I honestly can't tell you why I've avoided American Graffiti (1973) for as long as I have especially since my childhood was filled with Star Wars trilogy mania to the extent that I even devoured a George Lucas paperback biography in the early 80s. But as the only remaining unseen nominee from an unusually diverse and entertaining Best Picture Vintage (American Graffiti, Cries and Whispers, The Exorcist, The Sting, and A Touch of Class) I thought it was time. My assumption that a leisurely drive back into American nostalgia would be just the ticket for the Fourth of July holiday was correct. What surprised me was the drive itself, which "leisurely" does not accurately describe though modern sensibilities might describe the unrushed pacing in just that way.
America Graffiti spends a single night cruising with a group of friends and new acquaintances (a couple of whom, at least, have just graduated high school though the film is less clear on where the other characters stand in the age and education continuum). It's just any night but it's also not. Best friends Curt (Richard Dreyfuss, Golden Globe nominated for this performance) and Steve (Ron Howard), are due aboard a plane headed for college the next morning. But the road they and their friends travel isn't a straight shot, despite the frequent threat of drag race challenges. It's filled with detours, cul de sacs, snack breaks, and confusing cross, tail and headwinds fighting their course.
There are no convertibles to speak of in American Graffiti but you dont even have to be exposed and in motion to feel like the past and future are whipping your hair about and fighting for control of your vehicle, your life, your now. The main characters from hotshot drag racer John (Paul LeMat who won the now defuct "Promising Newcomer" Golden Globe for this performance), to cheerleader Laurie (Cindy Williams, BAFTA nominated for this performance), to best friends Curt and Steve... are visibly confused about the future and even their feelings about the past though they're hanging on, sometimes consciously, to its familiarity. Graffiti's screenplay and ensemble work is strong enough to even let the secondary characters in on this past/future action a bit too, in more subtextual ways.
The cinematography by Jan D'Alquen & Ron Eveslage (who according to IMDb never worked again after this???) with guidance from the legendary Haskell Wexler isn't particularly showy but it is complicated given the multiple light sources, reflections, moving vehicles, and dark of night. And it's sometimes beautiful, too. Since this series is about individual shots, we have to choose one. My runner up is this brief two-shot between Laurie and Bob Falfa played by Harrison Ford in a precise (and wonderfully telling) debut. I love the light of the passing cars, the reflections, and most of all the acting...
Laurie is angry with her boyfriend Steve and gets in Bob's car only to realize the vacuum of chemistry therein. She doesn't know why she's done this exactly. Bob is also less than smitten, and they're immediately rude to each other. To break the silence Bob comically croons "Some Enchanted Evening" in the way boys clown about to avoid discomfort. In a great comic beat Laurie scoots as far away from him as she can and it'd be even further if the car weren't in motion. Both actors absolutely nail the 'what am I doing here? will i always be doing this? what's next?' ambivalence in a comedic miniature way and what's beautiful about that is that it's the same effect, really, that the film and characters arcs are going for in a dramatic longform way. I even love the art director's touch of that hanging skull in Falfa's car. Maybe's it's a little on the nose for a film that trades so heavily on Fear of the Future and even (inelegantly) foretells death in its credit sequence but it's funny and character-specific.
But that choice, finally, felt too much like a choice based solely on which paragraph I wanted to write (funny how that happens in this series!) rather than a sound decision. Best Shots don't always come from Best Scenes but this time I'm siding with synergy. The best scene in the film, the one where the omnipresent golden-oldies soundtrack, direction, performance, editing, themes and cinematography all coalesce perfectly is at the high school dance the characters reluctantly drop in on despite having just graduated. Steve and Laurie, who have been arguing for the whole first half hour of the movie, are revealed to us to be basically the King & Queen of their high school and they're called up for a spotlight dance right in the middle of a very heated break-up. The scene is two whole minutes in length and every second is beautiful.
As they dance in circles under the blue spotlight we get, in brilliant miniature, the ebb and flow of their entire relationship from first date to first kiss to now, as their future looms -- they're not at all sure it's going to be a shared one.
The scene ends with a perfectly judged cut to a closeup as Laurie suddenly clings to Steve, tears in her eyes, wishing for her past to also be her future no matter how pissed she is at present. But since the ending to this absolute gem of a scene is more of a best cut, really, I'll select this image (above) from the middle of the sequence as its best shot. How perfect that the characters are looking in separate directions, that Laurie is driving the scene (as she does throughout despite Steve being the protagonist), that the "62" of their graduating class is lit up, and most of all that Laurie is shifting from angry historian to sentimental scrapbook artist of her own romance in the process of retelling it.
MORE GRAFFITI ?!
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