Sunday, February 3, 2013

THAT'S THE WAY IT WASN'T


Director, George Lucas on-location of American Graffiti. Summer, 1972.
This evening I was reading a repost of an article from Road & Track magazine that my pal Jeff posted on his awesome blog, Jeff's All Graffiti All the Time.  In the article the author, Peter Egan recanted a conversation with a friend who grew up during the 1960s.  In trying to describe what his youth was like he told the author, “If you want to know what it was like, you have to watch American Graffiti [sic] it was exactly how things happened at the time.”   I’m always a bit mystified when people make a statement such as this. Are they being literal?  Really?  Is that really how it was? People’s emphatic blanket statement of “That’s exactly how it was” has been a point of contention with me for almost as long as I’ve been an American Graffiti fan.  I understand the phenomena of dragging the main. When I was 16-yrs-old I spent my Summer nights cruising the streets in bumper-to-bumper traffic in the Central Valley California town of Merced (located South of Modesto and North of Fresno). But even so, I think too many of us romanticize our youth.  Maybe my psychology background and general cynical nature contribute to me being doubtful about what people say about the way things used to be.  From what we know about the human brain, our memories are highly unreliable. To this thought the columnist Manfred Wolf once wrote, "We stylize our past, mythicize it, and advertently or inadvertently rewrite out history.  We are all revisionists, and memory is nothing if not ideological."   I’ll avoid any long pompous sounding theoretical philosophy but, I think everyone projects his or her own experience onto the story in American Graffiti, which is probably what makes the film universal, no pun intended (Graffiti was released by Universal Studios). Most great literature and art has some elements of ambiguity that allow for different interpretations by the individual viewer/listener thus, increasing it's popularity. 

The cast & crew often ate meals at the old Mayflower Van & Storage building in Petaluma where cars and filming equipment were stored during the daytime.  (Photo courtesy of Candy Clark)

A couple of year ago, I was doing my Internship at a school district in Mendota, California and an older teacher I worked with spoke about how back in 1962 he used to cruise in Turlock, and Modesto, where the film takes place.  He said kids would come from out of town to cruise and the streets would be bumper-to-bumper traffic at times.  He doesn't recall every car being a chopped and channeled hot rod. For us, he said, cruising was a social activity-a way to flirt with and meet girls. There were a lot of, makeshift hot rods. Kids would take a rusted old car, give it a coat of cheap paint, heat the springs to lower it, take off the muffler so it would sound loud and mean and "Whala!" Keep in mind we're referring to a time before car manufactures began pandering to the youth market with stock hot rod muscle cars like the GTO, or the Mustang in 1964. Even Graffiti's Director, George Lucas didn't own a flashy auto back in the day. While he was in High School Lucas drove a low horse powered Fiat Bianchina.

NOT EXACTLY A BABE MAGNET: Director, George Lucas drove a 2 cylinder FIAT in high school.

Of course, there's no denying that, back then, plenty of teens in the Northern California Valley made it their mission to make the flashiest and fastest machine possible by customizing an older Plymouth, Chevy or Ford but it wasn't the norm. I’m going to go out on a limb here and guesstimate that less than 5% of the kids who cruised the circuit in The Valley actually had really flashy high-performance cars that they worked on frequently. That is probably the reality. Crusing didn't necessarily mean you were part of the Kar Kulture. But, in Graffiti, almost EVERYONE appears to have a hot car. Although it is filmed in a cinema verite style with small hand- held cameras, and actual buildings and surroundings are used as the location for the film, Graffiti is not a documentary. The film is, as Lucas has said, a teenage fantasy in a world where a years worth of nighttime excitement and action takes place within one evening and teenagers always get the best of adults. For more on the style of the film, please see my 2-part post beginning Tuesday, September 28, 2010 titled, "American Graffiti Style."


in Graffiti almost EVERYONE appears to have a hot car.

American Graffiti is historical fantasy, It is an uncluttered version of the way things used to be, filtering out any unpleasantness of the era. It is set in the middle of September, 1962, over a year after the Nation had been through the Bay of Pigs incident and the Cuban Missile Crisis was a only a few weeks away, but this is never addressed. Earth was on the brink of destruction yet it is never alluded to in the film because it is beautiful, lighthearted nostalgia. That reminds me, I can't remember if I was watching the film for the 7th or 8th time before I came to the realization and I asked myself, "Where are all the black people?"  After subsequent repeated viewings of the sock-hop scenes I believe I spotted one couple of color.  If the film accurately represent things as they were, then apparently African American people were next to non-existent in the early-1960s.  And, don't get me started about D.J., Wolfman Jack who, in reality, hadn't begun to broadcast his first radio show until 1964, two years after the film's storyline takes place.  But, similar to all films, it takes a certain amount of suspension of belief to get caught up in the stories.  For example, The idea that someone would let her younger sister, (Carol) get into the car of an older, horny male stranger (Milner) is hard to believe.  But this sets up some pretty funny consequences and we soon learn through their interactions that Milner is a decent guy and in a least this instance is truly, "Harmless as a baby kitten."

Where are the black people?
I’m not on some sort of mission to disprove the historical accuracy or the plot plausibility of Graffiti, because that would be missing the point of the film. The tone of this cinematic masterpiece is not just nostalgic but also reflectively mournful. Although, on the surface the film is lighthearted, at its core is subject matter that is serious and at times, harsh. Issues of uncertainty, the loss of youth, confronting the future, and even death are approached. Lucas' exceptional efforts to address these topics still resonate today. (For more on this, please see my posts beginning January 21, 2011 for a 3-part article on the themes and symbols of the film.)  Subsequent generations are able to relate to the concerns of these characters.  The essential topic approached in Graffiti is one that is still not easy to answer. Should a person stay close to home, caring for their family and community or should he or she leave home to pursue their potential through education and independence?


Graffiti is Lucas's attempt to capture his high school days and the cruising culture in Modesto, California.  The film mixes both elements of realism and fantasy as the young filmmaker shows the world the way society was but in an imaginative and entertaining way.  The style of the film is realistic whereas the film itself is not.  Lucas says, "The actual film... is a myth.  For instance, some friends of mine did that to a police car, but it didn't come off like that.  The car just sort of went clunk, and it was really un-dramatic.  But, in the film it comes off."  He further elaborated, "The hoods are another example.  There are groups like that, but their not really like that.  It's been mythized so that its easier to take and more fun. The fact that its shown in a very realistic style makes it believable."  

Nobody understands the reality of creating fantasy better than the cast & crew of American Graffiti

You can't fault people for getting caught up in a deliberately planned exercise in nostalgia, but let's recognize the perfect carefree side of the film for what it is: a myth. I understand people are protective of their memories and may take this the wrong way. So, if after reading this post it seems to you as though I'm saying people didn't cruise, hang out at a burger stand, and do crazy things then my point has been completely missed, and I need to come up with a better way to express my thoughts on this.   Let me just say the only real concern I have is when people equate movies & TV (old or new) with reality. The distinction so often gets blurred. For example, there’s something unsettling about calling a program “Reality TV," when it's about as true to life as an episode of Family Guy.  Sure, everything looks cool when filmed at different angles, edited so the boring stuff is taken out, and all that’s left is the most outrageous behavior and circumstances, which are then set to a great soundtrack. Even my life would look exciting under such circumstances.

- FIN -



2 comments:

  1. Kip Buddy You don't know what your talking about! There is a 1932 Ford in my garage right now!!! LOL Ya I think your right but "I could remember when it would take you a couple hours and a tank full of gas just to make one circuit". Really!! The places I cruised (in 1983) were pretty far between but when you got there there were Mansion of glory and Suiside machines. Funny thing is in the last few years it seems to be on an upswing with cruise nights about every night of the week now a days only now it's the 40-50 something crowd folding out lawn chairs and eating icecream talking about how it uesd to be. Glad I could Inspire you and thanks for letting people know that when Kip goes Graffiti hunting he stops by my site!!!!
    Jeff

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  2. When I was cruising between Carlsons drive-in and Lone Star drive-in back in the 60's in Fort Worth, Texas there were plenty of great cars and expensive cars too, that the kids owned. Corvettes, Cadillacs, Mustangs, with great paint jobs, lots of chrome and flash. Paint looks better at night under street lights. Metal flake was my favorite. So when I read the script for American Graffiti, I totally identified with it, because it really captured that time when I was in high school, when we rode bumper to bumper, inching along, looking for action. So to me, American Graffiti is not a fantasy, it is 100% authentic. x Candy Clark

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