American Graffiti, starring Richard Dreyfus, Ron Howard, Cindy Williams, Harrison Ford, Paul LeMat, directed by George Lucas, 1973
Recently in this space I have been deep in remembrances of the influences, great and small, of the 1950s “beats” on my own sorry teen-aged alienation and teen-aged angst (sometimes they were separate anguishes, sometimes tied together like inseparable twins, mostly the later) and the struggle to find my place in the sun, to write in bright lights my own beat plainsong. Of course, that influence was blown over me second-hand as I was just a little too young, or too wide-world unconscious, to be there at the creation, on those first roads west, those first fitfully car-driven, gas-fuelled, thumb hanging-out, sore-footed, free exploration west, in body and mind. That first great rush of the adrenal in trying to discover, eternally discover as it has turned out, the search for the meaning of the great blue-pink American West night. Ah, pioneer-boys, thanks.
I just got a whiff, a passing whiff of that electric-charged air, the sweet “be-bop”, bop-bop, real gone daddy, cooled-out, pipe-filled with whatever, jazz-sexed, high white note blown, howling in the wind plainsong afterglow. Moreover, somewhat tarnished, a little sullen and withdrawn, and media-used up by my time. More than one faux black chino-wearing, black beret’d, stringy-bearded, nightshade sun-glassed, pseudo-poetic-pounding, television-derived fakir crossed my path in Harvard Square in those high stakes early 1960s high school days. And a few real ones, as well. (A couple, whom I still pass occasionally, giving a quick nod to, have never given up the ghost and still haunt the old square looking for the long-gone, storied Hayes-Bickford, a place where the serious and the fakirs gathered in the late night before dawn hour to pour out their souls, via mouth or on paper). More to the point, I came to late to be able to settle comfortably into that anti-political world that the “beats” thrived in. Great political and social events were unfolding and I wanted in, feverishly wanted in, with both hands.
You know some of the beat leaders, the real ones, don’t you? Remembered, seemingly profusely remembered now, by every passing acquaintance with some specimen to present. Now merely photo-plastered, book wrote, college english department deconstruction’d , academic journal-debated, but then in full glory plaid shirt, white shirt, tee shirt, dungarees, chinos, sturdy foot-sore cosmic traveler shoes, visuals of heaven’s own angel bums, if there was a heaven and there were angels and if that locale needed bums.
Jack, million hungry word man-child sanctified, Lowell mills-etched and trapped and mother-fed, Jack Kerouac. Allen, om-om-om, bop, bop, mantra-man, mad Paterson-trapped, modern plainsong-poet-in-chief, Allen Ginsberg. William, sweet opium dream (or, maybe, not so sweet when the supply ran out), needle-driven, sardonic, ironic, chronic, Tangiers-trapped, Harvard man (finally, a useful one, oops, sorry), Williams S. Burroughs. Neal, wild word, wild gesture, out of ashcan all-America dream man, tire-kicking, oil-checking, gas-filling, zen master wheelman gluing the enterprise together, Neal Cassady. And a whirling crowd of others, including mad, street-wise, saint-gunsel, Gregory Corso. I am a little fuzzy these days on the genesis of my relationship to this crowd (although a reading of Ginsberg’s Howl was probably first in those frantic, high school, Harvard Square, poetry-pounding, guitar-strummed, existential word space, coffee, no sugar, I’ll have a refill, please, fugitive dream’d, coffeehouse-anchored days). This I know. I qualified, in triplicate, teen angst, teen alienation, teen luddite as a card-carrying member in those days.
That brings us to the film under review, American Graffiti, and its relationship to the birth of the search for the blue-pink great American West night promised to be discussed in the headline. Well, let me run through the plot line for those who are not familiar with idea behind the film, or are too young to have a clue as to such goings-on but might want to know what the old fogies, their parents or (ouch) grandparents were up to (or thought they were up to) back in the days, or are the peers of those 1960s baby-boomers enshrined in the film, but have forgotten a thing or two since they watched the thing in 1973 (another ouch).
The opening scene sets the whole film up. A very spiffy, well-dressed, well-scrubbed, well-mannered (mostly), middle class crew of 1962-era Southern California suburban valley kids with plenty of disposable income at hands, are gathering for one last tribal meeting before they go their separate ways in the great adult grind-it-out, eyes-straight-forward, shoulder-to-the-wheel, little boxes world at their main club house, Mel’s fast food drive-in (already I have lost the younger set on that last point, on the non-mall food court, drive-in thing, right?). How did they get to said gathering spot, you might ask? Come on now, this is wide open-spaced California suburban valley how else would they get there other that in their own personal “teen mobiles.” Jesus, do I have to tell you everything.
They come in one and twos, mainly, in some of the best-looking “boss” car (excuse my reversion to an old-time term for excellence, automobile division) that you will see these days outside of an automobile museum. And besides that, many of them, the cars that is, are “souped-up” (look that one up yourself), especially valley hot-rod-king of the hill, John (played by Paul LeMat), and his yellow (mustard yellow, wow, can you believe that?) little deuce coup (ditto on the look up). Here is the point though, the main point even in this pre-1960s rebellion period, none of the cars look anything like any parent would drive, or could drive (except the few dweeby cars borrowed for the evening from some plaint, or beaten-down, beaten down by teen argument parent). Yes indeed, this is a gathering of the California branch of “youth nation” in all their tribal finery.
As is to be expected of a teen-centered (amazingly teen-centered, adults get merely cameo appearances in this one, and that seems about right) drama the plot line thins out considerably after the flash at Mel’s. Mainly, it is about a single night’s search for the 1962 version of the California blue-pink night (more on this below). And what drives that search? Cruising, natch. Why spend the time and expense involved in a “boss” car (you know that word now, right?) if you don’t create a stir up and down the main drag boulevard looking for…. , you can easily fill in that blank yourself. The rest of the plot centers on such eternal questions as the young leaving home and hearth to face the great wide world (here to be or not to be a college freshman by stars Ron Howard, as Steve, and Richard Dreyfus, as Curt), the usual boy looking for girl thing (including by oldster hot-rod king, Johnny) that I have endlessly reported on elsewhere in this space and that is not worthy of comment in a teen film. What else could such a film be about? Teen break-ups (Howard and Cindy Williams, as Laurie), cruising, stopping at Mel’s for some car-hopped fast food, cruising, a little hot- rod duel ( between Johnny and, ah, one Harrison Ford) on those open California highways (what else are they for?), and then daylight and the rude old work-a-day world intrudes, even on sanctified teen life.
This is one time though that I do not do justice to a film with a summary because this thing is well-directed, well-produced, and well-acted by a crew of then very young unknowns (mostly) that would go on to all kinds of other cinematic successes (including hot-rod runner-up, ah, Ford). The sense of déjà vu for this Eastern U.S.-born baby-boomer, including a great high school dance segment and a soundtrack that reads out of every classic Oldies But Goodies compilation that I have ever reviewed, was palpable, without being maudlin. Kudos
So what connection can be drawn, one might rightly ask in a review of American Graffiti, a film that depicts a snapshot of a then respectable early 1960s coming-of-age teen-driven culture. With, by then, a respectable post-birth of rock and roll (cleaned up of the “bad boys” like Jerry Lee Lewis) soundtrack. That also pays homage to a then very respectable post-Great Depression Okie-Akie invasion middle class-driven suburban valley life-style, and its respectable (mostly) California teen “boss” car culture. And highlights a then respectable superficial teen angst (“do you like my finger nails painted in crimson red or rose red?”, “do you want Pepsi or Coke with your hamburger, hold the onions?”, or something along those lines) and the search for now respectably beatified “beat” culture great blue-pink American West night? A film which, moreover, has not the slightest reference to, nor can in any way be taken to have been produced under the under the sign of, the “beats.” Hell, not even a Maynard G. Krebs (from the old time media image of beatniks television show, Dobey Gillis) beatnik caricature in the lot. Nada.
The closest that any character comes is my boy John, “greaser”, deuce coup, hot rod-king-of- the-hill, and working class poet (limited lyric car poet, okay)/ existential philosopher. And he doesn’t count because he has been around since Hector was a pup, is seen as an eternal “townie” by his middle class brethren, and is a throwback to James Dean and Marlon Brando 1950s California cool. And those guys (I mean the characters they played in Rebel Without A Cause and The Wild One not them as personalities, they were cool, no question) weren’t beat, no way. Beside John’s angst, important but kind of universal as it is, for some dewy-eyed female teeny-bopper to sit next to him in that old jalopy as he cruises those great California valley night highways is not the stuff of tragedy. Not in my book anyway, and I also had more than my share of that kind of teen angst.
No, what this film connects to, and connects to visually in the first instance, is that great big old search for that pink-blue American Western night that the “beats”, at least what I think the beats were searching for when they were doing their breakout from the post- World War II American crank-out death machine night. The shift from the Eastern American dark night westward (mainly, although some of beats were already vanguard- hovering around San Francisco waiting for the boys to come off the roads from the east and establish what was what) serves as a metaphor for much of what they were up to, if only to breakout, a little, from the nine-to-five, waiting for the bomb (atomic bomb) to drop world. That visual sense is most dramatically highlighted in the very first opening shots of this film where the pink-blue sky forms the backdrop to the activity starting up at California teen-hang-out (and elsewhere as well, even stuffy old Boston), fast food drive-in, Mel’s drive-in (A&W, Adventure Car-Hop, Diary Queen, fill in your own named spot), central committee headquarters for valley California teen night. .
Wait, let me detail this a little more so there is no mistake. The film opens with the first few anxious California “boss” cars (you remember what that word means, right?), almost tear-provoking in this reviewer, because I rode in teen cars just like those, rolling into neon-sign lighted Mel’s(lights just turned on against the kitchen-backdrop dark night) just as the sun is going down. There is a big old sun-devouring red devil of a cloud flaming up in the background. That is NOT the part of the pink-blue night I am talking about. Below, just below, nearer the horizon is the one I am talking about, the symbol of the search, and the stuff of dreams, the great American blue-pink dream escape.
I can hear great yawns and see rolled eyes piercing through cyberspace as you say so what is the big deal about some foolish ephemeral passing cloud, blue-pink, pink-blue, or hell, blue-blue. Philistines! Go back now to Mel’s, or wherever the blue-pink sky announces the nights doings, the night’s promises or disappointments. Those promises or those disappointments, great or small, went to make up the birth of the search for the great American Western night, the night of our own circumscribed teen, kiddish break-outs, great or small.
Make no mistake it was not the morning, the morning of school or toil, paid or unpaid. It was not the lazy afternoon, the time of study or of the self-same toil, paid or unpaid (the unpaid kind thanked for or not, or to quote the universal parent god of the time done because we keep a roof over your head). It was the night, no the approach, the blue-pink approach of night that drove our maddened dreams, hopefully signaling good omen for the night’s work. The day was mere preclude to that tiny feverishly sought breakout (now a small thing seen, but not then). The telephoned arrangements, the groomed preparations, the gathering of the odd dollar here or there, in order to first cruise that teen empty highway and then on second pass the filling teen night.
Now do you see how the “beats”, those unnamed, unnamable, sub-consciously-embedded beats drove our bust-out dreams for travel, for adventure, for wine (later, dope),for women (or men) and for song, for shaking off the dust of the old town, great or small, as long as it moving elsewhere, and on a thumb pulled-out, hard-driven, shoe leather-beaten shod foot if need be.
American Graffiti is a snapshot of just exactly that minute, just that historic minute before the great shake-out of the 1960s for the baby-boomer generation, after that minute some of us went left politically and became social activists. We made just about every political, social, and cultural mistake along the way and lost, no, were defeated, no again, were mauled, in the end in our dreams of “seeking that newer world.” (And have spent the past forty or so years having to fight a rear-guard against the straightjacket, death machine-loving yahoos and their consorts). Ya, but hear me out. The search for the blue-pink Great American Western night was not one of those mistakes.