AMERICAN GRAFFITI: Nostalgia In The Present Tense

A republished look at George Lucas' one true masterpiece.

You're not hallucinating. This article is a reprint!

If you were today to make a movie set as far back in the past as George Lucas set American Graffiti from its 1973 debut, you’d be making a movie about 2004. It doesn’t seem all that long ago, but looking at the eleven years between 1962 and 1973 - and all of the cultural and political and societal shifts that happened in those years - you start to understand why this movie about kids cruising their town on the final night of summer vacation slowly takes on an elegiac tone. It’s a movie not just about the end of summer in a small California town, it’s about the end of summer in America. In one year JFK would be dead, and not soon after the Vietnam War would escalate. The post-WWII American dream was about to get dark.

Make no mistake: American Graffiti is George Lucas’ masterpiece. It’s a smart, funny and sensitive film unlike anything else he made before or since. It’s frankly the only human movie Lucas has ever made, and it is so filled with humanity that every frame bursts with love and hope and disappointment and fun and sadness and the indescribable joy of being alive. Of being alive and being young and being free and being in a car on a cool summer night.

The film is so minutely observed you realize that this is George Lucas’ own story. It’s what he did in Modesto those final nights before heading off to USC. He drove those cars. He chased those girls. He walked those streets. It’s the great paradox of storytelling: the more specific and personal you make something, the more universal it becomes. My coming of age in New York City bore absolutely no resemblance to the events in American Graffiti, but I can identify with every bit of it.

A lot of that comes with the almost supernatural job Lucas (and casting director Freddy Roos) did casting his movie. Every actor brings a subtle reality to their character. The casting process was long and involved - future Luke Skywalker Mark Hamill came in and read at one point - and focused mostly on unknowns. Ron Howard was probably the biggest star in the ensemble, and he had to be coaxed into taking the job because he was trying so hard to shed his Andy Griffith Show child actor baggage. Cindy Williams had one movie under her belt. Harrison Ford was still a carpenter (he refused to cut his hair for the movie, which is why he’s wearing a cowboy hat). Over a hundred actors came in before Richard Dreyfuss so impressed Lucas that he was offered his pick of either Toad or Curt.

Lucas captures the feel of 1962 without fully fetishizing it. You can smell the leather interiors of the cars and you can taste the chocolate of the milkshakes because it’s all present, not being given through a veil of nostalgia. Of course there’s plenty of nostalgia at play, but American Graffiti’s nostalgia is the sort that makes even Millennials long for the sounds of Wolfman Jack on the radio. You didn’t have to be there to walk out of American Graffiti remembering how it was.

Of course this is how it was for some people. At the same time in 1962 James Meredith was battling in the courts to be allowed into the University of Mississippi despite the color of his skin, but American Graffiti isn’t too wrapped up in politics (although it gets there in the haunting finale that tells us what happened to each of the kids). It’s about a feeling we all had when we were 17 or 18 years old, when we were first finding ourselves and figuring out who we would be. All of the stories in American Graffiti are great and relatable, but this is why Curt’s story - his decision to stay in Modesto or go away the next morning to school - is the key to the movie. It’s the last night of summer. What are you going to do in the morning?