Friday, September 21, 2012
Shopping the Film Stash #6 - American Graffiti
Nostalgia is a glorious thing, for it allows you to rose tint the past and blur the memories of the not-so-fond times. Sometimes, however, nostalgia is utilised to expose flaws of both the past and the present. This is my personal assessment of nostalgia concluded from the research I conducted during the course of my thesis. My subject was Mad Men and American identity, so nostalgia was one of the first port of calls in theoretical aspects. My journey through academia brought me to Frederic Jameson's essay, Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, analysing the state of pastiche in film.
His main argument centered on the unoriginality and lack of depth that any postmodern text remotely nostalgic or indicative of pastiche. He lambasts postmodernism and its attachment to commercialism, signifying how it favours commodity, indulges nostalgia, and ultimately negates critical value.
American Graffiti is mentioned in his hit list of films that is guilty of submitting to pastiche and la mode retro (nostalgia mode). On the offset, it contains all the symptoms of what Jameson's describing; we've got a period piece, 1962, perfect for the selective retrospective eyes; a coming of age tale; one night in the lives of Californian youth before summer ends and another school year begins; a ensemble cast, every niche and stereotype is ripe for the taking. Jameson argues that this this template enables an ideology to be created.
Claiming the nostalgia mode to be a colonization of the past is redundant to the artifice of the film. It's utilization of the historical past is hardly the kind that pillages an era of its own authenticity. Yes, American Graffiti sets out to capture the mood of a certain era, that burgeoning transition between 50s American commercialism and the 60s revolution to be precise (ha, could that BE any more vague?), but it does not get lost in preoccupying itself with the recreation of the diners, the automobiles, the fashion, the haircuts, the lingo.
Perhaps it is because it was made merely a decade after it was set, but George Lucas's film feels raw and natural. The cinematography isn't over stylised, so much so that it feels documentary unlike the romanticism that Jameson suggests.
The premise lends itself to pastiche, with the action taking place on one of the last nights of the summer, two soon-to-be college students, Richard Dreyfuss and Ron Howard as Curt and Steve, decide to have one last night out in their one horse town. It is a transitory time in their lives, much like 1962 was a transitory time for America.
Along with a couple of more friends and memorable characters, (along with a particularly memorable cameo from a post-carpentry, pre-Star Wars, Harrison Ford), an unforgettable night ensues. The original, modern-day coming of age high-schooler movie?
Sure the backdrops are familiar; the girls and boys toilets, the chats in front of the mirror; the drive-in movie; the local hang-out is a diner where the waitresses are on roller skates; the arcade; and there is even an open road notorious for drag racing, where a climatic scene takes place.
Template settings aside, the teenagers feel like teenagers, a rarity in a film with teenagers. There isn't a bulging jock, twerpy nerd, nor asinine cheerleader for miles around. These are normal youth in flux, without the inexplicably wordy, introspective gobshites around to kill the moment. Interestingly, Lucas is said to have vetoed the first version of the script because he felt like, "It was overtly sexual and very fantasy-like, with playing chicken and things that kids didn't really do, I wanted something that was more like the way I grew up."
American Graffiti is more like a snap shot, a long lost postcard rather than a pastiche that threatens to obliterate our true relationship with the past. This is not an attempt to be a sermon on our history, or even a rewrite of history, this is simply a moment in time, with ordinary people. Bar an end-credit revelation of what became of the characters, there is no omnipresent wink, no case of dramatic irony setting the tone of film. It is an homage to an era, and a dedication to lost youth and rebellion, taping into the spirit of early rock and roll culture of America.
You are following these teens around on a night where nothing really major happens, because that is you. Haven't we all wandered around aimlessly with friends, because we have all at the awkward age where staying home with the parents is boring, but there really is no place for you to go and be civilised. You didn't belong anywhere and neither do these guys. There is no motive about Kennedy, Vietnam, or the Civil Rights amendments (you know, the juicy stuff film usually sinks its teeth into in the 60s), this is pure unadulterated nothingness and that is what makes it fun and familiar. However, as mentioned previously, there are some coming of age moments abound, but not in the epic, monumental, uncouth manner of today - it is more like Curt and Steve come to some realisations and then act upon them accordingly.
Lucas has given youth a voice and depth of character that feels unaffected. The nostalgia emerges not from the construction of the film, but from where we relate to the people and their happenings.