George Lucas Michael Dempsey - Essay

Michael Dempsey

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In American Graffiti] Lucas and his fellow writers, Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck, manage to be serious without portentous symbolism or heavy underlining. They slip on an end title which they should have let the audience write for itself but, otherwise, their poise is flawless; the car crash at the end, to take the most obvious example, has not been inflated into an apocalypse. Despite its crowded sound track and its mesmerizing flow of images, American Graffiti is a low-keyed, unpretentious movie. Yet it cuts to the heart of something serious and entangling in American life….

Lucas has been amazingly thorough and technically dazzling in conjuring up this "last year of the fifties." Except for the final two sequences, the whole movie takes place after dark. Aided by his creative cast and camera crews supervised by Haskell Wexler, Lucas has spliced bits of San Francisco, San Rafael, and Petaluma into a ghost-dancing, iridescent nightgown, a galaxy of pranks, games, thrills, and lights through which the gaudy cars weave and cruise like phantoms. Maybe, after THX 1138, locking us into enclosed worlds is turning out to be a Lucas specialty, but American Graffiti has no trace of the earlier film's tired ideas and visual clichés out of tritely doom-laden student epics. It captures the humor and verve of youth that can, at least briefly, transform pop-schlock trash into an amusing, stylish constellation of codes and rituals. At the same time, it also finds some surprising emotions lurking behind them: each characterization catches us off guard with unexpected quirks and depths…. American Graffiti is not just a checklist of fifties memorabilia; it uses them to recapture the attitudes of the period, particularly the innocence that Vietnam, Oswald, hard drugs, birth-control pills,...

(The entire section is 755 words.)