When I first saw American Graffiti in high school, it stood a short generation removed from me and entirely plausible to its 1962 setting. But watching it last night, I couldn’t help wondering if the so-called California Strip actually existed in serving as the focal point for this generation in search of itself.
Of course, the coming of age themes of the George Lucas 1973 film are universal. What value should a young man or woman put on the “hick town” they’ve grown up in as they face the world in front of them. “Why should you go in search of a home, when you’ve had a home your whole life,” asks Ron Howard, as he waivers back and forth between embarking for an east coast college.
The analogy also applies to the love that he must leave behind, while the sexual freedom and adventure of college exerts a pull that cannot be denied. “We’re both grown up, seeing other people will only strengthen our relationship,” he nonchalantly spins his own version of the old story to Cindy Williams.
Reacting in kind, Williams forces Howard to truly face the gravity of this crossroad - with Harrison Ford replacing him in the driver’s seat to truly drive home the point.
At the same time, Richard Dreyfuss represents the unencumbered kid who must carefully weigh the chance to thoroughly expand his horizons against the value of staying connected to all he’s ever known. Hot Rodder and Valley lifer John Milner, played by Paul Le Mat, sums up the burgeoning intellectual’s predicament in a down home form. “No matter what they teach you at college or whatever you go on to do, you’re still going to be a punk,” he instructs Dreyfuss.
A stunning blonde, played by Suzanne Sommers, who alluringly mouths him the words, “I love you,” from her evasive T-Bird symbolizes the whirlwind of ambiguity each faces
Otherwise, the strip is the vehicle that heightens the drama and hopping into your mansion of glory – Buddy Holly, the Beach Boys and Chuck Berry provide the ever present opening line at each signal change.
How could it actually be? Did this really happen or was cruising the strip a manufactured exaggeration of what teenage life was really like. I have no idea. Still so simple, so pure – you can’t help feel sympathy for the bland Facebook pokes that kickoff a crush in today’s disconnected world.
The innocence also seems out of a distant fiction. Cigarettes, soda and speed providing the indulgent barrier between teenagers and their adult overlords. How these characters would welcome such a gap in co-existing with their kids and grandchildren today.
But with vast change just ahead on the landscape, this final night on the strip must play out with the sunrise and leaves the same doubts and hopes our futures faced on the day we finally had to confront it.
Spun on a turn table and RPMs in the red – what a way to go and probably exactly the way it happened.