From the Bookshelf: American Graffiti

American Graffiti

Very often when I’m figuring out what to teach, I find myself going outside of the classroom English textbook. In this feature, I take a look at those reading selections (or in this case, a film).

I don’t think that my students get enough pop history. Oh sure, they’re living in a culture that is like one perpetual self-referential loop, but whenever we discuss allusion and I bring up allusions that are so second-nature in our popular culture that you don’t even need to have read or seen the source material to get it (i.e. Citizen Kane, Casablanca, The Godfather, The Empire Strikes Back, Scarface), I get the same dead silence, tumbleweeds, cricket chirping, and perplexed looks that I would have gotten had I asked them to write an epic poem in Sanskrit.

It’s kind of a shame, really. Pop history is so important to our culture, especially the culture of teenagers beginning in the late 20th Century because it’s the type of history that does have a direct impact on their lives, especially because it bleeds over into I guess what you’d call “anthropology” in that you can’t study the popular culture of the late 20th and early 21st Centuries without also looking at the societal shift to the suburbs that started after World War II.

Alas, I teach a course whose curriculum is supposed to be centered around “World Literature” and I don’t get a lot of opportunity to cover a topic such as this. But every once in a while, I do, especially this late in the school year … and that’s how we’ve come to George Lucas’s 1973 film, American Graffiti. Okay, I didn’t completely come to this film with some mission to try and teach history the last couple of weeks of school. Showing the film in my advanced English class came from the AP 11 teacher’s summer reading assignment: Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. This is a book that I absolutely love and when I handed out the summer reading assignment, I told them as much (in fact, I think I said something like, “I don’t read war novels, but when I do, I read The Things They Carried.” Allusion!). It’s only one of two books about war that I actually really enjoy (the other is All Quiet on the Western Front, natch) because it’s so gritty and realistic and also has some great stories contained within. I wanted to approach the book somehow without teaching it and without completely frying the class, which already has a final term paper due for me in a couple of weeks in addition to state exams and finals.

So, instead of pulling out yet another reading assignment or an extended history lesson and research on the Vietnam War (I figured that the book would pique their curiosity enough anyway and that they would seek out information on their own), I took a different approach and went for prologue. Not to give Baby Boomers too much credit here (which is the cardinal sin if you’re a member of my generation), but the Vietnam War is still a part of our national conscience and our culture. When both wars in Afghanistan and Iraq got underway, there was plenty of flag-waving, but the spectre of ‘Nam still loomed as the benchmark of military failure, the scar on a generation that took so long to recover from its wounds (and still chooses to lay them bare for future generations to learn). And aside from that, the culture that my students currently embody as teenagers in modern-day America has its origins in the culture of my parents.So, in order to get that point across, I showed American Graffiti.

Set on a late summer’s night in 1962, the film is about a group of friends who spend the night cruising around their Northern California town (I believe it’s supposed to be Lucas’s hometown of Modesto), with two of them–Ron Howard’s Steve Bolander and Richard Dreyfuss’s Kurt Henderson–scheduled to leave for college in the morning. Kurt has reservations about leaving (much to Steve’s dismay) and spends the evening driving around and contemplating his future (and chasing a mysterious blonde in a white Ford Thunderbird, who was played by Suzanne Sommers). Steve decides that he’s going to jump head-first into going to college and breaks up with his girlfriend, Laurie (Cindy Williams) before regretting that decision and wondering if he should try to get her back. Meanwhile, their friend Terry “The Toad” Fields has a madcap night where he hooks up with a girl named Debbie (Candy Clark), gets Steve’s car stolen, gets into a fight, and drinks to the point of vomiting; and John Milner, the James Dean-type of the crowd, gets stuck riding around with 12-year-old Carol (Mackenzie Phillips) before finally facing off against Bob Falfa (Harrison Ford) in a climactic drag race out on Paradise Road.

It’s a coming-of-age story as well as a nostalgia trip and as I said, I figured it would give my students a break, so we spent four days watching it and I assigned a worksheet of five questions that were comprehensive and “literary” as opposed to the “Are these in order?” questions that accompany way too many films. In addition, I began every day with a few words about the film. I think I intended that to be mostly a stall tactic so that we could stretch it out across four class periods (or 3-1/2 because the movie is a solid two hours and my class periods are 45 minutes each), but it evolved into me doing a film buff routine where I talked about how the movie was shot (Lucas filmed it in order on purpose so that everyone would look and feel exhausted by the end); how the soundtrack was used (if you pay attention, it’s mostly in the background on various radios, which is pretty genius, to be honest); how plots with ensemble casts work; and how, even though this took place when my parents were the characters’ age (in fact, my father would have been about the same age as Kurt and Steve), there’s a universal nature to the story that causes the film to endure forty years after it was made. The results were slightly mixed: some of the students in the class really liked it and some decided to spend time laughing at the slang used (“Your car is so boss!”) or groaning about the music on the soundtrack (although I would honestly take Del Shannon’s “Runaway” over half of what I hear played at the prom on any given day).

In fact, I think I made a comment about how their slang just goes to show that teenagers have been sounding like idiots for more than half a century (and I should put a warning here: there is a decent amount of foul language and one mooning in the film — make sure, if you show this, that you have proper permissions and that your class is mature enough to handle it). Then, I went on to note that there is a rather mediocre sequel; More American Graffiti, that Richard Linklater’s Dazed & Confused is essentially this same movie set in 1976; and that if they wanted something like this for the 1980s and 1990s, all they had to do was start with Fast Times at Ridgemont High and move forward to Clueless (Amy Heckerling bookends!). I suppose that showing my students one of my favorite movies was a bit self-indulgent, but sometimes I can’t help it, especially when it comes to me geeking out about pop culture. But sometimes you need to knock them out of their (oft self-absorbed) comfort zone and show them some quality entertainment.

Btw, it’s too bad that Lucas guy never went anywhere after this.