American Graffiti

A number of years ago I spent some time watching movies which were influential in the history of cinema. American Graffiti was one of those movies. It was the second film that George Lucas co-wrote and also the second film he directed. Its success is probably why Star Wars exists, so it would be influential on the history of cinema even apart from any qualities it has as a movie. It was also influential in its own right, though. It helped to get 1950s nostalgia going as a type of cultural entertainment and was directly responsible for getting Happy Days going. (Ron Howard had been in an unsold pilot for Happy Days which was aired as a segment on Love, American Style. Because of this Lucas cast Howard in American Graffiti; when ABC saw Howard in American Graffiti they took a renewed interest in the pilot of Happy Days.) But what is the movie like?

The movie itself is a bit weird, at least from a modern perspective. It is, in a sense, about the time and place that George Lucas grew up (Modesto, California, in the late 1950s and early 1960s). This largely, though by no means exclusively, featured cruising culture, where young men would cruise slowly along main roads in their cars and stop to talk to women who would be walking along these roads and invite them for a ride. This sounds pretty weird, and to some degree it is—the practice lasted perhaps a decade—but it makes a little more sense when one takes into account that the cars were mostly convertibles with their tops down, so this was still semi-public. (California has very nice weather almost all the time.)

My mother frequently described the 1950s and early 1960s as a much more innocent time than today, and cultural practices like cruising—even if this was mostly limited to a few places in California—do attest to that. I think it’s important to distinguish between an innocent time and a traditional time, for tradition is not innocent. Tradition, like The Shadow, knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men.

There’s also the theme of drag racing and its dangers; several of the threads of the movie culminate in a drag race in which one of the main characters is almost killed. After she crawls out of the burning vehicle, her (former, as of a few hours ago) boyfriend holds her and she begs him to never leave her. He promises to stay with her. This isn’t quite the ending of the film, but it does wrap up a bunch of it.

The most interesting—to me—theme of the movie is that of the radio DJ Wolfman Jack.

The people driving around are disconnected from each other by technology; each car is something of an island and transports people away from each other so quickly that they lose touch. In fact, that’s the thing which drive’s Curt’s thread in the story; a beautiful blond woman mouthed “I love you” when they were next to each other at a light, then she drove off down a different road. The thing which connects the teenagers driving around is the shared experience of listening to the radio. Even that is fairly empty, as the radio mostly plays recordings. There’s only one live person on the radio—the DJ. In this case, Wolfman Jack.

However, it turns out that even the DJ is inaccessible.

If you watch the clip to the end you’ll see that the man is the wolfman; he’s inaccessible not because he isn’t there, but because he can’t be what the audience imagines him to be. This scene has a lot in common with the Wizard of Oz, though it goes in a different direction. In The Wizard of Oz, the ordinary person meets Oz the Great and Terrible, and it turns out to be just a little man behind a curtain. Here, the ordinary person meets a little man behind a curtain, and he turns out to be Wolfman Jack, the Great and Awesome. In both cases reality cannot live up to what people hope for, though in the Wolfman’s case the illusion is preferable and in the Wizard of Oz it’s only by piercing the illusion that they are able to make progress.

(As an interesting historical note, Wolfman Jack was played by the actual Wolfman Jack. George Lucas gave him a tiny percentage of the profits of the movie in gratitude, but the movie was so profitable that the Wolfman ended up with a steady income for life.)

Something I’ve encountered in Boomer nostalgia is nostalgia for the glory days of radio, when local DJs were big personalities. As a child (I’m talking about the late 1980s and early 1990s) I can remember when radio stations would compete with each other on how much music they played and how little yapping the DJs did, and to the limited degree that I listened to radio, I preferred the stations with more music and less yapping. I wasn’t much into parasocial engagement as a child; I was always a bit of a loner and I suspect that most of my parasocial engagement came from reading, not from listening or watching. Radio DJs with big personalities were certainly parasocial; and I suspect that with the isolation of cars being fairly new for young people in the 1950s, the radio as parasocial engagement was especially important to combat this feeling of isolation. (Cars were certainly in common use earlier than the 1950s, but for various economic and technological reasons they don’t seem to have been as commonly attainable by teenagers then as they were during the post-war boom.)

Of course, I may be biased by thinking of radio and cars in part because when I was in a car was the only time I ever listened to the radio and in part because I was just thinking of American Graffiti. It’s quite possible that radio was simply the most accessible form of parasocial engagement in the late 1950s. Televisions were widespread, but they tended to be in a central location and watched together. A teenager could own a radio in their room which they listened to alone.

As a side note, it’s curious how often parasocial engagement is fostered around something else, that something else often being a form of entertainment. Talk Radio would later be a thing, but DJs jockeyed disks—they picked music and played it, coming in only between songs. I suppose that this is only an extension of how watching entertainment together is a form of bonding even between friends sitting next to each other at a play. Human beings bond over shared experiences, even if they are manufactured experiences. Parasocial relationships probably only mirror real relationships in this regard.

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