Fabulous '50s

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AMERICAN GRAFFITI

Directed by GEORGE LUCAS Screenplay by GEORGE LUCAS, GLORIA KATZ and WILLARK HUYCK

Small towns and the 1950s had this in common: many people wanted to get out of both. Then, at a safe distance of miles and years, a certain nostalgia began inching its way into memory like a balm. In recent years several entertainments have distilled that nostalgia—The Last Picture Show, for example, and the Broadway musical Grease. But none have had the vigor and precision of American Graffiti. This superb and singular film catches not only the charm and tribal energy of the teen-age 1950s but also the listlessness and the resignation that underscored it all like an incessant bass line in one of the rock-'n'-roll songs of the period.

The movie is cast in the mold of one of those teen-age escapade flicks with which American International Pictures used to stock the drive-ins during the late 1950s and the '60s. This allows Lucas to mock, carefully and compassionately, the conventions and stereotypes of a genre as well as a generation. All the details are here, from the do-whop music and lovingly customized cars to the slang, which hovered between Ivy League and street gang, and the clothes, which seemed, like the time, both shapeless and confining. Even the jokes come straight from AIP: "How'd you like a knuckle sandwich?" inquires a hood of a nervous, bespectacled sad sack outside the local hamburger drivein. "No, thanks," says the sad sack. "I'm waiting for a double Chubby Chuck."

Graffiti was shot in Techniscope, a wide-screen process that yields the authentic sandpaper grain of the AIP pictures, implying low budgets and quick takes. The vital difference is that Graffiti was photographed by Haskell Wexler, that most subtle and agile of cameramen. Most of the action takes place at night under harsh light and neon, a landscape that Wexler turns into extravagantly impressionistic honky-tonk images of glaring, insistent beauty.

Set in a small California town in 1962—the proper, if not the chronological, end of the 1950s—Graffiti provides a series of vignettes of the last night of summer. On the following day two of the local boys (Richard Dreyfuss and Ronny Howard) are set to leave for college. Howard and his girl (Cindy Williams) are surrogates for AIP's Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello, the straight-arrow guy and his girl, the latter a believer in early marriage and eternal obligation. Comic relief is provided by Charlie Martin Smith as the sad sack, and a glimpse into the classic cruising style by Paul Le Mat, who slides down the street in an unbeatable car, his hair in an unruffled d.a., his pack of Camels rolled in the sleeve of his T shirt. The greaser villains, led by Bo Hopkins, have the traditional approach to any problem in interpersonal relations: "Tie him to a car and drag him." The scenes between these young people and the girls they fall in with or fall for (notably Candy Clark and Mackenzie Phillips) are mostly funny, but they leave a lingering melancholy.

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