In 2012, the Hollywood trades, online bloggers and just about ever other form of mass communication this side of Tatooine was all abuzz over the galactic sized news that George Lucas had sold Lucasfilm Ltd. – the motion picture company that he spent decades building and jealously guarding against outside corporate interests – to the Walt Disney Company for a whopping $4 billion in stock options. “I’m going to retire to my garage with my saw and hammer an build hobby movies,” Lucas said prior to stepping down as Lucasfilm CEO and selling the company to Disney. “I’ve always wanted to make movies that were more experimental in nature, and not have to worry about showing them in theaters.”
Lucas has often claimed that he wasn’t all that interested in movies while he was growing up. He says that his interest in filmmaking wasn’t really sparked until after high school when he and a friend would venture off to San Francisco and explore the art-houses, watching the films of Truffaut, Godard, Fellini and Kurosawa while also watching the avant-garde Canyon Cinema films that were being made in the Bay Area. This lead him to the University of Southern California (USC), one of the first institutions of higher learning that offered cinema studies as a major. While at the University he directed such cinematic tone poems with such haughty titles as Look at Life, 1:42:08 and THX:1138:4EB (Electronic Labyrinth). It was the latter student film – a twenty-minute short about a human drone trying to escape a dystopian society – that ended up pointing him towards the mainstream when he won a scholarship to be a student observer at Warner Bros.
“I arrived (on the Warner studio lot) on the very day that Jack Warner retired.” This probably isn’t literally true, but when he did arrive at the famed Burbank studio he didn’t see the bustling backlot one saw in such movies as Sunset Boulevard or The Bad and the Beautiful. It was rather a depressing ghost town seeing as how the studios output had slowed down considerably and most films were now being shot on location.
There was one film that was being shot on the lot, a musical called Finian’s Rainbow. The director was Francis Ford Coppola, a graduate of the UCLA film school and the first student filmmaker to break past the studio gates. Coppola took the young filmmaker under his wing and Lucas helped Francis start American Zoetrope, the San Francisco based Production Company that Coppola still owns. The young companies first film was Lucas’ first theatrical film – a feature length version of his student film, title shortened to THX:1138.
A largely silent film that explores such themes as totalitarianism and the human need for free will, THX:1138 is no masterpiece but it was an interesting and imaginative film that went on to develop a cult following among sci-fi fans. At the time though, it was not very well received. Warner Bros, who distributed the film, didn’t give it much of a chance and cut five minutes from the release print, a fact that Lucas has never let go.
And then, his career took, as Lucas has said, a detour. He teamed up with his USC classmates Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz to write a script for American Graffiti, about a group of teenagers on the cusp of adulthood living in a small Northern California town not unlike Lucas’ own Modesto. Coppola, who went on to direct The Godfather used his newfound influence to help Lucas get the film made. American Graffiti ended up being the sleeper hit of 1973, grossing over $50 million domestically against a $700,000 budget. With this success Lucas was able to make a little something called Star Wars, a film that…let’s just say it was very popular.
After that Lucas took a twenty-two year respite from directing. In the interim he wrote, produced and conceptualized his pictures while others did the actual directing. These included Irving Kershner (The Empire Strikes Back), Richard Marquand (Return of the Jedi), Ron Howard (Willow), Anthony Hemingway (Red Tails) and of course Steven Spielberg (all four Indiana Jones films). Spielberg himself noted that “Like Disney, he has that rare talent of being able to get the best from the people he works with. I know. He got nearly the best out of me in 1981 when I made Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Before making any of these films he produced More American Graffiti, his first sequel and his first experience handing over the car keys to another director.
To direct More American Graffiti he hired Bill L. Norton, billed at the time as B.W.L. Norton. A television director today whose credits include Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Law and Order, Roswell and Las Vegas, he first gained industry attention with his 1973 counter culture film Cisco Pike. Lucas was impressed with the film and since Norton was a fellow Californian he felt that he’d be the ideal choice to direct American Graffiti II. Norton also wrote the screenplay based on Lucas’ outline.
One litmus test as to whether or not a sequel is warranted (and more often then not one isn’t) is whether or not you care what happens to the characters after the final coda. I don’t think anyone gave two damns what happened to Roy Schider and Richard Dreyfus after the shark blew up in Jaws. I don’t think anyone cared what happened to Linda Blair’s character in The Exorcist once that demon was exorcised. And I think it’s quite fair to say that no one could care less what happened to the characters in Independence Day twenty years down the line. Just check out the box office receipts if you don’t believe me.
But everyone wanted to know what happened next for the Rebels in Star Wars and everyone wanted to join Indiana Jones on another adventure, but I don’t know that many people were dying to see what happened next to the characters in American Graffiti. That’s not to say that they weren’t memorable. Indeed, just about everyone who went to that movie could either identify with one of the characters or they at least reminded the viewer of someone they knew in high school. The film also ended with an epilog saying what happened to the four male leads in the film, and that kind of tied up loose ends. Still, just as there was a back-story to the original Star Wars trilogy (which I personally liked, though clearly not everyone did), there was a middle point between the end of the first picture and that final coda.
The first American Graffiti took place entirely in one evening on the last day of summer in a Northern California town in 1962. Taking a page from Federico Fellini’s early film I Vitelloni, the film featured four male protagonists whose stories intertwine during the course of the film. There’s Curt Henderson (Richard Dreyfus), who’s due to fly east in the morning to start college but who has cold feet about leaving home. His best friend Steve Bolander (Ron Howard) who’s also due to go to college back east and claims he can’t wait to get out of “this turkey town” but actually still has strong feelings for Laurie (Cindy Williams), his girlfriend and Curt’s sister. Then there’s John Milner (Paul Le Matt), a hot rodder who gets stuck with an awkward thirteen-year old girl (Mackenzie Phillips) and Terry “the Toad” Fields (Charlie Martin Smith), a short, clumsy but self confident nerd who manages to pick up a “bitching babe” named Debbie (Candy Clark), who he flatters by telling her that she looks like Jayne Mansfield.
More American Graffiti takes place on New Year’s Eve, but not one single New Years Eve. Rather four consecutive New Years Eves from 1964 through 1967. The film cuts back and fourth between the stories, each of which if given it’s own unique visual style.
The film opens on New Years Eve of 1964. Since it’s California, the sun is shining and everyone is wearing shorts and T-shirts, which for this life-long North Atlantic resident just seems weird. John Milner is now a professional drag racer. He has his own team but hopes to race for a racecar manufacturer. His friends show up. Steve and Laurie have tied the not and Laurie is now pregnant. Terry “The Toad” clearly made an impression on Debbie from the first film. Here it is two years later and they’re very much an item. Though the character of Curt is referred to he’s not present. After Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and his Oscar winning turn in The Goodbye Girl, Richard Dreyfus’ pay grade was by then considerably higher then the other actors.
Terry has joined the army and has is about to ship off to Vietnam. This was before the conflict had escalated into an all out war but after congress had authorized the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. “Uncle Sam said ‘we need the Toad! The only we’re gonna win this thing is if you send the Toad!” proclaims Terry with all the swagger of a young man raised on John Wayne movies. Milner gives him a bolt from one of the many races he survived to use as a good luck charm. “You know what I’m gonna do,” says an obviously touched Terry. “I’m gonna bring you back a V.C. flag.” “Nah, nah, don’t do that,” Milner replies. “Just come back alive.”
Exactly one year later, Terry is in the thick of the jungle, and he’s clearly had enough of it. In a hilarious moment Terry looks at a photograph of Debbie, says “I’m coming home baby!” and then ties to injure himself by rigging up his riffle and firing a bullet into his arm. The plan backfires. It doesn’t his him but the rest of his platoon at a nearby camp thinks they’re under attack. They respond by returning fire. Terry survives, but he runs afoul of his C.O. Maj. Creech (Richard Branford). Later he tries to injure himself again by playing a game of tackle football, going up a guy who looks like he could be a professional linebacker fort he 49rs. Wouldn’t you know it, the linebacker guy gets injured, not Terry.
Later we see Terry on a chopper being airlifted into battle. He’s befriended a guy named Little Joe (Bo Hopkins) who comes from “back home”. You might not remember but Little Joe was the leader of the Pharos, the gang of greasers that more or less abducted Richard Dreyfus for the night in the first film. While flying over enemy territory Terry holds the bolt that John Milner gave him. He mentions how a “good buddy who died” gave it to him Soon their plane is shot down. One soldier gets shot. Little Joe, who’s just recently been deployed, is horrified at what he sees. “You get used to it after a while,” says Terry. Soon however, they get shot down. Terry tires to call the Major for help, but he’s busy entertaining a Congressman. Terry reacts by telling the Major what he thinks of him. Terry gets out of there. He’s unable to save Little Joe but he does save a fellow soldier. Frankly, the Major’s still mad about Terry’s brief (and understandable) moment of insubordination. He puts him on latrine duty.
Next we go to New Years Eve, 1966. Debbie is living in San Francisco. She laments that she doesn’t like New Years Eve much. “I lost two friends on New Years Eve. One of them was a boyfriend.” She no longer has her platinum blonde hair, lives with a bunch of other hippies (including McKenzie Phillips from the first movie) and is working as a go-go dancer. When her “old man” gets arrested for drug possession (by Harrison Ford in a cameo, reprising his role from the first film) she goes on a series of comic escapades to help get him out.
We then move to 1967. Steve and Laurie are living in Berkley. Steve is an insurance salesman, they have a pair of twins and Laurie is going crazy. She wants to get out of the house and get a job, something that the old-fashioned Steve finds abhorrent (this is before the women’s rights movement began in earnest). Laurie eventually leaves to stay with her brother Andy (Will Seltzer). This eventually finds her involved with a campus anti-war demonstration. Steve comes looking for Laurie. though he’s no hippie (“I voted Republican”) also find himself siding with the agitators when he’s reunited with Laurie. The straight-laced Steve later helps his wife spring a whole bus full of women who were arrested during the protest.
As with the first American Graffiti, this film features a killer soundtrack of songs from the era, ranging from the Supremes, the Beach Boys and the Marvellets to the Rolling Stones, the Strawberry Alarm Clock and Bob Dylan. Scoring a film with pre-existing pop songs was still pretty novel when the first Graffiti was released. Now it’s become ridiculously clichéd and is often just an excuse to have a soundtrack recording tied in. These are all familiar songs but they serve more as a frame of reference. I wasn’t alive during those years but I imagine that someone who was will be transported back to that time and place. More importantly, the music sets the right emotional tone and manages to subtly comment on the action.
One thing that is really unique about Graffiti II is it’s unique visual style, or more accurately styles. Each sequence is shot differently. The 1964 scenes are shot in widescreen Panavision. The Vietnam scenes are shot in 16mm, thus simulating actual combat footage. Debbie’s story in 1966 is shot with multiple, split screen images throughout, much like in the Woodstock concert film. The 1967 scenes are shot in standard Panavision. This was one of the first films photographed by Caleb Deschanel. The father of actress Zoey Deschanel, he would also go on to lens such classics as The Black Stallion, The Right Stuff, The Natural and The Passion of the Christ.
At the end of Debbie’s story she’s ditched her deadbeat boyfriend and has hooked up with a different rock band, played by Country Joe McDonald and Fish. We’re told at the final coda that she went on to become a country and western singer. Steve and Laurie have made their peace and Steve is willing to let Laurie get a job. One hopes that their marriage will remain strong.
Terry, fed up with the carnage and bureaucracy of war, fakes his own death in a very ingenious way while also getting even with that asinine Major. We learned in the first film that he was reported “Missing in Action”. Well, he’s missing alright, but not dead. He’s now a deserter. “You realize you won’t be able to go back home,” a fellow soldier warns him. “That’s okay,” says Terry. “I’ve always wanted to see Europe.” When we last see him he’s optimistically singing “May Old Acquaintance Be Forgot” as he heads off into the jungle. Who knows if he will survive.
John Milner’s story ends on the most ominous note. He’s met a beautiful Icelandic girl, who might be the girl of his dreams. He’s shown riding off in his Duce Coup, another car coming in the distance. Both cars disappear behind a hill. We then see a photo of Miler and learn that he died when he was hit by a drunk driver.
Critics didn’t care for More American Graffiti and the box office was indifferent. Maybe no one really did care what happened next to these characters. Maybe America wasn’t yet ready to reflect on the turbulent sixties. That arguably took another decade when Born on the Fourth of July and The Wonder Years took off. More American Graffiti isn’t a great film nor is it as magical as the first.
“My whole idea of a style for More American Graffiti was unsuccessful, I guess,” Lucas later speculated. “Bill’s a more conservative kind of storyteller, and I think I forced him to do things that in his heart he wasn’t comfortable with.” Norton himself said that “Multiple stories are very risky. They worked well in American Graffiti because there was a unity of time and place. But in More American Graffiti we were asking a lot of the audience because things were happening at different times, as well as different places.”
Since this time, people have grown more and more accustomed to stories taking place in different times and places. Look at the films of Quentin Tarrintino or Atom Egoyan. Check out films like The Hours or Babel. I think it’s safe to say that we’ve caught up to the idea. Just one more reason why the film should be given a second look, though it would be wise to watch the first film again as a refresher.
Now that Lucas has sold Lucasfilm and is officially out of the blockbuster game, one can’t help but wonder what he’s going to do next. Is he going to go back to making cinematic tone poems like THX:1138? Lord knows the man has earned the right, both in stature and financially, to make whatever movies he wants. But I can’t help but wonder what it would be like if he went back and made another movie like the Graffiti films. In other words, a movie about regular people. True, he’s been a wealthy man for many years, but he hardly seems like a plutocrat who’s out of touch with reality. He was a single parent, maybe he could make a movie about that? He’s recently remarried to and has become a father again, that might make a neat movie. Or how about a movie about a very successful man starting a new phase in his life and career. I know it’s futile to expect a filmmaker, or any artist, to make the kind of movie you’d like to see them make. Lord knows there was a disconnect between what fans wanted the Star Wars prequels to be and what Lucas wanted to make. But I just can’t help but wish Lucas would just make one more film about regular people before he retires to his garage.