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By Brad Laidman | July 4, 2001

The first movie that featured Bill Haley’s Rock Around the Clock was “The Blackboard Jungle” and it supposedly caused a bunch of kids to trash their local movie theaters. By 1973, it meant that it was time to feel nostalgic about the fifties. If you really want to know when Happy Day’s jumped the shark it was when it discarded Clock’s “One, two, three, a clock four a clock, rock” for that “Sunday, Monday, happy days ..” nonsense.
The Tag line for “American Graffiti” was “Where were you in ’62?” Since I wasn’t born back then, the only way for me to be nostalgic like everyone else is to rate how cool Graffiti makes it look. Essentially it comes down to several questions: ^ How cool were these guys? ^ Paul Lemat is very cool. He’s just doing his best James Dean, but that’s the gold standard and he does it pretty well. The other three need help. Ron Howard is dying to leave California and Richard Dreyfus can’t stop complaining about how there aren’t any hot chicks around. In what, Bizarro world version of California is that true? Beach Boy dad Murray Wilson beat his kids within an inch of their lives but they at least appreciated how awesome it was to live in California in the ’60s. Imagine that, the ultimate nostalgia movie of all time is mostly about two kids who didn’t want to go through it the first time.
Charles Martin Smith is of course an out and out loser whose reward for growing up was apparently getting popped in Viet Nam. American Graffiti takes place on Dreyfuss and Howard’s last night in town before going off to college back East. Of course, you’d think that Dreyfuss and Howard were going off to Nam, themselves, the way the whole town frets about how they’re leaving.
How hip were their tunes? ^ This movie is wall to wall covered in music that would eventually fill thousands of jukeboxes at a Mel’s Diner near you, but it’s sort of a cheat. Rock and Roll was mostly dead in 1962 and just about all of the music in this movie was at least five years old by that time. As Lemat notes music did start going downhill after Buddy Holly died. I guess if the music is cooler in 1958 than it was in 1962 you hope that by 1973 no one is really paying very close attention. Either that or Wolfman Jack was doing an oldies show even before this movie came out. Lemat mentions the Beach Boys only to dismiss them which is weird because Lemat’s Milner would have been Dennis Wilson’s best friend, and Brian Wilson spent the better part of the early ’60s immortalizing good looking people riding around in fast cars, which is about all Milner has going for him.
Of course the time is also notable as the last time the entire town would all be listening to the same radio station. Wolfman Jack comes off pretty well himself here and it makes you long for the days when there were actually DJ’s that liked the music that they played and were allowed to be more than robots that fill you in on what time it is now that the records chosen by their bosses have stopped playing.
Lucas also invents the huge soundtrack album full of oldies. Everything that guy touches turns to gold.
How fly were their rods? ^ As Lemat says “Driving is serious business.” This of course is Lucas’ Pæan to driving around aimlessly all night up and down the local strip. Then again most of what Harrison Ford does in Star Wars is cruise around space in his hot rod Millennium Falcon talking smack, so his move from dark late nights in California to a dark galaxy far far away isn’t really all that much of a leap, but shouldn’t he have been wearing that goofy hat in Witness instead of here? The only guy with a gun winds up humorously robbing a liquor store, but Lemat is nothing to Lucas if he isn’t seen as a modern day gunfighter. He’s The Sundance Kid with a Deuce Coupe instead of a six shooter. When Ford and Lemat finally meet it’s to the strains of the coy “Do You Want To Dance.” The climactic drag race even takes place at dawn.
Richard Dreyfuss has the worst car with the exception of Charles Martin Smith who rides a Vespa. I’m guessing not having a car in 1962 Los Angeles made you about as popular with the chicks as having AIDS did twenty years or so down the line.
How great were their chicks? ^ Who knows why Dreyfuss, is whining all the time? There are cute chicks all over the place and none of them seem to be as smart as they are easy. How good of a sister are you if you dump your pre teen sibling into the front seat of the local hood’s hot rod and drive off?
Additionally, you have to face the fact that “American Graffiti” has been harmed by its later influence on the future of ABC sit-coms. It’s hard to watch Ron Howard and Cindy Williams as a fresh young couple after watching a thousand or so hours of them on Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley. Although, Ron actually looks a lot more like a kid about to go to college here than he did on Happy Days when his hair started to fall out. He tries to be a hard a*s by giving Cindy the “we should see other people for a while” line before he ships off to school and actually thinks that he deserves sex from her on the same night as he cruelly notes “you want it and you know it”, but in the end his idea of full scale rebellion is telling his ex principal to “go kiss a duck.”
Mackenzie Phillips is more entertaining here than she was for the entire run of “One Day At A Time” and this is perhaps the dream Suzanne Somers performance – she’s hot and she doesn’t say very much. For all I know that isn’t even her voice on the phone at the end of the movie. I also loved her similar performance as a topless gunshot victim with no lines in Magnum Force. Richard Dreyfuss imagines that Somers mouthed “I love you” to him as she passed into the night in her White T Bird, and becomes obsessed with just that 15 seconds of her. He tries to convince his pals of the unbelievable passion and romance of tracking her down, but like the audience they’re a little scared by his insane spooky ramblings.
If you think about it, “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” is pretty much the exact same movie twenty years later, but at least in Ridgemont’s “where are they now credits” our favorite character hired Van Halen for his birthday party instead of getting killed by a drunk driver. Why are you bringing me down George? We could tell that Milner was doomed from Lemat’s performance. Do we need to have our hopes that he gets his life together someday scarred with three lines of text?
My favorite Lucas observation from 1962 is that he doesn’t see much difference between street gangs and the local elks club. Tons of people in this movie are rich and famous now, although for some reason it isn’t either Lemat or Candy Clark, which would have been my guesses at the time. It’s hard to pull off a good James Dean and Marilyn Monroe and they should have gotten more respect.

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