Skip to main content

I said, “Go kiss a duck”, marblehead.

American Graffiti

(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

Abandon selective targeting. Shoot everything.

28 Weeks Later (2007) (SPOILERS) The first five minutes of 28 Weeks Later are far and away the best part of this sequel, offering in quick succession a devastating moral quandary and a waking nightmare, immortalised on the screen. After that, while significantly more polished, Juan Carlos Fresnadillo reveals his concept to be altogether inferior to Danny Boyle and Alex Garland’s, falling back on the crutches of gore, nihilism, and disengaging and limiting shifts of focus between characters in whom one has little investment in the first place.

The Bible never said anything about amphetamines.

The Color of Money (1986) (SPOILERS) I tend to think it’s evident when Scorsese isn’t truly exercised by material. He can still invest every ounce of the technical acumen at his fingertips, and the results can dazzle on that level, but you don’t really feel the filmmaker in the film. Which, for one of his pictures to truly carry a wallop, you need to do. We’ve seen quite a few in such deficit in recent years, most often teaming with Leo. The Color of Money , however, is the first where it was out-and-out evident the subject matter wasn’t Marty’s bag. He needed it, desperately, to come off, but in the manner a tradesman who wants to keep getting jobs. This sequel to The Hustler doesn’t linger in the mind, however good it may be, moment by moment.

I said I had no family. I didn’t say I had an empty apartment.

The Apartment (1960) (SPOILERS) Billy Wilder’s romcom delivered the genre that rare Best Picture Oscar winner. Albeit, The Apartment amounts to a rather grim (now) PG-rated scenario, one rife with adultery, attempted suicide, prostitution of the soul and subjective thereof of the body. And yet, it’s also, finally, rather sweet, so salving the darker passages and evidencing the director’s expertly judged balancing act. Time Out ’s Tom Milne suggested the ending was a cop out (“ boy forgives girl and all’s well ”). But really, what other ending did the audience or central characters deserve?

If this were a hoax, would we have six dead men up on that mountain?

The X-Files 4.24: Gethsemane   Season Four is undoubtedly the point at which the duff arc episodes begin to amass, encroaching upon the decent ones for dominance. Fortunately, however, the season finale is a considerable improvement’s on Three’s, even if it’s a long way from the cliffhanger high of 2.25: Anasazi .

Your desecration of reality will not go unpunished.

2021-22 Best-of, Worst-of and Everything Else Besides The movies might be the most visible example of attempts to cling onto cultural remnants as the previous societal template clatters down the drain. It takes something people really want – unlike a Bond movie where he kicks the can – to suggest the model of yesteryear, one where a billion-dollar grosser was like sneezing. You can argue Spider-Man: No Way Home is replete with agendas of one sort or another, and that’s undoubtedly the case (that’s Hollywood), but crowding out any such extraneous elements (and they often are) is simply a consummate crowd-pleaser that taps into tangible nostalgia through its multiverse take. Of course, nostalgia for a mere seven years ago, for something you didn’t like anyway, is a symptom of how fraught these times have become.

You have a very angry family, sir.

Eternals (2021) (SPOILERS) It would be overstating the case to suggest Eternals is a pleasant surprise, but given the adverse harbingers surrounding it, it’s a much more serviceable – if bloated – and thematically intriguing picture than I’d expected. The signature motifs of director and honestly-not-billionaire’s-progeny Chloé Zhao are present, mostly amounting to attempts at Malick-lite gauzy natural light and naturalism at odds with the rigidly unnatural material. There’s woke to spare too, since this is something of a Kevin Feige Phase Four flagship, one that rather floundered, showcasing his designs for a nu-MCU. Nevertheless, Eternals manages to maintain interest despite some very variable performances, effects, and the usual retreat into standard tropes, come the final big showdown.

Captain, he who walks in fire will burn his feet.

The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973) (SPOILERS) Ray Harryhausen returns to the kind of unadulterated fantasy material that made Jason and the Argonauts such a success – swords & stop motion, if you like. In between, there were a couple of less successful efforts, HG Wells adaptation First Men in the Moon and The Valley of the Gwangi (which I considered the best thing ever as a kid: dinosaur walks into a cowboy movie). Harryhausen’s special-effects supremacy – in a for-hire capacity – had also been consummately eclipsed by Raquel Welch’s fur bikini in One Million Years B.C . The Golden Voyage of Sinbad follows the expected Dynamation template – blank-slate hero, memorable creatures, McGuffin quest – but in its considerable favour, it also boasts a villainous performance by nobody-at-the-time, on-the-cusp-of-greatness Tom Baker.

Doctors make the worst patients.

Coma (1978) (SPOILERS) Michael Crichton’s sophomore big-screen feature, and by some distance his best. Perhaps it’s simply that this a milieu known to him, or perhaps it’s that it’s very much aligned to the there-and-now and present, but Coma , despite the occasional lapse in this adaptation of colleague Robin Cook’s novel, is an effective, creepy, resonant thriller and then some. Crichton knows his subject, and it shows – the picture is confident and verisimilitudinous in a way none of his other directorial efforts are – and his low-key – some might say clinical – approach pays dividends. You might also call it prescient, but that would be to suggest its subject matter wasn’t immediately relevant then too.

I think it’s wonderful the way things are changing.

Driving Miss Daisy (1989) (SPOILERS) The meticulous slightness of Driving Miss Daisy is precisely the reason it proved so lauded, and also why it presented a prime Best Picture pick: a feel-good, social-conscience-led flick for audiences who might not normally spare your standard Hollywood dross a glance. One for those who appreciate the typical Judi Dench feature, basically. While I’m hesitant to get behind anything Spike Lee, as Hollywood’s self-appointed race-relations arbiter, spouts, this was a year when he actually did deliver the goods, a genuinely decent movie – definitely a rarity for Lee – addressing the issues head-on that Driving Miss Daisy approaches in softly-softly fashion, reversing gingerly towards with the brake lights on. That doesn’t necessarily mean Do the Right Thing ought to have won Best Picture (or even that it should have been nominated for the same), but it does go to emphasise the Oscars’ tendency towards the self-congratulatory rather than the provocat

You’re the pattern and the prototype for a whole new age of biological exploration.

The Fly II (1989) (SPOILERS) David Cronenberg was not, it seems, a fan of the sequel to his hit 1986 remake, and while it’s quite possible he was just being snobby about a movie that put genre staples above theme or innovation, he wasn’t alone. Fox had realised, post- Aliens , that SF properties were ripe for hasty follow ups, and indiscriminately mined a number of popular pictures to immediately diminishing returns during the period ( Cocoon , Predator ). Neither critics nor audiences were impressed. In the case of The Fly II , though, it would be unfair to label the movie as outright bad. It simply lacks that *idea* that would justify the cash-in.