Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Why American Graffiti is the Greatest Film Ever Made Reason #1

The Scene Where Richard Dreyfuss Goes For A Ride With His Ex

This movie is not just about teenagers coming of age in 1962. It centers around the existential plight of Curt Henderson, who has cold feet about departing for college in the morning. He understands that leaving his town will change his life; that he will never be able to come back and see it the same way again; he is already nostalgic for a history that is still the present. Therefore, like all good heroes who set out on a quest, he is presented with a “vision” to chase to determine if he is ready.

His comes in the form of the Blonde in a Thunderbird (Suzanne Summers), a woman only he can see (no-one else catches a glimpse of her or appears to care). In fact, the first words he utters when he sees her are “I just saw a vision.” She whispers “I love you” to him at a stop light and he decides he is in love and must find her at all costs. At various points in the movie he is told her identity — she is either the wife of a jewelry salesman or a hooker — but he cannot accept either of these possibilities, believing she is destined for him. At the end of the film he has DJ Wolfman Jack play a request for her to call him at a payphone. She does, saying she can meet him tomorrow night, but that is too late; he says he is leaving town in the morning, and she hangs up on him. This scene clearly shows us that he has made up his mind to leave, therefore bringing the story’s conflict to a conclusion, and he therefore has to abandon his dream of meeting her.

This is just as well, because she is not real. She represents all that he hopes to cling to and find by staying in his hometown, but just like her, it is an ephemeral future whose reality is as fleeting as her ghostly presence disappearing down one side street after another. Never mind, because her work is done: she and the vehicle were one, serving their purpose as a means by which he could come to a decision to abandon his fears and leap into a real future aboard an airplane. 

It is important, then, that he mirrors the actions of his fantasy in real life, and this he does by hitching a ride with an ex-girlfriend with whom there are still sparks. She, admittedly is going “nowhere” and acts as a grounding presence reminding him that his goal was to become a Presidential Aide and shake hands with John Kennedy. The way she says it is notable in that it is almost a sneer; she makes fun of his quaint ambition as if it is too ideal and far-fetched for him to achieve. He shrugs it off by saying he’s grown up now, suggesting such things are the stuff of childhood, but still, it irks him that a hometown girl (she is rather plain in contrast to the Blonde) could see so little potential in him. It provokes a moment of sexual tension whereby he suggests they settle the score in the backseat, an offer she accepts. But even though they kiss, it is clear he has moved on; it would not do for him to stay attached to a girl who holds him to such limits. It is in the car that he first starts to see the wisdom of going away. This vehicle, as opposed to the gleaming Thunderbird, is a red rag-top Beetle with only one working headlight. This is no accident. It is literally half a car, and thus represents his being on the fence about leaving. One light is on; the other is off.

When he gets himself thrown out of the car by its pissed off driver, he is deposited on the corner and thus at a loose end. Naturally he sees the Thunderbird pass through an intersection up the block, so chases it. He runs out into the street, but she is gone, and he is left standing there in the crossroads while cars blow past. Having risked his life by running heedlessly into traffic to chase his vision, he remains standing there in harm’s way because he has nothing left to lose. The camera pulls back and shoots him from waist-height like a voyeur. This is the scene I’m talking about.

Like a puppet whose strings have been cut, Curt stands there all akimbo, hands ineffectually trying to guide and stop traffic. But he is not in control; he does not have the authority — he is just a boy standing in the street who doesn’t know if he’s coming or going. Inevitably, his hands find their way into his pockets and he shuffles off, having lost his prize. The strains of Wolfman Jack’s rich, gruff voice echo over the soundtrack, indicting (at least to the audience) that Curt’s answer lies down his Yellow Brick Road. Sure enough, it is only by speaking over the airwaves through an intercessor that Curt will be able to connect with his phantom lover.

The difference between good movies and great ones are scenes like this. Sure, they are not as obviously entertaining or showy as others, but they bear the heaviest narrative load, and speak to an audience willing and able to read between the lines. When watching a film, for the most part the camera is merely the means by which you can view the action. Occasionally though, it acts as a pair of binoculars held up to the viewer’s eyes through which we are invited to see something in much more detail. This is just such a scene. By pulling the camera down low, we are placed between the cars at wheel-level; we become a car on that road he’s on, anonymously rolling past like any other. At that height we are spying on him in his isolation; if we were any taller, he’d spot us and he wouldn’t be alone. And at that moment, he is all alone. He’s been abandoned by his real ex-girlfriend who represents his past, and his visionary girlfriend, whom he cannot possibly grasp. It’s not the most subtle of allusions, having your character literally stand at a crossroads during a figurative crossroads, but it does the trick, makes its point and like the cars, moves on.

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