MOTW: How "American Graffiti" Showcases Americana

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A couple of high school grads spend one final night cruising the strip with their buddies before they go off to college.
Photo Credit: Universal Pictures
March 18th, 2013

MOTW: How "American Graffiti" Showcases Americana

Many coming-of-age films are set in the heyday of their writers and directors. "American Graffiti" takes viewers back to the very start of the 1960s, when California's counterculture was in full swing and Vietnam wasn't yet a country many Americans could find on a map. The movie itself became a piece of Americana, capturing and encapsulating an era just before the major events of the late '60s and '70s that transformed the nation forever.

The Sights

The visuals of "American Graffiti" are the first thing that moviegoers are likely to notice. The story has been retold and re-envisioned repeatedly, but it's hard nowadays for directors to capture the feeling of California's car culture of that time. Elements such as the cars of the day, the diners, and the dives come together to create a visually striking memory of a time gone by. Whether you're staring down the streamlined hood of a 1954 Ford or admiring the outfits and gear donned by counterculture commandos from the era, you're instantly transported back to that place and time.

The place itself was an America that is now generally forgotten. It's an age when roller waitresses ran up to windows of car fanatics and delivered burgers and fries along with a malted milk. Bright primary colors were the order of the day, whether they were the reds and whites of a pinstriped ride or the colorful uniform of those roller-bedecked waitresses. Each of these colors and elements combines to transport viewers back to an America not yet obsessed with change and world events.

The Sounds

"American Graffiti" is often cited as Americana due to its music. The sounds of Wolfman Jack on the radio bringing the top ten rock-and-roll songs to car fanatics in Cali are instantly recognizable to this day. Many of the greatest rock singers belong to this generation, coming in before Bob Dylan made more political elements commonplace.

Many of the iconic moments in the film arise directly from the music. The main character realizes his car has been stolen not because he hears it roaring off into the night, but because he can no longer hear the strains of the steel guitar that played so melodiously only moments ago. It's the little touches like these that remind viewers of an age when music permeated everything that Americans did and were. Radio stations weren't relegated to use during long commutes, and people paid attention to their favorite musicians for their style and songs, not their antics offstage.

The Feelings

The movie is likely to invoke more feelings than just nostalgia. Nostalgia doesn't go far for those who didn't live through the film's iconic era. The relationships between Curt, Steve, John, Terry, and their girl Fridays echo through to the modern day. From "Cheers" to "Friends," viewers notice the same themes repeated time and again in American films and television shows. It is the feelings that arise from these relationships that help keep the movie relevant even as they encapsulate a bygone time in the nation's history.

"American Graffiti" isn't a deep film. It's not fraught with drama or mystery. It shines and resonates through generations because it is lighthearted and evokes feelings of humor and excitement. The action and adventure are palpable as the main characters cruise the strip in search of the next great way to spend their last night before college. Students exiting high school even after the turn of the century find themselves with the same options and desire for having a great time before they enter studies or head into the real world. They understand the looming pressures of adulthood and embrace what may be considered their final chance at having a great time before the challenges of college and the workplace start to creep up.

The Tale

George Lucas, the director of "American Graffiti," uses stories that are often considered Americana even when they take place in a far-away galaxy. Shows such as "The Simpsons" and "Family Guy" parody or borrow heavily from the story of the film. A simple night out and a great time with friends is an iconic message that resonates with many Americans.

"American Graffiti" does a great job of capturing a bygone era in American history. The movie stands the test of time as a piece of worthwhile Americana due to its delivery of the sights, sounds, and stories of teens in a time after the country emerged from the Great Depression and world war, but before the nation became embroiled in conflicts. The film itself provides a wonderful allegory for what happened to the United States in the coming decades.