It's funny to watch George Lucas' 'American Graffiti,' his film remembering the good ol' days of his youth, as you quickly realize that this, his first critical and financial success, would mark the final time he directed a feature film not named 'Star Wars.' Sure, if you told Lucas back in 1973 that his space opera would become one of the greatest franchises in film history, he'd no doubt continue on with his work, but tell a man, who just finished only his second film, that he'd be stuck with one franchise the rest of his directing career, and who knows, maybe the face of cinema history would be entirely different.
As with 'Dazed and Confused' decades later, 'American Graffiti' is a piece of pure nostalgia, a film that tells many stories, yet doesn't really have all that much of a focal point. The characters are together for one fateful night after high school graduation, before friends will be separated by different life paths, and what better way to say goodbye than to do the same thing they did every other night? Visit the drive-in, go cruising, attempt to score, go cruising, and then go cruising again, it's a lot of ground to cover in one night, but these teens in Modesto, California up to the challenge, all while the sounds of Wolfman Jack fill the Summer air, along with the rumble of engine roars and the excited screams of teenage girls.
Filmed in the areas around his hometown, Lucas' trip down memory lane can connect with audiences of any time period, regardless of their own personal coming of age tales or experiences. The characters are universal, even if they're a bit cliche and too varied to be effectively believable as a group of friends. You have the lovebirds Steve and Laurie (Ron Howard and Cindy Williams), who are going through growing pains, the thought of being apart for months creating an unforeseen rift in their otherwise problem-free relationship. There's the racer John (Paul Le Mat), who's looking for a good time with the ladies (ending up with Carol (Mackenzie Phillips), a girl a bit too young for his liking), while also on the ready for the next of his many racing challengers. Curt (Richard Dreyfuss) is possibly the normal guy of the bunch, the glue, who's looking for the girl who gave him the look earlier in the night, his last in town, while Toad (Charles Martin Smith) is the guy who would love to live life in Steve's shoes, and finally gets the chance when Steve loans him his '58 Impala. Each character brings about secondary characters, and so on, and we're given a little universe, fleshed out to the teeth, and believably so. The girlfriends, love interests, rivals, thugs, disc jockeys, and police officers all become as real as the four primary characters, with that strange sense of familiarity due to implied rather than excessively explained relationship, a storytelling ability Lucas would apparently forget in later projects.
The period music, bright neon lights, and believable locations, not to mention the cars, which are near impossible to see on the roads today, all of these elements truly put you in Lucas' shoes circa 1962, and you feel for the characters, like they're your own friends. If you don't personally relate with a character, you more than likely know someone just like them, so it still works. What starts out slow soon turns into a non-stop twisting adventure that is all-too relatable, with appropriate climaxes, plenty of laughs, as well as believable interactions, stories you root for, characters to root against, and awkward Harrison Fords (ok, just one Harrison Ford) to laugh at.
Did 'American Graffiti' deserve to win the Best Picture category over 'The Sting?' In my eyes, no, as it has glaring flaws that require a bit of suspension of belief, as well as a horrible anticlimax that dampens the overall enjoyment of the film. The thought of a girl letting her underaged sister ride off with an obviously horny stranger in a fancy, shiny, super fast car for who knows how many hours in the dark should sound some alarms, but perhaps the film's best, most believable interactions come from the odd pairing, even if it screams creepy. The finale of the film brings nice closure, until a text screen reveals what would happen to each of the four main characters later in their lives. It really has no place in the film, as this isn't a film about tomorrow, it's about today...er, forty years ago, but still.
The Disc: Vital Stats
Universal brings their sole Lucas property to Blu-ray on a Region A/B/C BD50 disc, with no annoying pre-menu content. The menu ticker, however, makes up for that, as this may be the most annoying Universal ticker ever released.
...If this were 'Star Wars,' I'd be on the front lines, up against the cops in riot gear, pushing towards the studio in question. I would be that hopping mad.
'American Graffiti' got tagged on Blu-ray, and I don't mean one of those artistic railcar pieces of "art." I mean misspelled words and phallic drawings, with the phrase "DNR wuz here!" taking up the most space. The 1080p VC-1 encode has problem after problem after problem. The age of the film shows, no doubt, and it's not fair to judge the film from that. Hell, if anything, it earns points for being so very, very clean. That's the end of my praise, though.
Crush is a frequent issue, with hair often disappearing mid-shot. Detail levels can vanish in a flash, with more than random softness popping up all over the flick. Noise is a minor issue, skin tones are frequently red and hot. Colors sap mid-scene at times, turning an already not-so vibrant picture that much flatter. Edge enhancement? On my Blu-ray? You better believe it, as it can be pretty damned strong at times. The worst, though, is the DNR that is all over the damn place. Clothing is randomly smoothed, with no texture, and no real transition between shirts and, say, a wall. Lines randomly disappear, as well, due to the artificial smoothing.
The entire film feels slathered in gunk, it's all difficult to look past.
The audio for 'American Graffiti' fares better, with a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track that is neither good nor bad. It just is.
It's great that dialogue is always discernible, and that prioritization isn't an issue in the least bit. However, separation can be a tad bit questionable at times, while the soundtrack, which is one of the film's highlights, doesn't feel all that clear at times, even if it does benefit from the random volume spike here and there. There really isn't any depth to the track.
Get ready for a mix that really shows its age, not that that's exactly a bad thing.
A long, long time ago, George Lucas was able to make films that didn't involve lightsabers, twincest, or the Force. In 'American Graffiti' he cast a wookiee (who later went bald and created horrible movies of his own), but this flashback to 1962 will remind you of what you did, what your parents did, or, even, what your grandparents did in the old days of drive-ins and sock hops. Universal's Blu-ray release of 'Graffiti' sounds good, but looks like a huge steaming pile of sith. A shame, really, as this is a must own film, on a for fans only disc.