Having only THX 1138 to his directorial credit, George Lucas’ second film was a radical departure from that science fiction thriller, not to mention the Star Wars franchise that would consume the rest of his filmmaking career thereafter. American Graffiti is a groundbreaking comedy from 1973 that sees Lucas putting the focus on his own childhood of the early 1960s. Lucas’ iconic movie would go on to become a box office blockbuster that would define the independent film movement for decades to come.
Nearly 40 years later it still plays a loose and vibrant testament to an era that is so distinctly America. Centring on no less than eight main characters, American Graffiti follows as these recent graduates wait patiently for the rest of their lives to begin in between fries and soda at the local drive-in parking lot and cruising around town in their hopped up cars. The imagery of Small Town, USA, is simply sublime and the Oscar-nominated screenplay by Lucas, Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck is as truthful to the plight of teenagers as it is full of invigorating dialogue that the actors – Richard Dreyfus, Ron Howard, Harrison Ford and Oscar-nominated Candy Clark included – excel at delivering. Most famous of all, the soundtrack is still a thing of beauty every bit as soulful as the film itself.
American Graffiti screens for a one-week season at Melbourne’s classic Astor Theatre. The venue, which recently celebrated its 75th birthday, is known for its double features of new and classic movies and their brand new print of Lucas’ classic is being shown alongside another look at mid-west Americana in Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop.
Hellman’s film follows the drivers of two cars – a 1955 Chevy 150 and a 1970 Pontiac GTO for the car enthusiasts out there – as they race across country through the backstreets of America. It’s an aimless road movie that is equally hypnotising and enthralling as it is frustratingly dull. Nevertheless, it remains a vital piece of filmmaking that provided a good portion of the inspiration for Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof (2007) and, less overtly, the career of Gus Van Sant, featuring performances by musicians James Taylor and Beach Boy drummer Dennis Wilson.
Taylor is certainly no actor, with a physical prettiness to acting talent ratio that rivals Joe Dallesandro or Keanu Reeves. The movie is dotted with moments of silliness and humour care of Warren Oates’ revolving door of hitchhikers. Casual moviegoers would enjoy American Graffiti no matter what, I’m sure of it, but Two-Lane Blacktop is a trip that may be lost on those that aren’t hardened cinephiles. Still, side-by-side these two movies provide a rather powerful examination of America before and after the Vietnam War.
American Graffiti and Two-Lane Blacktop screen together at The Astor Theatre, Melbourne 24th-3oth April. Check their website for details.