GENE SISKEL'S MOVIE REVIEWS FOR THE CHICAGO TRIBUNE American Graffiti
August 24 1973
THE SCENE was Ravinia Park .last week. A would-be folksinger had completed his last number; a pack of maybe 20 applauding teen-agers stormed the stage in a self-induced frenzy possibly to affirm the wisdom of their ticket purchases; and 20 rows behind them a 27-year-old grumbled to himself, "Stupid kids."
But what about his musical taste at that age? Hadn't his crowd made "Purple People Eater" and "Alley Ooop" No.1 on the hit parade? Where was his memory? Explanation: Today's asininity quickly becomes tomorrow's nostalgia.
That thought was prompted by a much-celebrated new movie that opens in Chicago today. The presumptuous title is "American Graffiti," and in its best moments it is about being teenage. Those moments are rare for two reasons: the film is bursting at its seams with late '50s memorabilia-cars, records, clothes, jargon, more cars -and the beautifully-acted characters cumulatively are too pat.
An example of this perfection-to-a-fault occurs at the very beginning of the movie, which opens with a front view of Mel's Drive-in. It's dusk, and the place is empty now, the long sweep of neon that rims the place reflecting off the white lines that mark the parking stalls. Quickly, tho, the "burger city" begins to fill up as the principal cast rolls in for what must be a nightly ritual of fueling up on greasy fries.
First, the wimpy kid, the kid with buck teeth and thick glasses; he barely manages to park his Vespa - it almost runs away from him. Then the doubt-filled intellectual, undecided whether he'll get on the plane tomorrow that will take him out of his familiar surroundings and into the intensely competitive world of an eastern college; he's driving an old Citroen - it has the proper tinge of musty academia. Then the innocent square, who talks a circumspect game, but really is ready to settle down with the one girl he's been dating thruout high school; his wheels belong to a Chevy Impala - already he's bought the Middle America dream.
And finally, the greaser enters the picture with his kandy-kolored, custom Ford deuce coupe - his car is himself; he is his car. It's a beautiful opening, one filled with smile-producing moments of recognition.
But unfortunately, the introduction doesn't stop at that point. An Edsel rolls into the drive-in in such a way that one cannot help but notice it is an Edsel. The effect is like a big finger reaching out from the screen and tapping one on the shoulder, then pointing back to a "please laugh" sign. It's too pat; the Edsel has nothing to do with the girls inside it. It's too much; it turns the scene from fluid narrative to a herky-jerky slide show of '50s cars. It takes us away from the people; it almost makes the people into cars, almost flattens them into objects.
If that criticism sounds picayune, then let the particularity of it signal the strength of much of the film. For "American Graffiti" is well-made, does achieve moments of genuine emotion, and does provide a sock [hop] full of memories.
The film's story is really four stories: events in the lives of the wimp, the doubter, the square, and the greaser. The stories have been cleverly condensed into one long night and morning, with the emotional bookends provided by the doubter's questioning of his desire to go to college and the resolution of that questioning. In simpler terms: Will he get on that college-bound plane in the morning?
Director George Lucas intercuts among the four lives as they play out their identities and crises in their automobiles thru an evening of cruising a small city's streets. The movie was made on location in two northern California towns, and there is no question that this movie is about the teen-age lives of white California kids. The lack of black faces and the emphasis on custom cars make that quite plain.
And it also is a man's movie, more precisely, a boy's movie. The girls are there only because the boys want them there, and they are defined singularly by their desire for a steady boy friend. But this is no fault; this is the late '50s, early '60s
Rock 'n' Roll music fills the sound track. There are more than 40 songs, each-with the exception of "At the Hop"-performed, as they say on the current TV commercials, by their original artists. Chances are, at least a couple of your favorites are included. But again, we have the same problem of overkill. Forty plus songs is mucha music. That many songs turns the sound track into one of those golden-oldie TV Blurbs.
Overkill - that's the disease that hobbles "American Graffiti" and prevents it from being the great motion picture some writers have called it.
To be sure, it is worth seeing. There are times when the actors simply ring so true to memory that they stop the TV commercial, pull the plug on the "please laugh" sign. And it is in those moments that "American Graffiti" is worthy of its title.
Review © 1973 THE CHICAGO TRIBUNE. All Rights Reserved.