George Lucas

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[American Graffiti] imports more than mere nostalgia for a past: it explores the consequences of technology upon an age that still has the need to understand experience through a mixture of epic, myth, and romance patterns. American Graffiti's achievement—or near-achievement—is that it gives us a chance to satisfy this need, to find these patterns, in a mundane, all-too-familiar mechanized world.

The mythic land of American Graffiti is a country of city streets under the false day of relentless lights, of youths who live on wheels, where even the waitresses are on roller-skates and where all are electronically linked through the pulsating beat of their radios. The music (of the spheres?) is broadcast by Wolfman Jack, the mysterious surrogate god of this neon wasteland. Among its inhabitants are a few adults who are shadow figures, aliens briefly encountered with hostility or indifference by the true "citizens" of this country…. There is however an adult who remains ambiguous. She is the elusive blonde in the white Thunderbird, a woman who may be a prostitute or the wife of a jeweler, or both, or neither. Silently mouthing "I love you," she is a vision of beauty that Curt has seen through the double windows of the parallel cars. She is the dualistic symbol of romance and seduction, a figure of great appeal yet associated with societal decadence.

Defining the topography of this mythic country are the patterned streets of Modesto, California, which stretch into mazes of vibrating lines and harsh colors ending on one side at the wooded lake area where couples attempt to make love and where, as the story goes, the Goatman kills people. On the other side, however, a route extends beyond the boundaries of the country. It is Paradise Road, where two climactic actions occur; John Milner defeats the challenger from another town here, and Curt's last view of Modesto is of this road as his plane carries him away.

Within this closed "universe" moves John Milner, duck-tailed driver of a chopped and channeled '32 Ford, the fastest car in town. John is the epic hero of American Graffiti's society: he is the idealization of its code of conduct, the gloomy (because of his Beowulfian sense of his own impending doom) upholder of the "traditional" values of the high school set, the foremost of the Mel's Drive-In knights who, not unlike those of Arthur's Round Table, start out on their quests for adventure from the circular curbs of this Burger-and-Coke Camelot and return to recount their deeds, always accompanied and comforted by the omnipresent, seemingly omniscient voice of their local deity, Wolfman Jack. John's legs are too long for his torso, so that his walk is almost absurdly graceless; he cannot stand, but slouches against car fenders and walls, thumbs in pockets or belt loops. Only when he dons the "armor" of his squinting, visor-like hotrod coupe does he assume heroic proportions; like his literary antecedents, Milner is nothing unless encased in his battle dress. (pp. 47-8)

John cannot carry the entire burden of the hero in American Graffiti , however, because he is limited. He is capable of feats of derring-do only within the physical-social sphere of his "world." It remains for Curt, the anti-hero, whose consciousness increasingly includes more than John can comprehend, to reach beyond the apparent bounds toward a spiritual goal, symbolized by the woman in the Thunderbird. Curt is neither wholly within nor without the order: he drives a rickety Citroen, an obviously weak link to John's souped-up world. But despite the ambiguity of his relationship to the society, of...

(This entire section contains 1690 words.)

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which Curt alone seems aware, he is accepted and even esteemed by its members, as though they somehow sense his importance, as a kind of societalVates, a poet-prophet, to them. John is his rough but sincere friend; a former girl friend still has affection for him; even the "Pharoah Gang" members eventually solicit his companionship after first threatening to kill him.

John and Curt's adventures during the night differ essentially in that John, having long since passed all initiatory tests and having no further ambitions, needs nothing and learns nothing. For Curt, everything is preparatory: the high school hop merely amuses him and he leaves, while another member of the peer group, Steve, remains—an action foreshadowing the fate of the two characters which is so mechanically proclaimed in the "epilogue" of the film. Curt engineers and abrupt leave-taking from a former girl friend while Laurie entices Steve to stay behind; in league with the Pharoah gang, Curt sabotages a police car then tactfully rejects them; he talks face-to-face with Wolfman Jack while the rest speak of the disc jockey as another-worldly figure. Unlike Curt's destiny, John's is heroic in the society's terms because it is identifiable; Curt's "destiny" has some parallels with John's but is unheroic because it is beyond the society's ken.

Curt and John, then, are hero and anti-hero around whom the episodes leading to the climactic drag race and Curt's departure revolve. John's rescue of Toad from … two thugs, his preliminary race with Bob Falfa, the issuing of challenges and counter-challenges, and the encounter with the cop are trivial activities from an adult's point of view or perhaps from Curt's, but, given the values of the world as John knows them, the episodes take on significance and thereby qualify as epic-heroic actions. In this sense John is not unlike the western gunfighter caught in a time and place by his role, sensing his own doom and unable to escape it. Curt's actions against adult or alien "enemies," such as the cops and the Moose Lodge members, are significant within the order; but he recognizes the meaninglessness of those actions. Reinforcing the idea of triviality within the system is Toad, who, like the original braggadocio, dons armor for which he is unfit and parodies—and thus cheapens—the actions of the real hero. Furthermore, Toad's too-eager acceptance of an armor for which he is unsuited prepares the audience for the stark announcement of his death in the Vietnam War. (pp. 49-50)

Curt and John make parallel visits into areas which have meanings beyond those which the hero and the anti-hero have previously explored. These areas take on significance because Curt and John are not accompanied by music and because they cannot come into these places by car. Milner takes Carol to a dark salvage lot, the equivalent of the epic romance underworld, where they walk in the quiet unlit shadows as Milner points out the dented and crushed armors of past heroes. The scene bodes not only Milner's eventual death but also the death of the world which sustains him.

Curt, on the other hand, makes his visit to the radio tower where, if he does not experience an ethereal vision, he at least begins to understand what is amiss in his blacktopped world. Curt "climbs the mountain" in search of Wolfman Jack, the elusive and mysterious disc jockey god to whom all the young knights and their ladies respond and whose music provides the background for all the film's errant adventures. Curt hopes that Wolfman Jack will send a radio message which will put him in touch with the nameless blonde in the Thunderbird. The tower, unlike the salvage lot, is brightly lighted, making it easy for Curt to find its only inhabitant, a corpulent man sucking popsicles. He tells Curt that he is not Wolfman Jack but that he will do what he can to get the message to him. Then, between slurps on his popsicle, he off-handedly advises Curt to leave town. He also offers Curt a popsicle (the wafer of the electronic temple) which Curt, significantly, refuses. As Curt leaves, he overhears the fellow taping a Wolfman Jack commercial and thus learns what no one else in his group knows, viz., that the sticky-fingered man is the pop god of the air. Curt returns from the tower; and although his quest cannot be granted by the turntable deity, Curt will act on his advice, thereby freeing himself from the world in which John Milner is both hero and victim.

Curt's increasingly frantic search for the woman in the white Thunderbird is like the other episodes of the film in that it has meaning only in context, and even there only for Curt's heightened awareness. Given these conditions, she—or the ideal she represents for Curt—gradually acquires a mythic significance; she is the Holy Grail of King Arthur's Knights, the romantic Daisy of The Great Gatsby, the powerful ring of The Hobbit—all of which are associated with the collapse of a society. Thus, Curt's quest is less spectacular but ultimately more profound in its impact than John's adventures; Curt cannot attain the White Vision in Modesto, but he can leave the "world"; and when he does so, he sees from the airplane window that if he has not yet achieved the goal of his quest he is at least headed in the right direction, away from the neon nights of Modesto and toward the sun of a larger world.

Thus these gasoline-powered experiences become, as they are translated into time-honored patterns, more than graffiti, more than isolated adventures in nostalgia. In looking at the two protagonists, John the inner hero, gloomy with a half awareness that he epitomizes the values of a world he no longer can belong to or escape from, and Curt, the antihero who is able to leave John's world, we are painfully aware of the kind of society being explored in this film. The land of techno-youth is as depressing a nether world as one could imagine. But the meshing, valid or not, of this four-wheeled world with the patterns in which our ancestors once found dignity and meaning offers us a bit of sanity, allows us to fulfill that singular human need to find form where there appears to be none. (pp. 53, 54-5)

Alice Sodowsky, Roland Sodowsky, and Stephen Witte, "The Epic World of 'American Graffiti'," in Journal of Popular Film (copyright © 1975 by Sam L. Grogg, Jr., Michael T. Marsden, and John G. Nachbar), Vol. IV, No. 1, 1975, pp. 47-55.


Pauline Kael


Stanley Kauffmann