George Lucas

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Pauline Kael

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Using women (and not only women) as plot functions may be a clue to the shallowness of many movies, even of much better movies—American Graffiti, for example. The audience at American Graffiti appears to be ecstatically happy condescending toward its own past—how cute we were at seventeen, how funny, how lost—but for women the end of the picture is a cold slap. Set in 1962, American Graffiti compresses into one night the events from high school graduation to the opening of college in the fall. At the close, it jumps to the present and wraps up the fates of the four principal male characters—as if lives were set ten years after high school!—and it ignores the women characters. This is one of those bizarre omissions that tell you what really goes on in men filmmakers' heads and what women—who are now, for the first time in movie history, half the moviegoing audience—bitterly (or unconsciously) swallow. (p. 193)

Because of the energy of the performers, Laurie and Carol stay in the memory more vividly than the boys, but that chilling omission at the end is indicative of the limited male imagination of the picture. I don't think the director, George Lucas, who also worked on the script, ever wondered whether Laurie, who wants her boy-man Steve so fiercely and wants nothing else, could sustain the giving over of herself or whether her intensity would sour into neurosis. Was Steve really enough for her, and could he stand being her everything? These questions arise because of the shrill vibes in Cindy Williams' performance, not because of the context; the garish, overdrawn blond swinger Debbie (Candy Clark), who comes out of the comic strips, is probably meant to be as believable as Laurie. The facile wrap-up of the men's lives (so like the brisk, neat finishes of old movies—everything in place) is consistent with the naïve seriousness of the film which audiences find so appealing. I like the look of American Graffiti, and the feel of it. Lucas has a sensual understanding of film …, Lucas is a real filmmaker. But American Graffiti fails to be anything more than a warm, nice, draggy comedy, because there's nothing to back up the style. The images aren't as visually striking as they would be if only there were a mind at work behind them; the movie has no resonance except from the jukebox sound and the eerie, nocturnal jukebox look. And I don't like the pop narcissism of it—the way it invites the audience to share in a fond, jokey view of its own adolescence. (pp. 193-94)

The audiences allow the fifties jukebox tunes on the track to define their early lives for them. I think they can laugh so easily because the shared recognitions are all external; it's the giggle you get from looking at a false image of yourself. Though done with style, this is fake folk art, and the kids are stock characters. (p. 194)

[The protagonists of American Graffiti] don't know what they want; they're searching. The girls … want nothing but men. I raise this point not to make a feminist issue of it (though that's implicit) but to make an aesthetic one: mechanical people, including searching young men, are a blight on the movies—evidence that the filmmakers aren't thinking freshly, that they're resorting to the stockpile. (p. 195)

Pauline Kael, "Un-People" (originally published in The New Yorker, Vol. XLIX, No. 36, October 29, 1973), in her Reeling (copyright © 1973 by Pauline Kael; reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company in association with the Atlantic Monthly Press), Atlantic-Little, Brown, 1976, pp. 263-70.∗

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Michael Dempsey