Sunday, December 27, 2009

Must see film for 2010

This time of year, we generally look back at films or DVDs of the last twelve months. At the last minute, we decided to go the other way.

Most film lovers have seen American Graffiti. Fewer are aware of More American Graffiti.

Mid-week, Jim and Dona were looking for something different to watch and found the DVD in C.I.'s collection. They'd love the earlier one, they'd read criticism that termed the sequel (at best) disappointing. But they were bored and they figured they'd give it a try. After watching once, they gathered as many people as they could to watch a second time.

American Graffiti, directed by George Lucas, is a one-of-a-kind classic and deservedly so. But More American Graffiti (produced by Lucas and directed by Bill L. Norton), is a minor classic. Norton directed and wrote the screenplay which attempts to update the characters from the first film. Candy Clark, Paul Le Mat, Cindy Williams Ron Howard, Charles Martin Smith, Bo Hopkins, Mackenzie Phillips and Harrison Ford return from the original film. Ford plays a new character (a police officer who pulls over Clark and her new boyfriend) while Phillips plays her original character (for one scene only) and a flower child named Rainbow.

Some wrongly state that the only major cast member who doesn't return is Richard Dreyfuss. Wrong. Suzanne Sommers, infamous as the The Blonde In The T-Bird in the first film, isn't back in the 1979 sequel.

The film covers New Year's Eve in 1964, 1965, 1966 and 1967. In 1964, the start of the film and the basis for the story for John Milner (Le Mat), Debbie (Clark), Terry (Smith), Steve (Ron Howard) and Laurie (Williams) show up at a drag strip to congratulate John on what looks like a lucky break. They can't stay long because Debbie, Steve and Laurie have to see Terry off -- he's going to Vietnam.

1965 is Vietnam where Terry and Little Joe (Hopkins) are in the same medivac unit and sick of being almost killed repeatedly so that their lying superiors can look better. Jim Houghton will join the team and express distaste for Terry and Little Joe; however, when Little Joe is shot dead and they're left stranded because their superiors won't rescue them, he'll realize how right Terry is. Terry will get his revenge on the higher-ups (and a US Congress member) as well as stage his own death while announcing he'll go off to Europe. This section is subversive and probably much too threatening for many in 1979 as the efforts to launch a wave of revisionary history on Vietnam was really taking hold. Too much truth in this section which is shot like the hand held camera news reports from Vietnam.

It's got humor and pathos and tension. And we've spoiled it for you because, early on, Debbie's explaining, in 1966, that two of her friends died on New Year's Eve -- one being Terry. She doesn't know he's faked his death.

In 1966, Debbie's living in San Francisco, in a crash pad with many other flower children and hippies -- including Phillips' Rainbow. She's got a boyfriend who plays . . . An instrument? We see that once and, no, he's not as amazing as Debbie thinks he is. But he does play the field. They're toking up as Debbie's driving along and talking about marriage when Harrison Ford's cop pulls them over. He busts the boyfriend for pot -- the boyfriend who needs Debbie to bail him out and is suddenly interested in getting married.

Terry picks Debbie up in the first film by telling her she looks just like Connie Stevens. In the sequel, she's adopted a flower child look to go with her existence. Her story is photographed like any musical sequence from a late sixties TV show (split screens, various angles -- think The Smothers Brothers for one example). Debbie ends up at a concert and spending all of her time trying to sell the band on using her boyfriend. At a performance at a dive in Oakland, she'll see her boyfriend dancing and romancing another woman. It's a major moment for her character and the scenes following her rage show a slow dawning that all the time she spent in promoting the deadbeat boyfriend could have been spent improving herself. The where-are-they-now ending will inform Debbie became a country music singer.

New Year's Eve 1967 finds Steve and Laurie furiously fighting over Steve's insisting that Laurie cannot work. Laurie is just as adamant that she will work for three hours each day at a doctor's office and she storms out to her brother's. Her brother's in the midst of a campus demonstration against the war. He doesn't want Laurie around but ends up needing her when he wants his wallet. She arrives on the campus and discovers he plans to burn his draft card. Appalled, she tries to talk him out of it. She can't understand his objection to the war. She can't understand anything going on around her. When the police charge and she sees them clubbing students, she begins an awakening. Steve will show up and say she can work . . . in a few years. Not good enough for her and she stands her ground but does so as the police rounds them all up.

The women are put on one bus and the men another as they're hauled off. On the women's bus, two young women sing the Supremes "Baby Love" which leads a police officer to club one of them. As everyone falls silent, Laurie's fury will spill over and she'll begin singing "Baby Love" and clapping along until all the other women arrested join in and the police officer, frustrated and angry, will be forced to let it alone.

In 1964, John learns his big offer from a major racing team is a joke. He'll be left to compete that day while also dealing with a foreign exchange student (Anna Bjorn, dumped on him by Mary Kay Place's character). He'll end up the big winner at the drag race and also successful at wooing the foreign exchange student. It's a big day for John Milner, one that ends with him being killed when a drunk driver hits his car.

Milner's dreams (and success) were simple and basic and can be seen to be the American Dream which dies in 1964. 1965 (Vietnam sequence) is the death of the American Youth. 1966 is about shaking off oppression and renewal. 1967 is the rebirth of Young America. The film works thematically while also providing four satisfying stories.

Paul Le Mat maintains John Milner -- no easy feat because now he's not only James Dean-like, he's, in effect, James Dean. But the film really belongs to four others. Though the opening credits imply that Ron Howard does a cameo, he actually has a major role and performs in multiple scenes. It's the finest acting of his career and Cindy Williams is far, far from Shirley and reminding you of how she came to work with Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola in the first place.

Charles Martin Smith and Candy Clark are just amazing and all the more so when you grasp how they do this without playing off each other -- after the opening, the two have no scenes together despite the fact that their chemistry carries over from the first film.

American Graffiti was art and was watered down to become bad TV (Happy Days). As with most TV ratings successes, more people saw the cheap knock-off than the actual art. And the backlash for More American Graffiti, no doubt, included some TV goers who thought they were going to spend two hours at the Drive-In. But equally true is that More American Graffiti attempts to capture a time that many work hard to deny ever existed and a great deal of the hostility towards this minor masterpiece has to do with the fact that it addressed those times.


Some DVD sets of American Graffiti contain More American Graffiti on the flip-side of the disc (if it does, the packaging will note that both films are on the set). However, you see it, make a point to see More American Graffiti in 2010. We think a rebirth, similar to the one charted in the film, is about to happen.

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