American Graffiti is arguably George Lucas’ masterpiece, not necessarily because it’s any more or less culturally significant or cinematically innovative than Star Wars, but simply because it’s his most personal film. Here is a piece of his life, adapted into an ensemble piece that explores his own sense of nostalgia in a surprisingly bittersweet and grounded way. But that is not what makes American Graffiti such an immortal work of art, for there have been many directors who have made personal films that ring true to the artist but not the consumer. The true magic is how George Lucas makes his nostalgia ours, perfectly recreating the 1960s in style while anchoring it in a universal passage of life, the crux between adolescence and adulthood.
Nostalgia is like an old wound, one that leaves a permanent mark on us and sometimes still hurts. For a term so often described as a mournful longing for the past, it’s fascinating how our current culture’s reception to nostalgia is seen as a positive experience. In some sense, looking to the past might be more painful simply because it is our acknowledgement of the things that are absent today or the memory of things now done and finished. More often than not, that longing for something far off feels like the result of our minds sifting through the negative aspect, leaving only the most positive impressions. In the case of Lucas’s own film, his nostalgia plays a part in accurately recreating a time period that had been gone for the better part of a decade when the film was originally released in 1973.
Fascinatingly, film often acts as a way to preserve a time period or conserve a historical aesthetic in a tactile way that simply wasn’t possible before the silver screen. At the advent of film narrative itself was Birth of a Nation, a film that attempted to immortalize an incorrect telling of history, leading to the development of the melodramatic film, a genre that sought to reconcile just how we define the idea of nationalism through the dramatic structures of the home, the body, style, timing and the Manichean (that is, two opposing forces). Each of these have very loose definitions, applicable in many thematic ways. For example, in American Graffiti, the idea of melodramatic timing is symbolized by the inevitability that the sun will rise and end the final night of the summer, while the home is symbolized by Modesto itself and perhaps even Mel’s Diner, the hub for all the story’s activity.
By definition, imagery speaks in a different way than writing or even music. This means that the medium of film is the perfect vehicle to create a product that capitalizes on fostering a sense of nostalgia, to define a time period long left behind by bringing it back to life through sets, costumes, and sounds, immortalized on the film reel. But there is no feeling to that — and imagery is but a singular tool in the medium’s arsenal. Nostalgia, after all, is a personal sensation, born from our own memories. The tool needed to blend history and emotion — which is American Graffiti‘s secret recipe for universality — is perspective. Film recreates history not as an inherent universal retelling, but one that’s personalized through its characters and the author’s perspective on the material.
This could not be more true of American Graffiti, especially because Lucas takes the extra effort to allow his audience to acclimate to the story’s past setting — and how. One of Lucas’s defining strengths as an artist, aside from his intricate blending of theme and narrative, is his visual style. Lucas is so specific with his shots, the way they’re framed and what fills them, that every single frame is filled with both kinetic aestheticism and ingrained thematic material.
A fantastic example is the use of colors. John Milner’s car is the brightest of yellows, standing out from the muted palette of the other cars — but beneath the striking visual choice, Lucas is using his colors to deliver thematic meaning. Yellow is youthfulness, embodying Milner’s character, someone who would rather simply drive around aimlessly than finally grow up and leave for school. Even the exterior of Mel’s Diner — the story’s centerpiece location that acts like a hub for its four main characters and the young people of Modesto, California — is a pale shade very close to yellow. It contrasts nicely against the darkness of night, almost acting as a beacon or a light to lure insects. These visuals nicely blend in with the melodramatic tropes of style and even home, with Lucas combining the two as he recreates a bygone time period and imbues it with dramatic purpose for its characters.
Lucas’s use of nostalgia as a tool doesn’t end with his visual style — it extends perfectly to the film’s sonic sensibilities. A large part of why American Graffiti perfectly encapsulates its 1960s setting is the way it deploys music that was common and popular during the time period. True to Lucas’s innovative sensibilities as a director, the film is actually one of the first of its kind to utilize a massive soundtrack built solely from pre-produced records. It’s commonplace now, often utilized for this exact purpose, but it’s uncanny how Lucas predicted its success back in 1973. It’s a strange case of an art form deploying another art form to create its own textual identity — and in this case, it’s nostalgia in action, allowing Lucas to play on the senses in as many ways as the medium allows.
It’s important to establish the ways that Lucas successfully recreates the 1960s before delving into the plot, for the narrative of American Graffiti is the universal ingredient that allows Lucas’s own nostalgia to be intertwined with ours. In essence, the film is a simple coming-of-age story, broken up as four separate stories that intersect, intertwine, and intercommunicate with one another. There’s such an inherent appeal to a coming-of-age story, precisely because it’s the kind of life movement that we all experience. The action in American Graffiti takes place the night before several recent high school graduates are set to leave for college. For each of them, the night feels eternal — it’s the last vestige of a fledgling adolescence that some wish would remain forever and some are too eager to forsake. There’s a strikingly realistic quality to the way Lucas explores the apprehension of growing up, linking it to the college, a movement many of us take in our lives that acts as the jumping off point between the old ways of our life and the start of something adult and new.
The film’s overarching story is split up by four separate storylines, each following a different protagonist and their separate conflicts. In melodramatic terms, Lucas has split his individual experience as a teenager into four separate bodies in order to explore the thematic world he’s created. Curt Henderson (Richard Dreyfuss) finds himself stuck in an existential crisis after seeing a mysterious woman, setting him off on a journey to try and find out just who she is. Steve Bolander (Ron Howard) tries to break up with his girlfriend Laurie (Cindy Williams), under the pretense that their relationship will flounder now that he’s in college and she’s still in high school. Terry “The Toad” Fields (Charles Martin Smith) attempts to score when he meets the zany Debbie Dunham (Candy Clark) while driving about town in Steve’s car — of course, losing the car in the process. Lastly, John Milner (Paul Le Mat) drives about town in his yellow 1932 Ford Deuce Coupe hot rod, looking to try and race with Bob Falfa (Harrison Ford) while being saddled with Carol (Mackenzie Phillips), a twelve year old girl who somehow just knows all the right ways to irritate him. What’s delightful about each of these storylines is that they’re really quite simple stories, relatable because they mine experiences and situations any high school dreamer might find themselves in. As per usual, Lucas’s deft touch with his theme work is the glue that binds the elements together.
“Peel out. I just love it when guys peel out.”
Each story has their own individual takeaway, all lending towards the idea that growing up is inevitable and sometimes bittersweet. Of all the storylines, The Toad’s is possibly the slightest, but often the funniest. In a story where Lucas purposefully has every character driving one direction — to the left of the screen, often symbolizing a journey backwards — it’s only in The Toad’s story where we see him drive the opposite direction, when he makes the move to try and win over Debbie as she glumly walks down the street. The Toad, characterized by his nerdy mannerisms and awkward stature, does indeed win Debbie over in the end, even after a series of escapades involving a missing car. He’s trying to be more mature than he truly is, evidenced by the scene where he tries to persuade someone to buy him alcohol outside a gas stop, but there’s something about how Lucas chooses to show The Toad as the only one to drive the opposite direction as everyone else. Perhaps there’s merit to the bravado The Toad shows when he turns around to meet Debbie. He’s not matured fully, but that move is pivotal as he finds confidence, getting ready to finally be himself.
“We’re finally getting out of this turkey town, and now you wanna crawl back into your cell, right? You wanna end up like John? You just can’t stay seventeen forever.”
Speaking of relationships, Steve and Laurie’s relationship is another situation that feels typical of young relationships — the question of distance. Unlike most of the other characters in the story, Steve is completely ready to move to college, but at the expense of his girlfriend Laurie. His suggestion for them to see other people to “strengthen their relationship” is the least mature thing he could suggest between the two of them. It’s telling that Steven cannot bring himself to flat out breakup with Laurie, which leads to a series of arguments between the two. Lucas shows that Steve isn’t ready just yet. He wants to be grown up without ever having to actual make those tough decisions. It makes sense that Steven chooses to stay behind — after what he’s put Laurie through, it feels like the fair decision.
“Oh, that was beautiful, John. Just beautiful.”
“I was losing, man…”
John Milner’s story ably reflects Steve’s. Whereas Steve is prematurely trying to leave town, it’s made abundantly clear that John’s staying is only a weak attempt to avoid the inevitable. He drives around town in his prized car but never has a destination — all that driving, and he’s never got anywhere to go. The irony of his camaraderie with Carol is that he’s just as immature as she is, the major difference being that she’s only twelve years old. There’s two key sequences in John’s storyline that accurately sums up Lucas’s feelings towards trying to escape growing up. The first is when John goes to fill his car up with gas, and Lucas composes his frame to paint John in the loneliest light — empty gas stations, bright yet cold lights, and John standing alone, next to his yellow automobile. The second scene is perhaps the crux of the story at large, the moment that serves as a wakeup call for everyone. John’s race against Bob Falfa ends with Bob’s car flipping, flying off the road aflame. Lucas uses the fiery moment to remind the audience that no matter how fast we go, no matter how hard we try to outrun what’s ahead of us, we’ll eventually crash and burn.
“Someone wants me. Someone roaming the streets, wants ME… Will you turn the corner?”
As for the last story… Curt Henderson’s is the most special. It’s important that Curt is the only character who eventually makes a major change in his life, contrasting Steve’s decision to stay in Modesto but choosing to leave instead. Curt doesn’t want to grow up and doesn’t think he’s ready. But it is the simplest of things that entices Curt — a beautiful woman, riding in a car parallel to Curt. She gives him the most striking look, the kind that sets hearts ablaze. And just as soon as he sees her, she’s gone, driving off somewhere unknown.
Curt’s journey to try and discover who this woman might be is the very beating heart of what American Graffiti. This is where nostalgia gives away to a yearning for the future. There’s a deep beauty to how simple Curt’s desire is — she is, after all, just a woman. But Lucas lets Curt’s journey feel like the most important coming-of-age story by refusing to look down upon our hapless protagonist. Curt’s journey is special, and Lucas treats it as such.
The film’s seminal moment takes place in a phone booth at the end, as Curt breathlessly tells the woman, “You’re the most beautiful, exciting thing I’ve ever seen in my life and I don’t know anything about you.” These lines are immortal, Lucas showing that through all the pain and bittersweetness that marks both nostalgia and maturity, that our futures can be just as worthy as the memories we cling to of the past. Curt leaves Modesto, ready to embrace that idea.
That is what American Graffiti is all about. Lucas uses nostalgia to bring his audience into his own past, but never removes the pain associated with memories of the past. He imbues it expertly into separate coming-of-age stories — derived, no doubt, from his own childhood — that make good on Lucas’s innate ability to breathe dense thematic language into his stories. The most relevant of melodramatic tropes comes with the way Lucas makes time feel so important. The night will end, and life will move on — but will the characters have learned or will they remain in Modesto? It’s tempting to want to constantly look back at what came before us, whether or not we were a part of it. But American Graffiti argues that while growing up is inevitable, there are beautiful, exciting things out there that we know nothing about, just waiting for us to find them.