Friday, 10 June 2016

7 key similarities between American Graffiti and Star Wars

Poster art for American Graffiti (1973) and Star Wars (1977)

Star Wars
was George Lucas's third feature film. It couldn’t be more unlike his first, THX 1138 (1971). But it bears a surprising number of similarities to his second, the low budget smash hit American Graffiti (1973). Today, Episode Nothing explores the connections between Lucas's vision of small town California in 1962 and the galaxy far, far away. 

George Lucas's debut film, THX 1138, is, despite being science fiction, almost the opposite of Star Wars. It contains plenty of examples of Lucas's bold visual imagination, but other than that it bears practically no resemblance to his return to the genre several years later. It is bleak, pessimistic and cold. American Graffiti is a different matter.

Francis Ford Coppola, credited as producer of Graffiti, initiated the whole project by advising Lucas to write a script on a subject he felt passionate about. The result was a story about a group of teenagers cruising in cars along the streets of their small Californian town, on the last night before two of them are due to leave for college – all set to a soundtrack of some forty rock and roll records.

Shot over twenty-eight nights for just $775,000, Graffiti was a huge hit. It shares only one or two personnel with Star Wars – co-writers Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, who overhauled Lucas's Graffiti screenplay and did an uncredited polish on Star Wars; producer Gary Kurtz; and, of course, Harrison Ford, whose role in Graffiti is a pretty minor one. (Graffiti star Cindy Williams auditioned unsuccessfully for the role of Princess Leia.) But while the subject may seem worlds away from Star Wars, the two films have more in common than you might think.

1. It has its own frenetic pace

American Graffiti

Star Wars

The shooting schedule on American Graffiti was hectic, and Lucas made himself ill through his relentless regime of filming all night, editing footage in the mornings and devoting much of each afternoon to preparing the coming night's shooting. On location, Lucas reportedly told the cast that he didn't have time to direct the film properly on set, and that he would really be directing it in the cutting room. 

That was a telling remark. Lucas was already greatly interested in the way a film could really be shaped in the editing – and he was fascinated to see how fast the pace of a scene could be before it became incoherent. Together with editors Verna Fields and Marcia Lucas, he took his footage of cruising hot rods and turned it into brilliantly choreographed syntheses of sound and music, very much as he would with his effects sequences in Star Wars.

2. It uses sound and music in vivid and ground-breaking ways

American Graffiti

Star Wars

Sound editor Walter Murch was an early collaborator with both George Lucas and Francis Coppola and had co-written THX 1138. He would later provide the sound for The Godfather Part II, The Conversation and Apocalypse Now and, if he had been available, he would have been the obvious choice to produce the sound for Star Wars

Graffiti, like Star Wars, is a film whose soundtrack is meticulously constructed. Unlike Star Wars, it has no original music. Instead, Lucas and Murch use pop records as a score – but they always make sure the records can be heard by the characters in the scene. The songs were re-recorded through radio speakers and loudspeakers to produce the authentic effect for the scene, while Murch's stitches together engine noises, random voices and the radio commentary of DJ Wolfman Jack to create a unique auditory world.

3. The kids hang out together, waste time and drive too fast – just like at Tosche station

American Graffiti

Star Wars

In scenes deleted from Star Wars (but present in the novel, comic books and radio series), Luke's peer group on Tatooine have a lot in common with the characters from American Graffiti. Whereas the Graffiti characters hang around Mel's Drive-In before cruising the streets, Luke's pals congregate at Tosche Station and play some sort of electronic pool game. 

But 'pals' may be the wrong word for Luke's contemporaries – Fixer, Camie, Deak and Windy are actually a pretty unsympathetic bunch, taunting Luke and calling him 'Wormie'. 
In fact, they tease him in much the same way as Terry the Toad (played by Charlie Martin Smith) is lampooned in Graffiti, except with none of the affection. It's as though the Lucas who made American Graffiti really wants to be one of the cool kids, whereas the Lucas who made Star Wars thinks the in-crowd are morons. 

The young people in the Tatooine town of Anchorhead seem to have one other thing in common with those of the Californian town in American Graffiti: they like to drive through town too fast. Remember that woman in a deleted scene who yells after Luke's land speeder: "Haven't I told you kids to slow down?"

4. A young man is sent on a quest after a fleeting vision of a beautiful woman

American Graffiti
Star Wars

In Star Wars, Luke Skywalker sees the holographic image of Princess Leia and instantly wants to find out who she is and where she comes from. It is, of course, the image that sets him on the journey that will take him off his planet for the first time.

In American Graffiti, Richard Dreyfuss's character Curt catches a fleeting glimpse of a young woman (Suzanne Somers) in a passing car, who seems to mouth the words "I love you". He spends much of the film attempting to find and – SPOILER WARNING – it is this quest that helps him resolve his doubts about getting on a plane the next morning to leave for college. 

5. A feisty teenage girl irritates the cool guy

American Graffiti

Star Wars

In the screenplay of Star Wars, Princess Leia is described as being sixteen years old. (Luke, meanwhile, is eighteen, but of course George Lucas always planned for them to be twins.) Graffiti has an even younger wise-cracking girl in Carol, the thirteen-year-old who spends the night riding around town with cool hot rod owner John Milner (Paul Le Mat). And Milner's complaints about having this precocious youngster tagging along with him are not unlike Han Solo's pained reaction to having to share his spaceship with royalty. 

6. The cool tough guy with the souped-up vehicle turns out to be a hero

American Graffiti

Star Wars

John Milner (Paul Le Mat) is probably the character who has the most obvious parallel in Star Wars. Milner is a lot like Han Solo. He's the devil-may-care tough guy who cares little for the law. Milner's transport is a yellow Deuce Coupe, Solo's is a space freighter, but both have been heavily modified by their owners and are known for being the fastest around. (In Graffiti, Milner has to defend his title as the fastest driver in town against a challenge from Harrison Ford's character, Bob Falfa.)

What's more, both characters turn out to be nicer than they let on. Just like Han Solo, John Milner rides to the rescue of Terry the Toad (Charlie Martin Smith) when he's in a fight, and his final goodbye to Richard Dreyfuss's character Curt is not unlike Solo's apparent parting with Luke.

7. George Lucas tells us about the need to leave home

American Graffiti
Star Wars

In Star Wars, Luke makes the decision to leave his home world and find his destiny – although his choices are clarified somewhat by the fact that his family have been fried by Imperial stormtroopers.

American Graffiti sees Lucas stressing even more his belief that everyone needs to strike out and find their own destiny. Lucas was not content to inherit his father's stationery business in Modesto, California. In American Graffiti (SPOILERS AHEAD), the closing captions reveal that Curt Henderson, the character who gets on the plane to go to college, is the one who has succeeded in life, living as a writer in Canada. Steve Bolander (Ronnie Howard, as he was billed in those days) stayed home and became an insurance agent in Modesto. Terry the Toad and John Milner, the least likely to grow out of childish ways, have met their ends in Vietnam and on the road respectively. In Lucas's world view, you have to follow your calling. 

American Graffiti: Lucas's other great film

George Lucas directing American Graffiti

If Lucas had never made Star Wars, we would remember American Graffiti as his great work of the 1970s. It's completely charming, with enough warmth and visual flair to reward multiple viewings. It has been rightly criticised for the closing captions, which only tell us the fate of the male characters, but it's a lot less sexist than most of the 1960s-set comedies which came after it. And the quality it shares with Star Wars more than anything else is its sense of nostalgic fun. 

Vincent Canby in the New York Times got it right when he wrote in 1977: “Star Wars … is the movie that the teenagers in American Graffiti would have broken their necks to see."


Eric Gilliland said...

As I get older I revisit American Graffiti more often than Star Wars. Like Star Wars, it's been imitated so many times. Many parallels with THX-1138 as well.

Darren Slade said...

Thanks Eric. American Graffiti certainly is terrific. It was one of the first films I taped from TV and I must have seen it half a dozen times in the next couple of weeks.
I haven't seen THX 1138 for quite a while but will re-visit it. I'm slightly put off by the fact that the DVD comes with Lucas's later "enhancements"!