Last week, I saw a 35mil print showing of American Graffiti at the State Theater in Modesto, CA. The film takes place in Modesto, CA 1962. The film came out in 1973 and every year Modesto has a Graffiti celebration with classic cars, cruising down the main streets and a showing of the film.
It is great fun hearing locations and streets I have been around all my life mentioned in a famous film: G Street, McHenry, Turlock High School, Ceres Drive In, Modesto Junior College and Mel’s Diner (now a Velvet Creamery I think). Lucas is very famous in Modesto. Years ago, Modesto the begining of McHenry Ave was renamed George Lucas Plaza.
I love American Graffiti. But I think it is for reasons that go far beyond hometown pride.
In 1962, George Lucas crashed his Fiat in Modesto.
This car crash made him reevaluate his life in Modesto and eventually go to USC film school. “Where were you in ’62” was the slogan for the film. 1962 was obviously a very important year for Lucas but for the country at large it was the year before Kennedy was killed (Curt, played by Richard Dreyfuss, has a life goal of shaking Kennedy’s hand) and many teens were still basically innocent. Steve, played by Ron Howard, is reminded how timid he can be by Laurie, played by Cindy Williams, his girlfriend, (he was afraid to kiss her the first time), even as they are fighting because he is leaving for college and claims to want to date college girls and hot rodder Milner, played by Paul Le Mat, gets pre-teen Carol, played by Mackenzie Phillips!, to go home by making a pass at her and scaring her. Also in 62,and no less important to the film, rock and roll was blaring on the radios.
Lucas’ use of music is worth pointing out. The film is wall to wall songs being played on the radio. Sometimes in a way that seems to be direct sound, meaning when a character is inside the car, the music can be heard very well and when being at a distance from the car, the music is a bit hard to hear (usually, since filmmakers, buy songs to put in films, they are heard in all their glory but here songs trail off as people walk away from cars). Terry, the nerd character played by Charles Martin Smith, only notices the car he had parked is missing when he can no longer hear the radio. Sound is also used in a way that reflects character emotion
Steve and Laurie are at her final school dance. They are fighting about him leaving for college. She was prom queen so they are asked to do a spotlight dance. The band plays Smoke Gets in Your Eyes; the music is loud in the big auditorium (“I AM WITHOUT…WITHOUT MY LOVE”). Once Steve and Laurie dance for a bit and along reminiscing, the music gets quite, more intimate, the first hint that he will not go and they will end up together. As one can see from the lyrics I qouted, the songs themselves also reflect what characters are going through. When Curt accidentally sits on a Pharoah’s (a gang of local toughs) car “Aint that a shame” plays when Curt, from the backseat of a car, sees a girl in a white corvette mouth the words “I love you” to him, “Why do fools fall in love” plays.
This girl will be known through the film for her white corvette. Lucas loves machines. In Star Wars it is space ships in Graffiti is is cars. Graffiti is chock full of pretty shots of old cars. When Terry is given use of Steve’s car while he is away, he states “I will protect this car til death do us part.” Death looms over Milner because of his hot rodding ways (more on this in a bit) but what can he do, he has the fastest car around. He has to race.
Cars are a fetish in this film. When Debbie, a Connie Stevens lookalike played by Candy Clark, is spotted by Terry, who is driving Steve’s car, she only gets in because of the tuck and roll upolstery, she wants to touch it. Later when they make out in the back seat, she moans, “I just love tuck and roll upolstery.” When Terry is without his car, he cannot even get food at Mel’s Diner. All this being said about cars, unlike Star Wars, the heart of the film is its characters.
John Milner has the fastest car in town. He is being sought out by another driver, who thinks he is faster, throghout the film. A gas station attendant tells Milner, “You have been number one as long as I remember.”
But Milner is very aware that you cannot be number one forever. He takes Carol to a junkyard where a lot of old smashed up cars are. “I’ve been lucky enough to stay out of the graveyard.” he tells her. At the end of the film, he faces the other driver. He wins when the driver runs off the road but it is not a victory he wants. “He had me!! You saw it,” he protests. He knows if he continues to race, he will die (this is a truly tragic character) and a title card at the end of the film tells us he died in 1964, killed by a drunk driver. Lucas has said that Milner represents the part of him that loved cars and wanted to stay in town hot rodding, since that part of Lucas died, I guess Milner had to.
Terry represents Lucas before he had a car when he saw himself as something of an awkward geek, the guy most likely to get pantsed by someone. The geek, as I alluded to earlier, gets the girl in this film. Debbie is my favorite character (and not because I met Candy Clark during Graffiti week ten years ago) she is a bleach blonde willing girl, not really a bimbo (though she tends to believe the lies, about having two cars and horses, that Terry makes up to impress her). She just wants to have a good time.
“I bet you are smart enough to get us some brew,” she tells Terry at one point, leading to the films best comic moment as Terry gets beer during a store robbery. Debbie drinks with him; they miss around, and she stays with him as he loses the car and gets sick from drink, even asking for another date tomorrow night. Debbie is a reminder that willing girls are better for the world and uptight girls are mean.
Curt has a 2,000 dollar scholarship to go to USC, his character, Lucas says, represents the Lucas that left Modesto. Curt, for most of the movie, is looking for a reason to stay in Modesto, reluctant to leave friends behind. He listens, as does every main character, to the Wolfman Jack rock and roll show. Looking for advice and trying to shout out to the girl with the white corvette, he eventually seeks an audience with the Wolfman.
Wolfman Jack is still played on 97.5 in modesto. Kind of creepy to hear the old shows because Wolfman has been dead for almost 20 years. The Wolfman of the film is a myth (Star Wars was not the first time Lucas dealt with myth.). One character claims he is black and broadcasts from a plane. Another claims that he broadcasts from Mexico (that was true at the time BTW). In this film, he broadcasts in a remote part of Modesto. Curt locates him, finds out he is a not so young chubby guy (shades of the wizard in OZ). Wolfman does offer advance about going out and living though and shouts out to the girl in the corvette.
She is another character stepped in myth. Is she married like some people claim or a prostitute like others claim? Curt will likely never find out. She will remain a wonderful romantic notion:
A recent film was made about Modesto (The Janky Promoters featuring Ice Cube and Mike Epps and using the town as the butt of many jokes), and any of those telefilms involving Scott Peterson are also about Modesto cause he lived here. I met him once. But AG is the best representation of the town and my favorite representation of small town life. I simply love it.