touchstones, and Lucas’ main characters represent the four stages of George (although, I find it difficult to imagine Lucas as a street racer; that however, is part of the sepia-tinted wave he is surfing). Lucas particular trick was to apply a vérité feel, rather than that of the more expected exploitation flick.

Famously, no one much believed in his vision, except for Uncle Francis. There were music licensing worries, (Tarantino’s soundtrack to Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is clearly influenced by American Graffiti) and the diegetic use of music would be significant generally in cinema, emphasising realism even where (as here) it was riding on the fumes of nostalgic fantasy. United Artists passed on the picture, and then every studio but Universal followed suit. Universal was going to throw it out on TV until Coppola scored with The Godfather, and the studio slowly started to listen up as employees boosted its rep (as Terry Gilliam later discovered, no easy thing to achieve with Sid Sheinberg involved).

If most critics swooned before the picture, Pauline Kael was a notable exception. You’ll be aware by now that I quote Kael’s (often contemporary) reviews a lot, not only because they’re a great read, whatever side of the fence she sits in relation to one’s own view, but because she invariably had a distinctive take. She recognised the filmmaking skill involved with American Graffiti, yet objected to what she perceived as a mechanical quality.

More particularly, she took issue with its positioning via “white middle class boys whose memories have turned into pop”. If that sounds like an almost contemporary, woke take on Lucas’ blinkeredness, Kael was at pains to stress that, while it may have been implicit, she wasn’t making a “feminist issue of it” (as De Palma’s later greatest advocate, she could hardly do that, although she frequently did try to have her cake and eat it). The kernel of her objections come in the “epitaphs” that end the picture, bringing us up to date by informing us where the characters are now. There’s no room for the females in this, perhaps inevitably since they represent “plot functions”.

It goes without saying, retrospectively, that Lucas has no interest in or facility for his female characters (albeit, he shares screenwriting duties with Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, later of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and the magnificent Howard the Duck). And certainly, in Oscar-nominated Candy Clark’s case, Debbie’s little more than a cypher, a bubble-gum blonde simply there to facilitate something remarkable happening to delta-male Terry (Charles Martin-Smith) that night. In which regard, her presence is mystifying, except maybe as some nerd-George fantasy wish fulfilment (this might be Lucas’ “Why do we have to kill people?” instinct at work; he’ll even retcon Terry surviving Nam in the unloved, forgotten sequel).

Kael’s point is difficult to argue when it comes to Cindy William’s Laurie, however; she’s a bona fide character with agency, whom we follow even when she isn’t with boyfriend Steve (Howard). And John’s (Paul Le Mat) evening is entirely about his “odd couple” bonding with twelve-year-old Carol (Mackenzie Phillips). As Kael suggests, she’s the most entertaining character in the movie.

One might reasonably contest that Kael is drawing attention to the bleedin’ obvious. How could she possibly have expected the wunderkind film nerds to show a facility for and insight into the female psyche, less still treat them as possessing equal individuality to the men? Besides which, Lucas is unapologetically focussing on exactly what she’s accusing him of: shallow, adolescent obsessiveness with girls and cars and booze, captured through a nostalgic fugue.

Some of her comments are interesting with hindsight: “The images aren’t as visually striking as they would be if only there were a mind at work behind them” and there is “nothing to back up the style”. I don’t think that’s the case. I think it’s simply – as is the problem with the era Lucas and Spielberg ushered in – that the mind at work is only really concerned with the surface detail; shallow mythos is exactly why Star Wars hit a nerve. That’s not necessarily a problem (well, the prequel trilogy…) Rather, it’s indicative of where Lucas’ mind is focussed.

But I’m fully on board with Kael in being unimpressed by the broader impulse of the picture, its “pop narcissism” and how “it invites audiences to share in a fond, jokey view of its own adolescence” and be “ecstatically happy condescending towards its own past”. Your mileage is going to vary according to how inclined you are to nostalgia anyway, and how disposed you are to characterising your life in such archetypal terms (something Lucas had a knack for): “the giggle you get from looking at a false image of yourself” through his “fake folk art”.

Where I part ways with Kael is that I think, as Star Wars proved in triplicate, there’s a very significant skill set and attunement that enables one to elicit such a response. It isn’t just about shallow self-regard. But that doesn’t make it any more engaging if you’re unimpressed with George’s assembly of stock types or the various rites of passage he has in store. What Kael objected to was something she, and every moviegoer, is victim to, to some extent: the audience-identification aspect (she references both Rebel Without a Cause and Easy Rider). In a broader genre, that can simply elicit an emotional response, but I’m not sure this is necessarily any more inducive of sheep-like behaviour (drawing on the screen images as a template for the recall of one’s own life).

Richard Dreyfuss gives the most appealing performance of the quartet, particularly in Curt’s nervy/ laidback response to being drafted for a ride around with gang the Pharaohs; Lucas was apparently unable to budget the planned opening reveal that Curt’s dream girl (Suzanne Somers) is in fact a dream, but that’s probably no bad thing. It's interesting that Bob Balaban turned Terry (Charles Martin Smith) down, as the geek/whizz guy he played in Close Encounters of the Third Kind could easily have been Smith (just as Smith’s character in Starman could easily have been played by Balaban). There’s nothing to distinguish Terry from later versions of his type; Smith performs the character with honours, but there’s no interior. Even as his “I’ll die soon and it’ll all be over” (heaving then getting pummelled) produces a chuckle. Even the self-help group gimmick of The Breakfast Club gave us more compelling renditions of the reject and loser. The only surprise with Howard “the all-American-soda-jerk hero of the forties” is that he’s a relatively comfortable successful kid rather than one straight-laced naïf.

The John (Paul Le Mat) and Carol (Mackenzie Phillips) plotline is interesting. Presented quite sweetly, it becomes less so when you acknowledge the later Raiders of the Lost Ark and how Lucas was boosting the underage relationship between Indy and Marion (left at the screen version’s indeterminate “I was just a child”; “You knew what you were doing”). Or remind yourself that Phillips announced an entirely disturbed familial relationship (producer Gary Kurtz had to become her temporary guardian on set as she arrived alone for filming).

Kael’s quite correct that the “what happened next” offers a very short-sighted perspective, one reflecting Lucas’ youth: “as if lives were set ten years after high school!Animal House would riff on many of the elements American Graffiti popularised, including mocking the epitaphs. Perhaps that goes some way to explaining the failure of More American Graffiti, released in 1979 and bombing miserably. It wasn’t for want of the cast coming back. Only Dreyfuss (wisely) said no, with even Harrison Ford (at that point agreeing to anything and everything in the wake of Han Solo’s first flush) came back as Stetson-wearing Bob Falfa. Bill L Norton was the director, which probably didn’t help any (he later made the extraordinary Baby: Secret of the Lost Legend). The same year saw the forlorn Butch and Sundance: The Early Years, while Exorcist II: The Heretic killed thatfranchise for another decade two years before. The prized and profitable sequel would only truly become a thing the following year, when Lucas first ongoing cash cow was released. And with a woke Willow (TV) sequel coming down the pipe, how long before we get THX1139? What’s that? We’re living in it?



Popular posts from this blog

I’m smarter than a beaver.

Prey (2022) (SPOILERS) If nothing else, I have to respect Dan Trachtenberg’s cynical pragmatism. How do I not only get a project off the ground, but fast-tracked as well? I know, a woke Predator movie! Woke Disney won’t be able to resist! And so, it comes to pass. Luckily for Prey , it gets to bypass cinemas and so the same sorry fate of Lightyear . Less fortunately, it’s a patience-testing snook cocking at historicity (or at least, assumed historicity), in which a young, pint-sized Comanche girl who wishes to hunt and fish – and doubtless shoot to boot – with the big boys gets to take on a Predator and make mincemeat of him. Well, of course , she does. She’s a girl, innit?

Just because you are a character doesn't mean that you have character.

Pulp Fiction (1994) (SPOILERS) From a UK perspective, Pulp Fiction ’s success seemed like a fait accompli; Reservoir Dogs had gone beyond the mere cult item it was Stateside and impacted mainstream culture itself (hard to believe now that it was once banned on home video); it was a case of Tarantino filling a gap in the market no one knew was there until he drew attention to it (and which quickly became over-saturated with pale imitators subsequently). Where his debut was a grower, Pulp Fiction hit the ground running, an instant critical and commercial success (it won the Palme d’Or four months before its release), only made cooler by being robbed of the Best Picture Oscar by Forrest Gump . And unlike some famously-cited should-have-beens, Tarantino’s masterpiece really did deserve it.

I’m the famous comedian, Arnold Braunschweiger.

Last Action Hero (1993) (SPOILERS) Make no mistake, Last Action Hero is a mess. But even as a mess, it might be more interesting than any other movie Arnie made during that decade, perhaps even in his entire career. Hellzapoppin’ (after the 1941 picture, itself based on a Broadway revue) has virtually become an adjective to describe films that comment upon their own artifice, break the fourth wall, and generally disrespect the convention of suspending disbelief in the fictions we see parading across the screen. It was fairly audacious, some would say foolish, of Arnie to attempt something of that nature at this point in his career, which was at its peak, rather than playing it safe. That he stumbled profoundly, emphatically so since he went up against the behemoth that is Jurassic Park (slotted in after the fact to open first), should not blind one to the considerable merits of his ultimate, and final, really, attempt to experiment with the limits of his screen persona.

Everyone creates the thing they dread.

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) (SPOILERS) Avengers: Age of Ultron ’s problem isn’t one of lack. It benefits from a solid central plot. It features a host of standout scenes and set pieces. It hands (most of) its characters strong defining moments. It doesn’t even suffer now the “wow” factor of seeing the team together for the first time has subsided. Its problem is that it’s too encumbered. Maybe its asking to much of a director to effectively martial the many different elements required by an ensemble superhero movie such as this, yet Joss Whedon’s predecessor feels positively lean in comparison. Part of this is simply down to the demands of the vaster Marvel franchise machine. Seeds are laid for Captain America: Civil War , Infinity Wars I & II , Black Panther and Thor: Ragnarok . It feels like several spinning plates too many. Such activity occasionally became over-intrusive on previous occasions ( Iron Man II ), but there are points in Age of Ultron whe

Death to Bill and Ted!

Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991) (SPOILERS) The game of how few sequels are actually better than the original is so well worn, it was old when Scream 2 made a major meta thing out of it (and it wasn’t). Bill & Ted Go to Hell , as Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey was originally called, is one such, not that Excellent Adventure is anything to be sneezed at, but this one’s more confident, even more playful, more assured and more smartly stupid. And in Peter Hewitt it has a director with a much more overt and fittingly cartoonish style than the amiably pedestrian Stephen Herrick. Evil Bill : First, we totally kill Bill and Ted. Evil Ted : Then we take over their lives. My recollection of the picture’s general consensus was that it surpassed the sleeper hit original, but Rotten Tomatoes’ review aggregator suggests a less universal response. And, while it didn’t rock any oceans at the box office, Bogus Journey and Point Break did quite nicely for Keanu Reev

Poetry in translation is like taking a shower with a raincoat on.

Paterson (2016) (SPOILERS) Spoiling a movie where nothing much happens is difficult, but I tend to put the tag on in a cautionary sense much of the time. Paterson is Jim Jarmusch at his most inert and ambient but also his most rewardingly meditative. Paterson (Adam Driver), a bus driver and modest poet living in Paterson, New Jersey, is a stoic in a fundamental sense, and if he has a character arc of any description, which he doesn’t really, it’s the realisation that is what he is. Jarmusch’s picture is absent major conflict or drama; the most significant episodes feature Paterson’s bus breaking down, the English bull terrier Marvin – whom Paterson doesn’t care for but girlfriend Laura (Golshifteh Farahani) dotes on – destroying his book of poetry, and an altercation at the local bar involving a gun that turns out to be a water pistol. And Paterson takes it all in his stride, genial to the last, even the ruination of his most earnest, devoted work (the only disappoint

If you ride like lightning, you're going to crash like thunder.

The Place Beyond the Pines (2012) (SPOILERS) There’s something daringly perverse about the attempt to weave a serious-minded, generation-spanning saga from the hare-brained premise of The Place Beyond the Pines . When he learns he is a daddy, a fairground stunt biker turns bank robber in order to provide for his family. It’s the kind of “only-in-Hollywood” fantasy premise you might expect from a system that unleashed Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man and Point Break on the world. But this is an indie-minded movie from the director of the acclaimed Blue Valentine ; it demands respect and earnest appraisal. Unfortunately it never recovers from the abject silliness of the set-up. The picture is littered with piecemeal characters and scenarios. There’s a hope that maybe the big themes will even out the rocky terrain but in the end it’s because of this overreaching ambition that the film ends up so undernourished. The inspiration for the movie

This entire edifice you see around you, built on jute.

Jeeves and Wooster 3.3: Cyril and the Broadway Musical  (aka Introduction on Broadway) Well, that’s a relief. After a couple of middling episodes, the third season bounces right back, and that's despite Bertie continuing his transatlantic trip. Clive Exton once again plunders  Carry On, Jeeves  but this time blends it with a tale from  The Inimitable Jeeves  for the brightest spots, as Cyril Basington-Basington (a sublimely drippy Nicholas Hewetson) pursues his stage career against Aunt Agatha's wishes.

I think it’s pretty clear whose side the Lord’s on, Barrington.

Monte Carlo or Bust aka  Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies (1969) (SPOILERS) Ken Annakin’s semi-sequel to Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines tends to be rather maligned, usually compared negatively to its more famous predecessor. Which makes me rather wonder if those expressing said opinion have ever taken the time to scrutinise them side by side. Or watch them back to back (which would be more sensible). Because Monte Carlo or Bust is by far the superior movie. Indeed, for all its imperfections and foibles (not least a performance from Tony Curtis requiring a taste for comic ham), I adore it. It’s probably the best wacky race movie there is, simply because each set of competitors, shamelessly exemplifying a different national stereotype (albeit there are two pairs of Brits, and a damsel in distress), are vibrant and cartoonish in the best sense. Albeit, it has to be admitted that, as far as said stereotypes go, Annakin’s home side win

Your Mickey Mouse is one big stupid dope!

Enemy Mine (1985) (SPOILERS) The essential dynamic of Enemy Mine – sworn enemies overcome their differences to become firm friends – was a well-ploughed one when it was made, such that it led to TV Tropes assuming, since edited, that it took its title from an existing phrase (Barry Longyear, author of the 1979 novella, made it up, inspired by the 1961 David Niven film The Best of Enemies ). The Film Yearbook Volume 5 opined that that Wolfgang Petersen’s picture “ lacks the gritty sauciness of Hell in the Pacific”; John Boorman’s WWII film stranded Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune on a desert island and had them first duking it out before becoming reluctant bedfellows. Perhaps germanely, both movies were box office flops.