The posters and trailers for the 1973 release American Graffiti, one of the most successful American movies marketed almost solely on the basis of pandering to its target audience's nostalgia, challenged that audience to remember, "Where were you in '62?" For the film's director and co-writer, George Lucas, the answer to that question is that in 1962 he was involved in a terrible racing accident at the age of 18, which short-circuited his professional interest in cars and sent him on an alternate path that eventually went through film school. This was important for the obvious reason that Lucas's subsequent career in cinema redefined the commercial realities of the film industry more than any other individual filmmaker before or since, and while I suppose that somebody in the late '70s would have made a movie with the impact of Star Wars, that person probably wouldn't also have seen the wisdom in retaining the merchandising rights to that theoretical blockbuster. So calling Lucas irreplaceable in film history is perhaps rather more literally true than for most other people who might get tagged with that irresistible bit of hyperbole.

This is not, though, the moment to talk about the much-rehashed story of how Star Wars and its waterlogged buddy Jaws ruined everything glorious and artistic about the '70s (which, like most much-rehashed stories is a skyscraper-sized pile of bullshit, but it's not the moment to talk about that, either). We are here now for American Graffiti, which was the other important outgrowth of Lucas's '62 accident. It is a film about the car culture of California teenagers, and it does one of those things that all movies about young people want to do and only a couple have ever really done very successfully, which is to be about one extremely specific time and place that only existed for a fraction of a moment, and through the sheer force of that specificity, manages to be about something much more universal (using that definition of "universal" common in cultural criticism, viz. middle-class, white, and male. But like any other subject, there's nothing wrong with making movies about middle-class white males if you make them very well, and Lucas did that here). It is one of cinema's greatest high school coming-of-age movies, in which the idiot fun of driving around listening to music and doing a piss-poor job of trying to hook up with members of the opposite sex at some point has to give way to becoming a Grown Up. It is a conservative film in this respect, particularly compared to its most obvious descendant, Richard Linklater's shaggy and rebellious Dazed and Confused from 20 years later; in fact, with its unambiguously conformist, "real men go to college or start families" message, it might be the single most conservative great American film of the 1970s.* This has earned it some backlash here and there, and it's really quite an odd standout in the context of the essentially counter-cultural New Hollywood Cinema, but there's so much obvious, unmistakable honesty to it that I frankly don't think its ideology matters. And that honesty comes from Lucas's own life experience, I think, where the culture that his film praises, eulogises, and abandons, in that order, was very nearly responsible for killing him. If any experience is going to make it okay for an artist to say, "you know what, kids, you actually should turn into your parents", that's the one that will do it.

It's a very nice, non-confrontational film, both of which tend to sound like insults rather than terms of praise; but Lucas, compared to virtually every one of his significant peers, was a nice, non-confrontational man. And American Graffiti is a film practically born out of niceness: it was conceived when Lucas, off the cool performance of the acerbic sci-fi parable THX-1138, decided to make his sophomore feature a movie that would give normal people pleasure to watch. It exists because of a kindness: Francis Ford Coppola, the icon of all the film school brats of the late '60s and early '70s but a particular mentor to Lucas, used his enormous post-Godfather clout to do a favor to the young director. Lucas, and his married co-writers Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck, treat the characters - whom they obviously like very much - nicely as well, gently nodding at their mistakes without a molecule of judgment. The only thing that's not nice is the final moment, a cold bucket of water that reminds the audience that the film's lovingly depicted Kennedy-era sweetness (sometimes called "innocence", but the film is too salty and sexed-up for that word to make any sense at all) led directly into Vietnam. And I think the casual coldness of that last gesture - unquestionably the most aggressively New Hollywood detail in the whole thing - does a lot to counterbalance the film's apparently rosy, uncomplicated view of a more optimistic time (Katz and Huyck, incidentally, found it tasteless that Lucas only told us the fates of his male characters, not his women; but it's really hard to imagine how the pacing could possibly be maintained if they were added, and it would be disingenuous in the extreme to pretend that this movie ever cares about its girls as much as its boys).

American Graffiti depicts the end of summer: it's the last night in town for teenagers Curt Henderson (Richard Dreyfuss) and Steve Bolander (Ron Howard), who are set to go out east for college in the morning. Meeting up with their friends Terry "The Toad" Fields (Charles Martin Smith) and the older guy John Milner (Paul Le Mat), they start dinner at dusk at a drive-in restaurant before parting ways to spend the evening soaking up the sounds and atmosphere of an unnamed Modesto, California, engaging in the local custom of "cruising", tooling around aimlessly through the commercial district in cars bantering with other similar auto enthusiasts. John ends up saddled with the much younger Carol (Mackenzie Phillips), who humiliates him and cramps his style, but also ends up proving a pleasant conversation partner; Terry lies his way into impressing a gearhead blonde, Debbie Dunham (Candy Clark), and continues having to prove his masculinity despite being a fearful nerd; Steve keeps picking fights with his girlfriend Laurie (Cindy Williams), behaving rather bullying and chauvinistic and superior; and Curt experiences a full-on Long Night of the Soul, trying to decide whether or not he's ready to move on to whatever the hell happens when you go to college. Throughout, the trappings of 1962 are depicted with intense sociological focus mixed with real enthusiasm for the place, the songs, the attitudes, and oh, so much the cars (which Lucas's camera caresses with the same rapt awe that he'd later use for Star Destroyers); and the characters themselves, especially the morbidly backward-looking John and the deeply unsettled Curt, engage in mini-nostalgia of their own, trying to remember back to when things were simpler and more beautiful. The film's way, perhaps of admitting that it knows it's presenting an admiringly whitewashed depiction of the past, for reasons of emotional truth rather than historical mercilessness.

That all being said, I will confess that my love for American Graffiti - which I think to be Lucas's clear pinnacle as a director and maybe the best film about teenagers ever made - isn't entirely about it's mixture of romantic nostalgia and pensive awareness of what that nostalgia might be clouding up about the presence, nor its tragicomic insight about what happens when adolescent boys start to realise that adolescence is speeding towards its close. It's actually about its fucking gorgeous impressionistic soundtrack: this is one of the most audio-driven films ever made. The sounds and music don't merely create a very precise, living, lived-in, organic world for the movie's story to take place in (say whatever we will about any of Lucas's films as director: every one of his movies takes place in a magnificently well-build world), but also providing the emotional spine for a film whose script purposefully keeps away from clean, flowing structure as it shifts from plot to plot and frequently abandons all of them for a shot or two of life in Modesto just spilling out. At which point I might well mention the names of Walter Murch, the sound editor, and Verna Fields and Marcia Lucas, the film editors, all of them critical collaborators in shaping the movie's texture and rhythms.

Famously, American Graffiti includes no fewer than 41 pop singles on its soundtrack, virtually all of them appearing diegetically: performed by a band at a school dance, blasted out of car radios. The way the are placed into the film, warping and fading up and down as cars move around the camera's physical location, is perfect, basically: it suggests with strident realism the exact way that the music would sound if we were actually in the place the movie positions us: echoing off buildings, sliding towards us from a distance, bellowing right in our ear. Nothing in the movie creates its tangible sense of place more effectively or immediately: within seconds of first stepping outside to hear the music coruscating around us, American Graffiti has defined its reality and never for the rest of the movie lets it go. It then falls to the sound effects to create atmosphere and mood, rather than create a sense of realism: an exact reversal of how these things usually work that gives the film a startling originality even four decades later.

The music also does function in the more conventional sense of commenting on the action, sometimes directly and ironically. In the latter category, we have things like the wonderful moment of Laurie and Steve, temporarily reconciled, dancing slowly while around them kids are hectically bobbing to a live cover of "Louie Louie". In the former, we have songs like "The Great Pretender" coming on just in time to drive home Curt's feelings of dislocation. And some songs are just songs, just the thing that happens to be on the radio. As part of its general sense of things getting more ragged and vague as the night moves on - it is a film where the draggy fatigue of being out all night having fun hits hard and ends up giving its half-mythic dawn climax a downright hallucinatory feel - the moments where the songs openly describe the action start to come more and more, neatly suggesting the way that a trivial pop song can seem really perfect and emotionally correct for the moment you're hearing it, the more suggestible and defenseless you become. For that is very much the arc the film describes: growing more frazzled and confused as the long night of the soul keeps marching on.

It's never subtle, not really, but it's so effectively executed that "subtle" wouldn't be a merit and "unsubtle" plainly isn't a flaw (there's nothing remotely subtle about being a teenager, after all). The film is an unabashed crowd-pleaser from the mind of a man who would spend literally the entire rest of his career chasing audience dollars rather than feeding his artistic muse, and it rewards the idealised viewer's love of being a teenager in 1962 with outright shameless pandering. But married to the sloppy authenticity of the high-grain cinematography, the docu-realist setting, and the flickering awareness that, for all the fun they're having, these kids are still going to have to change and become different people, either because they're ready to, or because the shattering cultural upheavals of the next decade will do it for them. Friendly and ebullient and romantic, but never, as a result of all those things, blindly stupid, American Graffiti is pretty much terrific all around: one of the most formally adventurous movies of a bold age, one of the most accurate depictions of teen psychology put to film, and a remarkable snapshot of a culture that existed, as such things go, for hardly the blink of an eye. It's by no means one of the most "important" New Hollywood films, but it's unstintingly great cinema, or I don't know what.

Elsewhere in American cinema in 1973
-The Exorcist explodes at the box office, setting of a new trend in religious-themed horror
-The failure of Columbia's Lost Horizon finally kills off the mega-musical as a genre
-Terrence Malick makes his debut film, the poetic nature tribute/crime thriller Badlands

Elsewhere in world cinema in 1973
-A collection of Czech refugees working in France create the animated political parable Fantastic Planet
-European-style realism and native African cinematic traditions are combined in the Senegalese Touki Bouki, by Djibril Diop Mambéty
-The anti-prolific Spanish director Victor Erice makes his debut with the fantasy-tinged drama of childhood Spirit of the Beehive