George Lucas

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Stanley Kauffmann

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[When artists use their young years as subject matter,] they have to prove that their young years can be fascinating to others. Broadly speaking, there are only two ways to do this: by showing that your young years were extraordinary or by finding depth and form that illuminate and preserve the commonplace. (p. 218)

George Lucas has tried for the latter. He has taken some familiar bull right by the horns and has wrestled it into a reasonably good film. A couple of years ago … Lucas made a "future" film called THX 1138 in which he lavished impressive cinematic skills on material so trite that he made me feel he had "an arrogance toward the need to have a fresh idea" [see excerpt above]. This new script—by himself, Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck—still has no new ideas as such. But working close to what is apparently his own youthful experience, Lucas has so integrated methods and material that he finds some of the depth and form mentioned above; and, to some degree, he transforms the banalities of TV situation comedy into a small epiphany of a period. (pp. 218-19)

But the story is not the film—only its means of coming into being. (Which is what Lucas attempted, less successfully, in THX 1138.) The weakest parts are those that try to beef up the script, in plot and literary "theme" terms, like the mysterious blonde in a white T-bird who weaves symbolically through the film taunting one of the boys…. [The] pleasures of the picture are in the way it was made. There is no mere springboard of accurate decor, as in Summer of '42, which got all its details right, then wallowed ahead into syrup: the milieu, so to speak, is this film, or what is best about it.

Lucas has picked a moving medium for a moving picture. Most of it—seemingly—takes place in and around cruising automobiles in the town streets. (p. 219)

This mobility is of course fit for film, and it's an easy, figure of sexual exploration and of social rite of passage—passage—to maturity. From dusk to dawn, yet. But Lucas sees the automobile as the focus of other cultural implications: the broadcast music of the time, the eating of the time (driveins, with waitresses on roller skates), even the hoodlumism of the time. When some not-so-juvenile delinquents want to scare one of the boys, what do they do? They take him for a ride!

So we see a group of late adolescents pinned to a target for cultural barrage. The drive-in food has funny names ("a double Chubby Chuck") that seem to feed them as much as the food itself. They are followed everywhere by the voice of a disc jockey whom they adore. (And he's a black man. When one boy goes to see him at his lonely early-morning studio, he denies his identity, saying that he's only the broadcaster of tapes. Lucas implies that it's not yet time for a black deity to reveal himself.) And of course there's the force of the movies themselves, who modeled the gang of hoods and the styles of kissing and romance.

As the picture floated and intertwined, it reminded me of Twyla Tharp's recent ballet Deuce Coupe—the phrase occurs in the dialogue—which used early '60s music from one of the same sources, the Beach Boys. The more it resembles ballet, the better American Graffiti is. The more it tries to delve into character and build climaxes (like an unbelievable prank on a police car), the thinner and more sitcom it gets.

Haskell Wexler, the accomplished cinematographer who was "visual consultant" on the film, saw the need for realistic abstraction. For instance an all-night stand called Mel's Drive-in is an oval neon temple with suggestions of the War Room in Dr. Strangelove. When American Graffiti concentrates like this, on being what it's about, it succeeds. (pp. 219-20)

Stanley Kauffmann, "'American Graffiti'" (originally published in The New Republic, Vol. 169, No. 11, September 15, 1973), in his Living Images: Film Comment and Criticism (copyright © 1971, 1972, 1973, 1974 by Stanley Kauffmann; reprinted by permission of Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.), Harper, 1975, pp. 218-20.

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Stanley Kauffmann


Michael Dempsey