Every once in a while, Netflix gets it right and they actually add a movie that I want to watch. Imagine my joy when I stumbled across one of my all-time favorite movies, George Lucas’s 1973 hit American Graffiti.
Where do I begin? The cast?
Ron Howard, six months before he would debut as Richie Cunningham on Happy Days. Cindy Williams 3 years before she became the infamous Shirley on Laverne and Shirley. Richard Dreyfuss. Mackenzie Phillips, Suzanne Somers, and Harrison Ford were all in their first big role. Add to the mix Wolfman Jack and you have a heluva cast.
John Milner’s chopped ’32 Ford Standard coupe. Bob Falfa’s (Ford) badass ’55 Chevy Belair. The mysterious ’56 Silver Thunderbird with the porthole windows driven by Somers. Steve Bolander’s (Howard) cherry ’58 Impala. Oh man, for a Detroit muscle buff such as myself, it is a veritable wet dream.
It is 1965 Modesto California. It is a typical Saturday night and the locals are blowing off steam. Typical of the time, looking “cool” was the law of the land and, given the puritanical nature of the time, there was not much else to do except ride around in cars, go to arcades and sock hops, and create a harmless ruckus while driving around. We are introduced to the players; the too-old-to-be-hanging-out-with-teenagers guy with the hot car who is always being challenged to race. The local young people that have menial 9-5’s and live for the weekend. Gangs, car clubs, and packs of teenage girls defying Daddy for a few hours. Add to the mix that this is no typical Saturday night for a small group of teens, for it is the eve of them leaving for college the next morning. Relationships are called into question(should we see other people?), feet are getting cold as one promising student is thinking of not going. They are all grappling with change and fear of what the future will hold. I won’t ruin the ending for you other than the inevitable drag race ends up altering the plans of two of them.
It is a wonderful character study about fear and uncertainty. Of the familiar and the question of whether it is better to be comfortable or to try something new. All against the backdrop of 1960’s America.
And there it is, that is what I love about the movie. The era.
I was born in 1965. A mere 3 years earlier my mom and dad were likely in a similar scene. My dad was a car fanatic and he belonged to a club. He was an amateur stock car driver. He was also a bit of a hellion with that fast Lincoln of his. Cruising the strip, bantering with other drivers with my mom under his arm is totally conceivable. My mom telling him to slow down, not get a ticket or into an accident, and to have her home before her father “grounds her” is also very believable. They lived the movie. The two of them could have been dropped into the set of that movie and nobody would have blinked. The guy in the white tee shirt with the Camels rolled into the sleeve? That was my dad. The girl in the Pencil dress and sensible shoes? That was my mom.
I often fantasize about being a teenager back then. While they may have thought that they were pushing the envelope, we now know that their version is pale compared to today. It can almost be considered tame and wholesome. But they didn’t know that.
They also didn’t know what would happen just a few short years later. Vietnam would escalate. Draft cards were coming. Parents and authority figures, particularly parents, became the enemy as generations clashed. People would be forced to tune in or drop out. EVERYTHING would change soon for the innocent, harmless locals.
But there is always the movie. A reminder of a better time. A more innocent time. A time that ceased to exist not long after. Oh yeah, did I mention the CARS?