AFI #62: American Graffiti

I think a lot of so-called great films are fully dependent on the generation of the viewer and as I make my way through the AFI Top 100 there have been several examples of this generational bias. American Graffiti is definitely a film that reaches a certain demographic. Set in the early 60s and made in 1973, the film is not much more than a nod to that mythical time known as “the good old days.” For director George Lucas, the film is a bit of a love letter to his teenage years growing up in small town Northern California when kids cruised the streets and pranked each other with shaving cream and the biggest issue was whether or not they should leave this Rockwellian dream for the big city (or in this case, college “back east”). American Graffiti captures that moment in time quite well, and it obviously had an impact on viewers of a certain age.

That being said, for my money American Graffiti is just an average film that isn’t even among the best of its genre. The Hollywood Knights is basically the same plot but a much better film overall. Barry Levinson’s Diner also delivers the same emotion and is one of my favorite films of all time. I think American Graffiti gets more recognition because it’s Lucas’ first film and because it stars young actors who later become very famous, including Richard Dreyfuss and Harrison Ford. It’s an enjoyable little film, but it’s certainly not one of the 100 best American films of all time.

Nostalgia is a great film genre that has delivered some amazing films. Last year’s wonderful Super 8 comes to mind. But nostalgia films are by their nature going to be more meaningful to those who lived during a similar time and can therefore relate to the nostalgia. I’m not a baby boomer, and I can appreciate how cool it must have been in the 50s and 60s to cruise your car up and down the street and have burgers delivered to your car by a hot girl on roller skates, but I’m not going to be moved by a time period that I didn’t live through. I imagine baby boomers don’t feel the same way I do when I watch Sixteen Candles or The Breakfast Club. And that’s okay, but don’t tell me American Graffiti is one of the best films ever. It’s not.

By the way, I’ve seen bits and pieces of American Graffiti before but this is the first time I’d ever sat through it beginning to end. There are some memorable scenes (like the one in which Toad tries to buy some whiskey and ends up in the middle of a hold up). But seeing it all the way through — the damn thing has a really depressing ending. Cindy Williams almost dies in a car crash, Toad gets killed in Vietnam, Milner gets killed by a drunk driver, Steve ends up selling insurance in Modesto because he doesn’t go to college and Curt moves to Canada. Geez…good times.

Next up: Sullivan’s Travels

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