Tony Mastroianni Review Collection

"American Graffiti" captures the times

Cleveland Press September 22, 1973

Graffiti are utterances scribbled on walls in public places. They are the verbal record of a pop culture of any period, a manifestation of a time, the minutiae that sets one period apart from another.

With almost tongue-in-cheek humor the makers of a movie have called their work "American Graffiti" and it is as well named as it is put together.

The period is 1962 -- both a distillation and a culmination of a culture that began in the '50's. It was rock music that still wasn't so far removed from music, of the importance of a car to a teen, for to be without wheels was to be a grounded nobody. Mecca was the drive-in, and a car got you there and back. And you communicated from the open window of one auto through the open window of another.

This is the junk art out of which director and co-author George Lewis has put together his movie, carefully distilling and assembling his matter in a process that turns it into art and not just junk.

The time is a single evening, the people four young men and the girls in their lives. It is the night of the sock hop at school, the night before some will be off for college, or the Army, or a job.

For only a few will 1962 be nostalgic, and nostalgia isn't enough for a play or movie. There must be something universal and Lewis has captured it.

That moment that marks the end of one period in a person's life and the beginning of another is universal at any time. Lewis has captured it perfectly -- the uneasiness, the slight fear, the grasping at friendships you know but won't admit will end.

The characters are unlikely comrades, the kind of comradeship that comes with similarities in age and going to the same school, but which won't endure as each seeks his own place in life.

But "American Graffiti" is not serious. It is a comedy, a comedy made better by dealing with its characters in terms of heightened reality.

Richard Dreyfuss is the intellectual of the bunch, the observer, the one without ties, the character whose path cuts across the others. He's the one who just doesn't know what he will do, who has dreams whose vision of heaven is the sight of a blond in a Thunderbird.

Ronny Howard is last year's class president going with next year's cheerleader. Tomorrow he will be off for the Army and tonight there seems to be nothing but friction between him and his girl.

Paul Le Mat is the top drag racer, always challenged, always winning, but beginning to wonder if maybe he isn't getting a little old for all this.

Charlie Martin Smith is the young one, minus wheels and suddenly acquiring them, longing to be bigger and older and tougher than he is.

Candy Clark is the girl he picks up, a swinger and typical of every dumb blond in the movies.

Unifying it all is a soundtrack with the music of the period. Its logic for being there is the radio that blares out of every car.

Unlike the nostalgic trappings of Peter ("Last Picture Show") Bogdonavich, the old music doesn't call attention to itself. It is simply there, an integral part, a thread.

For life in any period is tunes, sayings, trappings and occasionally a minor crisis, and this is what "American Graffiti" captures.