The 30 Second Ending Makes The Movie.
It’s hard to make sense of how to digest this film.
American Film Institute’s Ranking: #77/100
Awards: Nominated for five academy awards.
Well, this is weird.
For two hours, I thought George Lucas’s American Graffiti was a bit flat; you have to do better than just capture an era and have a good soundtrack to be must see cinema. Set on the last day before everyone is meant to diverge, a group of teenangers spend the last night of Summer vacation in an intertwining adventure. The problem was none of it seemed important.
That is until the very closing segment, a 30 second epilogue that shows the final outcome of the main characters.
The previous night transforms from a bunch of coming of age tropes into events that dictate the rest of their lives. It’s no longer about drag races and cherry bombs but life and death. I’m not sure if it’s enough to save the movie, but it hit me hard and made me think: the “last time” is usually mundane and hard to recognize.
In 1960 small town California, it’s the last day of Summer vacation. Curt and Steve (Richard Dreyfus and Ron Howard) leave for college tomorrow. Steve’s all in. Curt is starting to get cold feet. They meet their other two friends at a diner: Toad, a complete nerd, and John the drag-racing champ.
Steve leaves his nice car with Toad and tries to convince his girlfriend that they should stay together while he’s at college…but still be able to see other people. She obviously gets pissed, and this fight continues for the rest of the evening.
Curt ends up locking eyes with a beautiful lady in a white Ford Thunderbrid and spends the rest of the night trying to find her. Instead, he ends up committing several acts of crime.
Toad uses Steve’s car to attract the attention of a lady friend. While initially very successful, he can’t keep up with all the macho lies he’s told her.
John cruises the strip trying to pick up girls but instead ends up baby sitting someone’s younger sister. Bob Falfa (Harrison Ford) is an out of towner who wants to race the champ. Eventually the two meet and agree to a showdown at sunrise.
[ANALYSIS WITH SPOILERS]
The movie is about nostalgia. All the characters are different forms of Lucas’s youth: Toad when he was nerdy and unsociable; John when he wanted to drag race; Curt when he was going off to college. The setting is a pastiche with the clothes, cars, and music all meant to remind people of a time lost to history. The soundtrack boasts 40 tracks as the radio is more of a character than some of the actual actors.
The genre is a bittersweet comedy. We are meant to laugh at Toad’s social awkwardness or Steve’s 18 year-old egotism. While there are moments that are humorous, nothing is ever laugh out loud funny which is my biggest problem with the film. I’m not sure where the entertainment factor is supposed to be for someone born in the 80s — the plot is the typical coming of age, the jokes aren’t funny enough, and the plot isn’t intriguing.
It relies so much on that nostalgic factor. Checking out the youtube videos about the movie, all the comments are people in the twilight years reminiscing about the good ol’ times:
Particle Boy: “Saw ‘American Graffiti’ for the first time at a drive-in with my family one hot summer night in 1973 and knew instantly I was watching greatness, something that would be enjoyed and discussed decades in the future. And now here we are. Thank you all for the wonderful memories, memories that keep on giving.”
So what does that leave for the rest of us who can’t lean so heavily on a time period throw back?
I’m not sure, because I wasn’t all that thrilled until the last thirty seconds.
In the final moments Curt flies off without Steven, Toad, and John with an epilogue showing the characters’ ultimate fates. Curt flees to Canada to become a writer. Steven stays in Modesta for the rest of his life and becomes an insurance agent. John is killed by a drunk driver. Toad becomes MIA at Vietnam.
This changed everything for me.
The movie was no longer about pastiche or sentimental feelings. The gravity of the choices from this night become very real.
Steve was roped back into small-town life because of a relationship with a girl. He was to never leave again. It was no longer about a boy begin too attached to his hometown and afraid to take risks; it became the trajectory of his life.
When John races Bob to defend his supremacy, he’s saved by a freak tire blow out. Toad tries to convince John that he had him the whole way, but John knows better: he lost that race, and his confidence is shattered. You picture him driving around town on the strip, a shell of his cocky self, before he meets his untimely end.
Toad is the butt of all the jokes, but he’s the one that ends up dying in service. It’s too unfair. He was never valued by anyone. His reward? An army casualty.
Then you have Curt. While originally not wanting to go East, he is the only one that escapes the centrifugal force of hometown. While it’s hard to know the full story, one gets the sense that he had the most positive outcome.
I wonder if I rewatched the film knowing the ending if things would take on a different significance. Seeing the tendrils that keep Steve in town would be much more serious knowing he never escapes them. Knowing that John’s end comes soon, I’d be celebrating his precious moments of false superiority full-knowing that I’m watching his apex.
The movie makes you turn the locus of focus inward. I couldn’t help but think of the “last” time I was with my friends. We normally think of these moments as easy to see, as if we know the moment everything has changed. Thinking back, I realize how untrue that is. While big events of tragedy or success send us down certain paths, there are plenty of mundane moments that accrue and dictate what we do.
There was a bar my friends and I frequented. When was the last time we all went? I can’t recall, but it wasn’t because something big happened. Instead, one by one, we all shifted our focus and patterns. A thousand different forces pulled us from one fabric and sowed us into separate ones.
With American Graffiti, you see this process played out but it only becomes real when you see how the tapestry finishes.
Hold out till the end and make up your mind then.
Other People’s Takes:
- Pop Culture Thoughts: “At the risk of sounding reductive, “American Graffiti” could easily be referred to as “Dazed and Confused” for the 1960s (although, it should be noted that despite being shot in 1962, the vibe is very much 1950s).”
- Licorice Rub: “There have only been a small number of hangout films over the course of cinema’s history. It’s difficult to abandon plot and trust that characters and setting will be able to carry a movie.”
- Nathan’s Insights: “Still it’s a possible small insight into what life was like for white teenage males in late 50s and early 60s might have been like cruising in your car down main street late on a Saturday night, a time that will never return.”