This Is a Blog: Kris and Adam Discuss AFI’s Top 100: American Graffiti

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Kris and Adam Discuss AFI’s Top 100: American Graffiti

Kris Jenson, with whom I've had the best discussions of my life, is an old friend of mine from Boston. We had been talking about the American Film Institute's Top 100 when he got a job at Dig Boston, writing about just that. Instead of letting the conversation end just because he's a big, fancy writer now, I'm going to write responses to his articles. I can't keep up with his movie watching, so I'm only responding to the ones I've seen.

"American Graffiti" shows Lucas to be a master of genre. I think if he hadn't tripped and got his head stuck so far up his own ass, he could have churned out a wide variety of films that all tap into a sense of shared experience that make movies popular. He just gets it, at least he used to. This film, though, falls in that category of classics where the influence far out-weighs the film itself.

I think the list of movies inspired by this go far beyond the knock offs. "American Graffiti" was the first real hang out movie. It was the first movie where we got to just follow an interesting collection of people over the course of a set period of time: "Empire Records," "Diner," "Swingers," even "Mallrats." These movies all build to some sort of climax because that's what movies do, but they aren't about the end. They're about the moments before, where we as an audience just get a glimpse into these people's lives. The story falls a distant second to the connection the audience makes with the characters.

Maybe if I felt more of a connection to the '70s in general, I'd have appreciated this movie more. All the elements are there, including a cast that's a who's who of mid-to-late '70s movies and TV. The tropes Lucas creates for this new genre show up in all its progeny. The experience itself just sort of washed over me. I can see why it's so low on the list, but I would definitely say it belongs there.

On the updated list, it jumps above "Raiders of the Lost Ark," which I can't get behind. Lucas deserves a lot of credit for the indelible characters he helped bring to the screen, and not one of them is in "American Graffiti." I know that sounds hypocritical when I just said "Graffiti" is all about the characters, but that's its strength. It's an ensemble. No single character steals the spotlight. Ron Howard is the main character, but he's by no means the star. The elements are all there, but the way Lucas put them together must have felt so new.

For better or worse, George Lucas has almost single-handedly influenced every inch of modern cinema. I could make this whole thing longer by including Coppola, Scorsese, and Spielberg in that statement, but Lucas's story is a lot more interesting. Clearly lacking the innate talent of the other three, Lucas studied as hard as anyone to tell the story he wanted to tell. He makes films like he puts together cars, very methodically and not too interested in depth. I'm not saying that's a bad thing.

Back then, Lucas really got the pop mentality and helped usher in the modern blockbuster. I think his genius comes from the same place as his working class roots. The more money he earned, the further away from his genius he has drifted. He just doesn't get it anymore. That's what's great about cinema. If we want, we can ignore his new stuff and at least try to remember him for the movie maker he once was.

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