Where were you in ’73?
August 11, 1973, to be specific? I wasn’t alive, but just because I wasn’t there on opening night doesn’t mean I can’t celebrate the 40th birthday of American Graffiti, which hit theaters on that date*. Just the same, it doesn’t matter that I can’t really answer the film’s tagline of “Where were you in ’62?” George Lucas‘s nostalgic teen movie is as classic as the cars that appear in it, and that’s because it resonates for viewers of all ages and all eras. Maybe we didn’t grow up on the same music and meet up at the same kind of hangout as Mel’s Drive-In, but we can all find something familiar in this multi-narrative feature. It’s no wonder Richard Linklater’s own nostalgic ensemble teen movie, Dazed and Confused, is so similar to Lucas’s. Teen life hadn’t changed all that much in 14 years. Nor is it all that different after 51 years.
It’s kind of strange to think about how American Graffiti was set only 11 years before its release. We’re quickly nostalgic today, but that was a pretty quick turnaround for audiences to get so sentimental about the culture of a decade prior. It’d be like us getting a deeply nostalgic movie about 2002 now. Yet 1962 probably felt more like an eon ago to people in 1973. The characters in the movie haven’t been through the JFK assassination yet, let alone RFK and MLK, they haven’t seen the worst of Vietnam or the rise of the ’60s counterculture or Watergate or the Moon landing or the Civil Rights Act or… Basically, Americans’ whole world changed. For us today, it’d be more like getting a deeply nostalgic movie set a year before 9/11.
Of course, we don’t have to think about all that during most of the movie, which is pretty light in tone (that’s sort of the point), only really being reminded of at least the war with the end credits epilogue text. Below we’ve selected six favorite scenes, all of which represent this innocent (albeit mischief-filled) period.
Toad Crashes His Vespa
The whole opening sequence with Bill Haley and the Comets playing over the credits is pretty lovable, but I’m going to skip all the introductions and just focus on Terry “The Toad”/”The Tiger” crashing his scooter into Mel’s. Apparently it was an accidental crash by Charles Martin Smith but Lucas kept rolling because it was so perfect for the character. It is kind of strange that Steve (Ron Howard) still decides to trust Toad with his car after witnessing this, though.
While the movie earned a handful of Oscar nominations, only one was in an acting category (Candy Clark for Best Supporting Actress). Cindy Williams should have received one, too, and the scene of her slow dancing with Ron Howard is one of the best reasons why. Her character, Laurie, is pissed at Steve for saying he thinks they should see other people while separated once he leaves for college in the morning. But they’re forced together for a “snowball dance” as everyone watches. They have to feign love and happiness while quietly Laurie gives Steve the business, stressing what a cowardly wimp he is before her anger turns to sadness and she almost seems like she’d forgive him if he takes the idea back. But Steve is so oblivious. And man, what an idiot, because Williams is incredibly adorable in this movie. It’s weird to think she went from this to The Conversation in a year.
Shit-Talking Between Milner and Falfa
There are plenty of great scenes of the plot involving John Milner (Paul Le Mat) and Carol (little Mackenzie Phillips), such as the moment they meet and the moment they part ways, and of course I could have included the drag race between Milner and Bob Falfa (Harrison Ford). But all you really need is the best scene that combines both relationships. After looking for Milner all night, Falfa finally catches up with the yellow hot rod to put the pressure on for a rumble of the road. The shit-talking commences as they throw jabs at each other’s vehicles, and then Carol chimes in with, “your car is uglier than I am!” and then quickly realizes, “that didn’t come out right.” It’s a line and delivery that’s funny and sweet and says so much about Carol’s character.
Every scene with Candy Clark is a delight, especially because she’s always with Charles Martin Smith, who is also always a delight. So, let’s look at her first scene, when Debbie and Terry meet, and he tells her he’s called “Tiger” rather than “Toad.” He definitely has more courage than Steve in spite of his reputation, but he’s also still so endearingly awkward. I love how he keeps trying to correct himself from coming off sleazy with innuendo when he just means to tell Debbie that she can feel his upholstery. First of all, there’s no way the spacey blonde heard the lines as being dirty, and second of all, maybe she would have if she had. And that would be bad, because it’s cuter that they take it slowly over the course of the night.
I didn’t see American Graffiti — well, not the whole thing — until after I’d seen Dazed and Confused, and that includes the liquor store scene that clearly influenced the one in Linklater’s film. There’s a weird meme I found while trying to find a clip of this bit where people superimpose their head over Charles Martin Smith’s. It’s weird. Just search for “American Graffiti liquor store.” Meanwhile, it’s a shame this video doesn’t have the whole thing including the bum and the robber.
Curt’s Initiation Into The Pharaohs
As Curt, Richard Dreyfuss‘s storyline — mainly his search for Suzanne Somers — is at first a bit of a bore. Then he meets The Pharaohs and the fun begins. Curt just doesn’t care about anything as he goes through the night contemplating not going off to school, so it’s not that surprising he’s so nonchalant about his options with the greaser gang being two evils: either get dragged through the streets by a car or play a big prank on the cops. Now, many of us did some stupid things as teens where an immature act turns into real trouble, but the damage done to the police car here is on a whole other level. That’s some Hal Needham style vehicular slapstick right there.
Even if he was limited to being just a vocal cameo, Wolfman Jack would still be a major part of this movie, if only because the music is so very significant as not just being a nondiegetic soundtrack. Featuring the famous DJ’s gravelly voice between tunes is a perfect device to pull us even more into the story and the period. It’s neat that when he does appear towards the end that the character of Wolfman Jack tries to say he’s not himself. I wonder how many viewers wouldn’t have known his face enough to know he’s lying before it’s revealed that he’s lying. My favorite thing about his scene, though, even more than how he gets to be that conventional out-of-nowhere advice giver, is the melting popsicles. Narratively they appear to have no purpose, just a random eccentricity of character that maybe even the Wolfman added himself (his line about them being “stick mothers” is said to be improvised at least). Some analysis has been offered, however, that “popsicle” stands for “pop-cycle” (see Stephen Paul Miller’s book “The Seventies Now”) and therefore is key to the whole film’s treatment of the American culture of the past.
* Correction: American Graffiti debuted in limited release on August 1, 1973, in Los Angeles and New York. It went wider on August 11.