The summer hiatus of Hit Me with Your Best Shot at The Film Experience has ended, and our goodly host Nathaniel picked one of the all-time great summer movies to bring the series back: George Lucas’s 1973 nostalgiathon American Graffiti. This is not, maybe, the most singularly convenient time to start gushing about a film that I have always loved rather more than it’s perhaps fashionable to do, but it’s a real triumph of a certain strain of independent filmmaking: a better example of doing more with less you’ll rarely find, and both the cinematography and sound design (especially the sound design) are as legitimately creative and complex and even revolutionary as anything else going on in American cinema in the amazingly fecund first half of the 1970s. Hard to think of Lucas as truly clever filmmaker, after three Star Wars prequels went deeper and deeper into soulless “more is more” effects-driven nonsense, but American Graffiti, anyway, is a great movie by a talented, hungry kid, and I persist in regarding it as his masterpiece, all respect due to the first Star Wars for all the things it accomplished.
The film is about a lot of things, all of them clustered around the idea of being a teenager: its arc rather gently moves from celebrating the culture of being 18 in 1962 (and guess what bearded, plaid-wearing filmmaker was 18 in ’62?) to quietly sobering up and realising that you’re not going to be 18 forever, punctuating the film with an impressively bloodless reminder that the Vietnam War (which, in ’73 was still very present in everybody’s mind) was about to come along and demolish the breezy innocence of the protagonists’ lives. That is, anyway, the angle on the film I decided to focus on (there are multiple angles you could pick: the sexual lives of teenagers, the American love of cars, even the way it celebrates music, though that last one would be hard to fit into this game).
So I quickly ended up torn between two shots, at either end of that arc: the one I didn’t pick was the very first shot of the Cruising, the line of cars full of teens just driving up and down, listening to music, introduced in a very simple pan to the left married to crane shot up that sweeps the line of cars and all the unbridled teenage energy the represent into our line of sight with an iconic potency worthy of the man who’d later change the way that movies work because of how well he framed the opening shot of a Star Destroyer.
As I said, though, that’s what I didn’t go with. For my actual pick for Best Shot of American Graffiti, I went allllll the way to the other side (so, Spoilers, I guess), to a shot that reverse this in almost every way but one: it too involves a right-to-left pan, though I didn’t include that part. It’s of a stopped car, not a moving one; the people involved are facing away from us; and instead of being at the very beginning of night, it’s at the first light of morning.
The two teens, Terry the Toad (Charles Martin Smith) and John Milner (Paul Le Mat) are talking about the race Milner just won by default; he’s angry and depressed, while Terry is bubbling over trying to convince him that everything is all right, but this comes off as very silly and trivial and not entirely convincing, given how much at odds it is with all of the emotional journeys that have just wrapped up. Terry is repeating his belief in a normal, “way things are”, but the whole movie has been about dismantling that kind of certainty, and the metaphor of dawn (which is surely not being used very subtly anywhere in this scene) is simply underlining that this is a time for new things and forward movement. And that forward movement isn’t, to a great degree, going to involve the old Terry or old John who (spoilers again) will both be dead within three years.
On the level of pure image, this is straight-up Western iconography: the silhouettes of men staring at the sun across a wide expanse of plain, their trusty steed by their side (for as I’m hardly the first to point out, the car and the horse are descended from each other, as far as their position within a kind of American masculinity). And almost every time that it appears in a Western – think the last shot of The Searchers – it’s implying a bittersweet sense of passing away. That’s exactly the feeling of this moment at the end of American Graffiti: the night is over, the day is beginning, and the time for being a child for whom cruising, sex, and music are the be-all and end-all of life has ended. This beautiful but also detached and melancholy frame is, to me, the perfect embodiment of that feeling.